Separated children abandoned in Home Office hotels in South East England
It is a long-standing principle in both international and domestic law that we recognise the special rights, needs and protection that all children living in the UK should have. Principles like non-discrimination, the best interest of the child, or the right to be heard are just a few key pillars of the children’s human rights framework. Yet when it comes to children who arrive in the UK to claim asylum on their own (without a parent or a legal guardian), we see these basic rights undermined or outright withheld from children, simply because of their immigration status.
At the Refugee Council, we are particularly concerned about the situation of hundreds of children who are currently being accommodated in Home Office hotels across South East England. We are observing a rapidly developing crisis that puts vulnerable children at huge risk by housing them in hotels outside of the child protection system, without having a corporate parent assigned within 24 hours of their arrival to make decisions and arrangements for their welfare. The hotels operate unlawfully (children under 16 years of age are placed in unregulated accommodation) and local authorities are not involved in providing services to these children (as they are required to do under s20 of the Children’s Act 1989). As such, children in Home Office hotels are not classed as ‘looked after children’. Prolonged stays in the hotels have an impact on whether they will meet the 13-week rule for care leavers’ support.
Children who experienced war, persecution, discrimination, and witnessed unimaginable horrors are being let down by the system that should protect them. We all should be deeply shocked that this situation is happening to children in the UK and demand the government take urgent action. The government is failing in its duty to safeguard children and it has no proper long-term plan for how to support unaccompanied children.
For this reason, we have been working with parliamentarians across all political parties to shine a light on the plight of separated children. An Urgent Question debate took place in the House of Commons on Monday 7th November. You can watch it here.
There were several important points made throughout the debate. For example, Stella Creasy (MP for Walthamstow) raised the crucial issue of the lack of safeguarding of children in hotels, citing the appalling example of sexual assaults on two children that took place in a hotel in her constituency. Stuart McDonald (MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) raised the problem of children in hotels being left outside of the child protection system and shared his concern about unaccompanied children being pressured by officials to claim they are adults. Many members on both sides of the House expressed their concern for the welfare of children and their desire to see a fair and compassionate asylum system. It was generally agreed that there was a serious issue at play when it came to placing children in Home Office hotels.
It was encouraging to hear Robert Jenrick, the Minister for Immigration, responding for the government, confirm that he wanted to implement an exit strategy from hotels. He also agreed that it is wrong to keep children, including separated children, in hotels. The Minister outlined that he wants to encourage more local authorities to support children through private or state foster parenting arrangements and he talked about the increase in funding for LAs. However, there was no concrete plan put forward and no timescales were discussed.
The Refugee Council has been providing support to separated children for over 20 years and we are the only national organisation who has been working with this group of children through both casework and therapeutic support. Our staff regularly visit hotels and provide support to children and young people who are housed in them.
The children we speak to tell us that they feel anxious, scared and lonely in these hotels, and we have grave concerns about their mental and physical health. Lack of information and reassurance creates additional pressures and amplifies stress in children who have gone through so much already. Access to phones and interpreters is often limited, which makes communication even more challenging.
It is not unusual for children to present with very low mood and have problems sleeping and eating. Some are threatening a hunger strike, and some even tell us that they are considering taking their own life.
The crisis of placing children in unregulated accommodation is yet another example of the dysfunctionality of the current system; it is a waste of public money, and urgently needs to be addressed by the Home Office and the government.
 Please note, we purposefully use the term separated children rather than unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) because children should not be defined solely by their immigration status.
 The term corporate parent is used when a child comes into the care of the Local Authority (LA). The LA becomes the corporate parent for that child, meaning they are responsible for providing the best possible care and safeguarding for that child.
 A child aged 16 or 17 qualifies (under the Children’s Act 1989) to be looked after by children’s services (Local Authority) for a period of 13 weeks since the age of 14. Such a child is entitled to a personal advisor, needs assessment, pathway plan, and to receive all the care and support they normally receive until they leave care.