A few weeks ago, a whistleblower reported that dozens of children had gone missing from a Home Office-run facility, with clear indications that they had been trafficked by criminal gangs. The government has admitted that it is unaware of the whereabouts of hundreds of children.
This is an extremely vulnerable group of children, who are alone or separated from family. They may have fled war and conflict and often suffer from physical and psychological trauma. They are at constant risk of exploitation and trafficking, and the government has consistently failed to take responsibility for them. That leaves them with no one – and that is unacceptable.
We are working with Article 39 – a charity which fights for the rights of children living in state and privately-run institutions – on three separate legal actions to keep these vulnerable children safe, including challenging the Home Office’s controversial practice of housing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in unregulated hotels.
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The Home Office started housing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in hotels in July 2021, with Ministers stating this was a temporary measure. In 2021, Article 39 raised concerns about the absence of parliamentary scrutiny over this decision and the lack of crucial safeguards for asylum-seeking children.
Article 39 was given reassurances that this practice was “on a short term, emergency basis”, but this has proven to be incorrect, and the situation has significantly worsened over time.
The Home Office has now been accommodating unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in hotels for over 19 months. At least 4,600 children have been placed in hotels, 440 missing episodes have been recorded, and 200 children remain missing. The numbers continue to rise.
We believe there is no legal basis for the housing of children in this way. Under the Children Act 1989, local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and must provide accommodation to any child in need that requires it within their area. But unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are currently excluded from the protections of this Act, because the Home Office has taken charge of their day-to-day care.
We think that the Home Office’s decision to house these extremely vulnerable children in this way is unlawful and there is no option now but to use the law to challenge this unacceptable situation.
So we have taken the initial step in a potential judicial review to hold the Home Office and the Department for Education to account for what has happened and challenge the ongoing unlawfulness of this situation. Our Pre-Action Protocol (PAP) letter to the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Secretary of State for Education can be read here.
But children continue to be housed in hotels and left without any of the necessary safeguards of the local authority and wider care system. They continue to be at serious risk and need immediate protection.
So we are also supporting Article 39 to make a novel application to the Family Division of the High Court to ask it to make some of the missing children ‘wards of court’.
If we succeed, these children will have Children’s Guardians appointed to them who will have the power to ask the court to assist with locating the missing children and make welfare decisions on their behalf once they are found. They will no longer be left in a situation where no one takes proper responsibility for them.
And we are also pushing for an urgent inquiry to be launched by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights to examine what has gone wrong and how to stop it happening again.
Our letter, which includes support from 51 individuals including representatives of the Refugee Council, Human Rights Watch and Children England, can be read here.
By bringing these three actions at the same time, we hope to provide immediate and vital protection for children at significant risk of exploitation and harm, hold the government to account, and stop this from happening in the future.
We can only do this work with your help. If you would like to support our work on this case, you can donate here.
Good Law Project is bringing a set of legal challenges to seek the proper protection of unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum in the UK.
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