Charities have raised concerns over the welfare of lone refugee children in the UK, who have been placed in accommodation by the Home Office.
Unaccompanied minors who have crossed the Channel are being housed in hotels, where they are reportedly suffering from hunger and neglect according to charity workers.
A number of charities have listed inadequate food, inadequate clothing and shoes, as well as inadequate health and hygiene standards among their key concerns. Conditions are reported to be so dire that children have been forced to shave each other’s heads due to scabies outbreaks.
Speaking to The Guardian, Philip Ishola, the chief executive officer of the human rights organisation Love146, described the Home Office (Interior Ministry) practices as a "rogue system which has been created outside of the 'looking after children [LAC]' framework, [a framework in the UK for children and young people who are leaving out-of-home care --ie not being looked after at home by their families or guardians]" Adding that it "has a detrimental effect on children who arrive highly traumatized and in desperate need".
The UK government's national transfer scheme, in which local authorities volunteer to look after unaccompanied child asylum seekers, became mandatory for all local authorities in November last year. This change, seeks to avoid certain local authorities being required to care for a disproportionately large number of children.
Last year, Kent County Council began refusing to take in more minors, due to being at "breaking point". In response, the Home Office began placing vulnerable youngsters into unregulated accommodation on July 20, 2021.
Immigration minister Kevin Foster has stated that between November 23 and February 22 there were 361 children who were not yet in local authority care. Until a local authority foster placement can be found, these children are generally placed in temporary accommodation in hotels around the UK.
Love146 workers told the Guardian that they are currently aware of about 250 unaccompanied children in hotels in the London region alone and many more in other parts of the country. The true figure is estimated to be higher as Home Office officials sometimes initially wrongly assess children to be adults, assuming they are over 18, unless these are later proven to be minors.
Lauren Starkey, a social worker at Love146, told the UK paper: "There is no provision in the Children Act for the Home Office to assume parental responsibility. Children have been distressed and embarrassed wearing grey prison tracksuits and flip-flops. I’m shocked that things could get this bad."
An investigation carried out byThe Independent last year revealed that 16 unaccompanied child refugees went missing from unregulated government hotels between July 20 and November 25, at a rate of once per week.
Over the past few months, numerous campaigners have criticized the accommodation as "inappropriate" and lacking in care or protection.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper (from the opposition Labour party) described the figures as "disturbing", warning young children "may be back in the hands of the traffickers". She called for "urgent action" in order to provide further support for vulnerable unaccompanied minors.
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, told The Independent: "After surviving unimaginable dangers to journey here, these children should finally have felt safe and protected. Instead, Priti Patel, the home secretary, has ignored all warnings that these hotels were inappropriate for children and must now take action to find these missing children before it’s too late".
The Home Office has insisted that the hotels are a "temporary measure" and children using them as accommodation are receiving adequate support.
However, according to reports by The Independent, local authorities have placed blame for the lack of safety and care of these children on the Home Office. While the Home Office claim that responsibility lies with the local authorities in which the hotels are located.
Cooper described the lack of certainty over who takes responsibility as "completely reprehensible".
UK Home Office has a duty of care towards minors
Azmina Siddique, policy and impact manager at the Children’s Society, told The Guardian: "Every single one of these children is a child who is here without a family member to look after them. Many will have been forced to flee their home due to violence, war or persecution. The Home Office has a safeguarding duty to promote and protect the welfare of all separated children in their care."
She added: "These children need to feel safe and should be in proper, regulated accommodation, not hotels, which are unacceptable. They must have access to legal advice and it is imperative they receive the mental health and wellbeing support they so desperately need."
A Home Office spokesperson told The Guardian: "The government is working to ensure the needs of newly arriving unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are met. We are grateful for the continued support of local authorities to provide vital care to vulnerable children and we continue to keep the national transfer scheme under review to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of responsibility across the UK."