“200 asylum-seeking children are missing and the government's lack of action is shameful”

Written by Tulip Siddiq

200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are currently missing from Home Office-run hotels in this country. There’s simply no excuse, writes Labour MP Tulip Siddiq. And what’s worse is the government doesn’t seem to care.

Growing up, I always heard my mother refer to the UK as a safe haven (in her native tongue). She came to this country as a teenager after 19 members of her family had been assassinated in Bangladesh. The British government had granted her political asylum and she remains grateful to this day to the Irish community in Kilburn who welcomed her with open arms and made her feel safe after such tragedy. 

Last week, I went to Belsize synagogue in my constituency for a Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration organised by the Association of Jewish Refugees. I heard an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Lia Lesser, describe our country in the same fond terms as my mother.  

She very movingly told us how her parents became increasingly worried about her safety as antisemitism and the hatred towards Jews intensified in Prague. Her mother made the excruciatingly difficult decision, when Lia when just eight years old, to put her only daughter unaccompanied on a train to Britain to live with a complete stranger.  

As I listened to this extraordinary woman, my thoughts turned to my own daughter, who is close in age to that brave young girl in 1939. The thought of putting her on a train to travel alone to another country fills me with dread; I don’t even let her walk to the end of our road alone.

Lia Lesser explained that her mother had sent her to this country out of sheer desperation, but also because she believed her precious child would be safe in the UK. Thousands of people come to this country because they genuinely have no other place to go. I’m proud of our British values and our tradition of welcoming those in need. 

That’s why I was horrified to see the government’s own statistics showing that 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are currently missing from Home Office-run hotels in this country. Perhaps even more shocking, ministers have acknowledged they have no idea where these children are.   

There is simply no excuse for this. The Home Office has ignored repeated warnings from whistle-blowers, police and child protection services that the unaccompanied children staying in these hotels are being targeted by dangerous criminal gangs.

We know that dozens of children have been kidnapped by gangs from one Home Office-run hotel in Brighton and that criminal traffickers are targeting another hotel in Hythe, Kent, where it is estimated that 10% of children disappear each week.  

Why hasn’t the government shut these two hotels down and moved the children to a safe location? Why are these gangs able to target vulnerable children with impunity?

The government’s position is that it wants to end the use of all hotels as soon as possible, but it has said nothing about how it will do this or why it won’t end the use of these specific two high-risk hotels (in Brighton and Hythe) immediately. They claim that they have no choice but to use hotels to house minors. 

There is a serious lack of coordinated action between child protection services and the police, and a complete dereliction of duty from the Home Office. 

The government’s position is that it is the responsibility of local authorities to coordinate action. But we want national government, specifically the Home Office, to take responsibility for the coordination between children’s services and the police. Especially as the children are disappearing from Home Office-run hotels and they are the department responsible for overseeing the refugee regime. 

For hundreds of children to vanish demonstrates the appalling scale of dangerous trafficking gang activity in this country. For too long, this Conservative government has failed to properly crack down on these criminal networks.  

When I raised this at Prime Minister’s Questions, Rishi Sunak attempted to shift the blame elsewhere – it wasn’t his government’s fault. “The reports that we have read about are concerning, he says. “Local authorities have a statutory duty to protect all children regardless of where they go missing from, and in that situation they work closely with local agencies, including the police, to establish their whereabouts.”

The prime minister’s hollow response is simply shameful.

One Conservative backbencher even jeered that these children “shouldn’t have come here illegally”. This repulsive attitude does not reflect the British values that my mother and Lia Lesser hold so dear. 

These children deserve better. They need action now.       

There must be an urgent investigation to understand the links between organised crime, people smuggling and the exploitation of children, and the use of these hotels should be ended immediately. We need to apply pressure to make this happen, and I urge everyone to write to their MP about this issue. 

I’m proud to be British and I’m proud to be the daughter of a political asylum seeker who has made Britain her home. I’m especially proud of our country’s heritage of taking care of vulnerable children and I want my daughter to be able to still feel this pride, as Lia Lesser does, when she’s 85.   

Main image: Getty

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