LONDON: Roughly one lone child refugee disappeared every week from unregulated government hotels during the second half of 2021, The Independent reported on Tuesday.
Last year, 16 children went missing from hotels housing Channel arrivals in just five months.
Another four disappeared within one week at the end of November, according to newly revealed figures. Half of those children have not been found.
Many unaccompanied children who cross the English Channel and arrive in the UK are placed in what is described as “inappropriate” hotel accommodation, which experts believe could put them at risk of abuse or exploitation.
It is not clear where the missing children came from, but the most recent government figures on the ethnicities of refugees arriving in Britain via the Channel show that people from Iran make up the majority, followed by Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans.
According to The Independent, hundreds of unaccompanied children are housed in five hotels across the south of England.
Dozens of them are under the age of 14, and a small number of unaccompanied minors are less than 10 years old.
Data obtained under freedom-of-information laws revealed that 16 minors went missing from these hotels between July 20 and Nov. 25 — roughly one per week. Another four went missing from Nov. 25 to Dec. 2. While 10 of them were later accounted for, another 10 are still missing.
“After surviving unimaginable dangers to journey here, these children should finally have felt safe and protected,” Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, told The Independent.
“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.”
Elaine Ortiz, founder of the Hummingbird Refugee Project, warned that some of the children may be going missing in order to pay off “debts” accrued during their journey to the UK.
During her work in the French city of Calais, she said she witnessed how children were taken advantage of by some adults.
“We saw the level of exploitation of the children and young people in Calais by smugglers and gangs,” she added.
“We also heard about harassment and violence towards young people by gang members in order to pay their ‘debts.’ I believe that this may contribute to reasons why children go missing in the UK.”
The Refugee Council said it will end its agreement with the government to provide advice and support to unaccompanied children in hotels because it does not believe that the long-term use of hotels for child refugees “meets their needs or is appropriate.”
The council added: “These are very vulnerable and traumatized children who have already faced terrible experiences and are at risk of neglect or at worse exploitation unless all steps are taken to make sure they are kept safe.”
A government spokesperson said it takes the issue of any child going missing “extremely seriously,” and works “closely” with local authorities to ensure vulnerable children are “supported appropriately.”