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Why is the Home Office Re-Opening Hotel Accommodation that is a Far-Right Target and from which Child Asylum Seekers Have Gone Missing?

The Government has said that, due to the rise in small boat crossings, it has to urgently use hotels to give unaccompanied asylum-seeking children a roof over their heads – but there are safeguarding concerns

Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Photo: Imageplotter/Alamy

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Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick told Parliament at the start of this month that there “are no unaccompanied young people in hotels whatsoever”.

The statement might have been true at the start of June, but now – only weeks later – it has been confirmed that a Brighton hotel, where dozens of unaccompanied child asylum seekers went missing earlier in the year, will be re-opening for youngsters.

The controversial move comes after several hotels were emptied following reports that hundreds of asylum-seeking children had gone missing from hotels and had been exposed to exploitation and trafficking. In early June, ECPAT UK launched a legal challenge arguing that the Home Office had “no authority” to place unaccompanied children in asylum hotels. 

Even though it looked as though the Home Office might have been veering away from the use of hotels for young asylum seekers, the announcement of the re-opening of the hotel suggests that this was all a short-lived manoeuvre to quiet negative attention directed at Suella Braverman’s department.

In a memo, a senior asylum official said: “Good news. We will be operational by the 27th June. We can let you know numbers closer to the time once the youngsters start arriving.”

To show their disapproval of the re-opening, people will gather for a demonstration outside Brighton town hall today.

“There is nothing about this hotel re-opening that is good news,” Lauren Starkey, an independent social worker working with unaccompanied child asylum seekers, told Byline Times. “The continued housing of children in these hotels is an abject failure of child protection. It is not good news.”

Starkey will be demonstrating as a social worker who is “really concerned about the safety of these children”. She describes the use of hotels as neglectful and unlawful, and said that children have reported to her they have been racially abused, haven’t been given enough food, and haven’t had appropriate clothing while staying in the hotels. 

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“Most importantly, they feel really unsafe and unwanted in these environments,” she added. 

Due to their vulnerability in staying in hotels, children have gone missing, been exploited or trafficked, and have later been arrested for drug offences on cannabis farms or in county lines. 

Another glaring risk for unaccompanied children in asylum hotels is the hostile far-right anti-immigrant activity that has kicked off at asylum hotels around the country in the past year.

In 2022, anti-migrant activists visited accommodation housing for migrants and asylum seekers 253 times – a 102% increase since the previous year. The most notable of the self-proclaimed ‘migrant hunters’ was Amanda Smith, a member of the hard-right English Constitution Party, which reportedly visited asylum accommodation 124 times last year.

Several of the far-right demonstrations outside accommodation have turned violent. By re-opening opening asylum hotels for children, there is a risk that they could be attacked by far-right protestors again.

“The Home Office is well aware that this hotel has attracted activity from the far-right, with Britain First turning up and filming vulnerable children in the hotel,” said Starkey. “We’ve seen how badly this can escalate – from the riots in Knowsley to targeted attacks on asylum-seekers outside hotels.

“The fact that the Home Office is willing to put children in this position shows a wilful disregard for their safety and further highlights this Government’s lack of concern over the increase in far-right activity.

“At times, the Government seems to be stoking the far-right and then characterising their activity as ‘legitimate concerns’ around asylum numbers, all in service of pushing more and more draconian ‘deterrent’ measures. The irony is that these measures not only don’t work, but they do nothing to appease the far-right either.”

In March, Britain’s biggest unions like Unison, the GMB, and the National Education Union released a joint statement saying: “We know whose side we are on when we see far-right mobs attacking refugees and politicians playing the mood music… we have seen an alarming rise in violence and intimidation organised by the far-right against refugees and refugee accommodation. The Government is complicit in these attacks.”

Zoe Gardner, an independent migration policy expert, told Byline Times that “given what the Government knows about the risks – both from the inadequacy of hotels for traumatised young people in the first place, the threat of far-right activity surrounding this accommodation, and in terms of children going missing from them – the choice to send more kids to face that fate cannot possibly be seen as mere incompetence. It is reckless child endangerment.”

Local campaign group Homes Not Hotels has been protesting against the housing of children in asylum hotels for months. Many of their members plan to demonstrate.

“These children are not treated the same as children born in the UK,” the group’s Miranda Whelehan told Byline Times. “British children would never be put in this situation.”

Whelehan said that while British children in the foster care system would be assigned a social worker to help ensure their placement in a foster care family, children’s home or with family and friends, asylum-seeking children in hotels are not assigned their own social workers. Instead, Home Office social workers attend to monitor how things are in the hotels. 

“It’s complete discrimination,” according to Whelehan. “They need protection and homes, and it could be provided. The money to do this does exist. If they wanted to, they could build solutions.”

While hotels have been said to be the only option for unaccompanied child asylum-seekers, Whelehan and Starkey take a different view. 

“They are now here [in the UK] and they need their needs met,” Whelehan said, noting how these children should be given the same priority as children from the UK who have gone into care. “Putting them in hotels just symbolises what this Government wants to do – to neglect them.”

Starkey wants to see the Government commit to urgent funding to local authorities to help expand capacity in the care system. 

It’s no surprise that the asylum system in the UK is currently overstretched, including how the system works for children. There aren’t enough foster carers for unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, asylum decisions on asylum claims are taking upwards of 18 months, and age assessments are in shambles. 

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“These are all the result of a decade of under-funding of public services,” Starkey said. “Local authorities are on their knees. There is a housing crisis. There is a foster care crisis. These are political decisions. The Government has prioritised a performance of cruelty over properly funding [these services].”

The Government’s solution to these problems has been a string of policies to try and deter refugees from seeking asylum in the UK – Rwanda deportations, the Nationalities and Borders Act, the Illegal Migration Bill, and the use of army barracks and barges as housing options. 

Now, the priority of immigration enforcement is creeping into the protection of children. 

“As a social worker, I find this worrying,” said Starkey. “According to all domestic child protection legislation and all international child protection framework, the rights of the child have to be paramount. But in this country, children are being treated as migrants first and children second.”

The Home Office has said that “due to the rise in dangerous small boats crossings, the Government has had no alternative but to urgently use hotels to give unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in the UK a roof over their heads”.

Despite the Government’s efforts to deter migration with harsh consequences, small boats continue to come. More than 600 people were detected making the journey from France on 11 June. The previous daily high for this year was 497 people on 22 April. 

“The Government’s approach can only be seen in terms of its clear wider agenda to keep refugees on the front pages, keep the crisis in accommodation dividing our communities, and keep reaping whatever political benefit they can from the whole performance,” Gardner said. “No cost, even the safety of children, is too high to pursue those ends.”

Councillor Bella Sankey, Leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, has said this high number of people crossing the Channel and the strain it puts on the UK asylum system is the fault of the current government.

“We have a Government that is spectacularly ill-equipped to do anything competently,” Sankey told Byline Times. She doesn’t accept the Government’s excuses that it is the boat crossings that have led to the re-opening of this asylum hotel for children.

For her, the Home Office “is setting up another child safeguarding catastrophe” and “we are still living through” it given the “number of children still missing from the last Home Office hotel”. 

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