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Dear Home Secretary,

RE: Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) going missing from Home Office accommodation

As Children’s Commissioner for England and on all reserved matters, it is my statutory duty under the Children Act 2004 to promote and protect the rights of all children. This duty includes particular responsibility towards children living away from home, which extends to children arriving in the United Kingdom seeking asylum. I am clear that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility, and specifically, protection of these children requires a concerted effort across everyone working with them.

First, I want to thank you for your response to my previous letter about Manston Migrant Centre in Kent (dated November 19th, 2022) which stated that 221 children had been reported missing from Home Office accommodation. I am deeply concerned about how high that number is, and keen to understand what steps are being taken to safeguard these children and make sure they are found. Since then, my team has been working with officials in your department and the Department for Education and I am grateful for their co-operation and collaboration. My team has also continued to visit the children in the hotels and provide them with independent advocacy, through my advocacy service, Help at Hand.

The reports over the weekend regarding children going missing from hotels have highlighted, once again, the vulnerability of these children, who are in limbo, with a concerted group of people determined to exploit them. I am concerned for the safety of this group of children whose vulnerability is exacerbated by not speaking English, many of whom have no support network and are not aware of their rights. In all other circumstances these children would have protection through the legal framework and the professional involvement that comes with being a looked after child. I am concerned that without this support they are more vulnerable to abuse and harm.  The numbers of missing children are an example of this. We cannot expect children who have faced the worst trauma to be left to look after themselves as independents – they should be given the care and protection of the state from day one, until they turn 18. The long-term solution to this issue is an increase in high quality placements for all children in care, so that the waiting period in hotels is limited, and eventually eliminated.

I would be grateful if you could provide answers to the following questions based on the work that the Home Office and the Department for Education are doing with local safeguarding partners:

I would also be grateful if your officials could review the statutory responses to these children going missing to ensure they are adequate, and children are given the protection they need.  I would urge the Home Office to work with the Department for Education, all relevant Local Authorities, other safeguarding partners and the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel to update statutory guidance and local protocols on missing children, to acknowledge the increased risk UASC face. In addition, I am keen that every unaccompanied asylum-seeking child accommodated by the Home Office is provided with a named advocate, on an opt-out basis.

During recent visits to the hotels, my team has been struck by the vulnerability of the children and the amount of time they are spending awaiting transfer which can often be as long as three months. For example, one boy had been there for a month, he had become separated from his family on his journey to the UK and did not know where or how they were. He described being unable to sleep or be with friends in the day. This week my team will visit another hotel and will continue to provide these children with independent advocacy via Help at Hand. I will write to you after the visit this week to update you on the children’s views, voices and experiences.

I look forward to continuing to work together on this most important of issues.

I am copying this letter to the Permanent Secretaries for the Home Office and Department for Education, the Education Secretary, and the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Yours sincerely,

Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England

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