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As Children’s Commissioner, I have a duty to promote and protect the rights of all children. But I have a particular duty, and feel a profound responsibility, towards those who are not living with their own families. This includes the children who have arrived here unaccompanied, fleeing war and persecution in their home countries. The children I have met have faced unimaginable horrors, and then gone on to endure yet more as they are abused and exploited by the traffickers or people smugglers who bring them here. We must of course have it as our ultimate goal for no child to have to make these perilous journeys, by urgently ensuring that there are enough safe and legal ways for them to arrive.

But for every child who does arrive by irregular means, our first response must be one of love and compassion. As this report shows, these children have faced rape, torture, and even been subject to organ harvesting. As soon as they arrive, they must be brought into care, and given not only the immediate healthcare attention they need, but the stability and security that will allow them to recover and thrive.

I am worried that we are moving further away from this. Since 2021 the Home Office has been accommodating children in hotels, when they should be brought into local authority care under the Children Act 1989.[i] The day the Illegal Migration Bill was introduced I saw that it could have devastating consequences for children. This includes the powers in the Act, which have not yet come into force, that would allow the Home Office to accommodate children, cutting across the duties in the Children Act. The Children Act is the crucial piece of legislation that provides protection for children, and it must always take primacy when it comes to caring for vulnerable children.

That is why in April I wrote to the Home Secretary, using my statutory powers, to request information about all the children who have been accommodated in the hotels. I felt it was vital to know how these children had been cared for, to allow for proper scrutiny and informed decisions to be made about what should happen next.

It has now been seven months since the deadline I gave for this information to be returned. It was information that any setting caring properly for children should have at their fingertips. It was information which was needed for anyone to be able to make an informed decision about whether clauses in the Illegal Migration Bill should pass. And yet it was only once the Bill had become an Act that any information was provided. In order for me to be able to fulfil my statutory function to promote and protect children’s rights, it is essential that I have the necessary information about vulnerable children, and am able to share this with those tasked with the duty of legislating on matters that will affect children’s rights in the most profound ways. The failure to provide this information in anything like a timely manner has made my job of protecting the rights of these children incomparably more challenging, and I am deeply concerned by the approach taken.

And the data I have finally received was deeply troubling. Not only because it threw into stark relief how incredibly vulnerable these children are – including children aged from ten years old, travelling alone, who have been beaten, contracted diseases, and faced sexual assault. These are children who are clearly in desperate need of proper care. But the data was also troubling because of how little was recorded about any basic safeguarding actions that had been taken. All children are entitled to the protections in the Children Act, yet this deeply vulnerable group have been excluded from them.

The information I have received has made me more determined than ever that what has happened to these children since 2021 must never be repeated. The power for the Home Office to accommodate children should never have become law, and it must now be removed from the statute book without coming into force. As the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child reiterates, highly vulnerable children must be given the care and protection they need. The Commissioner is clear that unaccompanied children should be in local authority care under the Children Act 1989 from the moment they arrive.

While the Supreme Court has ruled that deportations to Rwanda would be unlawful, the government is still pursuing this approach, by seeking to deem in law that Rwanda is a safe country. By continuing to focus on how to remove those who have arrived here, the government continues to increase the risk to unaccompanied children. The threat of deportation at 18 will make these children more vulnerable than ever to further exploitation. There instead needs to be a fundamental rethink of the response to those arriving here by irregular means. There must be a clear plan to ensure that every child receives the care they need, from the moment they arrive.