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The Missing Children: A Global Problem

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Harry Hetherington explores the unique dangers that refugees and migrant children face in the UK and globally, and what can be done to prevent such disappearances

Photo by Jeffrey Riley

In January, it was reported in the UK that dozens of unaccompanied migrant children had gone missing from a Brighton hotel where they were being temporarily housed as part of a controversial Home Office policy.

According to a whistle-blower from a Home Office contractor employed at the hotel,

136 children had been reported missing from the hotel in the previous 18 months and 79 remained unaccounted for. The news shocked many, but it was not an isolated incident. Instead, it highlighted a worrying nationwide trend.

Missing child refugees in the UK

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASCs) are defined by the Home Office as children claiming asylum while ‘not being cared for by an adult who in law or by custom has responsibility to do so’. Though many who are reported missing will be safe, the Brighton hotel’s whistleblower’s account painted a bleak picture. ‘Most of the children disappear into county lines’, they said, referring to the practice of transporting illegal drugs across county borders, a trade which often uses vulnerable young people.

As evidence of the national scope of the problem, it was reported a month after the initial news broke that nearly two-thirds of the 43 police forces in England and Wales had recovered missing children from six hotels used by the Home Office to house unaccompanied asylum seekers. Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick admitted in parliament that 440 children had gone missing from the hotels since July 2021, and that 200 remained missing. The number remains high, with just 13 having been located by the end of February.

The government policy at the heart of the controversy is itself unusual. Generally, unaccompanied children – refugees or UK citizens – are the responsibility of local authorities. Under their care, they are entitled to access to advocates, health assessments, and social worker visits. However, in this case the Home Office ‘took effective ownership’ and placed the unaccompanied migrants in regular hotels, ‘essentially converting them overnight into unregistered children’s homes’ which were not subject to the same local authority care. The Home Office argues that they have ‘no alternative’ but to enact the policy as a response to increased migrant channel crossings.

It seems a lack of communication between services has increased the risks of child refugees slipping through the cracks and being made vulnerable. An absence of safe and legal routes to the UK, coupled with weakened institutions within the country, has had the effect of pushing people to society’s margins and sometimes into danger. The situation in the UK serves as a microcosm for the dangers faced by UASCs globally.

"Over 4,600 unaccompanied children have been accommodated in hotels since July 2021. There have been 440 missing occurrences and 200 children remain missing" - Robert Jenrick, Minister for Immigration, 24 January 2023

The global outlook

The 21st century has seen many regional and global migration waves, including from economic ruination in Venezuela, or from conflicts such as in South Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine. Children make up an outsized proportion of refugees: more than 40% of the total in 2021. The separation of children from guardians which so often occurs during displacement makes UASCs vulnerable. On average, 17 migrant and refugee children went missing every day in Europe between 2018 and 2020; 57% were not found within 12 months.

It’s important not to overstate the sinister element to these disappearances: for example, in 2021 57% of cases were runaways, and only a very small minority of cases were confirmed to be criminal abductions. However, these figures don’t account for the large proportion of missing cases where there is no information available at all. Elsewhere in the world, trafficking is a common tool of exploitation of child refugees. On the Mexico-USA border, an estimated 75-80% of newly-arrived unaccompanied children are victims of human trafficking.

Once reported missing, discrimination towards refugees can sometimes hinder efforts to relocate missing children. In the UK police have often assumed that missing asylum-seekers have simply absconded, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary that they have come to harm. This is not an assumption that the authorities would generally make in the case of a missing unaccompanied child who was a UK citizen. UASCs therefore face a dangerous mix of being more vulnerable to exploitation to begin with, and then being arguably less likely to be searched for when they do go missing. This apparent double-standard prevails even though a large majority of UASCs are ultimately granted asylum or other permission to remain in the UK – 77% from 2006-2021. search function

What can be done?

There are steps that authorities can take to lessen the likelihood UASCs disappearing and reducing the risks they may face. Firstly, information-sharing between nations and authorities must increase, and better data must be gathered. IOM recommends that data on the subject diversifies away from being ‘based on the qualitative accounts of children’s experiences’ and towards standardised data collection which distinguishes between different vulnerabilities faced, and disaggregates data by important factors like age and sex.

Most importantly, a move away from a policy of detention and deterrence is vital for strengthening UASC trust in authorities and bolstering the resources of the state to care for them. The Europe-based INTERACT project argues that a ‘firewall’ must be put in place between immigration enforcement and child protection services, so that data collected is not accessed by border authorities for the purpose of detaining and deporting children. ‘Putting children’s rights above the enforcement of immigration rules’ will increase UASCs’ trust in authorities to ensure their safety. Without this trust, those who would report their disappearance would not do so, for fear of jeopardising the residency status of the child.

Did you know? The equivalent of 17 children a day went missing in Europe between 2018 and 2020 - Missing Children in Europe

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Concluding thoughts

In the case of the current Home Office hotel policy, the controversy looks set to continue. Over 100 refugee and children’s charities have now signed a letter urging the government to end the ‘unlawful and harmful’ policy which the letter states has ‘no legal basis’. Elsewhere in the country and in the world, child refugees face unique dangers on their journeys and unique barriers to accessing appropriate support. However, better information-sharing between authorities which is responsible and mindful of children’s wellbeing can lessen these challenges.


Researched by Alexandra Kenney / Edited by Vanessa Clark / Online Editor: Harry Hetherington


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