Photo: Andy Hall/The Observer
Dozens of asylum seeker children have been kidnapped by gangs from a Home Office hotel in Brighton. Observer investigation may reveal.
A whistleblower who works for Home Office contractor Mitie and child protection sources describe children being kidnapped from the street outside a hotel and packed into cars.
“Children are literally taken from outside the building, they disappear and are nowhere to be found. They are taken off the street by human traffickers,” the source said.
Related: ‘They just disappear’: Whistleblowers faced a wall of complacency over missing migrant children
It also emerged that the Home Office had been repeatedly warned by police that the vulnerable occupants of the hotel – asylum seeker children who had recently arrived in the UK without their parents or guardians – would be targeted by criminal networks.
Around 600 unaccompanied children have passed through a hotel in Sussex in the last 18 months, and 136 of them are missing. More than half of them – 79 – remain unsettled.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper described the discovery as “really horrific and scandalous” and called on the government to disclose the number of missing children and the efforts being made to find them.
She added: “Suella Braverman [the home secretary] failed to heed repeated warnings about totally inadequate safeguards for the children in their care.
“This is a complete neglect of duty by the Home Office, which is not so much about protecting children’s safety or cracking down on dangerous gangs, putting them at terrible risk. Ministers urgently need to introduce new security arrangements.”
Mitie’s whistleblower also described witnessing child trafficking from a similar hotel run by the Home Office in Hythe, Kent, estimating that 10% of children disappeared each week.
A child protection source said some of the children missing from a Brighton hotel may have been sold as far away as Manchester and Scotland. One case is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police in London.
Figures released in October showed that 222 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children had gone missing from hotels run by the Home Office. The ministers admitted that they had no idea of their whereabouts.
In the meantime, it has also emerged that no new guidance has been issued for police to track down missing asylum seekers, with sources saying this remains in “development”.
New figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show that newly arrived unaccompanied children spend an average of 16.5 days in Home Office hotels before being transferred to council care across the country.
When asked for comment, Brighton and Hove City Council, which traditionally looks after children seeking asylum when they arrive in the UK without their parents or guardians, referred questions about child offenders to the police. Sussex Police said inquiries about child offenders should be directed to the Home Office.
The Home Office said: “Local authorities have a statutory duty to protect all children, wherever they have gone missing. In the event of a missing child, they work closely with other local services, including the police, to urgently locate the child and ensure their safety.
“We have robust safeguarding procedures in place to ensure all children in our care are as safe and supported as possible as we seek urgent local authority placements.”
Brighton and Hove City Council added: “We have been actively involved in reporting the child missing and have been working with the police and other agencies to try and find her.”
Catherine Hankinson, chair of the National Board of Missing Persons Police Chiefs, said regular police inter-agency meetings assess the response to each missing migrant child who has failed to be located.