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Hotels as Homes: The Inappropriate Accommodation for Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children


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On the 24th of January 2023, Caroline Lucas (Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion) addressed the Speaker of the House of Commons. In this address, she asserted the need for more safeguarding provisions for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, responding to reports of these children going missing from hotels under the Home Office's control. Recent reports from a senior asylum official in Brighton state that a hotel in which over one hundred unaccompanied children went missing is set to reopen in the immediate future. This article will consider the conditions faced by unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the UK and compare this to the support available for children in the same position in Greece. 


UK policy 


The UK government defines an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child as a child under the age of eighteen who is separated from both parents. Once an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child has made themselves known to the Home Office, the Home Office become responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of the child. The Local Authority administration and social care team is notified at the earliest opportunity, ensuring the child is transferred to Local Authority care by the duty Social Worker.  This triggers a chain of events determining the child's future in the UK. Upon being referred to Social Services, the child becomes known as a looked-after child for the duration of the asylum process. 


The first need that the Local Authority addresses is accommodation. As the child is considered to be under the Local Authority's care, a needs assessment is done based on the known or assumed age of the child. For those under the age of sixteen, the Local Authority will try to ensure the child is placed with a foster parent or in a children's home regulated by Ofsted. However, for those over the age of sixteen, the immediate future looks more uncertain. 


In 2021, most unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were between 16 and 17. This means they are not eligible for foster care. Due to the age and number of children presenting themselves to the Home Office, the responsibility to care for them fell to Kent County Council. The council warned their services were at breaking point, which prompted the National Transfer Scheme. This scheme facilitates the transfer from the first Local Authority to another Local Authority that has the capacity to meet the best interests of the child.


In theory, this scheme benefits the child, ensuring the best-suited accommodation is found while relieving some of the pressure felt by overstretched Local Authorities. In practice, children are being neglected, and the lack of responsibility and accountability by the Home Office is causing unnecessary stress for the children. Within the hotels, there is no access to mental health support and there are reports of inadequate food and clothing.


The use of hotels 


In response to Kent County Council's plea for support, the Home Office has housed children in hotels while a suitable placement under a new Local Authority is found under the National Transfer Scheme.  An inspection carried out by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found that between July 2021 and February 2022, 18% of children housed in hotels stayed for more than 30 days. The longest stay reported was 128 days.  Although the use of hotels were designed for short-term use, the prolonged stay of some children prompts the question of how the children are being safeguarded.

 

The report highlighted some significant concerns - For instance, hotel staff that did not have DBS checks (a criminal record check required by law when working with children) had access to all locked doors in the hotel. Given the extreme vulnerability of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, these findings are damning for the UK Government. While the lack of DBS can be quickly resolved, the practice of housing unaccompanied minors in hotels must stop. The needs of traumatised children cannot be met by using hotels, and standards need to be improved in line with the ‘best interests’ principle. 


Currently, the use of hotels to house these vulnerable children has been deemed unlawful by the UK High Court in July 2023. Central to this decision was the high number of children missing from the hotels who are at risk of trafficking and exploitation. This was the concern raised by Caroline Lucas back in January 2023. In this time several more children have potentially gone missing. Yet, no plan exists to ensure the practice is brought to a close. Up until June this year, there has been a lack of accountability by both the Home Office and Local Authorities.  As a placement has not yet been found for the approximate 218 children living in hotels across the country, the Local Authority was thought not to hold jurisdiction. Therefore, they take no responsibility for safeguarding vulnerable children. Furthermore, the Home Office also did not take responsibility leaving a significant gap in safeguarding. However, following the decision made by a family court judge, local authorities are now legally responsible for unaccompanied children housed in hotels. Although this decision is a turning point in the safeguarding standard, the lack of designated guardians within the hotels leaves the children isolated and at risk of trafficking and exploitation. 


The trauma faced by unaccompanied asylum-seeking children requires the care they receive to be specialised to prevent the onset of further dysregulation and trauma. The Social Care Institute for Excellence identifies that access to psychological interventions and social support is required to enable the child to flourish in their new environment. Yet, it was found that there is no mental health support for those living in hotels. 


The negligence by both local authorities and the Home Office parallels the tragedy that led to the ‘Every Child Matters’ paper published by the UK Government in 2003. That lack of intervention in these cases, paired with poor coordination and lack of accountability, has put thousands of children at risk of exploitation and abuse. 


While the housing situation for children and young people is better once placed with a new Local Authority, the procedure for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children needs to be reconsidered. 


An Aspirational Model: Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children in Greece 

 

The Greek authorities have been on the front line of the so-called refugee crisis since 2015 with the majority of refugees arriving on small boats having crossed the Mediterranean Sea. It is estimated that between 2016 and 2021, over 37 thousand unaccompanied children arrived in Greece needing protection. In July 2023, Greece was responsible for 1675 unaccompanied minors, with the majority living in specialist accommodation centres.  


The housing for unaccompanied minors in Greece comprises emergency and temporary accommodation centres, semi-independent living (SIL) apartments, and foster care for those under a certain age. In addition, those who have ended up living in precarious conditions or are homeless are entitled to the help set out under the National Emergency Response Mechanism. This ensures the child is housed in emergency accommodation for three weeks. A suitable placement is found based on the child's needs and best interests during this time. During this interim stage, the children can access psychological, legal and medical support, establishing a robust child-centred approach to safeguarding. This is something the British response to unaccompanied minors fails to do.   


Under the new law 4960/22.7.22, a National Guardianship System is established, ensuring that the child's best interests are at the centre of practice, prioritising their overall well-being. This scheme ensures clear accountability for the professionals involved with the child's care, preventing gaps that expose the child to further risk.


The most significant difference between the Greek government's response and the UK’s response is the provision of long-term accommodation centres. The centres provide a wide array of support for the young people in their care, with a team of professionals available throughout the week. These include psychologists, social workers, interpreters, lawyers, nurses, cooks, cleaners and educators who work alongside the caregivers to provide the daily care and support needed.  


The creation of suitable placements for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children has relieved the pressure placed on the foster care system, ensuring that young people are not waiting lengthy periods for a place to reside permanently. The UK Government should look to Greece for a compelling example of how adequate funding and planning ensure the rights of each child are protected. While housing these young people in hotels is a temporary measure while a long-term placement is found, changing the system could prevent the gaps in care that currently leave so many vulnerable people in precarious situations. This position is endorsed by the Local Government Association, highlighting the need to ‘rapidly expand other forms of accommodation and support that can best meet the children’s needs’.


Therefore, to best protect the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the UK, the Government needs to redesign its strategy, placing the children’s and young people’s best interests at the centre of the initiative, taking inspiration from countries such as Greece who have managed the demand brought by the refugee crisis without compromising on the rights of the child. 












Bibliography



Dearden, Lizzie. ‘Home Office Admits It Is Illegally Housing Unaccompanied Child Asylum Seekers in Hotels’. The Independent, 19 October 2022. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/home-office-child-asylum-seekers-hotels-b2206058.html.


Gower, Melanie, David Foster, Lulu Meade, and Maria Lalic. ‘Accommodation of asylum-seeking children in hotels’. London: House Of Commons, 31 May 2023. https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CDP-2023-0114/CDP-2023-0114.pdf.



Lucas, Caroline (@CarolineLucas). 2023. “Minister utterly fails to answer Qs on missing children. Will Home Office take legal as well as practical responsibility? Why isn't Ofsted inspecting hotels? Have all staff been DBS-checked? When will hotels close? How many more will go missing before we see action? My Urgent Q”. Twitter, January 42, 2023, 1:23 pm. https://twitter.com/CarolineLucas/status/1617875843564597251?s=20&t=oMXw_C2oWxpGN73Q5OszlA


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Neal, David. ‘An Inspection of the Use of Hotels for Housing Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC)’. London: Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, 2023. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1111982/An_inspection_of_the_use_of_hotels_for_housing_unaccompanied_asylum-seeking_children__UASC__March_to_May_2022.pdf.



Novati, Anita Calchi. ‘The Reception System of Unaccompanied Minors in Greece’. A Path for Europe (blog), 14 February 2022. https://pathforeurope.eu/the-reception-system-of-unaccompanied-minors-in-greece/.


Simpson, Fiona. ‘Councils Responsible for Unaccompanied Children in Home Office Hotels, Judge Rules’. Children and Young People Now (blog), 12 June 2023. https://www.cypnow.co.uk/news/article/councils-responsible-for-unaccompanied-children-in-home-office-hotels-judge-rules.



Townsend, Mark. ‘Child Migrants to Be Sent Back to Hotel Where 136 Vanished’. The Guardian, 25 June 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/jun/25/child-migrants-to-be-sent-back-to-hotel-where-136-vanished.


Tropping, Alexandra. ‘Kent Council Refuses to Accept More Unaccompanied Child Migrants’. The Guardian, 11 June 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/jun/11/kent-county-council-refuses-accept-unaccompanied-child-migrants.


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