How do you lose 200 children? This isn’t the opening of some dark joke with an uncomfortable punchline. It’s a genuine question – how do 200 children just evaporate into thin air?
Perhaps it’s a question we should be directing at the home secretary Suella Braverman, under whose watch 200 asylum-seeking children have gone missing after being placed in hotels run by the Home Office.
Last week government minister Simon Murray told the House of Lords that there had been 440 episodes of children going missing from hotels, with 200 still unaccounted for. The admission came after a whistleblower from a government-commissioned hotel in Brighton told the Observer that children had been abducted off the street outside the facility and bundled into cars.
It’s a chilling thought. But this hasn’t come out of the blue. Police, local councils and NGOs have repeatedly raised concerns that unaccompanied children – many of them who have arrived in the UK on small boats and subsequently housed in hotel accommodation – would be targeted by criminal networks.
So where are they now? Last week the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) outlined how children seeking asylum are key targets for traffickers and abusers because they often do not have close family around to look out for them. In a statement, it said children will often be used to transport drugs or take part in other forms of criminal activity.
So there we have it – the children who have come to the UK seeking refuge are being put at risk of exploitation in the country they hoped would keep them safe.
Since its launch in 2012, the Tory government’s “hostile environment” policy has totted up a rap sheet of inhumane approaches to dealing with refugees. In 2013 Theresa May’s infamous “go home” vans circled six London boroughs, a scheme that was largely ridiculed while seemingly having no impact on immigration.
Not long after, stories from the Windrush scandal started to unfold, leading to international condemnation of cruel Home Office hostile environment policies.
And then last year came news of perhaps the most brazen and barbaric plan of them all – the Rwanda scheme, a policy that could see some people who come to the UK without a visa or other permission to enter the country sent to Rwanda to have their asylum claim processed and decided there.
Last week the BASW said fears over being deported to Rwanda could add to the number of children being persuaded to join in with gangs or traffickers, as it is made to look like the preferred option.
Two hundred vulnerable missing children should be a source of shame for those in power. But in Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, when Labour MP Tulip Siddiq raised a question about the welfare of the children missing, Tory MP Jonathan Guillis, a former teacher, heckled back: “Well, they shouldn’t have come here illegally”.
And there it is – the disdain for children seeking refuge that forms the backbone of current government policy.
You’d think they might have learned by now that whatever it is they’re trying to do just isn’t working. But while the Tory government dreams up more punitive ways to treat the most vulnerable, 200 innocent children have disappeared without a trace.