Show caption Coalition forces, including US marines and British paratroopers, helped with the evacuation last week at Kabul airport. Photograph: USMarines/Reuters Refugees No shoes, spare clothes or money: traumatised Afghan children stranded for weeks in hotels Charities accuse the government of failing to meet young asylum seekers’ basic needs, despite care pledge Mark Townsend @townsendmark Sat 21 Aug 2021 18.05 BST Share on Facebook
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Child refugees from Afghanistan are being held by the Home Office in hotels for weeks on end without shoes, spare clothes, money or access to healthcare, embarrassing the home secretary, who promised to help people fleeing the Taliban.
One unaccompanied Afghan minor who arrived in the UK a month ago said they had also been given no legal advice or interpreter, their asylum claim had yet to be processed and they had no idea where they were or even where to find the nearest mosque.
Last week Priti Patel, announcing plans to relocate thousands of Afghan refugees to the UK, promised “everything possible to provide support” to ensure they could “integrate and thrive”. Yet the current approach by the Home Office has been described as a “complete breakdown” of child protection measures that has breached its statutory responsibilities.
Despite repeated offers from a number of specialist charities, including Barnardo’s, to enter the hotels and assess the children, the Home Office has so far turned them down.
A Muslim community group that offered to supply child refugees in a hotel near Brighton with halal food was turned away despite complaints from some youngsters they were only being offered “boiled vegetables”.
It has also been claimed that children are being put into taxis and driven across the country with no escort or child protection system in place. In one instance, a child is said to have been driven by taxi more than 250 miles from the south coast to Yorkshire without an escort, raising further doubts over the Home Office’s ability to safeguard the expected influx of unaccompanied asylum seekers.
Of more immediate concern is the department’s approach to the safety of scores of children being kept in hotels, with the one near Brighton said to hold 70 minors.
On Wednesday a five-year-old Afghan refugee fell to his death from a ninth-floor Sheffield hotel window, days after arriving in the UK. On Saturday it emerged that asylum seekers were previously removed from the hotel because it was unfit for them to stay in.
MPs are now demanding an investigation into the safety of accommodation provided to Afghan refugees.
Analysts predict an influx of unaccompanied Afghan children into the UK as families send their children to safety. Last week film emerged of a child being handed over Kabul’s airport wall to a US soldier amid scenes of chaos.
The criticism of the Home Office comes after it took responsibility for all children arriving in Dover two months ago following Kent county council’s ruling that its social services could not accept any more cases.
Elaine Ortiz, founder of the Hummingbird Project in Brighton, said: “The Home Office is meant to be their corporate parent but they are not taking responsibility – there’s no child protection, no health screening, no processing of asylum claims. It is shocking.”
Ortiz spoke to one Afghan teenager on Thursday who revealed to her his experience of life in the Home Office-run hotels. “He had no shoes since arriving in the UK, only had one pair of trousers, no coat when it rained, no money, no access to an interpreter or legal advice and the food was not culturally appropriate,” she said.
Philip Ishola, chief executive of the anti-child trafficking charity Love146, said the Home Office’s approach appeared to contravene child protection measures, including its responsibilities under the Children Act, as well as trafficking conventions. He added: “There seems to have been a complete breakdown in the safeguarding statutory process for children who are arriving completely destitute with no support framework for them.
Home secretary Priti Patel has said she wants refugees to ‘integrate and thrive’, but critics say her department is neglecting its responsibilities. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
“It’s reasonable to say that one of our national departments [the Home Office] is choosing to neglect children, which is effectively child abuse. In any other situation, child protection services and police would be involved and there’d be an intervention.
“It’s incomprehensible that the Home Office thinks that children’s legislation does not apply to them.”
Andy Elvin, chief executive of Tact (the Adolescent and Children’s Trust), the UK’s largest fostering charity, said: “The Home Office have acted egregiously and with no regard to the best interests of the children in placing vulnerable children in a hotel.
“And from there, they’re just sticking them in taxis and driving them to whoever will take them. It’s unsafe.”
The news comes as the UN raises fresh concerns over the UK’s response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, with officials labelling its approach as “completely contradictory”.
The United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) urged Patel to abandon proposed changes to the UK’s asylum system if she was serious about helping Afghans flee the Taliban takeover.
The UN plans to officially raise its concerns over the viability of Patel’s nationality and borders bill in the light of the expected refugee exodus from Afghanistan. Patel intends to make it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK without entry clearance.
Laura Padoan, UNHCR spokesperson, said the Home Office’s approach failed to recognise that large numbers of Afghans would be forced to flee their country and try to enter the UK, where many of them have family, through whatever means possible.
“It’s completely contradictory for the UK to recognise that Afghans are in danger and in need of protection but when they arrive on our shores to deny them the right to asylum and to treat them as criminals,” she said.
Ishola, who estimates hundreds of children are in the hotels, said: “We’ve got traumatised Afghan children in these hotels who are seeing what’s going on at home and must be absolutely petrified.”
Elvin added: “The real concern is that, sooner or later, one of these kids is going to commit suicide or that we’re going to have some serious self- harm incident.”
A new law taking effect next month will make it illegal for the Home Office to put vulnerable children under 16 in “unregulated accommodation”, which includes hotels.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We take the safeguarding of unaccompanied asylum seeking children extremely seriously and have measures in place to ensure their immediate safeguarding and welfare needs are met whilst we find them more appropriate long term care placements.”
They added it was working closely with organisations including Barnardo’s and local charities allowed entry to ensure child refugees have support.
“Clothing, footwear and other personal items are all provided and all children are registered with a GP and have the same access to healthcare as the rest of the UK populations.”