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Hundreds of missing child asylum seekers are at the mercy of criminal gangs


4 min read

The state has lost 200 children. Yet their disappearance, their likely kidnapping and trafficking by criminal gangs, has barely raised an eyebrow since it was revealed last week in the media.

I know that dreadful feeling of panic when you can’t find your child. I was at a fair, playing hook-the-duck. One minute two of my children were with me, laughing, pointing and cheering. The next minute there was only one. 

It was the most terrifying feeling. As I scanned the crowd my heart raced. Adrenaline surged through my body. I tore around that fair as fast as I could, imagining all the possible fateful outcomes of my moment of lapsed attention. I begged passers-by to help. I called everyone I knew in the area to join my search.

We are feeding the criminal gangs and fuelling the trafficking of more children

The 200 children that have gone missing came to the United Kingdom as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Whatever their reasons for fleeing their homes, whatever they have had to do to stay alive and cross borders, our country has a duty of care to them. Local authorities have a responsibility to accommodate them, safeguard them and promote their welfare. Society at large has a duty to find them.

When my friend Gulwali arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child from Afghanistan he was suffering with such trauma he attempted suicide. With the support of loving foster parents, he was able to rebuild his life. He was one of the Brits chosen to carry the Olympic torch in 2012 and now spends his time helping schoolchildren to understand the challenges of refugees around the world. 

In recent years, rather than provide children like Gulwali with this kind of support, we have begun using hotels to house them. What may have originally been emergency stop-gap accommodation has quickly become widespread practice. With the increase of hotel accommodation – providing little, if any, stability, love and concern – has come the proliferation of inadequate care to the extent that children in their dozens are going missing, presumed kidnapped and trafficked.

The world has recognised that institutional accommodation is no substitute for family-based care. Indeed, the UK was one of the signatories of the 2019 United Nations General Assembly Resolution on the Rights of the Child, which formally recognised the harm of institutions on children. It states: “children without parental care are more likely than their peers to experience human rights violations such as exclusion, violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.”

The use of hotels to accommodate traumatised and often trafficked children is a clear violation of this UN resolution. We are failing those who are dependent on our help. We are feeding the criminal gangs and fuelling the trafficking of more children. 

If my children found themselves alone in another country, I would hope that someone noticed them immediately if they subsequently went missing. I would hope search parties would be organised. I would want them to be found quickly and returned to a place of safety and warmth and compassion. Institutions just don’t have the same reflexes or reactivity. They don’t have the same reasons to care. They don’t provide the relationships that a child needs to recover and flourish.

I will never forget the look on the face of the security guard who had found the three-year-old I had lost and who had clapped his big hand around his small one. He smiled as he watched us embrace one another after the longest five minutes of our lives. He knew he had played a vital part in protecting a vulnerable person at the time they needed it the most.

I have seen that look on the faces of many people who have cared for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I have worked on rapid-response projects that have seen family-based carers inspired, assessed, trained and ready to host in just a few weeks.

I believe that with the government’s support, hundreds more people would step up for the children who are in hotels today and welcome them into their homes.


Dr Krish Kandiah OBE, Founder and Director of Sanctuary Foundation.

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Read the most recent article written by Dr Krish Kandiah OBE - Threats of deportation will not stop dangerous Channel crossings


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