LONDON – Britain's government acted unlawfully when it routinely housed newly arrived unaccompanied child asylum seekers in hotels, the High Court ruled Thursday.
A child protection charity brought legal action against Britain's Home Office and local authorities in Kent, on England's southern coast, over their treatment of unaccompanied migrant children, saying the temporary housing arrangements deny the youngsters the statutory child protection safeguards to which they are entitled.
Justice Martin Chamberlain ruled that authorities breached legal duties of care owed to all children who require looking after, irrespective of their immigration status.
“Ensuring the safety and welfare of children with no adult to look after them is among the most fundamental duties of any civilized state," the judge said.
Every Child Protected Against Trafficking, or ECPAT, the charity that brought the lawsuit, said hundreds of children had gone missing, with many potentially trafficked for criminal exploitation, as a result of the failures by government.
The judge said Home Office officials had been accommodating children in hotels for over two years.
Placing asylum-seeking children in hotels for “very short periods in true emergency situations” was acceptable, he said, but “it cannot be used systematically or routinely in circumstances where it is intended, or functions in practice, as a substitute for local authority care.”
The Home Office and Department for Education had opposed the legal challenges, saying the hotel use was “a matter of necessity.”
“It remains a child protection scandal that so many of the most vulnerable children remain missing at risk of significant harm as a consequence of these unlawful actions by the Secretary of State and Kent County Council,” said Patricia Durr, the charity's chief executive.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Conservative government has pledged to crackdown on asylum-seekers arriving by small boats that make the risky journey across the English Channel from northern France. He has stressed that “stopping the boats" is his key priority in office.
More than 45,000 people arrived in Britain by crossing the Channel last year, and so far this year more than 12,000 others have made the crossing.
Earlier this month Parliament passed the government's controversial Illegal Migration Bill, which will bar anyone who reaches the U.K. by unauthorized means from claiming asylum. Under the new law, officials can detain and then deport refugees and migrants to their home country or a "safe third country,” such as Rwanda.
The bill has been widely criticized by rights groups as unethical and in violation of the U.K.'s international human rights obligations.
Critics have also condemned the government over a huge backlog of asylum claims, which has left scores of people in hotels or other unsuitable accommodation while they wait for their claims to be processed.