Police have been collecting the sensitive data of unaccompanied child asylum seekers and sharing it with immigration enforcement, sparking fears it could be used against them for their deportation.
As part of a government operation to prevent unaccompanied migrant children being trafficked from Home Office hotels, police officers meet them for what is described as a “welfare conversation” to create “a relationship of trust”.
But during the interview, according to documents obtained by the Observer and Liberty Investigates, police collect photographs and fingerprints, and can use force to keep the child in custody.
So far the scheme, known as Operation Innerste, has collected the biometric information of 2,400 children, according to data released under freedom of information rules. The Home Office can store it for at least five years, and it can be accessed by staff while determining asylum claims. There’s no requirement to make a video recording of the initial questioning, or for an appropriate adult to be present – though one must attend when the child is fingerprinted and photographed.
It appears police were also at one time instructed to gather the contents of the children’s mobile phones. A checklist bearing Immigration Enforcement branding, published to the website of Sussex’s child protection services, states “mobile devices and any SIM cards are to be downloaded” and shared with the Home Office’s command and control unit.
The Home Office said the checklist is not current and belongs to either Sussex police or Sussex local authorities, while “the downloading of phones or devices in the possession of any child does not form a routine part of the safeguarding process”.
But Sussex police and Sussex child protection services, the local authority partnership which published the form, said the checklist belongs to the Home Office. Both denied ever using the form.
It’s not known whether any children have been subject to immigration enforcement, such as detention or removal, as a result of information collected under Operation Innerste. When asked for this data, the Home Office declined to disclose it, saying it would need to manually check the records of each individual child.
“Operation Innerste is meant to be a multi-agency response to better safeguard unaccompanied migrant children,” said Benny Hunter, youth worker and campaigner for the rights of unaccompanied child asylum seekers, who has supported a child interviewed under Innerste.
“But there are legitimate concerns about what this ‘safeguarding’ involves, when some police forces are prosecuting illegal entry and the Home Office is collecting data from these encounters, whilst seeking to undermine the right to claim asylum.”
While campaigners say it could do harm, there is little evidence to show that Operation Innerste achieves its stated aim of preventing child asylum seekers from going missing.
When asked for evidence of Innerste’s effectiveness, the Home Office said police successfully found 13 children out of 30 who went missing between April 2020 and November 2022. Seventeen remained missing.
In January, the Observer revealed that 136 children had vanished in 18 months from a Sussex hotel for asylum seekers, with 79 of them still unaccounted for. Three days later, Home Office minister Simon Murray admitted his department did not know the whereabouts of 200 children who had disappeared.
Patricia Durr, chief executive of the children’s rights organisation Every Child Protected Against Trafficking, said: “The government [should] prioritise appropriate care, accommodation and support for unaccompanied children, particularly to stop accommodating children directly in hotels where we have seen hundreds of children go missing.
“The best way to ensure children’s protection [is to refer them] immediately to children’s social care to ensure that there is a full assessment of their needs and that they are looked after safely by social workers who are trained to do so.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We make no apologies for safeguarding unaccompanied migrant children, and it is completely inappropriate to suggest that police should not be part of this process. The police conduct vital safeguarding checks for unaccompanied child migrants who arrive into the UK. Information is shared with the Home Office and local authorities to support these children’s welfare and safety and to identify potential offenders and persons likely to expose children to harm.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for modern slavery and organised immigration crime, assistant chief constable Jim Pearce, said the scheme was necessary to safeguard children. He added: “All migrant children are assumed vulnerable and will always be treated as such by police. Regular multi-agency meetings have been set up in forces to review the response to every missing migrant child who has not been found. Any child who goes missing is a huge concern for policing and all avenues are pursued to find and safeguard them.”
Source : TheGuardian