The “routine” housing of unaccompanied child asylum seekers in hotels is unlawful, the High Court has ruled.
The charity Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT) brought legal action against the Home Office over the practice.
The High Court said children could be placed in hotels for “very short periods in true emergency situations” but not “systematically or routinely”.
The Home Office said it had “no option” but to temporarily use hotels.
A spokeswoman said: “In light of today’s judgment, we will continue to work with Kent County Council and local authorities across the UK to ensure suitable local authority placements are provided for unaccompanied children, in line with their duties.”
The Home Office and Department for Education had opposed the legal challenge, saying the use of hotels for unaccompanied children was lawful and “a matter of necessity”.
More than 5,400 unaccompanied child asylum seekers have been housed in hotels since July 2021, of whom 32% were under 16.
Concerns have been raised after more than 400 children went missing from these hotels, with charities warning some are being groomed by criminal gangs.
Most children seeking asylum in the UK arrive by small boats in Kent, where the council has a legal duty to look after them.
In a ruling on Thursday, Mr Justice Chamberlain said: “From December 2021 at the latest, the practice of accommodating children in hotels, outside local authority care, was both systematic and routine and had become an established part of the procedure for dealing with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
“From that point on, the home secretary’s provision of hotel accommodation for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children exceeded the proper limits of her powers and was unlawful.”
He also said Kent County Council was acting unlawfully in failing to accommodate and look after unaccompanied child asylum seekers.
“In ceasing to accept responsibility for some newly-arriving unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, while continuing to accept other children into its care, Kent County Council chose to treat some unaccompanied asylum-seeking children differently from, and less favourably, than other children, because of their status as asylum seekers,” he said.
In 2021 Kent County Council refused to accept any more unaccompanied child asylum seekers, warning its resources were overwhelmed.
Following this the Home Office decided to house those children in hotels on a temporary basis while they waited to be moved to local authority care.
The challenge by ECPAT was heard in London, alongside similar claims brought by Brighton and Hove City Council and Kent County Council.
Brighton and Hove City Council, which has also seen children go missing from Home Office hotels in its area, welcomed the ruling.
Council leader Bella Sankey said: “[Home Secretary] Suella Braverman must now urgently enforce this system so that the hotels can be emptied and all local authorities can play their part in safeguarding children.”
The court heard that earlier this month 154 children remained missing from hotels, including a 12-year-old.
The judge said: “Neither Kent County Council nor the home secretary knows where these children are, or whether they are safe or well.
“There is evidence that some have been persuaded to join gangs seeking to exploit them for criminal purposes.”
In response to the ruling, Patricia Durr, chief executive of ECPAT, said: “It remains a child protection scandal that so many of the most vulnerable children remain missing and at risk of significant harm as a consequence of these unlawful actions by the secretary of state and Kent County Council.”
Asylum seekers are often accommodated in hotels while the Home Office decides whether they can stay in the country but this can be a lengthy process.
The Home Office has said it wants to cut down on the use of expensive hotels for asylum seekers and refugees, which costs the country around £7m a day.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We have always maintained that the best place for unaccompanied children to be accommodated is within a local authority.
“However, due to the unsustainable rise in illegal Channel crossings, the government has had no option but to accommodate young people in hotels on a temporary basis while placements with local authorities are urgently found.”
Source: BBC News