Campaigners now claim that up to 2400 unaccompanied child refugees have been subjected to the collection of sensitive data which has been shared with immigration enforcement authorities, under the Home Office’s Operation Innerste which began in 2018.
The Guardian obtained data under an Freedom of Information data request, which indicated that from 2018 until 30 June 2022, 2177 children were interviewed, had their biometric data taken and catalogued. Ahmed Aydeed, from Duncan Lewis Solicitors, commented on the operation, to the Guardian, stating that the operation thus “overreaches its authority, purpose and lacks safeguards.” More concerningly still is the fact that most children subjected to these various treatments “do not have any support during the interview and may not have anyone to advise them.” It is notable that there are no requirements in place within Operation Innerste for there to be a legal representative present during the interview or procedure. Disturbingly, the people were also (at one point) instructed to gather the contents of the children’s mobile phone. On this, the Home office commented that “the downloading of phones or devices in the possession of any child does not form a routine part of the safeguarding process.”
Whilst the program itself claims that it aims to ‘build rapport’ with the children, mostly through having the first authority figures involved, “usually the police”, carry out welfare operations and take photos. For example, one Benny Hunter, a migrant rights worker claims in a twitter thread that this raises serious concerns for vulnerable children whose welfare needs “are being put second” to the “needs of the state to police and enforce immigration rules”. Chief executive of anti-trafficking organization Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK), comments that “ECPAT UK remains concerned at the numbers of and the disproportionately high rate that child victims of trafficking and unaccompanied children go missing.”
The scheme was described to the Guardian by the Home Office as being a “welfare conversation” to create a “relationship of trust”. The Home Office stated that the police successfully found 13 children out of 30 who were still missing between April 2020 and November 2022. 17 are still missing.