A BBC journalist has sparked a backlash after he suggested that young refugees are "willingly trafficked" to the UK with the promise of work.
Mark Easton, the BBC's home editor, was discussing a letter sent by more than 100 organisations to prime minister Rishi Sunak, calling for an independent inquiry into how more than 200 asylum-seeking children have gone “missing” from Home Office hotels.
Describing the situation as “a child protection scandal”, the charities warned that the children – many of whom had been living in southern seaside towns – were at risk of exploitation.
Easton highlighted how nine out of 10 unaccompanied children in UK hotels are Albanian males who "claim to be 16 or 17".
But he then appeared to claim that many youngsters arriving in the UK were doing so at their own choosing.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "These young people are often trafficked, sometimes willingly to be honest. They come knowing that they are going to be employed by criminal gangs in the UK.
"They disappear from the hotels as soon as they are able and they are often found working in car washes or cannabis farms."
Zehrah Hasan, advocacy director for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), told Yahoo News UK that Easton's comments were "shocking and disgraceful".
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"We are talking about children here – kids who deserve the same love, care and protection as we would want for our own children.
"It is shocking and disgraceful that, this morning, the BBC implied these children were somehow guilty of their own exploitation. It is not possible to be ‘willingly trafficked’.
"We know that predatory networks target vulnerable children, luring them in with false promises, and then subjecting them to forced labour – with physical abuse, no pay and degrading working conditions all commonplace."
Zoe Gardner, who works to protect refugees at the European Network on Stateless, tweeted: "Sixteen year olds are still children to whom the government has a duty of care.
"Kids who have been tricked into thinking they’ll have a well-paid job in the UK being trafficked to work in modern slavery on cannabis farms or other illegal businesses is not their fault."
She added: "I am absolutely reeling. Mark Easton usually displays some semblance of knowing what he’s talking about. That intervention was shocking."
Labour MP Debbie Abrahams wrote: "How can you possibly say someone is 'willingly' trafficked? Especially if they're a young person? Really unfortunate use of words.
Lawyer Gemma Abbott described Eaton's comments as "absolutely appalling", while Nadia Inha, who works for the JCWI, tweeted: "So disgusted by coverage @BBCr4today – making out that children are ‘willingly’ trafficked here, trying to make out that Albanian teenage boys aren’t really vulnerable.
"These are CHILDREN. This government narrative they’re repeating is disgraceful."
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick told MPs in the House of Commons on Tuesday that more than 4,600 unaccompanied children have been accommodated in hotels since July 2021.
He added: “There have been 440 missing occurrences and 200 children remain missing, 13 of whom are under 16 years of age and only one of whom is female.”
The letter sent to the prime minister this morning condemns the government’s “reported failures to protect vulnerable children from harm”, and highlights how housing young refugees in hotels was intended to be used only as a short-term emergency option.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said there is a “pattern” of young asylum seekers being trafficked to the UK before criminals, likely to be from the same gangs that brought them to the UK, pick them up from outside Home Office hotels.
Cooper told the BBC Breakfast programme on Thursday: “The Home Office is taking no serious action on this and I do think the Conservatives have just turned their backs on this serious action that’s needed to go after the criminal gangs and that’s what Labour’s saying we will make a priority.”
It came as Labour said it would set up a new National Crime Agency (NCA) unit of more than 100 officers to pursue criminal prosecutions and track down and seize the assets of the criminal gangs.
Cooper added: “There is a pattern here – around 40% of those missing children are from one hotel alone.
"There is a pattern, and it is most likely the same criminal gangs that are operating that have brought the children and young people there in the first place and are then picking them up again.”
Yahoo News UK has contacted the Refugee Council, Refugee Action and the BBC for a response to Easton's remarks.