Deportation fears after police collect asylum seeking children’s biometric data

Metropolitan Police officers walking a beat on patrol in Fulham, London
Police collect children's biometric data, which is then shared with the Home Office

Reports Mirren Gidda, for Liberty Investigates. Edited by Eleanor Rose, Liberty Investigates editor and Steve Bloomfield, Head of News at the Observer.


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.

Operation Innerste is a multi-agency safeguarding initiative developed in 2017, aimed at stopping unaccompanied migrant children being trafficked from Home Office hotels, foster care and other local authority-arranged accommodation. Police officers meet with children for a “welfare conversation” as soon as possible after being notified of their presence, to create “a relationship of trust”.

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 has collected the biometric information of 2,400 children, according to information released under FOI. 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 both 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 their information being 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.

Extracts from a form relating to Operation Innerste
A checklist published to the website of Sussex child protection services suggested police download the contents of children's phones

“Operation Innerste is meant to be a multiagency 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 support the idea that Operation Innerste achieves its key stated aim of preventing child asylum seekers from going missing.

Since its creation in 2017, the effectiveness of the operation – which foresees that police can access the data from the interview when a child goes missing – has never been evaluated. Documents show it was rolled out across 34 police forces based on a three-month pilot run by Hertfordshire Constabulary that tracked only six children.

A spokesperson for Hertfordshire Police said it was “right” to tackle any signs of trafficking. “The initial three-month Hertfordshire pilot scheme in 2017 was judged to have improved protection for a number of unaccompanied migrant children.

“It involved Children’s Services and they were called out to act as appropriate adult throughout the process, with welfare discussions in the best interests of safeguarding the child.”

When asked by reporters for evidence of Innerste’s effectiveness, the Home Office said police successfully found 13 children out of a group 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 one hotel for asylum seekers in Sussex, with 79 children still unaccounted for. Three days later, the Immigration Minister admitted the Home Office did not know the whereabouts of 200 children who had disappeared from hotels.

In a FOI response sent to Liberty Investigates and the Observer, the Home Office said three of England and Wales’ largest forces – the Metropolitan Police, West Midlands Police (WMP) and Greater Manchester Police (GMP) – have suspended their involvement in Operation Innerste at various times.

"The Home Office is collecting data [while] seeking to undermine the right to claim asylum"

Benny Hunter, youth worker and campaigner for the rights of unaccompanied child asylum seekers

The Met confirmed to reporters that it had done while reviewing Innerste’s “effectiveness”. GMP said it had not suspended the scheme, while WMP could not find record of it. The National Police Chiefs’ Council, which coordinates policing, states its goal is for all 43 police forces in England and Wales to sign up to the operation.

Patricia Durr, CEO 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.”

This investigation was published in partnership with the Observer.