Original article from Kent Live
Fears have been raised that unaccompanied child refugees arriving in Dover will be “detained” at a controversial facility.
It comes after Kent County Council announced on Thursday (June 10) that it no longer has capacity to care for unaccompanied children arriving on small boats.
The announcement has left some of the most vulnerable people making their way to the UK in a state of limbo, unable to be housed in safe and secure accommodation.
Council leader Roger Gough said he was “profoundly saddened” at the situation – the second time it has arisen in the last year.
Under the previous National Transfer Scheme, the government would help local councils deal with the administrative and practical side of housing asylum seekers, and allowed for transfers from areas like Kent – which see a large number of entries – to other parts of the country.
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However, this scheme was disrupted by COVID-19 and funding issues. For the last two years Kent's ability to take care of these vulnerable young people, many of whom will be granted asylum in the UK, has been stretched to "breaking point".
Last week Cllr Gough blamed the government for not taking action, adding that the council's support resources have become "significantly overwhelmed".
The maximum government recommended number of under 18-year-old, unaccompanied refugees in Kent is 231.
But since the beginning of the year this number has risen to more than 400.
Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) works with vulnerable children seeking asylum in the county and knows first-hand just what it takes to ensure their safety and well-being.
Spokesman Bridget Chapman told KentLive: "We have, this year as we did last year, a great deal of sympathy with Kent County Council, because it's an issue they've been flagging [to officials in Westminster] for some time.
"Under the National Transfer Scheme, the responsibility for these amazing young people was spread around the country.
"There simply aren't enough resources in Kent, even in terms of simple things like college places."
Kent Intake Unit
Kent County Council confirmed on Sunday afternoon (June 13) that no new resolution has been reached with the Home Office and it would no longer be able to take in unaccompanied migrant children from Monday (June 14).
Any new arrivals will stay at the Home Office’s Kent Intake Unit (KIU) in Dover while a permanent place is sought for them with another local authority, officials said.
This has led to fears over their possible “detention” at the KIU, which was among sites criticised by inspectors last year for holding children for “far too long and often overnight” – in one case for more than 66 hours.
The Home Office says unaccompanied children are “always prioritised” and stay at the KIU for as short a period as possible.
But the move has been consistently slammed by refugee charities, who say that Border Force provide an inappropriate support structure for those who have fled to the UK from war and conflict.
Reacting to the news, Bella Sankey, director of charity Detention Action, told PA: “It is of deep concern that the Home Office is going to start detaining traumatised refugee children at our border.
“The Home Secretary (Priti Patel) has the statutory power to require local authorities to take responsibility for these children but she declines to bring it into force and to provide adequate funding, preferring instead to hold children – indefinitely – in a deeply inappropriate detention facility including with adult strangers.
“We believe these detentions are unlawful and are currently exploring our options to challenge this practice.”
Ms Sankey said that while children are usually taken to the KIU, this is generally a “logistical process” that should take no more than a few hours.
“Now, like last summer, they will be detained for days, possibly weeks”, as Kent County Council is unable to take them in, she added.
Ms Chapman, speaking on the issue last year, said: "The National Transfer system needs to be reinstated immediately so children can be transferred to a local authority, who are the appropriate people to be looking after them.
KentLive uses the term people when referring to those who cross the Channel and arrive on our shores.
That's because, regardless of their status at the point of entry, those moving from one country to the other are human beings.
You will have seen them commonly referred to as migrants. This is not incorrect.
The UN Migration Agency defines a migrant as – any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a state away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of the person’s legal status, whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary, what the causes for the movement are, or what the length of the stay is.
KentLive also refers to people in these circumstances as refugees.
The UN definition of refugees is – people who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalised violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.
"With all due respect to Border Force, they don't have the skill set or the experience to safeguard children.
"They need to be looked after by qualified social workers. It's not fair to the children and it's not fair to Border Force either.
"At the end of the day they're children and children need to be protected."
What reforms to the system could mean
It appears that these reforms and actions may already be in motion. The Minister for Immigration Compliance and Justice Chris Philp announced major reforms were planned for the National Transfer Scheme last week.
"I am grateful for the many local authorities that support a significant number of vulnerable young asylum seekers," he said.
"But the current system has not been working as intended with significant pressures being placed on particular areas.
"Caring for unaccompanied asylum seeking children is a national responsibility, which is why we are introducing a system that will ensure that these children and young people continue to receive the support they need whilst also ensuring a fairer distribution across the UK."
This comes ahead of planned reforms touted by the Home Office as a means to "fix the broken system welcoming those most in need through safe and legal routes, while preventing abuse."
Though the reforms to the transfer system will likely be welcomed by Kent County Council and Kent-based activists concerned over the burden placed on the county, many are critical of the broader reforms.
Critics say they will further complicate and amplify – rather than reduce – irregular or 'illegal' entrance into the UK.
Bridget, speaking on June 11, simply said the reforms "won't make any difference."
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"They will mean that anyone who arrives via an irregular route will not be able to claim asylum status.
"There's a common misconception that people arriving in dinghies are arriving illegally – but if you come with the intent to claim asylum, that is legal under international law.
"Now we've left the European Union, people that have come through Europe can't be returned to mainland Europe, and we are going to end up with a lot of people in this country who are in limbo.
"Although they might have valid asylum claims [under new laws] they won't be accepted – they can't be sent anywhere else either, they can't work, they can't contribute, and that to me is just a ludicrous suggestion."
Though there seems to be a solution to Kent's ability to shelter unaccompanied children on the way with the restarting of the National Transfer Scheme, it is likely just the tip of the iceberg of what new reforms may change, and what new challenges may emerge.
A Home Office spokesman said: “The Home Office is grateful for the role Kent County Council has played in supporting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and we have provided them with substantial operational support, including transferring those in need of support to other local authorities in the UK.
“We recently announced vital updates to the National Transfer Scheme to alleviate pressures on certain areas and continue to work closely across Government on provision for unaccompanied minors.”
The spokesman added that responsibility for taking in unaccompanied children is to be more evenly distributed across the UK as part of updates to the scheme.