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Unaccompanied refugee children at risk after Kent County Council declares exhausted capacity

Kent County Council (KCC) has announced that it no longer has the resources to house any more unaccompanied child refugees.

Already operating far beyond maximum capacity, the council presently cares for around 400 unaccompanied refugees despite the government’s own recommendations concluding that the maximum should be 231.

It marks the second time in under a year that the council has been forced to refuse unaccompanied children refugees, having to do so in August 2020 after it was deemed the ‘safe capacity’ had been reached.

The government’s National Transfer Scheme (NTS), which has been operational since 2016, has been repeatedly blamed for the steady increase in the number of unaccompanied children in Kent. The scheme is entirely voluntary, allowing many local authorities to refuse to admit sufficient numbers, with critics decrying the government’s failure to invoke its power to mandate.

Roger Gough, leader of the KCC, said that:

“I am profoundly saddened to be in this unthinkable position once again in such a short period of time. Despite warnings, and continued dialogue with the government, Kent’s resources are again significantly overwhelmed.”

Fears now exist regarding the future living conditions of unaccompanied children arriving in Dover. Due to the lack of a new resolution, any prospective arrivals will be staying in the Home Office’s Kent Intake Unit (KIU); a detention facility where the treatment of children was labeled “a matter of concern” by an unannounced inspection, with minors often held for “far too long and often overnight”. Inspectors found that 29% of unaccompanied children at KIU were held for more than 24 hours and, in one case, a 15-year-old boy was held for more than 66 hours.

Bella Sankey, director of the NGO Detention Action, said that her organisation is currently exploring their options to challenge the detentions, adding that:

“The Home Secretary 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.”

The Home Office has rebuked such claims, with a spokesperson stating that:

“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”

The inevitable increase in crossings during the summer, when the weather is calmer and more predictable, has intensified calls for the government to take action. According to data published by the KCC, the number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children arriving in Dover has consistently peaked between June and August over the last 3 years.

The Home Office must ensure that unaccompanied refugee children are not forcibly held in environments which are unsuitable and inappropriate. The imposition of a mandated and properly funded scheme are among the substantial changes required to prevent further incursions on the rights of vulnerable refugee children in the British care system.

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