The Government is failing unaccompanied child refugees

'When unaccompanied children arrive on our shores to seek asylum, they are vulnerable and need our support.'

Refugees on a small boat

Hannah Clare is the Green Party Deputy Leader of Brighton and Hove City Council and Chair of the Children, Young People & Skills Committee

When unaccompanied children arrive on our shores to seek asylum, they are vulnerable and need our support. They have often experienced real trauma. Yet the Government is failing to ensure that these children have access to secure homes. 

As the lead councillor for Children and Young People in Brighton and Hove, I am proud to say that Brighton and Hove Council welcomes and offers sanctuary to refugees and children who have arrived in the UK fleeing war, persecution and climate change. 

Yet the Home Office is undermining our attempts to support these children. 

When unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASCs) arrive in the UK having crossed the channel, they are usually placed in an “Intake Centre” in Kent, which is meant to be a temporary place for them to be held until they can be moved to a local authority that can care for them. 

Brighton and Hove has stepped up in making space for these children so they can have a proper home, but other councils have not. This has led to a shortage of places where UASCs can receive the support they need, and meant more and more children are kept in inadequate temporary accommodation. 

In response to the lack of places for UASCs, the Home Office has placed them in hotels on the South Coast, and they have done so with very little regard for the wellbeing of the children. A series of examples shows this. 

In July this year, the Government placed UASCs in a hotel in Hove as an extension of the Kent Intake Centre. They did so with less than 24 hours’ notice to us as a local council and with no consultation. As a council we reacted in horror – these children should be provided with secure accommodation and the chance to rebuild their lives, not trapped in hotels.

The Home Office responded to our concerns with assurances that they were committed to closing the site, and apologised for the way the process was conducted. Yet less than 6 months later they did exactly the same thing again, commissioning a second hotel for UASCs in the city, again with no notice or consultation. 

There are now at least 3 other hotels operating as extensions of the Kent Intake Centre on the south coast, alongside the intake centre itself. As of December 2021, up to 120 UASCs can be placed into these hotels our city at any one time prior to transfer. 

Commissioning hotels to temporarily house these vulnerable children is not how support is best provided. Hotel placements that bypass local councils not only let down vulnerable children, but also block local communities and voluntary groups from having an effective response.

For those following the Home Office’s management of refugees in this country for a while, we could have perhaps predicted the situation we are in. The Government has repeatedly failed to create a system that would ensure responsibilities for care are shared across the country.  

Under Government rules, when unaccompanied children arrive on our shores, authorities over 0.07% of their children-in-care population can ask other authorities  to take on their care, under what is called the National Transfer Scheme. Many of the councils needing to refer to this scheme to find placements for children are on the South Coast, where a large majority of UASCs arrive.  

Yet taking these UASCs into care is voluntary and many local authorities are not meeting the Government’s suggested statistical quota of 0.07% of their child population. Brighton & Hove City Council has continued to meet and exceed its quota, but other councils are refusing to step up.

Instead of addressing this, ministers continue to insist on voluntary arrangements for councils, giving them the option of whether they will support UASCs. 

What this amounts to is allowing primarily Conservative-led county councils to shirk their responsibilities and opt-out of providing care. 

We firmly believe that all councils should play their part in supporting refugee children and continue to campaign for proper resources to respond to need and for a mandatory scheme.  

In a desperate attempt to salvage their failing policy, the Home Office has now temporarily made this rota mandatory. Yet loopholes still remain, with councils given two weeks to opt out. And the mandatory policy is only going to cover the placement of around 650 UASCs. After which, the creaking voluntary scheme would return. This brief change to the system does little to guarantee long-term support for vulnerable children, and means councils already taking UASCs are still facing future pressures on services. 

Even still, the answer lies beyond a mandatory scheme. The challenges for local authorities providing children’s social care – and more broadly, placements – are well documented. Many councils reject calls to take UASCs because the financial support needed, against the backdrop of high costs for children’s placements – is already too much for over-stretched budgets to bear. 

If the Government are to ensure the right level of care is even available in other areas, they must work faster to address the underlying issues in caring for looked after children, regardless of where they are from, and to help advocate for our shared responsibilities to the vulnerable.  

Beyond this, they also have to face up to the facts. Refugees will continue to arrive in this country – and it will only get more extreme due to the impacts of climate change and continued conflict. If they want to ensure long-term sustainability, the UK Government must also work with other governments to deal with the underlying causes of young refugees arriving on our shores, and put the resources and policy in place to ensure that all children are treated with care, dignity and respect. 

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