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The increase in asylum seeking children

Alison O’Sullivan | ADCS President | Director for Children and Young People, Kirklees Council

There has been a lot of media coverage recently about the sharp increase in numbers of people arriving in Kent from French ports.

What has perhaps been less prominent in the coverage is that almost a third of those arriving are unaccompanied asylum seeking children. Most of these children are 15, 16 or 17, but some are as young as 12. This is deeply concerning as all of these children are extremely vulnerable.

Many have lost those closest to them and have been forced to flee from atrocities in their home countries. And all of them have made dangerous journeys through several countries to arrive here. During the course of these journeys, they have been at risk of abuse and exploitation and their lives have been genuinely in danger.

In response, Kent are increasing their capacity to undertake initial assessments to try and make sure that the immediate needs and vulnerabilities for those arriving are understood and taken care of. But the council have exhausted their capacity to house and care for the volume of children and young people arriving. It must be understood that this is a national issue and not just an issue for Kent.

Local authorities up and down the country have stepped in to offer help. Wherever they can, people have offered places with foster carers or children’s homes. This includes my own authority in Kirklees, where we have found placements for two young people from Eritrea.

At the same time, the Department for Education, the Home Office and local authorities are in deep discussion about a long-term and sustainable plan for the future. So that we can ensure we meet the longer-term needs of the children and young people.

But this is a complex area. The way in which immigration legislation and children’s legislation interact can create tensions. Local authorities have a clear responsibility to care for children with no family and, as Councillor David Simmonds highlighted in his thoughtful comments on the Radio 4 Today programme, they also have a moral and statutory responsibility to support the children of destitute families.

Of course, providing the right humanitarian response can also be costly. And there are many factors that we need to carefully consider. Many of these vulnerable youngsters become eligible for after-care support. And as immigration decisions can take a long time the future for these children can be uncertain for several years. Some can achieve academic success and secure a place at university but then be denied permission to settle in this country. In these circumstances, the local authority has responsibility for the young person’s best interests - and this creates a real dilemma.

There will be much to debate about the right way forward but, as we consider our approach, we must remember that these young people are not just numbers. Each one has their own story and each one has individual needs. Particularly as we consider what kind of sustainable national approach is needed, we need to think about their sense of connection and belonging to local communities and how best we can link them with others from their homeland who are living in this country.

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