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Unaccompanied asylum seeking children

The privilege of being a member of ADCS, a member of our Council of Reference and the chair of the ADCS Migrant Families Taskforce means that I have access, on your behalf, to senior colleagues in central government departments and on occasion access to experiences that may not usually be available. In mid-July, together with our Association’s Chief Officer, Esther Kavanagh Dixon, I travelled to Dover in Kent to see at first hand the experience of children arriving in the UK on “small boats” without a parent or other legal carer and who are claiming asylum.

We have come to refer to these children as unaccompanied asylum seeking children and increasingly using the acronym “UASC”. Language is important and I have a strong belief that describing any individual, or group of individuals, especially but not exhaustively, people with protected characteristics or vulnerabilities using an acronym risks, amongst other things, depersonalising them and overlooking their individual identities. I wonder how many people on that busy Clapham Omnibus would either recognise the acronym or be able to say who it describes? First and foremost, these were and are children, a point clearly stated in the High Court judgement of 27 July 2023, more on that later…

Esther and I started our experience, in Kent, as the children, young people, adults, and families arriving do; on the quayside at Western Jet Foil at the top of the jetty they climb up and onto dry land. This place of arrival is secure, with high screened fencing and consists of several temporary structures. The site processes new arrivals quickly offering essentials, including food and water, dry clothing and includes initial security and health checks. Adults are processed quickly and transferred away from the site to places like Manston Asylum Centre for further processing. Children and families and those self-identifying as under 18 years remained dockside for further assessment, including a brief age assessment by Home Office employed social workers. It is important to note that at this stage this process is not a full “Merton Compliant” age assessment.

On the day we visited there were about 80 people in this latter group looking tired and anxious. If a decision is reached that an unaccompanied individual is considered to be a child, they are swiftly transferred to the Home Office’s Kent Intake Unit to begin the process of claiming asylum with the aim of officially remaining in this country. At this stage they are not yet “looked after” under the Children Act 1989. We visited this secure provision and saw children waiting to either be transferred to the Reception and Safe Care Service (RSCS) run by Kent County Council or alternatively to a Home Office commissioned hotel.

Any child transferred to the former becomes “looked after” under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 by Kent County Council, while the latter does not. The RSCS prioritises taking under 16s, and those with particular vulnerabilities. The majority of children who arrive in Kent are males aged 16 and 17 years and the decision as to whether they become “looked after” or not is often based on supply and demand. We finished our visit at one of Kent’s two supported accommodation centres, which form part of the RSCS. We met care staff and some of the children being “looked after”. Children stay in the care of the RSCS while waiting to be transferred, via the now mandatory National Transfer Scheme (NTS) to the care of a local authority who will care for them whilst they await their asylum claim to be processed. I was struck by how quiet all three settings were, despite the number of children and young people there on the day, it suggested to me fear, relief and a desire to comply. Colleagues working in the service confirmed this view saying children rarely went missing, complied with rules, positively engaged with activities, and that relationships with neighbours were, in the main, good.

Since our visit much of the process described above has been judged unlawful by Mr Justice Chamberlain in The High Court, who found that the Home Secretary’s systematic and routine accommodation of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in hotels was unlawful, and that arrangements agreed between Kent County Council and the Home Office to receive into Kent’s care a maximum number of such children, are also unlawful. It was further ruled that Kent County Council owes a duty of care under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 to all such children arriving in Kent, regardless of the number of children and young people already in their care. The full judgement can be found here -

There are clearly significant and ongoing implications for our colleagues in Kent County Council as a key point of arrival, for those LAs where Home Office commissioned hotels are located and for the entire sector as ‘receiving’ LAs who must comply with the NTS. Local authorities are subject to a direction under section 72(3) of the Immigration Act 2016 and are under a mandatory duty to comply with the NTS in accordance with the judgment. The judgement makes clear that: “If there is any breach of the timescales in the NTS Protocol, the primary breach is on the part of local authorities, not the Home Secretary.”

There are inherent, systemic challenges with the current NTS and we all know about the growing placement sufficiency challenges. ADCS continues to actively engage with government departments to try and find a sustainable solution to the way in which the system responds to the needs of children and young people arriving in this country fleeing desperate situations, in search of safety and dreaming of a better future.

However, this judgement is clear and will require all of us to act in a way modelled by those children and young people we saw during our visit, respecting and complying with the protocols and process. We have a moral purpose to support colleagues in Kent, and the children in their care, and now there is the legal imperative to do so.

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