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Kent Council services for unaccompanied asylum-seeker children ‘at breaking point’

17 June 2021

Ann Collett-White

A display from St Paul’s, Bedford, to mark Refugee Week, 14-20 June

A display from St Paul’s, Bedford, to mark Refugee Week, 14-20 June

THE crisis in Kent, where the council has warned that its support services for unaccompanied asylum-seeker children (UASC) are at breaking point, is a microcosm of a “systemic unwillingness to share the number of refugees that need our support”, the refugee project officer in the diocese of Canterbury, Domenica Pecoraro, said this week.

On Tuesday, Mrs Pecoraro (Interview, 24 June 2016) said that she fully understood the position of the council, which announced last Friday that, from Monday, it would not be able to take any more asylum-seeker children, and might have to use the courts to make the Government intervene.

The Government’s recommended maximum of under-18-year-old asylum-seeker children that Kent should care for is 231; but since the beginning of the year, numbers have risen from 274 to more than 400. Coupled with the number of those who remain in the council’s care until the age of 25, the total stands at 1100.

On Thursday of last week, the Government announced changes to the National Transfer System — the mechanism by which UASC can be transferred safely from one local authority to another — including increased funding. But it remains voluntary, and last week Kent County Council announced that, unless it was made mandatory, it would “pursue further action through the courts”.

The leader of the council, Roger Gough, said: “This remains a small problem for the nation to resolve, but a huge and unreasonable responsibility for Kent.”

The current situation meant that Kent was unable to “fulfil our responsibility to act in the best interest of the child under the refugee convention because the system is so stretched”, Mrs Pecoraro said. “We are not talking only about accommodation and housing, but about one-to-one support: the social workers who are available to support these children. We are talking about the number of foster carers, the number of school placements, and also the capacity of NGOs to do their job.”

She described the situation in Kent as a microcosm of what was being seen around the world: “a systemic unwillingness to share the number of refugees that need our support. We see that in Europe, where there are certain countries who, because of their geographical positioning, take an unsustainable number of people who cannot be supported as they should be.”

The consequences for the children were traumatic, she said. “When a child arrives in the UK . . . he has been on the move for at least three years by himself. When these children arrive, they have hypothermia, they have mental-health problems, they are traumatised. . . The last thing you want for these children is to not be treated as such.”

She echoed widespread concerns about the Government’s new plan for immigration, which states that it will treat as inadmissible the asylum claims of those who arrive in the UK after travelling through another “safe” country (News, 4 June).

“It opens up what some people might see as a two-tier system for supporting people who have fled the unimaginable, just based on the means of arrival,” she said. “This is a very divisive and dangerous approach, because, in a way, it seems to be punishing people for seeking sanctuary. It also seems to say that seeking asylum is illegal — but it is not. To undermine the right to seek asylum is undermining the right to seek hope and life.”

Writing in the Church Times online this week, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, says: “We must aspire to be a country where a family, forced from their home, will not need to face potential destitution on living here, but will be given the opportunity to thrive, study, and contribute” (Comment, 18 June).

Open home. The Revd Martin Reynolds, a retired vicar in Newport, Wales, this week described opening his home to a family of six refugees.

”When refugees arrive in our country, in our town, we Christians have a duty to reach out and welcome them as brothers and sisters,” he wrote on the Church in Wales website. “Not a choice, but an obligation. What concerns me is that the British mentality is profoundly more comfortable with re-homing a dog than it is with a child with special needs or a refugee.”

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