As the refugee crisis continues to dominate headlines around the world, local authorities in Britain are in dispute with the government over the funding they receive for the care of unaccompanied children seeking asylum. They have understandable concerns – rules designed to protect children arriving in the UK may, in fact, be making it harder to look after them properly.
The London Borough of Croydon is considering legal action against cuts to asylum seeker funding grants that were implemented in March 2015. Croydon says the cuts will create a £4m hole in its budget, while the county of Kent, which borders London and includes the port of Dover, predicts a £5.5m shortfall.
The money only tells one side of the tale, of course. To put it in human terms, the Millbank induction and assessment centre in Kent was reportedly housing 99 children in early September 2015, despite having a capacity of around 50.
When I interviewed a senior social worker in Kent in late April 2015, the council was responsible for 376 unaccompanied children. That followed the arrival of 211 children from the beginning of August 2014 to the end of February 2015. By September 4, Kent was responsible for 730 unaccompanied children.
I made Freedom of Information requests to every local authority children’s services department in England to try to establish where unaccompanied children were living and how many each authority was responsible for. Some 146 of 150 authorities responded, revealing that in June to August 2015, one-fifth of authorities were not responsible for any unaccompanied children at all. A further third of authorities looked after fewer than ten.
The overwhelming majority (105) had fewer than 20 in their care and just seven authorities had more than 50. Of those, Kent (then with 376) and Croydon (412) between them looked after 28 per cent of all unaccompanied children in England.
The reason Kent and Croydon are responsible for so many children is that the Children Act 1989 provides that unaccompanied children must be taken into the care of the local authority where they are first found. While adult asylum-seekers are dispersed across the UK with no choice in where they go, lone children are legally the responsibility of the local council.
It means that as a key entry point for migrants, Dover puts Kent into a position of responsibility, while Croydon’s disproportionate role comes thanks to the fact that it houses the Home Office’s Asylum Screening Unit.
The full protection of the Children Act has been hard won for unaccompanied children. They were previously often provided with a lesser level of support than they were entitled to under the Act. As a result they were also denied “care leaving” services – those designed to provide a soft landing for vulnerable people turning 18 –- until a Supreme Court judgment established that they must be looked after.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges the authorities to treat the best interests of the child as a primary consideration in all decisions. Yet the UK entered an “immigration reservation” which it maintained from 1989 to 2008, to avoid that “best interests” principle when the child in question was subject to immigration control.
So there is an entirely reasonable reluctance to allow any dilution of the application of the Children Act to unaccompanied children. However, leaving aside any concerns about the financial well-being of the high-intake authorities, even in April 2015 it appeared doubtful that children’s best interests could be fully implemented in Kent.
My fieldwork revealed that children aged 16 and 17 had minimal prospects of entering foster care in Kent, while those in Brighton and Hove in East Sussex generally entered foster care regardless of age and remained there until at least the age of 18. A number of children I met did not know who their social worker was in order to ask for help and were relying on charities instead.
Eritrean children who I interviewed were fasting for the Orthodox Lent, but were unable to go to the nearest Eritrean Orthodox Church (in London) for the important Easter services because they could not obtain travel money. High-quality legal representatives had limited capacity because of the structure of contracts with the Legal Aid Agency.
Sharing the burden
While experts and children in Brighton and Hove described rapid access to good educational support, children in Kent faced long delays to start education or long journeys into London to reach college. Demand for educational places could not be met in Kent’s schools and colleges but the situation was being exacerbated by deliberate decisions to stop meeting unaccompanied children’s needs.
According to anecdotal evidence I have heard, the fear in Kent is that colleges which have been willing to offer English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) are dropping out under pressure from local councils over the numbers of unaccompanied children being accommodated in the area.
Given these multiple obstacles, it’s clear there is a need for some form of responsibility sharing between local authorities. But “dispersal” of the kind used for adults is not the answer. Any exception to the Children Act must (legally and morally) be tightly limited to the allocation of legal responsibility for the child at first arrival.
Proper funding is essential. Responsibility sharing models in France and Austria are ineffective largely because of disputes between the local and central government over funding for the children’s care. Previous attempts to develop responsibility sharing in the UK have foundered because of the Home Office’s failure to provide proper funding and the increase in duties towards children in care.
Whether voluntary or compulsory, responsibility sharing is crucial to the best interests of unaccompanied children. Proper funding, tailored to proper fulfilment of all of the duties set out in the Children Act, is the only way to achieve this.