Care places for unaccompanied child migrants in the English county of Kent, which is where many migrants who cross the Channel first land, have reached capacity. Authorities in Kent have refused to take any more children prompting the British government to house them in a much-criticized facility.
After the arrival of several thousand so-called "Channel migrants" in the county of Kent this year, local authorities say they have no more space to offer unaccompanied child migrants adequate care facilities.
The announcement by Kent County Council (KCC) last week prompted the UK government to designate an existing Home Office facility, already under fire from pro-migrant charities and criticized in a 2020 report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons, as a new holding center for the young migrants.
Unaccompanied child migrants who land in the county of Kent will now be taken to the Kent Intake Unit (KIU) at the Port of Dover, at the eastern end of the British south coast. The facility is run by the British Home Office (interior ministry) and the children will stay there until care provision can be found for them in other UK counties.
Sometimes this can take a while, as the system to redistribute unaccompanied migrants works on a voluntary basis, which has led to worries that the child migrants will be held in what have been described as inadequate conditions for longer than is necessary, infringing their rights and risking the mental well-being of already vulnerable children. The Home Office has defended its use of the facility, telling the BBC that children will be held there for "as short a time as possible."
Not only did KCC announce its refusal to take on any more young migrants but it also threatened legal action on Monday, June 14, against the interior minister, Priti Patel, for placing "extreme pressure" on its services.
This is the second time that KCC has declared its facilities to be "overwhelmed by the number of unaccompanied minors arriving by boat," reports BBC.
The leader of KCC, Roger Gough, said that from Monday, June 14, KCC would "no longer be able to meet our statutory duty to safely care for the children we support and can therefore accept no further new unaccompanied migrant children until sufficient transfers have been made outside of Kent bringing our numbers back to safe levels."
KCC said there were currently more than 400 children in its care, exceeding the government's recommended maximum number of 231.
At the moment, transfers of asylum seekers in need of care are made on a voluntary basis. KCC said not enough other county councils were offering their help and that the voluntary scheme was patently not working. Gough told the Guardian, "if every other local authority in the UK were to take two or three under-18-year-olds who arrive at Dover into their care, Kent’s numbers would reduce to the council’s safe allocation immediately."
KIU: 'Not suitable'
The facility designated to host arriving unaccompanied children has already been under fire from ciritcs. In September last year, the HM Inspectorate of Prisons carried out an inspection at the KIU following two unannounced visits. The report, published in October 2020, said that the facilities in which migrants were housed were "poor" and that in general the Home Office had showed a "lack of planning" in its provision for migrants arriving in Kent from across the Channel.
According to the HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the KIU and another facility called Frontier House "were not suitable for very lengthy detentions." Even so, they said that "some detainees" at the time were "held for more than two days in rooms with no sleeping facilities, showers or access to the open air."
In fact, the report found that detainees slept on "thin matresses, mats and beanbags on the floor, which were not cleaned between uses." Water fountains had been taken out of the rooms due to COVID-19 but bottled water was reportedly available on request. The rooms were also "often dirty," noted the report and staff told them "it was difficult to ensure the facilities were cleaned as a result of the number held."
Detainees were given wash kits but there was only one shared shower at KIU which was "mostly kept locked." Staff told the inspectors that was so they could "supervise its use."
'Weaknesses in child safeguarding procedures' identified
The inspectors also "identified weaknesses in child safeguarding procedures" and in one case found a child had been mistakenly taken to a detention center reserved for adults. The inspectorate said that overall the Home Office lacked proper contingency planning. "Just because numbers are unprecedented," read the report, "that does not mean they are unpredictable, or cannot be planned for. We look forward to seeing a properly coordinated plan that shows how conditions will be improved in [the] future to meet fluctuating demand."
Prior to the visit and report in 2020, the KIU had not been inspected since August 2016, the Inspectorate of Prisons noted. At that time though, the Inspectorate had made 13 recommendations in relation to the KIU and Frontier House. They found, four years later, that only one recommendation had been achieved, four were "partially achieved and eight were not achieved."
Over the summer of 2020, the report noted that 1,856 people had passed through KIU. They noted that "detainees were received respectfully by detention staff at both facilities." However, initial interviews were often conducted "using telephone interpreting" and were "not always private or sufficiently thorough." The report also noted that "abridged asylum screening interviews regularly took place in the early hours of the morning, which reduced the likelhood that detainees would disclose safeguarding needs."
For example, the report picked out the case of a 15-year-old boy who had arrived in the UK in the afternoon of one day and was given a welfare interview at 4:55 am the next morning. The Inspectorate said that interview records they looked over were "perfunctory and demonstrated little meaningful exploration of the children’s welfare."
'Forced to wait'
In the case of unaccompanied minors, the Inspectorate found that they were often forced to wait "long periods for social workers to arrive." At the time, the report noted that was because KCC was again overwhelmed with the numbers of migrants who began arriving from early summer 2020. On average, the report noted, they were held at KIU for "just over 17 hours, which was longer than the average for adults."
Electronic record keeping was also found to be poor in the children’s cases. Detainees were deprived access in all the facilities to email, video calling or social networks, making it difficult for them to inform any family members or friends of their whereabouts.
One of the concerns the Inspectorate report raised was that KIU’s facilities were "unsuitable for the large number of detainees," being processed by the center. There was "no ready access to showers or lockable toilets with seats and lids." The hygiene facilities were particularly poor "in view of the risks posed by COVID-19."
Detainees unable to 'freely exercise their legal rights'
The report also noted that although the Refugee Council had stepped in to provide children’s services for unaccompanied minors when KCC said it had reached capacity, some children were sent out to dispersal accommodation with no contact being made to local social services in the new region of the UK. The report gave the example of a 12-year-old boy who was sent to hotel accommodation in London with his 18-year-old brother "with no indication of contact [having been] made with local authority social services departments."
The report also found that some detainees were not being supported enough by the procedures and staff to "freely exercise their legal rights" and that it wasn’t always clearly explained to them why they were being held in the first place.
Bridget Chapman from Kent Refugee Action Network told the BBC that it was "abhorrent to keep children in these kinds of conditions." The Refugee Council’s Helen Johnson, their head of children’s services, also told the BBC that the lengthy detention times whilst provision could be found for the unaccompanied children left them in a "state of limbo and uncertainty."
Bella Sankey, director of the charity Detention Action, also spoke out about the government’s new policy. Sankey told the BBC that "it’s of deep concern that the Home Office will start detaining traumatized refugee children at our border."
On June 11, Sankey posted on Twitter, saying that the Home Office’s detention of children as they arrive in the UK is "unlawful" and that Detention Action stood ready to "take action" again, referring to the legal action that they took in 2020 about this kind of process.
Sankey said that instead of detaining people, the British authorities should look at creating a "safe asylum route to the UK for those who reach France."