Channel crossings: Child asylum seekers held at Border Force processing centre amid 'preventable chaos'

Government refuses to say if children will be held beyond 24-hour legal limit as charities raise concerns

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 18 August 2020 22:21 BST

Children arriving on boats over the English Channel are being held by the Border Force in a migrant “processing” centre after local authorities ran out of capacity.

Kent County Council had warned for months that it did not have the resources to safely house the rising number of young asylum seekers crossing to Britain.

But officials said that promises made by the Home Office “had not materialised” even as the government hailed new agreements with France and created the post of “clandestine Channel threat commander”.

This is a huge challenge for Kent, but a relatively small challenge to solve nationally, and should have been resolved before now,” said Roger Gough, the leader of Kent council.

“The stark reality today is that, despite my conversations with the Home Office alerting them that Kent expected to reach safe capacity to meet its statutory duty of care this weekend, 13 new arrivals in the last two days has now tipped the balance and the council simply cannot safely accommodate any more new arrivals.”

The Home Office said unaccompanied children arriving in Dover would be kept at the Kent Intake Unit before being placed with social services.

A recent government job advert said the unit consisted of a “large room designed to hold up to 58 detainees”, a smaller room for families and areas for searches to be carried out.

“The purpose of the facility is to detain people who attempted to gain entry into the UK without detection,” it added.

“Most detainees will be present in the holding room for no longer than 36 hours.“

When asked by The Independent, the Home Office would not comment on whether the unit had exceeded its stated capacity, or say how many adults and children were being kept there.

It would not say what conditions children were being kept in, whether they had facilities to sleep and wash or how long they would be kept there for.

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Bridget Chapman, of the Kent Refugee Action Network, said children could not be legally detained for more than 24 hours unless there were “exceptional circumstances”.

“Kent County Council have been flagging for months that this is an issue and the government has not done anything to rectify the situation,” she told The Independent.

“We’re really, seriously concerned about this and we have many questions.”

Ms Chapman said issues included whether children would be safe, how they were being separated from adult strangers and if they have access to education, social workers and legal advice.

“The Border Force does not have the skills, expertise or facilities to give children the service they need,” she added.

“If we are talking about children being held in some kind of detention facility for potentially months, that is unacceptable. None of this should be happening, it’s chaos.”

Ms Chapman said many of the young people arriving in Kent on dinghies are Kurdish and have come from Iraq and Iran, with some saying they are fleeing conflict, Isis and other Islamist groups, and forced conscription.

Some have described being threatened or attacked by people smugglers, and ordered into unsafe boats if they tried to refuse.

More than 4,000 migrants have made it into the UK so far this year after completing the voyage across the English Channel, with at least 597 arriving between Thursday and Sunday.

An official report warned last year that the government’s approach was not reducing boat crossings, and instead “driving migrants to take more dangerous routes, and pushing them into the hands of criminal groups”.

Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, described the situation in Kent as a "scandal" and said it "should be a source of deep shame for this government".

"It is deeply worrying that this entirely preventable situation has occurred,” she added.

"The home secretary has spent the last few weeks trashing the UK's proud record of helping the world's most vulnerable and trying to turn this situation into a Trumpian culture war.

"Priti Patel needs to show some moral leadership and quit the playground politics."

Mr Gough said he had made a direct appeal to the home secretary for support in May, and had an “encouraging” meeting with immigration minister Chris Philp.

But Kent Council Council said that despite subsequent meetings with Home Office officials and public warnings about its capacity, “promised actions have not materialised”.


The local authority has found homes for more than 1,500 unaccompanied child asylum seekers since 2014, and that the failure of a discretionary National Transfer Scheme aiming to distribute them between different councils created an “impossible strain”.

Sue Chandler, Kent County Council’s lead for children’s services, said that if every other council in the UK accepted just two or three child asylum seekers its capacity would be reduced to safe levels.

She added: “To ensure that any recurrence of this inconceivable situation is avoided in the future we are appealing to the Home Office to mandate the existing National Transfer Scheme, or provide alternative central government incentives.”

The Home Office said that of the 960 children moved under the scheme, a third were taken from Kent, and councils hosting young asylum seekers would receive more funding.

A spokesperson added: “This is an unprecedented situation and we continue to work closely with the Department for Education and local government on provision for unaccompanied minors.

“Unaccompanied children arriving in Dover are being cared for in the Kent Intake Unit before being placed in appropriate social services care."

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