The Home Office and Kent County Council (KCC) are facing a legal challenge over the “unlawful and discriminatory” treatment of children arriving in the UK in small boats across the Channel after it emerged hundreds had been held in unregulated hotel accommodation.
“Dangerous failings” have left unaccompanied minors, including Afghans, faced with “grave consequences” as they are detained for days in a Home Office processing centre or placed in hotels without adequate support, according to Detention Action, which is launching the case.
In some cases, children have been left for weeks in hotels without a change of clothes or shoes, no access to legal advice and no financial support, according to one charity.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds accused ministers of “ignoring” previous warnings and allowing “unsuitable conditions and real concerns about lack of safeguarding protections” to continue.
Unaccompanied child asylum seekers arriving in the UK are usually taken in by the local council in the area they first enter, which is generally Kent for those who have crossed the Channel.
However, in mid-June, KCC announced that it would no longer take in newly arrived child asylum seekers, warning of “extreme pressure” on its children’s services.
Children were subsequently held at the Kent Intake Unit (KIU), at the Port of Dover, until a placement with social services elsewhere in the country could be arranged – which sometimes meant they were held for up to 10 days.
In the KIU, they were reportedly required to share rooms with adults they did not know, and sleep on makeshift camp beds and thin mattresses on the floor in overcrowded conditions with no Covid-19 safety measures in place.
KCC made the same decision to stop taking in unaccompanied minors in August 2020, also with the consequence of children being held in KIU, until it resumed taking in these youngsters four months later.
The Home Affairs Select Committee made a stark warning to home secretary Priti Patel when these issues started to appear again in July, describing the conditions as “shocking” and “wholly inappropriate”.
The Home Office subsequently started to place children in hotel accommodation, which is not regulated or designed to provide care to lone children, and where the only adult supervision appears to be by hotel staff who are not trained in safeguarding.
Elaine Ortiz, founder of the Hummingbird Project, said she came across two Afghan boys last month who had been living in a hotel in the south of England for a month along with dozens of other recently arrived unaccompanied minors.
She said the pair had not been provided with a change of clothes or shoes, had received no health screening, had not been given any money or legal advice and were offered only food that was “not culturally appropriate”.
“They were really stressed and upset. All this was happening when everything was going on in Afghanistan. I had concerns about their wellbeing. I’m not confident in the Home Office’s approach to child protection and safeguarding,” she said.
Ms Ortiz said she made a complaint to the local council which in turn complained to the Home Office, and that subsequently, the department said it had improved conditions for children in the hotel. The two boys have now been moved into children’s services.
The Home Office said that children have been “provided with clothing” and disputed that they had not been provided with appropriate food.
In July, 65 charities wrote to education secretary Gavin Williamson expressing concern at his authorisation for the Home Office to place child asylum seekers in “minimally supported” hotel accommodation, and urging him to ensure “these vulnerable children are given the care and protection they are entitled to by law”. He is said to be yet to respond.
Detention Action argues in its legal case that KCC has breached its duty to accommodate children in its area and “directly discriminated” against newly arrived migrant children in Kent as compared to British citizens or other children, apparently on grounds of their immigration status.
The charity claims that the Home Office – the second defendant in the case – has unlawfully detained unaccompanied minors and has placed them in hotel accommodation “without care”, as well as failing to “promptly arrange for local authorities to assume responsibility”.
KCC has called on the Home Office to make changes to the National Transfer Scheme (NTS), which is designed to place unaccompanied children within local authorities across the country, so that it is mandatory for all councils to take part.
The department announced a relaunch of the existing system in June, saying there would be additional funding, but it declined to make the scheme mandatory – at which point KCC announced that it would again stop taking in lone child asylum seekers.
In its judicial review application to the High Court, Detention Action states: “There is a clear dispute between central and local government over resources and arguments over legal responsibility for unaccompanied children. This cannot take precedence over both authorities’ mandatory obligation to comply with their respective child protection obligations.”
Bella Sankey, director of the charity, said: “Forget Operation Warm Welcome, the reality is cold custody for the refugee children arriving alone on our shores. We believe Ms Patel and KCC are breaking the law, imprisoning children and then subjecting them to neglect in hotels across the southeast.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said holding children in hotels was “by no means an appropriate solution for the longer term”, adding: “As their corporate parent, government and councils should be ensuring they are looked after in the care system and given all the necessary support that every child in care is entitled to.”
Bridget Chapman, of Kent Refugee Action Network, said the fact that children were “yet again” being kept in “completely inappropriate settings with inadequate supervision suggests either incompetence or deliberate cruelty”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We take the safeguarding of unaccompanied asylum seeking children extremely seriously and have measures in place to ensure their immediate safeguarding and welfare needs are met whilst we find them more appropriate long term care placements under the voluntary national transfer scheme.
“We are working around the clock with local authorities to seek a permanent place for unaccompanied asylum seeking children across the UK. Many local authorities have already come forward and provided places over recent weeks, and we are very grateful for their support.”
KCC has been approached for comment.
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