Published: 06:00, 01 May 2021
Campaigners across Kent, including Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield and The Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin Bishop of Dover, are urging the Home Secretary to provide safe and legal routes into the county for unaccompanied asylum seeking children.
It comes as the government pushes ahead with its new immigration plan, which will see a significant overhaul of the system and a tightening of restrictions towards those attempting to cross the Channel.
The government's New Plan for Immigration includes fresh measures that mean those who are granted their asylum claim will only receive temporary protection status for 30 months, which is subject to 'reassessment for removal'.
Under Boris Johnson's leadership there has been a number of attempts to curb crossings in the past 12 months, including a 'clandestine threat commander' being appointed last summer.
But campaigners across the county are concerned about the lack of detail around safe and 'legal' routes to reach the UK - which they say is the only way to stop dangerous crossings from France.
The open letter to the Home Secretary Priti Patel has been signed by Kent residents from 12 different groups, together with Faversham Town Council.
It urges the government to rethink proposed legislation which they say does not protect the rights of refugees under international law.
The letter also calls on the government to share responsibility for unaccompanied asylum seeking children more equally among the UK's local authorities.
Support for a more equal share is not new - in 2020 Kent County Council was forced to temporarily postpone taking responsibility for new arrivals due to the sheer number already in their care.
Valerie Jeffries, from Faversham and Villages Refugee Solidarity Group, said: "The Immigration Plan is unworkable, and cannot achieve the government’s aim of preventing youngsters being exploited by ruthless criminals.
"As the government has not outlined any safe and legal routes available to them, more refugee children will make hazardous journeys to reach safety.
"Trafficking of young asylum seekers by boat and lorry into Kent will continue."
The government's new plan for immigration, which is nearing the end of a six week consultation period, contains the word 'illegal' no less than 73 times.
But under international law there is no such thing as an 'illegal' asylum seeker - and the government's use of the term has been criticised for encouraging hostility towards those escaping war and persecution in their home countries.
Speaking to KentOnline last summer, Clare Moseley, founder for Care4Calais, said: "Our government has been throwing the word 'illegal immigrant' in the public's faces for the last year and that's even more inaccurate.
"Refugee law recognises that if you want to enter into the UK to claim asylum you have to do so by irregular means, and if you do it doesn't jeopardise your asylum case.
"I think it's highly irresponsible because that suggests that these people are criminals - Boris Johnson even called them criminals the other day.
"That is even worse than anything the media can do and to be perfectly honest I'm horrified by it."
Another organisation who has signed the open letter is the Kent Refugee Action Network.
Osama Sharkia, a youth ambassador for the organisation, has first hand experience of the danger children are put in without a safe alternative to reach the UK.
He said: "The new immigration plan is a big shock. It puts our life, our friends’ life and our family’s life in a real danger.
"They are still using these routes to seek sanctuary in the UK and this plan only forces them to accept their destiny in their countries, and not giving them the chance to survive the persecution that they face in their homes."
"It puts our life, our friends’ life and our family’s life in a real danger..."
Faversham Town councillor Carole Jackson said: "I am concerned with the Home Secretary’s desire to overhaul the current UK asylum system. We need to maintain adequate safeguarding measures for all vulnerable refugees who are in immediate danger within their own nation state.
"The Home Office’s programme offers more hostility and harm towards refugees, especially unaccompanied children. I believe it is our responsibility to increase intake, and all areas of the UK should be prepared to welcome them."
Kent's place at the heart of the asylum debate has intensified in the past six months, following controversy over conditions at Napier Barracks in Folkestone - where accommodation for those seeking asylum has been under intense scrutiny.