Published: 08:09, 07 June 2021
| Updated: 16:05, 07 June 2021
Kent County Council (KCC) has told Priti Patel's Home Office "enough is enough" after being left to provide care for more than double the safe number of vulnerable child asylum seekers.
The authority has served the government department a 'Letter Before Action' after warning they are at "breaking point" and could be forced to refuse any more children "within days".
At the moment there is no obligation for other authorities to look after the traumatised children – many of whom have fled religious persecution and escaped becoming child soldiers.
But with Kent currently housing more than double the number of Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) than the government says is safe to have, KCC has called for action to avoid a repeat of the crisis seen last year.
The authority wants Ms Patel to act to ensure other councils take some responsibility for the crisis and warns if she doesn't it could be forced to refuse any more children as soon as the end of this week.
With stretched resources it is feared many of those who arrived could be groomed by criminals, with some, including a growing number of lone girls, at risk of prostitution in this country.
KCC Leader Roger Gough said: "“I am deeply saddened that we are now seeing a repeat of the same crisis of 9 months ago.
“The Home Office consulted on changes to the National Transfer Scheme (NTS) in August and September last year and have yet to publish any new proposals or a response to the consultation.
"The scheme remains voluntary with insufficient incentive for other UK Local Authorities to transfer UASC from Kent.
“Kent residents deserve a resolution to this issue. We still do not have one. The wholly disproportionate strain on Kent’s Children’s Services continues to be overlooked.
“We must ensure that all UK local authorities with capacity share in the support of these children.
“Enough is enough. A robust, long-term solution is well overdue and critical for the future welfare of all children supported by KCC, whatever their background, and the continuation of the excellent services that support them.”
The council has said if it does not recieve a response from Ms Patel by Thursday, June 17, it will proceed with legal action.
So far this year 250 lone children – some as young as 12 – have arrived and only 52 are being cared for by other authorities.
In May, 115 arrived, compared to 64 in the same period last year, and those reaching the UK appear to be getting younger.
Over the recent Bank Holiday 50 arrived, including one Vietnamese girl who is feared to have vanished from a reception centre.
At least 4,349 people have crossed the Channel this year, compared with 1,737 people by the same time last year.
Children have traditionally come from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan but a growing number are fleeing sub-Saharan Africa and there has been a spike in those arriving via the Channel route from Vietnam in the wake of the tragedy in Essex where 39 people from the country were found dead in a trailer.
Those aged under 16 are sent to live with foster families while 16 to 17 year olds are assessed before being given "assisted living" accommodation. Border Force challenge 75% of arrivals on their ages but checks take three months.
Earlier it was reported that Ms Patel has blamed social media giants for the spike in crossings, writing to them demanding a viral video 'glamorising' crossings was removed.
Ms Patel said: “Posts which promote and even glamourise these lethal crossings are totally unacceptable. They encourage others to leave a safe European country and put theirs and their family’s life at risk and are even used by people smugglers to promote their deadly business.
“What these posts don’t mention are the people who have died trying to make this crossing, or those forced to spend 13 hours in unseaworthy boats in freezing waters."
A young Sudanese man was found dead and washed up on a beach at Sangatte, France, last August.
And last October four asylum seekers, including two children aged eight and five, drowned when their boat capsized off Dunkirk.
Almost 600 asylum seekers were intercepted attempting to cross the Channel in three days this week.
Earlier this week the High Court ruled the Home Secretary acted unlawfully in housing asylum seekers at the "squalid" former military camp Napier Barracks in Folkestone – which have fallen into disrepair since soldiers lived there.
Meanwhile, the Home Office is investigating an incident in which migrants attempting to cross the English Channel were reportedly picked up in French waters by the UK Border Force and taken to Dover.
In terms of recent crossings, the Home Office confirmed French authorities dealt with eight incidents involving 130 people on Friday, with the UK dealing with four boats involving 83 people.
This follows 201 people being stopped by Border Force officers in eight incidents on Thursday.
And the French authorities intercepted nine crossings on Wednesday and Thursday preventing 171 people from reaching the UK.
This makes a total of 585 attempting to make the crossing in just three days.
The number of people crossing the 21-mile stretch of water has almost doubled so far in 2021 compared to the same period in 2020, with more than 3,100 having reached the English coast by the end of May.
Anti-immigration demonstrations were held in Dover last weekend with protesters blocking access to key trade terminals and four arrested.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “This Government’s approach to tackling Channel crossings isn’t working and is destined to fail.
“The reality is that when fleeing war, terror and persecution, ordinary people are forced to take extraordinary steps to seek safety in another country.
“Instead of relying solely on an enforcement approach to stop the crossings, this Government needs to expand safe routes so that people don’t have to risk their lives taking dangerous journeys at the mercy of criminals and people smugglers.
“Creating safe and regular routes to the UK – through an expanded resettlement programme, humanitarian visas and reforming the restrictive family reunion rules – is the way to effectively address the issue.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Those who attempt to cheat the system place an unjust burden on the taxpayer and prevent genuine asylum seekers from getting support. This is why the government is bringing forward the New Plan for Immigration which will allow us to welcome those most in need through safe and legal routes, while preventing abuse of the system.
“’We recognise the longstanding role that Kent County Council has played in supporting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and are extremely grateful for their contribution. We continue to encourage more areas to join the National Transfer Scheme and do their part.
“We have already consulted on how to improve the Scheme to make it fairer - the outcome of which will be published very shortly.”
Analysis from political editor Paul Francis
KCC will be hoping its threat to sue the government over the Home Secretary's failure to to use existing powers to direct other councils to take on child asylum seekers will not actually get to court.
Instead, it will hope the prospect will concentrate the mind of the Home Office to come up with some kind of solution to the escalating crisis the council faces.
It is more a case of political brinkmanship. Neither the government nor KCC will want to get bogged down in a costly and potentially lengthy court case while numbers arriving IN Kent in small boats and dinghies increase.
KCC has ample evidence it has reached crisis point and clearly believes the coming months will only see the numbers rise, carrying a risk its resources will be stretched even further.
It is understandable the authority is frustrated by the lack of action on the issue; the warnings are not new but to date, the government has been reluctant to intervene directly.
Perhaps it will now.