Published: 14:56, 18 August 2020
| Updated: 15:14, 18 August 2020
Additional reporting by Sophie Bird
In an announcement yesterday, Kent County Council pleaded for help as it revealed it could no longer safely accommodate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving on it's shores.
Any children who are found from today will be left with Border Force, after more arrivals at the weekend "tipped the balance" according to council leader Roger Gough.
But the call to government for greater support follows years of warnings that the system in place was not working.
Under UK law, the local authority has a responsibility to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the area who are in need, including children seeking asylum who are unaccompanied by an adult.
Because these children are often found on the shores of Kent after travelling across the Channel by boat, Kent County Council are given the responsibility of caring for them.
The sizeable increase of crossings this year has meant KCC has finally reached its limit.
Mr Gough said: "I am deeply disappointed and concerned that, despite our many efforts to avoid this unthinkable situation, it has been necessary to make this announcement today.
"This is a huge challenge for Kent, but a relatively small challenge to solve nationally, and should have been resolved before now."
Difficulties came to a head in 2015, when crises in Syria and North Africa forced thousands of people to be displaced from their home countries, as they fled to seek sanctuary elsewhere.
Some of those people made efforts to seek asylum in the UK, spiking the number of unaccompanied children ending up in KCC's care.
On July 28, 2015, the council wrote to all 151 other local authorities in England with social services responsibilities to request assistance under s27 of Children Act 1989.
The hope was that some would come forward to take some of the responsibility off of their shoulders, but between July and November only 19 councils had responded positively.
Following a lack of support, then-Home Secretary Theresa May jointly signed a letter with other MPs in November telling councils they must do more to protect Kent.
In the letter, it said: "To date only 42 of the nearly 1,000 children in Kent’s care have been transferred into the care of another local authority.
"This is simply not enough. We are clear that local authorities with the capacity to support UASC, who can be some of the most vulnerable children in care, should do so."
This sparked the introduction of the National Transfer Scheme (NTS), which would allow children to be transferred to other authorities voluntarily by other councils, receiving cash from central government in order to pay the additional costs the care would incur.
Despite the move, few councils took up the scheme, leaving the majority of children seeking asylum and found in Kent in the care of KCC.
Concerns over funding appeared to be a part of the lack of uptake, particularly the requirement that councils would offer all care leavers support up to the age of 25.
The lack of interest as well as problems with delays in transferring people due to the voluntary nature of the scheme meant that Kent stopped participating in it after April 2018, even though it met the government's threshold for doing so.
In 2016 366 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were taken into KCC's care, with a peak of 48 arrivals in April.
In 2017 and 2018 there were significant decreases, with 214 and 172 respectively.
But with Brexit looming on the horizon, the council addressed its concerns of rising numbers once again, as it called for £20 million fast-tracked funding to tackle other potential impending issues such as gridlocked roads and impacted service standards.
Despite a decrease in the number of unaccompanied children making the crossing, between November and the end of 2018 220 people had attempted to cross the Channel in small boats.
Then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid held 'crisis' talks in an attempt to stop crossings.
In 2019, council chiefs announced they were facing a £6.1m shortfall in the costs of looking after vulnerable asylum-seeking children, blaming government under-funding.
At this point the council was looking after 267 children, and a further 895 who were classed as care leavers.
But it pointed out that despite decreased numbers in the previous years, another rise was expected.
In 2019 339 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in Kent, placing an even greater strain on the council's provisions.
Again, in June 2019 Cllr Roger Gough spoke of the issue, which had been dragging on for the last few years.
He said: "This has been a very long-standing issue and we have argued for many years that the support we get from the government for what we fundamentally believe is a national issue has not been adequate."
So far this year the council has seen 414 new arrivals as of August 10.
KCC received additional funding from the government in June, after revealing its resources were "breaking at the seams".
Parliamentary under-secretary for immigration compliance, Chris Philp, made a personal commitment to increase financial support and assist in finding placements for young people outside of Kent.
In a letter, the minister thanked Kent County Council for the vital work undertaken to support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and stated that KCC had played a “pivotal role” in the government’s commitment to safeguard the country’s most vulnerable children.
Cllr Gough welcomed the increased funding, but at the time pointed out that increased capacity could result in the same danger once again.
He said: "Concerted efforts to place asylum seeking young people with other local authorities will, if successful, ease some of the pressures that Kent has been experiencing. However, our position remains on a knife edge.
"Even with these measures in place, if we see additional large scale UASC arrivals over the summer, our capacity will soon come under pressure again."
With the position of caring for new arrivals of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children now unclear, charities are calling for immediate action from government.
Bridget Chapman, of the Kent Refugee Action Network, said: "KCC have been warning for some time that without additional support from central government they would reach this point.
"Our main priority is to ensure that vulnerable children are properly cared for and we urge the Government to urgently work with KCC to find a way forward."
Zara Mughal, from Gillingham, is working to revive the Medway City of Sanctuary charity and build awareness so these services can become available to relieve some of the strain.
She said: "Most of these children arrive without their parents so they haven't even got the comfort of their own family to rely on when moving to this new society. It must be terrible and I feel we must be making matters worse by not supporting them to integrate into our community.
"This charity plans to offer a safe place, whether it is just a small music club or youth club, to help them get away from that isolated feeling. We want to show them they are welcome here and we are empathetic, kind and tolerant.
"We want to dispel the negative attitudes towards refugees through education and events in the community. Because of what everyone has seen in the media and on social media of migrants crossing the channel people can have a threatening image of children who are just crossing for safety. It makes no sense to me to be threatened by people who are coming here for safety and fleeing their country because of war.
"We should treat these children as we would children who were born here because all they are asking for is to be a part of a new society and to feel welcome."