Published: 06:00, 20 June 2021
For a second successive summer, Kent is facing the challenge of accommodating young unaccompanied asylum seekers who arrive on our shores seeking sanctuary from war and persecution.
While the county council threatens legal action against the Home Office, charities and volunteers are working tirelessly in our communities to help the new arrivals adapt to life in the UK, as Rhys Griffiths reports on World Refugee Day.
When he arrived in Dover in May 2019, stowed away in the back of a lorry crossing the Channel from France, 16-year-old Mahmood could not speak a word of English.
He has made the perilous journey from his homeland of Sudan and arrived in Kent seeking asylum and the chance to start a new life.
One of hundreds of unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) who arrive on these shores alone each year, he was taken to the Millbank Reception Centre in Ashford where he would begin the process of adapting to life in a strange and unfamiliar country.
Now a confident 19-year-old with a ready smile and a much stronger grasp of English, he has been granted settled status in the UK and is excited about the prospect of starting a college course in his new home town of Maidstone in September.
Supporting him during his first two years in the county has been charity Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN), whose volunteers provide advice, education and mentoring for young people who have arrived seeking asylum.
The mentoring scheme has seen Mahmood paired with Andrew Kidd, previously a senior adviser at the former Department for International Development, who lives in Barming just a short distance from Mahmood's home which he shares with three other refugees in Tonbridge Road.
Together the pair have spent more than a year getting to know one another, taking walks and visiting museums and libraries, giving Mahmood someone in the community who can help him adjust to his new life.
"I still wanted to provide a contribution," Andrew said when we talked about his decision to volunteer as a KRAN mentor.
"I wanted it somehow to be linked to what I was doing previously, which was working internationally on conflict-affected countries. I have been working on places like Somalia, Afghanistan, the neighbours around Syria. I was based in Afghanistan for three years.
"Now being British-based and wanting to continue to do something, I wanted to try and help some of the same people. Some of them had fled from such terrible conflicts that I was trying to resolve internationally, so I thought why not try and support refugees in some way."
"You come to a place and you don't know anything, and you don't have anyone..."
Andrew and Mahmood were paired up by the KRAN mentoring coordinator in March last year, shortly before the first lockdown, and both talk positively about the experience.
Mahmood said: "Sometimes I say to him 'I don't know without you how I could do anything' because sometimes for me it's really difficult, he is really helping me a lot.
"You come to a place and you don't know anything, and you don't have anyone, I found it difficult with the language."
A Manchester United fan who loves French midfielder Paul Pogba, Mahmood is hoping to study IT at Mid Kent College and dreams of one day becoming a web designer.
But while he has been waiting to secure a college place, it has been KRAN's education programme which has helped him and many other young refugees learn the basic English skills that are vital for successful integration into their new community.
Bridget Chapman, a spokeswoman for KRAN, explained a bit more about what her organisation does for those young people who arrive here in Kent.
"KRAN is a registered charity that has been running for 18 years," she said. "Our main hub is in Canterbury and we have a smaller hub in Folkestone, but we are moving out across Kent, working in areas like Maidstone, which is a new area for us.
"We operate in three different ways, mostly. We have an education project which is for people who have recently arrived and are not yet in statutory education.
"Obviously our aim is for them to be in statutory education as soon as possible, but if you arrive in May and college doesn't start until September that is several months where you might be without education so we have got a project called Learning for Life where people come in and get the skills they need to be happy and successful, such as cooking, negotiating, basic English and maths, healthy eating, healthy living.
"We have lots of therapeutic activities like art and gardening, so that's one of the ways that we work.
"The mentoring scheme is a really, really important part of what we do to support young people living in the community..."
"We have mentoring, and we have an advocacy project so that people can come to us with specific issues and problems that they need help with and we will support them to solve those problems, to find solution to those problems, or at very least signpost them to organisations that can help.
"The mentoring scheme is a really, really important part of what we do to support young people living in the community, and what we do is we match people in the community who want to volunteer some time every week, one or two hours, to support young refugees living in Kent.
"We provide them with some training and we match them up with people with similar interests, so for example if we had somebody who worked in an architecture practice and a young person who is interested in a career in architecture we would try and put those two together.
"As well as having another adult in the community that is on their side and available to give them advice and support, they also have somebody that can give them a little bit of that cultural capital that we all rely on in everyday life."
The issue of UASC and the pressures put on services in Kent to accommodate them has come to the fore again in recent weeks, as Kent County Council (KCC) announced that for the second time in a year it has reached the limit of safe capacity for the care of these young people.
KCC says it has tried to work with the Home Office on a voluntary National Transfer Scheme (NTS) which would see some of the asylum seekers arriving in Kent moved to the care of other local authorities elsewhere in the country.
But the council says this scheme has failed, and "a significant and disproportionate number" of UASC are still in Kent, stretching the ability of the council to support them.
"I am profoundly saddened to be in this unthinkable position once again in such a short period of time," KCC leader Roger Gough said.
"Despite warnings, and continued dialogue with government, Kent's UASC support resources are again significantly overwhelmed.
"Kent residents have been waiting a number of years for a long-term national solution to the ongoing disproportionate strain on local services.
"This remains a small problem for the nation to resolve but a huge and unreasonable responsibility for Kent..."
"While there have been a number of welcome measures from government - to the benefit of the Kent council taxpayer - we have not seen what is most needed: a robust mandatory National Transfer Scheme for all local authorities.
"If every other local authority in the UK were to take two or three under 18-year-old UASC who arrive at Dover into their care, Kent's numbers would reduce to the council's safe allocation immediately. This remains a small problem for the nation to resolve but a huge and unreasonable responsibility for Kent."
Ms Chapman says KRAN feels sympathy for the position KCC finds itself in. She says the numbers of young people arriving seeking asylum are not so high that they can not be accommodated if the burden was shared more equally.
She said: "I don't think the numbers of children coming to the country are a crisis for us, it's certainly a crisis if you're one of the young people in a boat, but in terms of this country we are talking about some hundreds of children, and it's numbers we can absolutely deal with.
"But it is a lot for one local authority to effectively look after. That is just with simple capacity issues, like having enough college places for all of those young people.
"Sometimes this is described as burden, but it is not, it's a tremendous responsibility, but these young people are incredible bundles of potential and they are going to be of huge benefit to whatever community they are placed in.
"It's only fair that we share out that amazing potential. What we are saying is that central government need to fund it properly, because it costs money to look after young people, whatever background they are from, if you want them to reach their full potential.
"We want to see these young people achieving all that they are able to achieve, and we think that they are a tremendous asset to our communities.
"In Kent I see young people I have been working with that were 15 when I first started working with KRAN and they are 21 now and are working in the NHS, they are working in care homes, they are working in vaccination centres, many of them on the Covid front-line and I cannot emphasise enough what a huge asset they are to us."
While the politicians continue to argue over the policies and resources put in place to care for the children who arrive here in Kent seeking refuge, volunteers like Andrew continue to give their time freely so that young men like Mahmood have a chance to build a successful future in their new home.
"It's been a joy to support him on his journey..."
"It's been rewarding for me," Andrew said. "It feels like I have been able to continue to make a contribution to the life of someone who came from a troubled background, and who arrived here with no English, and clearly in a very strange place for anyone who is coming for the first time.
"It's been rewarding for me in terms of feeling as if I am making a positive contribution to someone's life.
"Mahmood has been brilliant, he is a keen young man, he's clearly resilient, he has faced his problems but he has got a level head, good common sense, resilience, so it's been a joy to support him on his journey."