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Vulnerable asylum seeking children arriving on small boats are being held in a Border Force processing centre after Kent’s council reached capacity, prompting fears of a “disaster”.
Large numbers of children reaching the UK have led to an “unthinkable” situation where Kent County Council says it “cannot safely accommodate any more new arrivals”.
Those now arriving are being held by Border Force at a processing centre, where asylum seekers are usually interviewed by officers, until homes can be found for them in other areas.
Charities said they were “extremely concerned” and fear the children are being held in “prison-like facilities”. They also say they do not know whether the children are being safeguarded or whether they have access to education, social workers or legal services.
A Home Office source would only say the children would be held at the so-called Kent Intake Unit (KIU) for “as short a time as possible” and did not say whether they were getting any access to services.
Bridget Chapman, of the Kent Refugee Action Network, said home secretary Priti Patel had “failed to manage the situation”, instead making “completely inappropriate” comments about sending the Navy to intercept small boats on which the children perilously cross the Channel, and arguing with an ice cream company over the issue.
Chapman also said she had “all sorts of concerns” about Border Force being responsible for the children, who as asylum seekers claim they are fleeing war or persecution.
She told HuffPost UK: “These are children, they need to be looked after by a local authority that has the skillset to look after them.
“That’s no disrespect to the border authority but the border authority does not have the skillset to look after children.
“I have all sorts of questions – will they be allocated social workers? Will they have access to legal services? Will they be able to access education? What sort of accommodation will they be in? Will it be appropriate? How will they be safeguarded?
“And of course it’s illegal to detain children for more than 24 hours so how is this going to work?
“It seems to me it’s got disaster written all over it.”
She went on: “In our experience children arrive almost every day so if today is typical there will be some children spending the night in the care of Border Force tonight and I am extremely concerned about that.
“We have had a situation before where there was a lack of accommodation and adult people were kept in a really inappropriate building which was a concrete floor.
“I’m not suggesting for one minute Border Force are going to do that to these children but where are they going to be placed and is it going to be an appropriate location for them?”
Laura Padoan, of UNHCR – the UN refugee agency, said: “It’s not appropriate for unaccompanied minors to be left in the care of the coastguard, especially as a number of young girls on their own have arrived in the last few days.
“They should be transferred to local authority care as soon as possible, if not in Kent then elsewhere.”
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, described the situation as a “scandal” and said it “should be a source of deep shame for this government”.
She told PA: “This is a political failure, pure and simple. The government must urgently U-turn and ensure that vulnerable children are immediately taken into care rather than detained in prison-like facilities.
“It is deeply worrying that this entirely preventable situation has occurred.
“Instead of ensuring that unaccompanied child refugees are provided with essential support when they arrive in the UK, the home secretary has spent the last few weeks trashing the UK’s proud record of helping the world’s most vulnerable and trying to turn this situation into a Trumpian culture war.
“Priti Patel needs to show some moral leadership and quit the playground politics.”
A spokesperson for Kent County Council (KCC) told the PA news agency the increased arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children has “exhausted” Kent’s resources such as social workers, independent reviewing officers, care workers and suitable accommodation.
Meetings between the council and government are under way in an effort to find a resolution today, the council said.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “This is an unprecedented situation and we continue to work closely with the Department for Education and local government on provision for unaccompanied minors.
“Unaccompanied children arriving in Dover are being cared for in the Kent Intake Unit before being placed in appropriate social services care.”
The Home Office said the Kent Intake Unit is a “processing centre” where people who arrive by small boat are taken, and rejected descriptions of it as a detention location.
It told PA discussions are continuing “at pace” with social services from other local authorities already on board.
A Home Office spokesperson added that it does not foresee any children remaining in Border Force care for very long.