Away from home, alone

The experience of some local authorities in helping large
numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children provides lessons
for government and other agencies. Peter Gilroy explains the
implications of events in Kent.

In Kent the number of children requiring the care of the local
authority has almost doubled from around 1,500 to 2,800 in the past
two years. The cause? Unaccompanied child asylum seekers – a
national issue which has received little public attention compared
with the broader debate on asylum policy.

At the beginning of 1999, Kent was looking after a few hundred
asylum seekers and just a handful of unaccompanied minors but that
year we were to deal with what can only be described as a crisis.
During the year social services in Kent dealt with well over 15,000
asylum seekers arriving through Dover, the busiest port of entry in
the UK. We continue to support some 7,000 – almost 6,000 single
adults and family members – under the interim arrangements
introduced by the government in December 1999. The rest, around
1,200 plus, are unaccompanied minors. These are lone or separated
children aged 17 years or younger who arrive in this country
without a parent or guardian.

There are now more than 100 new referrals of unaccompanied
minors to Kent each month. These are viewed as children first and
are rightly placed in the care of the local authority rather than
dealt with under the provisions for adult asylum seekers.

It is fair to say that there are times when we have struggled to
cope. The pressure on staff has been enormous and the learning
curve incredibly steep. The children who arrive here travel from
all corners of the globe and the vast majority have spent many
weeks or even months travelling. Most arrive at Dover having been
transported by professional traffickers. Some who arrive are as
young as eight, while more than 60 per cent are aged 16 or 17, or
claim to be so. Few girls make this perilous trek, and we have had
to be mindful that those who do may have been sexually exploited or
be at risk of exploitation.

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have the same essential
needs as children everywhere. They also have the same rights to
protection from abuse. These children are particularly vulnerable
because they often have only a very limited understanding of the
English language. Many have personally suffered or witnessed
physical persecution and might be bereaved or deeply anxious about
their families.

Many have totally inaccurate expectations of their future in
this country and they will all face substantial periods of
uncertainty while their claim for asylum is being considered. The
majority have no family or friends in this country and may be
isolated from other members of their ethnic community. As a result,
it is obviously desirable to place them with caring members of
their own families or communities at the earliest opportunity.
Children may arrive in Kent with details of relatives or friends
already in Britain and it is appropriate that they are put in
contact with them. However, some placements may well further
increase the possibility of abuse if they are not adequately

Notwithstanding the policy guidance, we are concerned that the
current facilities for checking background information about these
contacts are insufficient to provide adequate safeguards. Full
police checks should be made regarding previous offences or current
child protection concerns. However, in view of the fact that the
adults in question may also have arrived recently in the UK,
information regarding past offences may not be available.

Although information regarding offences in the adult’s country
of origin may not be readily available, I strongly believe that in
its absence, other safeguards should be available. These could
include continued contact and supervision of the placement by
workers experienced in working with the relevant ethnic group and
with the services of a translator if necessary and the development
of service cards (smart cards) for every unaccompanied minor which
would effectively assist in the monitoring as well as a more
streamline approach to accessing services. Proper training modules
are needed for the independent provider agencies looking after
asylum seekers.

DoH guidance has to be updated concerning vetting and validation
of “quasi relatives” when placing children with alleged family
here. This of course inevitably slows down the process but we must
also view this alongside child protection procedures, and trust
that the National Asylum Support Service (Nass) also recognises the
importance of similar responsibilities for those children within
families who are in their care.

This will require further training and procedural guidance not
only for my own staff but also for Nass staff, most of whom are new
to the business of commissioning and providing care for families.
Central government must clarify local authority responsibilities,
provide guidance where required, and recognise that adequate
resources are needed.

The Home Office and DoH, with local government and the voluntary
sector, have established a joint steering group to review practice
and procedure and to look at models of care. The aim is to publish
guidance across public and private services.

Although there has been an increasing interest recently in
support arrangements by the Department of Health, these services
are now funded via the Home Office asylum seekers grant regime and
much of the continuing complexity of supporting these separated
children arises from the dual involvement of these two separate
government departments, each with very different objectives and

The Home Office sees its role as partly to control, and deter,
inward migration and enforce repatriation where appropriate of
those asylum seekers arriving in the UK. Children’s legislation and
DoH guidance, by contrast, places a duty on the local authority to
provide care for these children. This inevitably requires the local
authority, as corporate parent, to support integration and social
inclusion. Our responsibilities begin with acknowledging that these
youngsters come to social services as children in need. We must
consider how we manage risk in respect of the services we provide,
recognising that the principles and expectations of Quality
Protects, child protection and access to mainstream services should
apply equally to them. Also important is the quality of
multi-agency assessment, particularly bringing in their education
and health needs.

The question of asylum-seeking children requires a national
response, in respect of both placement and service provision. It
must be recognised that many of these children will eventually
integrate and contribute to this society. So the government,
whether through the DoH or the Home Office, should try to clarify
the expectations and responsibilities of local authorities for
those who are supported as children in need and assisted when they
attain single adult status at age 18.

There is a further issue of ensuring that these young people
have decisions made about them as fast as possible. It cannot be
right to leave those who already feel vulnerable awaiting
decisions, sometimes for years, about their right to stay here, or
face having to be sent back to their country of origin. For young
people who have been in public care in the UK but wish to return
home with assistance, local government could offer help.

Local authorities continue to hold enormous responsibilities,
and face many challenges in providing services for asylum seekers.
Continuing complexity over responsibilities for unaccompanied
minors, in particular, leaves port authorities in a vulnerable
position. The sheer size of the task of providing services, such as
finding appropriate accommodation, meeting statutory responsibility
under the Children Act 1989, ongoing responsibility for large
numbers of single adults and families, and uncertainty about
responsibility (and central government funding) for integration and
settlement of refugees, cannot be ignored.

It is vital that all agencies work closely together and
authorities in the south east have a strategic partnership with a
critical number of local authorities nationally – health and
education as well as social services – who are willing to assist in
looking after children and taking corporate parental responsibility
for them. Authorities with smaller ports of entry will find greater
numbers moving into their areas as the major ports become more
rigorous in their controls.

More sophisticated child care assessment units are needed where
needs can be properly identified before services are provided on a
permanent basis. A more dynamic and open-ended approach to
education, training and employment would facilitate better

There also needs to be a more dynamic shift of policy within the
EU to prompt police forces across the European Union to work more
closely together to deter human trafficking and create better
intelligence about the trade in human beings.

We must have a mature debate about how the broad issues of
economic migration (particularly given the implications of wider EU
membership) can be separated from national policies relating to
asylum. It is clear that the first is corrupting the latter.

Peter Gilroy is strategic director of social services,
Kent Council, and chairperson of Kent child protection

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