The government has been urged to be flexible and take account of local circumstances if an additional 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are to be given refuge, as the Home Office confirmed it is “looking again” at the issue of bringing Syrian children into the UK.
Alison O’Sullivan, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said that while the UK should be offering help in the face of “real humanitarian concerns”, any system put in place to disperse child refugees should acknowledge local capacity and expertise.
Her comments followed an International Development Committee (IDC) report which recommended the UK take in 3,000 unaccompanied children, in addition to the 20,000 refugees the country has already committed to resettle.
The IDC report identified this group as particularly vulnerable, flagging concerns that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were falling prey to people traffickers.
Save the Children, the charity that mounted the campaign to have the proposal put before parliament, welcomed the report which has received cross-party support, and said government was seriously considering its recommendations.
O’Sullivan said: “There are parts of the country which already have some expertise in dealing with the particular issues unaccompanied asylum-seeking children face.
“We do need to think about the ability of local communities to provide support as well as where we have established communities from some of the home countries of migrant children.
“Councils with experience of working with refugees may be better equipped so it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.”
Voluntary dispersal scheme
A voluntary national dispersal scheme was set up in the summer in response to calls from Kent council for assistance with the nearly 1,000 unaccompanied children who had come into its care.
Unaccompanied children are the statutory responsibility of the local authority they first present at on entry to the UK, meaning port authorities like Kent and Hillingdon, which has Heathrow airport within its boundaries, have been under the greatest pressure.
In an amendment to the Immigration Bill tabled in November, home secretary Theresa May set out arrangements for the transfer of responsibility of children between local authorities. The bill reaches committee stage in the House of Lords later this month.
In the amendment, May said she would consider compelling local authorities to take in their fair share of unaccompanied children.
Calls to take in more unaccompanied asylum seeking children come as EU figures show a 59% increase in asylum applications to the UK between April and September 2015.
O’Sullivan, however, said compulsion was not the answer. She said other pressures such as shortages of housing or school places, as well as high levels of demand in the local population, might constrain some local authorities’ ability to help.
“We need a system that shares the responsibility in a fair way but is also capable of being flexible enough to take into account particular local circumstances.”
But she said since councils currently hosting the most refugee children were likely to be the ones with the most expertise, some way of sharing best practice with other, less experienced councils needed to be found.
Sharing best practice
National funding to provide training and share best practice, and a regional mechanism to disperse child refugees according to capacity, were possible solutions, O’Sullivan suggested.
Alongside its recommendations, the IDC praised the government for its approach to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, especially in providing the second-highest level of bilateral funding to the region, but urged it to insist other wealthy countries meet their funding commitments.
Chair of the committee, Stephen Twigg MP, said close to 80% of Syria’s child population already needed humanitarian assistance.
Chair of the Local Government Association’s task group on asylum, migration and refugees,Cllr David Simmonds, said that while government had recently boosted funding for children arriving into Kent, it was vital the arrangement was extended into a properly funded national scheme to support all areas struggling with increased numbers of unaccompanied children.
“Commissioning a national agency to systematically record arrivals and disperse children fairly between council areas would ensure nobody slips through the gap.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “As this report rightly makes clear, the UK has been at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the Syria crisis and we will continue to push others to honour their commitments.
“Our programme in Syria has already resettled vulnerable children as part of family groups, with over 1,000 refugees resettled by Christmas. Additionally, the UK Government’s £1.1 billion commitment is helping hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable people in Syria and the region to rebuild their lives.”