Numbers of unaccompanied children being looked after by local authorities nationwide, excluding Kent, have increased by an average of 55% from 2013-14 to 2014-15, a Freedom of Information request by Community Care has revealed.
But a focus on the numbers only tells part of the story. Community Care has spoken to several authorities caring for the largest numbers of unaccompanied children, many of them extremely vulnerable and traumatised. Frontline social workers have told us of the additional pressures they face, from lengthy journeys to visit children placed out of their authority to even moving social workers to other areas to manage these cases.
3,000 new children
As a call for the UK to take in 3,000 further unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is being seriously considered by government, Kent remains the focus of efforts to share the pressures more fairly. Numbers of children entering the port authority’s care rose to 1,046 at its highest point last year.
Around the country, however, many other areas are also feeling the strain. Factor in that 42 of the 131 councils responding to the request said they did not have any unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in their care, and this leaves a relatively small number of councils looking after a disproportionate share of this population.
We asked councils to provide figures for the numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children they looked after from 1 October, 2013, to 30 September, 2014, and from 1 October 2014, and 30 September, 2015, and measured the percentage increase in numbers between these periods.
Birmingham experienced the largest percentage increase (650%) both in terms of the total number of looked after children and numbers entering care for the first time. However, for both numbers entering care and total numbers, this represents a rise to 45 from just six unaccompanied children being looked after, a relatively low figure for the largest local authority in Europe.
In Cambridgeshire, whose social workers have seen a more than 500% increase in looked after asylum-seeking children in a year, the rise in demand is keenly felt, in an area with no dedicated asylum team. Finding emergency placements for children who present in their authority has been one of the greatest challenges.
Joanne Reed, first response and emergency duty team manager, says children are being placed as far away as Nottinghamshire when no local placements are available. Since the original local authority retains responsibility, this means Cambridgeshire social workers have to travel, sometimes as far as 100 miles, to make statutory visits.
Reed’s team works with asylum seekers up until the point they receive a Merton-compliant age assessment, meaning a young person being treated as an unaccompanied child for the purposes of an emergency placement might have their age disputed. If there’s any risk they may in fact be adults, they cannot be placed with other looked-after children, even in an emergency, making it even more difficult to find a suitable placement.
Finding appropriate advocates and translators for each child poses additional challenges for social workers.
She says the council has used its wider budget and central government funding, allocated to an authority for each asylum-seeking child in its care, to hire two new experienced staff to help manage the situation. No specific new funding has been allocated to support councils under pressure in looking after asylum-seeking children.
The 10 councils with the biggest increase in total numbers of looked after asylum-seeking children experienced rises of between 200% and 650% between October 2013- September 2014 and the same period in 2014-15, discounting areas which had fewer than five children in their care.
The London borough of Hillingdon, which has Heathrow airport within its boundaries, looked after the largest total number of child refugees after Kent, rising by 22% in a year to 226.
Surrey, Glasgow, Hertfordshire and Thurrock join Hillingdon in the top five councils hosting the highest total number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in 2014-15, caring for between 90 and 168 children each.
Unlike Cambridgeshire, Essex does have a dedicated asylum team. But it is made up of just 10 staff members who have to travel the length and breadth of the sizeable authority.
With Stansted airport in its borders and close enough to Kent, where children enter on lorries from Calais, to have felt the pressures, one social worker with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children says Essex won’t be able to deal with increased numbers unless more staff are hired into the team.
Zahraa Adam says: “We can manage if MPs understand it is going to cost money for more staff, more placements and care assessments. We’re just coping now but it is very fast-paced and unrelenting.”
The time it takes just to process one child is hard to quantify. First there is a statutorily enforced four-day rest period before any assessments can be done, and a further four days for a young person to settle into a placement and have their basic needs dealt with. Then, two social workers are required to undertake a Merton-compliant age assessment.
If the young person is accepted to be under 18, the council must accommodate them. After this, the council has 20 days to get to a screening interview with the Home Office to initiate the child’s asylum claim.
“One trip to the Home Office in Croydon takes the whole day,” Adam says. “We have to pick kids up from wherever they are in Essex, so it could be a two hour journey from Clacton. Then we’ll sit for a few hours while they have their interview.
“Just that process, for each child, takes you out for the day. Then you have to look for a solicitor to create an asylum statement, travel to them and wait for the child to tell their story, which could take three hours or more.”
As a result, social workers in Essex have been processing more than one child in each appointment to try to fit them all in.
Considering compulsory dispersal of children across the country, as home secretary Theresa May has proposed through an amendment to the Immigration Bill currently going through Parliament, Adam says: “Logically it is fair, but they have to acknowledge some teams are bigger than others and have more expertise. There also needs to be clarity around who is going to deal with what part of the case.
“If Essex takes in a child from Kent, for example, is it Essex’s responsibility to go and collect them? Who does the age assessment? Where does the funding go?”
West Sussex has to manage more age disputes than the national average due to requests coming from Gatwick airport and because it has two detention centres where illegal entrants and failed asylum-seekers are sent from other parts of the country before being returned to their country of origin.
A council spokesperson says: “If these asylum-seekers ‘dispute their age’ and present themselves to be under 18 when they are at the detention centre, and there is no obvious reason to dismiss this claim (for example, they clearly appear older than 25), then we will complete a Merton-compliant age assessment. They will be categorised as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child during this period of assessment, looked after by the local authority.”
While the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Alison O’Sullivan, insists a compulsory national dispersal scheme is too blunt a tool, Latifa Siziba, operational service manager of Kent’s unaccompanied asylum-seeking children’s team, believes it is necessary.
Kent has cared for a steadily increasing number of unaccompanied children month by month since October 2013, but experienced a sharp rise from 333 in the total cared for in October 2014 to 771 by September 2015. Between June and July 2015 alone there was an increase of at least 152 unaccompanied children cared for by the council.
“The volume of cases has meant there have been children without an allocated social worker. We have had to hire social workers from around the country, around 40 or more, to whom we can allocate these cases,” Siziba says.
“We’re moving towards each child having an allocated worker, but it’s also placing enormous pressure on other services such as health and education.”
Siziba says a voluntary dispersal scheme introduced by the home secretary, where authorities could volunteer to take on responsibility for children, has so far been met with a disappointing response. 22 other authorities have taken full responsibility for just 56 children who arrived in Dover over the summer but Kent has had to place over 270 more children outside Kent, while still retaining full responsibility for them, meaning social workers have to travel further to conduct statutory visits.
Kent under pressure
As a stopgap, Kent has had to locate six of its social workers in a team based in London so they are better able to support children placed in the capital. But Siziba is adamant the ultimate responsibility for child refugees must be shared fairly around the country, even if that means investing in extra training for councils with less experience of supporting asylum-seekers.
Even if just the local authorities where children from Kent are currently placed could take on responsibility for those children, that would make a huge difference, she says.
“We have extremely committed and dedicated social workers who want to ensure they understand the needs of the young person they are working with, and it saddens me when a child doesn’t have that dedicated person to turn to,” Siziba says.
“We do need national assistance and it’s not coming in quickly enough. We’ve got young people in our service who have had extreme traumatic experiences and we need to respond.”
This story was updated on 29 July, 2016, to provide clarification on some of the figures used.