Charities have criticised the Home Office’s continued use of hotels to accommodate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and said the level of social work support children are receiving is insufficient.
Asylum support charity Social Workers Without Borders and anti-trafficking organisation Love 146 said the department’s use of such accommodation proved its relaunched national transfer scheme to assign unaccompanied children to councils was not working well enough.
Love 146 called on councils to stand up to the Home Office over its use of hotels, which both charities said went against children’s social care legislation.
‘Social worker provision insufficient’
Speaking to the home affairs select committee last week, second permanent secretary of the Home Office Tricia Hayes said it was accommodating 70 unaccompanied children in hotels as of 16 September, 16 of which were 15-years-old or younger.
She said “dedicated care workers” were in place at the hotels for all the children and social workers and nurses were visiting three times a week.
These social workers, contracted by the Home Office, are based at the Kent Intake Unit, as a “temporary measure” to help improve the asylum reception site’s age assessment and child safeguarding processes.
The Home Office is using several hotels around the country as “bridging accommodation” for asylum seekers with two, in Hythe and Brighton, being used for unaccompanied children.
Naomi Jackson, development lead at Social Workers Without Borders, said the support offered by social workers to these children was insufficient as they were not attached to a local authority’s children’s services.
“We are of the view that all children are entitled to statutory services and that neoliberal, privatised, provision of services is not in children’s best interest,” she said.
“We consider what is happening for the children in hotels to be a two-tier approach to children’s rights in the UK, which is discriminatory and racist. Whilst unaccompanied children are treated as less-than-equal they will be at increased risk of harm.”
300 children transferred to councils since July
Charities and councils have said the use of temporary accommodation indicates that the Home Office’s voluntary national transfer scheme (NTS), used to distribute unaccompanied children to local authorities’ care, is not working well enough, with some calling for it to be made mandatory.
Originally launched in 2016, the scheme is designed to ensure local authorities only care for asylum-seeking children amounting to 0.07% of their overall child population, but many councils have refused to sign up so authorities like Kent and Croydon have taken more than their share.
The department relaunched the scheme in July this year to include more funding for local authorities and a rota system, and Hayes told the committee that 300 children had been transferred since then, with those evacuated from Afghanistan still in hotels.
But the Home Office refused to tell Community Care how many children were transferred through the scheme in the same period last year, by way of comparison, so it is unclear what impact the relaunch has had.
Basic care needs ‘not being met’
“Currently there are unaccompanied children placed in two hotels and in the care of the Home Office because no local authority is willing to be their corporate parent,” said Jackson.
“We question whether the government’s new approach to the national transfer scheme is fit for purpose because the new NTS has been in place since July and there are many children still not being adequately accommodated with no end in sight for these circumstances.
“We are hearing reports from NGOs in the area that children are sometimes spending weeks in these facilities and their most basic care needs, such as appropriate clothing and food, have not been met.
“These children do not routinely have access to legal advice and are not subject to the care planning we would expect for a looked-after-child in the care of a local authority.”
The Home Office has said that it allowed legal representatives access to unaccompanied children at hotels “once they have provided evidence they have been instructed”.
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‘Councils should challenge the Home Office’
Imogen Chapman, senior social worker at Love 146, urged local authorities to “stand up against the actions of the Home Office” and reject its process of placing children in hotels.
Both she and Jackson said the hotel accommodation undermined improvements to the safeguarding of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children over the past 20 years and went against provisions of the Children Acts of 1989 and 2004.
“This is a failing system, which goes against the most basic of protections guaranteed in child protection acts, and is placing children at increased risk of abuse, exploitation and trafficking,” said Chapman.
“These are children and must be seen as children first. Hotels aren’t homes, and every child deserves a home to be safe in.”
Home Office admits ‘failures of communication’
Permanent secretary of the Home Office Matthew Rycroft told the select committee that his department was responsible for finding appropriate hotels to place asylum-seeking adults and children and that it was responsible for their safeguarding, not the local authority.
Conservative MP and committee member Tim Loughton accused the Home Office of placing the unaccompanied children in “inappropriate hotel accommodation” without speaking to the local authority where they would be based first.
Rycroft said in response that he and his colleagues “absolutely accept that on not every occasion the Home Office have done everything that we would have ideally have liked to have done in consultation in advance”.
But he said these “failures of communication” were due to the pressure of evacuating 15,000 people from Afghanistan.