The number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in care has grown by 34% over the past year, driving the latest increase in the care population.
Department for Education’s (DfE) statistics on looked-after children in England, released earlier this month, showed the number of unaccompanied children in care grew by 1,430 in the year to March 2022, surpassing the overall increase of 1,390 in the care population. The latter rose for the 14th consecutive year, by 2%, to 82,170.
The number of asylum-seeking children in care, 5,570, was the highest ever recorded, 10% above the 2020 level, following a fall in 2020-21 that appears related to the pandemic.
Numbers continuing to rise
Their numbers have continued to rise significantly since March, according to Home Office data on the national transfer scheme, under which, since December 2021, all UK councils have been mandated to care for unaccompanied children to relieve pressure on port authorities.
A record number, 392, were transferred between authorities under the NTS from April to June of this year, with the majority of these, 315, moved out of Kent.
While the latest quarterly figures, covering July to September 2022, showed a drop in numbers transferred between authorities, to 273, a record 693 children were transferred out of Home Office facilities to councils. This likely reflects a spike in the number of unaccompanied children who made the journey across the English Channel over the summer, many of whom were then placed in Home Office-commissioned hotels because of a lack of available council accommodation.
The high numbers of asylum-seeking children sparked concerns from the Local Government Association about the adequacy of Home Office funding to care for them.
The department currently pays £143 per person per night to councils whose number of unaccompanied children is at least 0.07% of their child population, and £114 per person per night to those with less than this proportion. When a child is received under the NTS, the local authority is given the £143 rate regardless.
“While councils are proud of the support they provide to all those seeking refuge in this country, the sharp increase in unaccompanied asylum-seeking children coming into care reinforces how vital it is that the Home Office fully funds the cost of supporting these children, including when they leave care,” said Louise Gittins, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board.
At the end of August, the Home Office set councils a five-day target to accept referrals of children under the NTS, supported by additional funding. However, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services warned at the time that this failed to consider the lack of available placements for them.
Transfer scheme ‘adding pressure to placement system’
Following the release of this month’s DfE figures, ADCS president Steve Crocker said that, while directors were fully behind the NTS, it had placed added pressure on councils.
“It is fair to say that it is a big pressure in an already highly-pressured placement system,” he said. “We are struggling to find places.”
“And I think it’s also fair to say that many of the children prefer to live within communities they are familiar with,” Crocker added. “We’re certainly seeing some authorities with relatively high populations from particular countries beginning to experience a strain on their services and their local systems.”
He also raised significant concerns about Home Office funding for care leavers who were formerly unaccompanied children.
The number of them aged 19-21 has nearly doubled over the past five years, going from 4,550 in 2018 to 8,720 in 2022, representing 26% of care leavers of that age.
Councils receive £270 per week for each of these care leavers, with the sum having increased from £150-£200 per week in 2020.
However, Crocker said this funding was “woefully inadequate”, placing particular pressure on authorities with high numbers, such as Kent.
Increase in number of asylum seekers driving other trends
The sharp rise in the number of unaccompanied children appeared to drive other trends in the wider care population, including:
- A 38% rise, from 5,710 to 7,900, in the number aged 16+, a group which includes 87% of asylum-seeking children.
- A 1,350 increase in the number in care primarily because of ‘absent parenting’, a category which also covers most unaccompanied children.
- A 1,810 hike in the number accommodated voluntarily under section 20, which includes 88% of asylum-seeking children.
- A 23% rise, from 6,080 to 7,470, in the number in unregulated independent or semi-independent living placements, in which unaccompanied children are disproportionately placed, according to 2021 data.
Concerns over use of unregulated settings
There are longstanding concerns that the use of unregulated settings, such as hostels, shared houses, flats and bedsits, has put children at risk due to a lack of oversight and standards.
Coram Children’s Legal Centre, which campaigns on behalf of unaccompanied children, said the use of unregulated settings for the group was “inappropriate”.
While praising councils’ good practice in supporting asylum-seeking children, the charity’s senior legal and policy officer, Stewart MacLachlan, said: “For unaccompanied children, it’s not appropriate because it lacks that specialist support that’s needed. And maybe there may be some good accommodation providers. But it’s about standards; there is a mix of support and quality [between providers] that doesn’t really help them.”
However, Crocker said placements were tailored to the individual child’s needs. He said some older asylum-seeking children had lived independently while travelling to England, so may prefer independent living placements “with the right support”.
Though the government has banned the use of unregulated settings for children under 16 and will subject them to regulation from next year, they will not be required to provide young people with ‘care’, unlike children’s homes. Campaigners have warned this will maintain a two-tier system of provision.