William Eichler 25 October 2016

Unaccompanied refugee children: an interview with a Kent councillor

Addressing the Labour conference in Liverpool, Yvette Cooper MP asked the audience to visualise something. ‘Think on two children,’ she said, ‘Aged ten and nine. Primary school children by the side of a busy road. A ten year old who’s father was killed when extremists took hold of their village. Whose mother paid smugglers to take the boys away.’

‘They live on their own in a muddy tent,’ she continued. ‘And each night they run along the side of a motorway - waiting for a lorry going slow enough to climb aboard. They are scared. And they should be.’

The question of how to help unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children—like the ones Ms. Cooper describes—is one that is weighing on local authorities. The number of lone, migrant children living in England increased by more than 60% to over 4,000 last year, and with the closure of the Calais migrant camp this week the number looks set to increase.

Many councils have taken on the responsibility of looking after unaccompanied refugee children. However, it is Kent that, because of its location, has taken in the most. I spoke with Kent County Council’s cabinet member for specialist children’s services, Cllr Peter Oakford, to learn more about the challenges the council faces.

He began with the numbers. ‘We’re currently supporting 1450 unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children,’ he explained. ‘Although we do get some funding from Government towards that, which covers part of their foster care etc., it puts a huge, huge pressure on all elements of Kent’.

These ‘elements’ are quite diverse. There is the extra strain caring for the children puts on the health service. They require health checks and so more doctors and paediatricians are needed to meet the increase in demand. Moreover, these kids have often experienced and seen horrific things, both in their country of origin and on the journey to Europe. This means they may well require counselling. ‘A lot of them have emotional well-being needs,’ Cllr Oakford said, ‘because they’ve had very traumatic experiences before they get here.’

There are, of course, also language problems. Cllr Oakford reports some headteachers are voicing concerns over the increase in pupils who do not speak English as a first language. ‘It puts pressure on the classroom, it puts pressure on the teachers, and of course it has an impact on the other pupils within the class as well,’ he told me. He also said there was a ‘huge shortage’ of interpreters which affects the council and their partners.

Finding suitable foster homes for these unaccompanied children is also proving a challenge. A recent report from the House of Commons Education Committee warned the foster care system as a whole required ‘urgent attention’. The number of looked-after children is, according to the committee’s report, at its highest point since 1985.

Kent is certainly feeling the squeeze, and this is made worse by the fact fostering agencies charge extraordinary amounts. ‘The independent fostering agencies, who are a profit-making business, put up their fees,’ said Cllr Oakford. ‘Supply and demand—basic economics comes into play. For an independent foster carer, we are paying twice the rate of an in-house foster carer.’

The police too, Cllr Oakford continues, are affected by the increased number of unaccompanied, refugee children. ‘Some of them are brought in by traffickers and have links to traffickers who then try and persuade them as soon as they’re in care to go missing and that puts a huge pressure on the local police force because a lot of these young people are missing.’

In other words, taking in these children puts a lot of pressure on the county’s infrastructure. In the first six months of the refugee crisis Kent provided refuge to 700 children—a 300% increase in their children in care population. Cllr Oakford describes it as ‘absolutely colossal.’

Last May, the Government introduced the National Transfer Scheme (NTS) which came into force on the 1 July. This is a voluntary scheme designed to encourage other local authorities to help Kent by resettling some of the unaccompanied minors in their areas. It had little effect. Out of the 151 authorities with childcare responsibilities only 10 had responded taking in 22 children when I spoke to the councillor.

This number will no doubt increase as more children are brought over from Calais—but this is far from guaranteed. The recent immigration bill included reserve powers that would allow the Government to make the NTS a mandatory scheme, a move Cllr Oakford thinks is absolutely essential. ‘The Government did agree there should be a national dispersal programme and they’ve worked out a ratio of looked after children that each local authority should have,’ he explained. ‘The problem is that we have said this needs to be mandatory otherwise its not going to work, the Government has said thus far they would like it to be voluntary.’

A lot of bigoted rhetoric circulates the debate over immigration. Disturbingly, this is even the case when it comes to providing sanctuary for children. There are, however, some genuine concerns—as Cllr Oakford has voiced—around the question of squeezed resources. But, as the councillor points out, these concerns are resolvable. It simply requires all councils to do their part.

‘If we share this burden the benefit will be to the young people,’ Cllr Oakford tells me. ‘There wont be 40% of a class of unaccompanied asylum seekers; there will maybe be one or two in a class, so those children would be better supported.’

‘What it comes down to is we’re here to support these young people not forgetting that a lot of them have had traumatic experiences. They are very vulnerable,’ he continues. ‘Ive spoken to a young man whose mother and father were shot dead in front of him. Another young man whose village was invaded and his parents told him to run. At the time of me talking to him he didn't know whether his mother or father or siblings were dead or alive. That’s pretty traumatic. And they're the young people that we’re supporting.’

Image: Melih Cevdet Teksen / Shutterstock.com.

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