Watchdog have revealed that unaccompanied under-18’s have been locked in an adult detention centre and kept in these holding units for days at a time.
A report by HM Prisons Inspectorate reveals that children arriving on small boats are being placed in hotels without any proper supervision, and some have also been detained in a reception facility without access to a bed or shower and with little or no natural light.
The shadow home-secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds accused ministers of ‘failing on every level’ in their protection of child refugees and some legal experts have warned that some of these practices are unlawful. The children’s commissioner called on the Home Office to ‘urgently’ review its processes to ensure that this type of serious safeguarding failure highlighted by the inspectorate were not repeated.
Unaccompanied minors who arrive on the UK coast have previously gone straight into local authority care in Kent, but Kent County Council announced in August that it had reached capacity and can’t take any more children arrivals.
The Home Office said the underage arrivals would instead be held at the Kent Intake Unit which is a short term holding facility in Dover, before being placed with social services after “as short a period as possible”.
But the report found that unaccompanied minors were waiting long periods for social workers to arrive. On average, they were held for over 24 hours. In one case a 15 year old was held for over 66 hours. It also identified the fact that some minors were not being identified as children and were subsequently taken to Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre for adults, where staff could clearly see they were children and they were then taken into local authority care. Inspectors learnt of four such incidents which had taken place. A further case showed that a 12 year old boy was sent to hotel accommodation in London with his 18 year old brother, with no indication that any contact had been made with local authority social service departments.
Under law, if the UK authorities doubt the age of an asylum seeker who claims to be a minor, they are required to carry out an age assessment unless they look over the age of 25. Children can only be detained for up to a 24 hour period at any one time, and welfare interviews should take place at the earliest opportunity.
The treatment of child refugees revealed in the Prison Inspectorate’s findings were an ‘absolute disgrace’ said Lord Alf Dubs, a former child refuge.”That is no way to treat young people, it lets them down very badly”.
“We are supposed to be acting in the best interest of the child, but we are miles away from that. Hostility is beating child safeguarding. We are subjecting very vulnerable children to even more awfulness. It is a betrayal.”
A letter from the Home Office issued at the end of August, informed local authorities that they must carry out ‘urgent age assessments of unaccompanied asylum seekers suspected of being over 18, and offer assistance and support with any legal challenges.
A solicitor at Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, Laura Gibbons, said she was ‘extremely concerned’ with the findings of the report and added: “The home office and local authorities are under a statutory duty to act in the best interests of the children and it is clear from the findings of this report that they are failing in this regard”. “We are concerned about what appears to be a culture of disbelief towards young people in the UK. particularly after it was revealed that unaccompanied child refugees in Calais were being placed in Calais adult accommodation centres where they faced unprecedented risk of abuse while others found it increasingly difficult to access food, water and information on their rights, due to a ramping up of police hostility in recent months.
Ann Longfield, Children’s commissioner called on the Home Office to ‘urgently’ review its processes to ensue these types of ‘serious safeguarding failures’ highlighted by the inspectorate, were not repeated.
“A catalogue of errors has meant that these children have not always been kept safe, their welfare has been undermined and their asylum claims have been put at risk. There are many serious questions to be asked about the safeguarding systems put in place by the Home Office at the Kent Intake Unit and how this is being supervised” she said.
Head of children’s services at the Refugee Council, Helen Johnson OBE, which operates the Kent Intake Unit and was described in the report as providing “good support” to children, said that there were areas of ‘great concern’ about how those seeking asylum were treated on arrival and in the early stages of the process.
“Our own service in Dover Port, which has been there for five years, works to ensure that children are safe and cared for while they await placement. Sadly, in recent weeks, some children have had to wait longer than anyone would want to before being moved on”.
“For the children incorrectly labelled as adult and move on to inappropriate facilities without care, this is an extremely distressing and a potentially harmful time. The Home Office needs to ensure that its policy is adhered to in a manner that provides sufficient safeguards so that children are identified as such much earlier in the process”.
Development leader at Social Worker Without Borders, Naomi Jackson said: “It is ‘completely unacceptable’ that children and young people who arrive in the UK, most of whom will have experienced trauma and loss, were being held in facilities that were ‘clearly failing to uphold principles of child welfare.
Director of Detention Action, Bella Sankey said the report revealed ‘brutal reality of how refugee children are treated in Priti Patel’s Britain’ adding “the report makes it absolutely clear that this is not a result in a rise in numbers, it is a result of lack of care and action”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The welfare of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is an absolute priority. We are fully adhering to our statutory duties and we have improved both our facilities and the way we deal with arrivals in response to the unprecedented rise in small boat crossings”. Young people are prioritised to ensure the necessary welfare and security checks are completed in the shortest amount of time. After this they are collected by a local authority and cared for by social services”. “We have contracted a team of social workers as a temporary measure to support the Kent Intake Unit, with the aim of strengthening the unit’s age assessment and child safeguarding processes”.