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New reception centres planned to host unaccompanied child asylum-seekers in Kent

New arrival centres for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) are being planned in Kent ahead of the new year, a council chief has said.

Kent County Council said it is waiting for a funding agreement from the Home Office so it can provide “sufficient” temporary accommodation for lone children arriving on its shores.

It is hoped the move will ease the pressure on children’s services in the county, which has previously been “so overwhelmed” the authority said it was forced into a position it was failing in its duties to look after all children in need.

As of November 29, the council has 519 people under 18 in its care, when the maximum limit should be 346, under a national system that distributes UASC across the country.

It is also looking after 1,018 asylum-seeking youths who are care-leavers over the age of 18.

Discussions are continuing between the council and the Home Office about setting up these new reception centres.

Kent County Council leader Roger Gough said: “We now await prompt agreement from the Home Office for the funding KCC has confirmed is required to urgently provide sufficient temporary accommodation for all expected new UAS children arrivals moving forward.

“This must be resolved now at pace so that we can establish new reception centres before arrivals are predicted to begin to escalate again in the new year.”

The plans come after Kent County Council launched a legal challenge against the Home Office, saying it was being put under “wholly disproportionate strain” by looking after hundreds of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

Its main concern was over the national transfer scheme (NTS), where children are moved from one local authority to another to help even out the distribution of care.

The council has been critical of the system and its “overburden” of taking on more responsibility than others because of Dover being a key point of entry for newly arriving children.

The scheme was first introduced on a voluntary basis for local authorities in 2016, but taking part was made a mandatory requirement by the Home Office to “relieve pressures”, in 2022.

In a High Court ruling, Mr Justice Chamberlain said the operation of NTS has improved in recent months but suggested Home Office officials need to do more to stop the use of hotels for children’s accommodation.

He also concluded that Kent County Council had acted unlawfully by failing to accommodate and look after all lone children when notified of their arrival by the Home Office and by ceasing to accept responsibility for some newly arriving lone children while continuing to accept other children into its care.

In a statement on Wednesday, Kent County Council said the judge acknowledged the approach taken by the Home Office in managing the NTS has been “unreasonably slow” and “unlawful”.

Mr Gough added: “This [reception centres], and the ruling that the Home Office must quickly implement an effective and successfully managed NTS, will hopefully ensure that Kent’s children’s services will never again have to announce the position of being so overwhelmed it can no longer take any new referrals of children into its care.”

On the judgment, Mr Gough said it recognised the care of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is not a “Kent problem, but a national one”, that needed a resolution from central government.

Mr Gough said: “Kent’s public services and taxpayers should never be unfairly overburdened simply because of our geography in relation to the shortest crossing route and, following this ruling, this should never happen again.”

A Home Office spokesman also said the safety and welfare of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children was a national issue which needed participation from local authorities across the UK.

He added: “We are carefully considering the judgment and will continue to work with local authorities across the UK to support them to fulfil their statutory duties to accommodate unaccompanied children nationwide.”

Meanwhile, a charity said the idea of giving the Home Office powers to accommodate lone child asylum seekers under the Illegal Migration Act rather than local authorities would be a “profoundly misguided and dangerous move”, after a report found a “concerning lack of oversight” in safeguarding children in hotels in the past two years.

Pregnant girls, including some thought to be victims of rape, were among the 5,298 children placed in hotels between July 2021 and May this year according to data given to the children’s commissioner by the Home Office.

Dame Rachel de Souza said powers under the Illegal Migration Act allowing the Home Secretary to take charge of accommodating such children “must not be enacted”, citing her report as evidence of a Home Office failure to “appropriately safeguard children in their care”.

Mark Russell, chief executive of The Children’s Society, described the figures as “appalling”.

He added: “The Illegal Migration Act strips away crucial protections for asylum-seeking children, including giving the Home Office powers to accommodate these children instead of local authorities.

“This data shows what a profoundly misguided and dangerous move this would be.”

A Home Office spokesman said safeguarding procedures are in place “to ensure all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in hotels are as safe and supported as possible as we seek urgent placements with a local authority”, adding that there are currently no children accommodated in hotels.