Unaccompanied children who have crossed the Channel in small boats are being forced to wait for days in a holding unit without access to beds or showers before being placed in local authority care, a government watchdog has warned.
The children’s commissioner said delays in moving youngsters out of the Kent Intake Unit – where asylum seekers who have crossed the Channel from France are processed before being moved on to other areas – was creating an “untenable” situation.
Unaccompanied minors arriving on the UK coast previously went straight into local authority care in Kent, but Kent County Council announced in August that it had reached capacity and could not take in any more children.
The Home Office said the underage arrivals would instead be kept at the Kent Intake Unit before being placed with social services. The department is said to have recruited a team of four agency staff to work at the unit, which is located within the port of Dover and has a short-term holding facility for both adults and children.
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, warned that the current system was leaving “children who had survived a dangerous boat crossing, and may have slept rough for months or been trafficked, waiting almost 72 hours in a holding unit without access to showers or beds, waiting for social workers from another county to come and collect them”.
In a blog post following a recent visit to the Kent Intake Unit, the commissioner wrote: “While front-line staff are working tirelessly to care for these children, the current situation is untenable.”
The Home Office said children would be allocated to local authorities across the country under the national transfer scheme, a voluntary programme set up in 2016 to more evenly share the costs of supporting unaccompanied children.
However, Ms Longfield said the system and processes for dispersing child asylum seekers to local councils nationally was “buckling” and in need of reform.
“It is crucial that the scheme is reformed and properly funded so that more councils are willing to take children into their care, especially when cash-strapped councils are already struggling to provide the right support for the children already in their care. A national age assessment scheme could also help to reduce delays,” she said.
Around 100 local authorities have pledged more than 400 places for unaccompanied children under the scheme, but the Home Office has said more to come forward and “do their bit for vulnerable children”.
Bridget Chapman, learning and project coordinator for Kent Refugee Action Network (Kran), which supports asylum-seeking children and young people in the Kent area, said: "I’m horrified but not surprised to find that children are being kept in what amounts to dehumanising conditions.
“We raised questions about the suitability of this venue being used to hold them and nothing was done. We now have vulnerable children being traumatised in Kent before they’re then moved on to somewhere else.”
Ms Chapman called for the national transfer scheme to be reinstated, funded “properly”, adding: “It has to be done with a support plan in place, it has to be funded properly and it has to be done in a timely fashion.”
Bella Sankey, director at Detention Action, said: "A government can be judged on how it chooses to treat unaccompanied refugee children that seek its help. Ours is currently detaining these children indefinitely, with adults, in cramped conditions and without basic facilities such as beds.
"It is a sickening situation and a deliberate policy choice of Priti Patel's Home Office which has failed to ensure that local authorities around the country are resourced and mandated to promptly take these children into their care."
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our efforts remain focused on ensuring every single unaccompanied child receives appropriate support whilst we seek a permanent place for them with a local authority. They are always prioritised and held at the Kent Intake Unit for as short a period as possible.
“We recently consulted on plans to improve the National Transfer Scheme, which transfers unaccompanied asylum seeking children to different local authorities, to make sure the responsibility for these children is spread evenly and fairly.”