Vulnerable children arriving in Britain after crossing the Channel are being “betrayed” by a series of failings by the authorities, including sending under-18s to adult detention centres.
A damning report by HM Prison Inspectorate today reveals children arriving on small boats, some as young as 12, are being placed in hotels without proper supervision.
Some have also been left for days in a reception facility without access to beds or showers and with little or no natural light.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, accused ministers of “failing on every level” in their protection of child refugees, while legal experts warned that some of the practices were unlawful.
The children’s commissioner called on the Home Office to “urgently” review its processes to ensure that the type of serious safeguarding failures highlighted by the inspectorate were not repeated.
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 held at the Kent Intake Unit, 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 at the unit for just over 17 hours, with more than a quarter held for over 24 hours. In one case, a 15-year old boy was held for over 66 hours, inspectors said.
It also found that some minors were not being identified as children, and were subsequently taken to Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre for adults, where they were identified by staff as being clearly children and taken into local authority care. Inspectors knew of four such incidents taking place.
In another case, 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 services departments.
Under the law, if the UK authorities doubt the age of an asylum seeker who is claiming to be a minor, they are required to carry out an age assessment unless they look over 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.
Lord Alf Dubs, a former child refugee, said the treatment of child refugees revealed in the Prison Inspectorate’s findings were an “absolute disgrace”, adding: “That’s is no way to treat young people. It lets them down very badly.
“We’re supposed to be acting in the best interests of the child, but we’re miles away from that. Hostility is trumping child safeguarding. We’re 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 offering assistance and support with any subsequent legal challenges.
Laura Gibbons, solicitor at Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, said she was “extremely concerned” with the findings of the report, adding: “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 arriving in the UK.”
It comes after The Independent revealed that unaccompanied child refugees in Calais were being placed in adult accommodation centres where they face an unprecedented risk of abuse, while others were finding it increasingly difficult to access food, water and information on their rights due to a ramping up of police hostility in recent months.
Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield called on the Home Office to “urgently” review its processes to ensure that the type 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 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.
Helen Johnson OBE, head of children’s services at the Refugee Council, which operates at the Kent Intake Unit and was described in the report as providing “good support” to children, said there were areas of “great concern” about how those seeking asylum are 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 there have had to wait longer than anyone would want to be before being moved on,” she said.
“For those children incorrectly labelled as adult and moved on to inappropriate facilities without care, this is an extremely distressing and 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.”
Naomi Jackson, development lead at Social Worker Without Borders, said it was “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”.
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said the report revealed the “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 of a rise in numbers, it is a result of her 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.”