Ministers have been accused of putting child welfare “gravely at risk” as data revealed that 80 unaccompanied minors – one in five who completed the dangerous journey from northern France – were locked for more than 24 hours in a processing centre between April and September 2020.
The figures, obtained by the children’s commissioner, show that one child was held for about 65 hours – during which time they had no proper sleeping facilities or access to fresh air.
Detention of a child for more than 24 hours is banned under the Immigration Act 2014. Longer detention is permitted only in “exceptional circumstances” and requires the authorisation of the home secretary.
The shadow immigration minister, Holly Lynch, said the “shocking” revelations showcased a “complete disregard” for the well-being of unaccompanied minors fleeing to the UK, adding, and called on the government to develop an “urgent action plan” to support them.
Anne Longfield, the children’s comissioner for England, said the government was “wilfully ignoring the plight of vulnerable children” and that there was a “pressing need” to improve processes for minors arriving in Kent, as well as more routes of entry that are safe and legal.
“These are vulnerable children who have often lived through unimaginable horrors, and they should be treated as such rather than being stuck in waiting rooms for days on end,” Ms Longfield said.
She said the unlawful detentions were in large part due to failures in the UK’s system for dispersing children to local authorities across the country, known as the national transfer scheme.
Lone child refugees who arrive in the UK by small boat are taken to the Kent intake unit, where their identities are checked and initial claims processed before they can be transferred to local authorities. The Home Office says they should remain there for the “shortest period possible”.
However, a prison inspectorate report in October warned that unaccompanied minors were often held overnight in the Kent intake unit, with no access to the open air and little or no natural light.
The number of children arriving on small boats steadily increased between April and September, peaking in August when 239 children passed through the intake unit, comprising 108 unaccompanied children and 131 children with parents or guardians.
Unaccompanied minors arriving in the UK 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. That month saw the highest number of illegal child detentions, the data shows.
These figures do not include time that the youngsters spent in the “non-detained” part of the Kent intake unit after their initial claims were processed – during which their movements are still very limited – which exceeded 95 hours in some cases.
Bella Sankey, director at Detention Action, said the “refusal” by the home secretary, Priti Patel, to properly resource local councils to take in child refugees was putting child welfare “gravely at risk” and could mean “hundreds more children are detained as Channel crossings increase again this year”.
Unauthorised Channel crossings have dipped during the winter months, but campaigners warn that crossings are likely to rise again as the weather gets warmer, and that many more children could face unlawful detention unless considerable changes are made.
It comes after the UK government confirmed last month that it would no longer provide a safe and legal route to the UK for lone child refugees, prompting concerns that more youngsters would turn to dangerous, unauthorised routes.
Charities wrote to the children’s minister last month expressing “grave concerns” about the care of asylum-seeking children arriving in Britain, warning of “continued delays” in implementing reforms.
The government has acknowledged that its national transfer scheme is in need of reform and a consultation took place last year, but changes are yet to be implemented.
Enver Solomon, chief executive at the Refugee Council, said the charity was “deeply alarmed” by the findings.
“Children who travel to the UK seeking safety have endured horrific experiences both in their home country and during perilous journeys to the UK. On arrival, it is not unusual for these children to present with physical injuries, hypothermia, dehydration and serious mental health needs,” he said.
“They should be treated with compassion, not subjected to prolonged detention while waiting to be taken into care. The welfare of the child must come first in every single case.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Due to an unprecedented increase in arrivals in 2020, there was a period when Kent County Council could no longer collect children, which required us to quickly put in place emergency arrangements and place children with other local authorities – they continued to be cared for at the Kent Intake Unit while these were implemented.
“Since December, Kent County Council has recommenced taking children from the unit, and we have recently undertaken a consultation on a more sustainable future model for the National Transfer Scheme.”