Reception centres for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children

Why is KCC opening new reception centres for unaccompanied asylum-seeking (UAS) children?

In July 2023, Mr Justice Chamberlain sitting at the High Court ruled that the Home Office’s routine use of hotels to house unaccompanied asylum-seeking (UAS) children was unlawful, and that Kent County Council (KCC) must take "every possible step" to increase its capacity to accommodate and look after all UAS children arriving in the county.

The reason the Court has made this ruling is because Section 20 of the 1989 Children Act sets out the duties of all local authorities to take into its care any child or young person who presents in their area and has no one with parental responsibility to look after them. This includes UAS children who arrive in small boats or on lorries into Kent for example, and the Court has formally confirmed that it is Kent’s responsibility to take all UAS children into our care regardless of their mode of arrival into Kent. The legal process is ongoing to ensure that Central Government continues to support Kent in this work, but KCC must comply with the Court ruling now or be in contempt of Court.

Based on our own and Home Office data, we anticipate that referrals of UAS children into KCC’s care will escalate significantly going forward and so the council must identify suitable accommodation to support UAS children as they arrive at pace. This is because we do not currently have sufficient placements in Kent to look after all new arrivals, even though significant numbers of UAS children are transferred to the care of other local authorities.

As soon as the relevant legal agreements have been confirmed for each of the various centres, letters have been sent to the local residents affected and communication with other stakeholders has taken place. Read our communication with residents. As the scheme progresses KCC will publish the names and locations of each of the new accommodations.

Why is KCC providing accommodation and support to UAS children when there are other children and residents of Kent in need?

Kent’s proximity to mainland Europe and having a major seaport on its coastline means UAS children regularly arrive in large numbers in the county and are referred to KCC’s children’s services. The Court has confirmed that KCC has the same legal responsibilities to all these children to accommodate and support them, as it does for any other child who would otherwise be destitute without our support.  
Kent County Council has consistently said that the response to UAS children arriving in the UK should not fall to Kent alone due to our geography as a coastal county and a national response, including Central Government funding and action is required. The High Court has ruled KCC and Central Government must work together to ensure KCC has the resources it needs to comply with the ruling and meet its statutory responsibilities to all UAS children who arrive to Kent.

The reception centres, and the services KCC provides to UAS children, will be funded by Central Government, not from the Council’s reserves or from the Kent taxpayer.

Services for other children and residents of Kent are funded separately and any decisions KCC makes regarding these services do not relate to the High Court ruling or UAS children.

Why did KCC not consult with residents before deciding where the reception centres would be?

It is regrettable that we were not able to share KCC’s plans in full for the reception centres ahead of time. The necessity to comply with the urgency of the Court ruling, and the need to identify suitable accommodation for children who continue to arrive to Kent at pace, means it has not been possible for KCC to consult with residents in ways it might normally, and would prefer to do.

The on-going legal discussions between KCC and central government has also meant there has been limited information that can be shared.  Nevertheless, we understand residents have questions about the reception centres and we want to keep you updated as much as we are able to as the process continues. This includes communicating directly with residents and working with local councillors and professional partners to share information, so the centres work well with and alongside their local communities.

I have read reports there will be 9 reception centres. Why is KCC not announcing the locations of the reception centres?

The reception centres will be a temporary home for UAS children and must be a place of safety for them and the local community. UAS children are vulnerable to being trafficked and exploited due to their separation from family and circumstances of their journeys to the UK. This vulnerability is why it is especially important for children to have a safe and appropriate home on their arrival to the UK, where committed staff work with professional partners and local communities to help keep children safe. Staff and local community residents must also be protected.  Our previous experience tells us that proactively announcing the specific locations of the centres before all the necessary security and staffing resources are in place leads to the safety of the children and the staff working there to be put at risk. It can also lead to disturbances in local communities which negatively impact on local residents.

Why have the buildings been chosen as reception centres?

There are a variety of reasons why each of the individual buildings have been chosen to become new registered Reception Centres or Children’s Homes. Each centre has its own building and location characteristics but generally:

  • internal spaces are already configured in a layout to provide homely and appropriate accommodation for children, as is required by Ofsted regulations.
  • it is located in an area where children can temporarily reside to develop early skills in acclimatising to community norms and socialising.
  • the layout and location is similar to KCC’s existing reception centres which for many years successfully provided temporary accommodation for UAS children before they move to other Local Authorities under the National Transfer Scheme (NTS).

How will the reception centres operate and how will the children be cared for?

The reception centres will have dedicated KCC care staff and security on site 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Each will be registered with Ofsted, with a registered manager and will operate to its regulatory standards and be subject to regular inspections.

UAS children accommodated at the reception centres will be Children in Care to Kent, which means each child will have an allocated social worker, who will regularly visit them and lead a plan for their care. Each UAS child will also have an allocated Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) to ensure this plan is satisfactorily carried out. Social workers will regularly be at the reception centres alongside dedicated management, care staff and round the clock security.

KCC dedicated managers and staff at the reception centre will be responsible for meeting the children’s basic care needs, providing a structured program of weekly education and activities, and implementing expectations for behaviour. As the children will only be at the centre for a short period of time, they will receive on-site support for their learning needs and development of key skills and knowledge. This includes English language and guidance on English law and society, thereby supporting the children to develop early skills to socialise whilst having the best and earliest opportunity to contribute towards their community, wherever that may be in the UK. This helps UAS children successfully integrate, whilst temporarily at the reception centre and when they move to their more permanent home in other local authority areas. If the reception centre has an outdoor recreation area, the children will be able to use it and KCC staff will accompany them on organised activities off site.

How long will the children be accommodated at the reception centres?

The reception centres will provide a temporary home for UAS children while they await transfer to other local authorities under the National Transfer Scheme (NTS). The mandatory timescale for a UAS child to transfer from KCC’s care to another UK local authority under the NTS is 10 working days.

Will the reception centres be used all year round?

We expect to need to use all our reception centres throughout the year, but occupancy rates will be different during peak and low activity periods. UAS children arrive during every month of the year, but the spring and summer months, when the weather is better does result in far larger numbers of arrivals than during the winter months. This means that our reception centres will appear busier with more activity taking place during the spring and summer than during the winter.

I have heard reports the reception centres will accommodate children and adults. Is this true?

We can confirm the reception centres will be a temporary home for children, aged under 18 years old, only. Some centres will be for children aged 15 years or younger and others will be for children aged 16 to 17 years old. This is because of the different regulations that apply to different age groups for all children in local authority care.

I have heard reports the children could be adults, claiming to be children. What is being done about this?

UAS children may arrive to the UK without documentary evidence for their age. The Home Office robustly considers any differences between a child’s claimed age and their presentation and the information they provide on arrival. If the Home Office considers a person to be older than 18 years old, they will not refer them to KCC. Accommodation and support for adult asylum seekers is provided by the Home Office. If concerns regarding a child’s age are raised whilst they are in KCC’s care, an age assessment is completed by social workers. If the assessment concludes the child is aged over 18 years old, they are immediately moved to Home Office accommodation and support for adults.

I am concerned the reception centres will put my local community at risk. What is being done about this?

KCC is working closely with Kent Police and other statutory partners to ensure these reception centres are safe, both for UAS children and the communities within which they are based.

Our experience of running our two current reception centres has shown that these children present very minimal risk to local communities.  Our staff who work with this group of children, some of whom have more than 10 years' experience in the field, are very skilled in managing any issues which might arise and addressing them with partners quickly and effectively.
However, our experiences also tells us that it is the unaccompanied asylum-seeking (UAS) children themselves who are most at risk, through being vulnerable to being trafficked and exploited due to their separation from family and circumstances of their journeys to the UK.

This vulnerability is why it is especially important for UAS children to have a safe and appropriate home environment on their arrival in the UK, where committed staff work with professional partners and local communities help to keep them safe.

Skilled and experienced social workers meet with newly arrived children to assess their needs and risks, including trafficking and exploitation. These assessments inform plans that are made around children before, and wherever, they are placed. Social workers and dedicated staff at the reception centres are trained and experienced in working with vulnerable children and are responsible for implementing plans to keep children safe at the centre and in the local community.

Kent’s existing reception centres, one of which is based in a residential area, close to local schools and community services, have not resulted in risk to the local community or its residents. Protocols at existing reception centres have worked well for many years and will be in place at all new reception centres. Strong communities help make it difficult for those who might intend to harm children to operate.  The vigilance of KCC staff and joint working with Kent Police, other professional partners, and local communities help ensure all children and communities are kept safe.

Generally, UAS children are extremely appreciative of the accommodation and support they receive from KCC and are eager to learn about, integrate and contribute positively to UK society. KCC staff are committed to supporting them in this.

KCC will continue to listen to and liaise with residents and address any concerns; and we hope you will support us in promoting the UAS children’s safety, wellbeing, and sense of belonging within the communities where the reception centres are located.

I am concerned reception centres are close to local schools and how this might affect children attending there. What is being done about this?

One of KCC’s existing reception centres is based in a residential area, close to local schools and community services. This centre is operating well and has been for many years, with no adverse effect on the local schools or the children attending them.

Generally there is limited interaction between children at the reception centres and children attending local schools because UAS children are only at the reception centres for a short period of time and are just beginning to acclimatise to their local community. Nonetheless, KCC is working with local schools to keep them informed about the centres.

KCC works with some interested Kent schools to organise events that give children from across the World the opportunity to learn and play sport together, and which are very successful. Parents of children involved are informed and provide their consent.

I have heard reports that children will be enrolled in local schools. What is being done about this?

As the UAS children will only be at reception centres for a short period of time, they will not be enrolled in local schools. Instead, UAS children will be provided with on-site support to help their learning and development of language skills, community orientation, understanding UK law and society, and other independent living skills.

I am concerned the reception centres will affect my access to local services, including my GP. What is being done about this?

As the children will only be at reception centres for a short period of time, the majority of services will be delivered on-site. However, children will be registered with local GPs so they can access primary health care in the event they require this during their short stay at the reception centre.

At existing reception centres KCC works with Kent and Medway NHS to support registration with local GPs and KCC staff use good professional judgement when responding to children’s health needs e.g. accessing over the counter medication / pharmacy advice before GP consultation where possible. This will be in place at all reception centres.

I have heard reports children will be allowed to stay out late at night unsupervised. What is being done about this?

UAS children in the care of KCC are not in detention, indeed this would be unlawful, and the council would be at risk legal action being taken against it if prevented anyone from leaving the centres. Under the 1989 Children Act, UAS children have the same rights and are entitled to the same level of care as any other looked after child, including access to services and amenities in the local community. Children can independently leave the centre for short periods of time, with the agreement of staff about where they will be and when they will return. This could be at different times of the day and will depend on the child’s age and individual circumstances, but generally older children are asked to return by early evening.

If a child does not return at a time agreed, at any time of day, staff will take all possible steps to locate them. In some early letters to local residents about the reception centres there was reference to this time being 10:00pm. At 10:00 pm there is a handover between day and night staff teams but there is no set time to wait before reporting a child missing to Police. A decision to do so is based on an assessment of risk by staff, who are trained and experienced in working with UAS children.

KCC works closely with Kent Police at its existing reception centres, where protocols have worked well for many years and will be place at all reception centres. If a child does not return at the time agreed, and staff have taken all possible steps to locate them, then there will be increasing concern for their safety and well-being, requiring contact with Police.

If members of the community have any concerns about the behaviour or activities of UAS children outside of the centres they can make these known to centre staff who will address the matters.