Britain struggles to help rising numbers of lone children seeking asylum

by Lin Taylor | @linnytayls | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 31 August 2016 11:17 GMT

A boy lights a candle during a vigil for refugees in Nottingham, Britain, September 7, 2015. REUTERS/Darren Staples

Image Caption and Rights Information
In Britain alone, 3,472 children applied for asylum in the 12 months to June this year

By Lin Taylor

LONDON, Aug 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Alan, a British foster parent, first took in a teenager who had fled poverty and political repression in Eritrea, the boy was so scarred by his journey to the UK that he barely spoke.

Then 16, the boy was smuggled into Britain underneath a truck nursing a broken arm, having fallen from the vehicle somewhere in France.

Five years on, the traumatised teenager was now a 21-year-old man with a home of his own in Kent, southeast England. And when Alan walked into the young man's housewarming party, it was one of the proudest moments as a foster parent.

"We all went to his moving-in party and it was fantastic," said Alan, who declined to give his full name to protect other foster children in his care.

"When they arrive, they're so anxious and frightened. And to see them feel more at home and making friends, that is so rewarding. They are the standout moments," Alan said in a phone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The British father of six and his partner have been fostering unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Kent for nearly seven years with children's charity Barnardo's, looking after teenagers from Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Albania and currently a 17-year-old boy from Afghanistan.

As difficult as it is to gain their trust and to support them as they adjust to a new life in Britain, it is nothing compared with the journey these children have taken, Alan said.

"Some witnessed a member of their family being killed or arrested. They might have been trafficked. They're all traumatised when they get here," he said.

OVERSTRETCHED

As Europe grapples with its worst refugee crisis since World War Two, the need for British foster carers and support services is greater than ever, charities and government officials say.

In 2015, nearly 96,000 lone children sought asylum in the European Union, almost four times as many as the previous year, according to the European Asylum Support Office.

In Britain alone, 3,472 children applied for asylum in the 12 months to June this year, an increase of 54 percent compared with the previous year which had 2,252 claims. The highest number of claims came from children arriving from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iran.

Foster carers hosted 2,630 asylum-seeking children in 2015, a 29 percent increase on 2014 (2,030) and a 35 percent increase on 2013 (1,940), according to government data.

Although the number of people wishing to foster child asylum seekers continues to grow, there are not enough legal aid, mental health services or schooling for new arrivals, charity workers said.

"The social services are greatly stretched. The whole situation is a bit difficult in Kent for young people and for the council as well," said Asma Salah, a British Red Cross caseworker in one of the main arrival points for migrants crossing the English Channel.

As the closest British county to Calais, where hundreds of child migrants have ended up living in squalid camps, Kent is on the frontlines of refugee arrivals in the UK with 825 unaccompanied minors in its care as of Aug. 22, compared with 730 last September.

Under the Children Act 1989, British councils have a legal responsibility to care for children who arrive from abroad, seeking asylum.

Though new arrivals have dropped, Kent council says it is struggling to support the children they have in their system, and has urged other local authorities to take in some minors through a voluntary dispersal scheme launched in July.

With around 20 young people dispersed so far, and very few councils expressing interest to resettle them, Peter Oakford, Kent's councillor in charge of children's services, said the scheme should be mandatory.

"The dispersal programme really isn't any good. We can't even get a list of local authorities from government that have signed up to participate," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But the head of the local government's refugee taskforce, David Simmonds said the interests of the child would be better served if councils were not forced to take them in.

Simmonds, who recently returned from his first visit to Calais, said British local authorities were doing a reasonable job with limited resources.

"The big challenge is if there's going to be a very significant increase in numbers," he added.

BEST INTEREST OF THE CHILD

Rape, forced labour, beatings and death are just some of the dangers faced by children travelling without their parents, the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, says.

Given the risk of abuse, UNICEF said Britain should do more to resettle lone children stranded in Calais and across Europe.

"There should be more resettlement places for those children whose best interest is to be in the UK, along with legal routes like family reunion," said Melanie Teff, policy advisor at UNICEF UK.

"We're not saying the UK should take every unaccompanied child in Europe but ... we're dealing with a global refugee crisis and the UK needs to step up and play its part in responsibility sharing for that."

For Joanne in Kent, fostering a child asylum seeker for the first time in November was a natural response to the refugee crisis.

"I just don't think there's enough people willing to open their homes within the UK to the real problems that are out there," said Joanne, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"There's a lot of ignorance. I do believe that a lot of people have no understanding of these children - and they really don't understand that they've had an horrific journey coming here."

Alan said despite the challenges, he will continue to take in unaccompanied children as long as there is a need.

"We're embracing them and giving them a big cuddle, so to speak. We want to guide them, show kindness and let them know that they've got somebody here that they can rely on."

(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women's rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.