Children arriving in the UK held in immigration detention

Coram Children’s Legal Centre is deeply concerned by the recent reports of children being held in immigration detention facilities in Kent, after Kent County Council reached the limits of its capacity to provide safe care for any new children arriving in the area.

Many children seeking safety in the UK do not have any family with them to care for them, and have often undergone traumatic and exhausting journeys. This can include experiencing violence or abuse from the police and government agents in other countries. They need to be somewhere where they can begin to feel safe as soon as possible; in the UK, this will mean being looked after and accommodated by social services.

Instead, it appears that some children are now being held in immigration detention facilities and there is a significant risk this will be for much longer than they should be . These are ‘short term’ facilities with minimal privacy, and two main rooms in which detainees are held together. The Home Office has not said whether children held in these facilities are provided with a place to sleep or wash or how they will be separated from adult detainees.

The Immigration Act 2014 banned the detention of unaccompanied children for more than a 24-hour period at any one time. Children can lawfully be detained when they first arrive in the UK, but only where their presence is required for immigration purposes and the Home Office is confident that the child will be released into appropriate care in less than 24 hours. Children cannot be lawfully detained simply because suitable accommodation is difficult to find.

Kent social services, as well as other local authorities, have been under strain for a long time, and experienced a similar challenge with the numbers of children arriving in 2015. The circumstances of the past few weeks are not unexpected; there has been an upturn in the number of unaccompanied children arriving over the summer months for the past few years and an increase in numbers arriving in 2020. In 2016 the National Transfer Scheme was set up so that local authorities with high numbers of unaccompanied children in their care could move children to another local authority that had volunteered to take these children. However, the National Transfer Scheme has had a number of issues since it started and it was inevitable that Kent would be unable to cope without further support.

These are vulnerable children seeking safety, to whom the government has a duty of care. Detention is a wholly unsuitable solution. We call upon the government to guarantee that no child will be detained for longer than briefly necessary to register their details, and that all children will be released into appropriate care in less than 24 hours. If any child has already been detained for more than 24 hours, we expect the Home Office to make public this information for the purpose of transparency, and to provide restitution to the child. The government must immediately put measures in place to ensure appropriate accommodation is available on arrival for all unaccompanied children seeking safety, both now and in the future.