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'Councils must oppose the curtailing of the lone child refugee programme'

Jasmine Ali
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The abrupt ending of the scheme to bring unaccompanied child refugees to the UK, made possible by the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act, has caused widespread outrage.

The commitment to provide a safe haven for vulnerable unaccompanied refugee children in Europe will conclude after only 350 children have been brought to the UK; nothing like the 3,000 proposed in the original amendment [the amendment passed in revised form, once the 3,000 figure was replaced by “a specified number” to be determined by the government in consultation with councils].

The government’s justification is twofold. First, it does not want to make the country a ‘magnet’ for refugees. Second, it claims local authorities are pressuring them to cut this lifeline off for thousands of desperate children.

The government is wrong on both counts. A parent risking their child’s life in order to get them out of a warzone by is motivated by a push and not a pull factor. The heartrending photographs of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned on a beach a year ago, brought about an unprecedented wave of sympathy for Syrian refugees. Children do not travel because of any benefits package; they are sent by their parents because they face an existential threat in their homes. Just as we evacuated our children from London during the blitz, so parents now send their children to safety from warzones.

As for the supposed culpability of councils, more than a hundred local councils came forward to try to find the 20,000 places promised for Syrian refugees. Soon after that, the Local Government Association sent a delegation of councillors to the Calais ‘jungle’ camp for a crisis meeting with the town’s mayor on how to better keep unaccompanied children safe. Councils were not approached or consulted by the Home Office before it announced the closure of the Dubs scheme.

Councils are motivated by their responsibility to protect children. They have been stepping up to the plate since the 1996 Immigration and Asylum Act ended benefits for refugee families. Hillingdon, Croydon, Harrow, Kent and other councils close to the ports responded well. This is why they supported the Dubs amendment.

We should recall that the Immigration Act of May 2016 said its purpose was to “reduce pressures on local authorities and simplify support for migrants pending resolution of their immigration status or their departure from the UK”. A national transfer scheme was set up to help port authorities.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services has worked hard to enable this. The lack of funds to meet actual support costs made it difficult for many councils to participate. That said, many councils such as Hammersmith & Fulham and an increasing number of other London boroughs have called the Home Secretary out for only sending small numbers of children despite being pestered by them to send more.

The Home Office reimburses councils as they are dealing with a Home Office issue not a local child protection issue. Councils receive £41,610 per annum for unaccompanied children under 16s and 16-17 year olds attract £33,215 per annum. However, many councils have to place unaccompanied children with private commercial fostering agencies, which often charge £800 or more a week per placement placement, so that costs the council £41,600, leaving nothing to pay for social work time, education support, independent reviewing officer services or other services the child may need. The gap is more pronounced once the child is over 16. Some councils try to cap fees but this is hard to enforce if there is little placement choice.

Today councils can claim just £200 for the support of each over-18 asylum seeker. This is based on general care leaver costs but, because of their immigration status, unaccompanied young people turning 18 can often not access support or benefits that UK citizen care leavers can. So, again, this £200 is highly likely to be insufficient to cover councils’ costs.

Despite legislative change on immigration, local government must fulfil its duty to safeguard asylum seeking young people. Government funds don’t cover the hidden costs, which include education, college, social work and costs to partner organisations providing health and translation services.

Council leaders should follow the example of Hammersmith & Fulham, Gedling, Camden, Ealing, Lambeth, Hounslow, Greenwich and Lewisham and call on the government to reconsider the financial support given to this important programme.

It is not the position of councils to leave lone refugee children at risk from traffickers and sexual abusers – nor is it a morally or legally sustainable to do so.

Jasmine Ali, senior policy and research advisor, The Adolescent and Children’s Trust, co-chair, Alliance for Children and Care Leavers

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