There is space for lone refugee children in Britain, but the government isn’t trying to find it

Alf Dubs, who was brought to Britain on the Kindertransport, among those delivering a petition to Downing Street on the closure of the child refugee programme. Stefan Rousseau PA Wire

Britain has a proud tradition of stepping up to meet the needs of refugee children. In 1938, it welcomed the first Kindertransport, a scheme that went on to rescue thousands of children from the Nazis, and in the 1970s people came forward to foster and adopt the orphaned children of the Vietnamese boat people. The current government is threatening this tradition by effectively tearing up the Dubs Amendment – which aimed to help unaccompanied minors in France come to the UK – and closing the child refugee scheme.

The government’s justification for making such a decision is based on an estimated and contested claim that local authorities lack the capacity to offer placements. The home secretary, Amber Rudd, also argued in parliament that it would act as a pull factor for more unaccompanied minors to try and reach the UK, without mentioning the more powerful push factors, such as war and human rights abuses.

Under the Dubs amendment, the UK has so far accepted 200 unaccompanied children and young people. But when the amendment – put forward by the peer Alf Dubs, who was brought to the UK on the Kindertransport – was agreed in May 2016, there was hope that 3,000 would be offered refuge.

On February 8, the immigration minister, Robert Goodwill, argued in a written statement that across the UK there is now only capacity to offer a further 150 places, equating to less than three children per local authority.

Finding a home

In effect these last 150 “Dubs places” will amount to less than three coach loads of children. This is in the context of a humanitarian crisis where nearly 60m people are displaced globally and 2.5m refugees are residing in Turkey and 1.7m live in Jordan and Lebanon. In this context it is a tad bold for ministers to conclude that the UK is over capacity.

The claim has also been strongly disputed in an open letter from local councillors in London, which suggest that foster places have been offered to the Home Office on numerous occasions but never taken up.

In November 2016, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services stated their commitment to refugee children, but added that their ability to help is restricted by a lack of funding. They argued that the current offer of £41,000 for under 16s and £33,000 a year for 16 and 17-year-olds equates to less than 50% of the total cost of looking after a child who arrives in the country alone. This funding would cover the costs to a fostering service for a placement, which are around £800 per week. However, it fails to consider the cost of school places and social work support, which must also be paid by the local authority.

Unaccompanied children under the age of 16 are predominantly placed with foster carers, while those over 16 are generally accommodated in supported lodgings where young people live more independently with support and supervision. There are ongoing shortages across the public care system, and a continuing need to build capacity so that there are options to match children and their needs to the most appropriate carers or residential placements.

However, the charity Safe Passage, which helps unaccompanied child refugees and vulnerable adults in Europe find safe and legal routes to the UK, says the government’s estimate that there are only 150 more available places available for unaccompanied minors is based on a consultation carried out in May 2016. If this is the case, it fails to take into account that agencies have been working to build their capacity since then.

Who can offer what

The consultation also fails to acknowledge that fostering takes place in a mixed economy of care with providers from across the voluntary and independent sector, where there are readily available placements. The Home Office is aware of these placement opportunities as they have met with the charities TACT, Action for Children and Barnardos to discuss capacity and what they can offer and ways to contract directly with these service providers. The faith-based agency Home for Good has also been recruiting foster carers specifically for refugee children.

I recently collaborated on a project with TACT in the south-west of England, called Fostering Hope, exploring ways to increase the available placements for refugee children and young people, through engaging with the young people in placement, their existing foster carers and also the wider public.

We found that some existing carers were anxious about being able to meet the children and young people’s cultural needs, as well as having worries about being able to communicate with them effectively. Some carers worried about their ability to manage the complex needs of children and young people who have faced forced displacement.

These are real and understandable concerns. Young people arriving on their own in the UK have often experienced loss due to wars and human rights abuses. They have also faced risks of trafficking and exploitation throughout their journeys. However, research has shown that despite these challenges, foster carers who have opened their homes to refugee children are overwhelmingly positive about their experience and speak about the resilience of the children and young people and how rewarding it can be to foster them.

Even with the best recruitment strategies for foster carers and comprehensive funding in place for local authorities, there are of course still limits to what can be offered by the UK. But in the context of an estimated 90,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe, the current offer of 150 more places is pittance.

By closing the child refugee scheme, the government has crushed the hopes of young people who were previously deemed legally entitled to seek refuge in the UK under the Dubs amendment. This decision has placed them at risk of trafficking, exploitation and potentially radicalisation. Now is the time for an urgent and proper consultation across all the local authorities and service providers that accurately gauges what they could offer and what funding they would need in order to provide places.