A few local authorities in the United Kingdom care for almost half of the unaccompanied asylum seeking children who come across the borders. After budget cuts and overextended resources, vulnerable children remain without guardians and proper legal care.
By Jessica Voorhees
Bundling up in all the clothes she owned, Seada Fekadu huddled in the back of a van traveling to the United Kingdom from a crowded, bitterly cold migrant encampment in Calais, France.
Three days in the camp served as a less than relaxing respite in her long journey from her home country, Eritrea, in East Africa, which she fled in 2011 in the wake of extreme government repression.
Fekadu was 16 years old, and she travelled with no family, no friends and without the comfort of familiar arms to run into once she reached her destination.
The van stopped in London, England, where she registered for asylum and began the fight for official refugee status as an unaccompanied child.
Fekadu was among 1,398 other unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) who came to the UK in 2011 seeking refuge. In 2015 over 3,000 UASC registered in the UK, a 90 percent increase from 2011 and a 50 percent increase from the previous year, according to Refugee Council.
A case for Croydon
Like Fekadu, most asylum seekers register on the mainland instead of their port of entry, since they are often turned away there, said Peter Hall, part-time co-ordinator at the Refugee Day Centre in Croydon.
Croydon, a borough in south London, maintains the only asylum seeker screening unit in the country.
About 97 percent of asylum seekers first presented themselves in Croydon this year, Hall said.
The local authority to which UASC first present themselves holds legal responsibility for the care of the child, according to the Children’s Act of 1989, which leaves Croydon disproportionately responsible for the bulk of UASC in the country.
Almost 500 UASC remain in the care of the Croydon local authority today, according to the Croydon Home Office, which predicted a continued rate of growth for UASC applicants.
Most UASC travel to Croydon from the Calais refugee camps and receive a status of “limited leave,” which allows them to stay in the UK until they turn 18 years old, according to the Croydon Asylum Screening Unit.
Seven out of 150 local authorities in England accommodate 43 percent of all UASC, according to research from the University of Brighton.
Local authorities must support the housing, health and educational needs of UASC and provide accommodation when they leave care at 18 years of age.
The research by Marie-Bénédicte Dembour and Joanna Wildig concluded the local authorities with the higher numbers of UASC in their care were unable to act in the children’s best interests.
Local authorities often ran out of beds for children, assigned UASC to caseworkers with too heavy loads to properly manage their needs and failed to institute a system of guardianship, according to the report.
The assignment of an independent custody visitor to an UASC is a statutory entitlement, but was in no cases provided to detained asylum seekers, the report stated.
“We do have an obligation to treat the children’s best interest as a primary consideration, and there are concerns it isn’t happening anywhere or perhaps everywhere,” Wildig said.
Nowhere left to run
Wildig said the persecution of UASC doesn’t end when they leave their home country.
“Children migrate on their own for a whole variety of reasons,” she said. “Sometimes families are persecuted so they send their child abroad for protection. Most come by smugglers. Their destination is out of their control and they often don’t even know where they are when they arrive.”
Wildig said the reception of UASC by screening authorities in the UK is often “hostile” and “cynical.”
Screening units frequently dispute the children’s ages, as a lesser degree of care is required if the child is over 16 years old, Wildig said.
There were 259 age disputed cases in Croydon in 2015, according to Refugee Council, and the majority resolved as labeling the asylum seeker as an adult.
Croydon is a gateway authority, meaning it deals with a lot of asylum seekers.
The Croydon Home Office receives extra money from the government to take care of the growing population of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in the borough.
The internationality of Croydon resonates on each block, from South Indian grocery stores, vibrantly advertised African beauty salons, and the scent of turmeric and roasting halal meat wafting from kebab shops.
But the government decided to cut its funding of Croydon’s asylum services by 25 percent this year, which amounts to a loss of £4 million. This money was primarily devoted to the aid of young asylum seekers, according to the Croydon Home Office.
But wait, there’s more
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced last month the UK will take in around 3,000 UASC living in European camps. This is in addition to his April concession to bring in 3,000 “vulnerable children” from the Middle East and North Africa by 2020.
Taking in this amount of UASC would require £150 million extra funding to find the necessary accommodation for the children, according to the Local Government Association.
Cameron plans to work with local authorities and the national charity Save the Children to find the best method to bring the children into care.
“The Government’s decision to bring unaccompanied children fleeing war and persecution from Europe is important, but it must make sure that once these children arrive in the UK they get the support they desperately need,” said Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, a national organization that works to assist vulnerable children, in a press release.
Fostering new beginnings
The UK remains 9,000 foster families below capacity, according to The Fostering Network.
“Because of the ongoing humanitarian crisis, the south-east is already experiencing a significant increase in the need for foster carers,” said Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network.
James Cleary, recruitment and community development officer at Greater London Fostering, said the boroughs with the highest number of UASC sometimes call on independent fostering agencies to help cope with the need.
Local authorities in Croydon and Kent commissioned Greater London Fostering to assist in finding homes for UASC, Cleary said.
After the migrant crisis began, families pursuing the process of fostering refugee children increased slightly, but despite the interest it remains difficult to find homes for all the children, especially teenagers, he said.
“There’s been a big increase of people being motivated to contact us based on the fact of the migrant crisis, so there’s been a positive reaction in one regard,” he said. “But it’s going to continue to be a need in the country and throughout Europe.”
Listen above: James Cleary, recruitment and community development officer at Greater London Fostering, explains the process of finding foster homes for UASC as an independent fostering agency. He then describes the ideal foster parents for UASC.
A lack of available care could allow the vulnerable UASC to fall prey to traffickers, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.
Since January, 35 percent of migrants to the EU are children, many of which travel unaccompanied, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Over 10,000 asylum seeking children are currently missing in Europe, and are potentially being exploited by criminal networks, which hold close ties to human smugglers, who facilitate travel for 90 percent of migrants. The children may be sexually exploited, used for begging or forced to commit crimes, according to an April press release from the European Parliament.
In the UK, 340 UASC disappeared in 2015, a figure that doubled from the previous year, according to Eurostat.
Fixing the system
Cameron plans to devise a method in July to disperse the incoming UASC to multiple authorities, so Croydon and other south-eastern areas are not overwhelmed.
In November, Brighton took 10 UASC from Kent, but almost all other local authorities refused to accommodate the children, according to the University of Brighton report.
The report states that responsibility sharing only works when funded by a central government, as is the case now in France and Austria.
Seada Fekadu first struggled for official refugee status, then to establish a life on her own in a new and foreign city.
She found Young Roots, an organization for refugee youth in Croydon and North London, and through excursions and activities, formed a support group of peers.
Now Fedaku works as a mentor at Young Roots and plans to pursue a degree at university next year to become a doctor and give back to her new home.
But for the majority of UASC, who are refused asylum or deported once they turn 18 years old, the future may not be so bright.