The Government has told councils they must take migrant children who have arrived in the UK without any parents or guardians into their care.
A voluntary scheme is now going to be made temporarily compulsory, meaning youngsters being looked after by authorities on England’s south coast will be moved to other parts of the country.
Kevin Foster, one of the Government’s immigration ministers, has written to all 217 councils with children’s services across the country, informing them of plans to “temporarily mandate the National Transfer Scheme” and giving them two weeks to present reasons why they should not accept them.
The letter constitutes a “legal notice to accept transfers of children into their care, providing crucial placements to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC)” and is part of “urgent steps” to ensure “immediate, fuller participation” which is fair for all local authorities involved, the Home Office said.
It comes after Home Secretary Priti Patel defended her efforts to tackle the migrant crisis and told MPs that councils around the UK need to “play their part” in offering accommodation to asylum seekers.
Mr Foster thanked the councils for the support already provided and said: “This decision has not been taken lightly but it is in the best interests of these children to make sure they receive the support they need.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “Children who arrive in the UK on their own seeking safety are highly vulnerable. They must receive local authority care immediately, a responsibility that must be shared equitably by all local authorities in the UK.
“This important decision should reduce the unacceptable delays in vulnerable children, who have often experienced great trauma, getting the vital care they need and is a very welcome move.”
James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said the majority of councils have stepped forward to offer help and that authorities will want to work “closely with Government to ensure the rights and needs of children are at the heart of these new arrangements”.
He added: “Councils continue to face challenges in finding appropriate homes, with ongoing issues around centrally-led age assessment and delays in decision-making adding uncertainty for both councils and young people.
“These new arrangements must continue to swiftly take into account existing pressures in local areas, with greater join-up across Government to improve engagement with councils on all the programmes that support new arrivals to start new lives in the UK.”
Factors including the existing child population, pressures on children’s services and the number of asylum seekers being supported in the area will all be considered, as well as the best interests of the child, the Home Office said.
Councils will not have to accept more unaccompanied child migrants if they already make up 0.07% or more of its general child population.
The plans will be kept under review and how long it remains mandatory will depend on factors including “intake levels and how long it takes to end the use of hotels”.
Councils receive a higher rate of funding of £143 per child per night under the scheme.
In the House of Commons on Monday, Ms Patel said “there is no silver bullet” for tackling the migrant crisis, adding: “The only solution is wholescale reform of our asylum system.”
She also insisted she is the only Home Secretary to have considered a reform of the entire immigration system.
Figures show the number of people who have made the dangerous journey across the English Channel in small boats so far this year is now three times the total for the whole of 2020.
At least 886 people succeeded in reaching the UK on Saturday, taking the total for the year to more than 25,700, while around 8,500 people crossed the Dover Strait last year.
The figures are based on Home Office data obtained and analysed by the PA news agency.