Residents 'deeply concerned' at plans to house child asylum seekers in Minster-on-Sea care home

  • Report by ITV Meridian's Kit Bradshaw

People on the Isle of Sheppey have expressed their anger over plans to house unaccompanied asylum seeking children in a care home in Minster-on-Sea.

Kent County Council is proposing to house 50 children aged 16 and 17, at the empty Ocean Heights Residential Care Home in Seaside Avenue.

In a letter sent to residents, the council say the site is due to open next month.

Residents say they are 'deeply concerned by the plans' and a petition calling for the proposals to be scrapped, has gained more than 3,500 signatures.

Residents are opposing plans to house 50 young asylum seekers at a residential care home in Sheppey. Credit: ITV Meridian

On the page, organiser Karen Russon said: "As residents of Minster-On-Sea, we cherish our community and its unique character.

"We have been informed about a proposed immigration centre to house asylum seekers, expected to be operational by May 2024 at Ocean Heights, Minster leas.

"This development deeply concerns us.

"Our beloved town is known for its tranquility and as a popular tourist hotspot.

"The proposed site for the immigration centre is next to the Little Oyster - a care home for vulnerable adults right in the heart of our community.

"We fear that this project will disrupt our peaceful environment and potentially pose risks to our vulnerable population.

"Furthermore, it's important to consider that introducing such a facility in an area heavily reliant on tourism could negatively impact local businesses and employment rates (source: Office for National Statistics).

"We understand the need for asylum seeker housing but believe there are more suitable locations which would not disrupt established communities or local economies.

"We urge you to reconsider this decision and find an alternative location that respects both the needs of asylum seekers and existing communities."

  • Campaigner Malcolm McLeod

Campaigner Malcolm McLeod said: "We've got other problems on the island. We've got a facility down the road at Sheerness called Blackburn Lodge, which has been closed that was a social care housing facility.

"This would have been a perfect opportunity to house them in this building, yet the KCC ruled that there's nowhere suitable to house.

"But, as if by magic, it's now suitable to house up to 50 illegal immigrants."

The MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, Gordon Henderson said: "While I understand that the KCC must follow the instructions of the High Court judgement, and that asylum seeking children must be properly cared for, I do not believe Ocean Heights should be used for this purpose.

"With that in mind I would like to assure my constituents on the Isle of Sheppey that, along with my colleague Aisha Cuthbert, I will fiercely oppose this decision, for a number of reasons, not least because the KCC have just closed Blackburn Lodge, which was the only county funded adult social care home on the Isle of Sheppey.

"For some time I have been pressing KCC to provide alternative accommodation for adult social care for people on the Island, but they said there were no suitable premises. To then use Ocean Heights, which is a new, perfectly good, and empty care home to house unaccompanied asylum seekers children, is rubbing salt into a very sore wound.

"We are concerned about the decision also because Ocean Heights is situated in a holiday area on Sheppey, and is right next to the Little Oyster Care Home that specialises in caring for people with learning disabilities, autism, physical disabilities and mental health conditions.

"I know many of my constituents will agree with Aisha and me, and I would like to assure them that I have made clear our views, in the strongest terms, to the leader of Kent County Council.

"I will also immediately contact the Home Office, and then raise my concerns in Parliament, as a matter of urgency, after the Easter recess."

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Roger Gough, Leader of Kent County Council (KCC), said: ”I understand why the local community on the Isle of Sheppey have concerns about the use of Ocean Heights as a new Reception Centre for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UAS Children) and we are actively engaging with them directly about this.

“Last summer, the High Court ruled the previous cap that we had on the number of unaccompanied minors we take into our care, part of managing the whole process from the point of view of the county and the Council, was unlawful and KCC must take “every possible step” to increase its capacity to accommodate and look after all UAS Children arriving in the county.

“As a result, the number of UAS Children coming into the limited capacity of KCC significantly increased immediately and will continue to do so now the warmer weather has begun and crossings escalate.

“The council must demonstrate to the High Court that it is doing everything it can to meet the requirement and we identified 7 suitable buildings across the county, including Ocean Heights, to become new Reception Centres. These will all be set up and managed in the same way as our 2 well established and successful sites.

“At the same time, we are challenging the Government through our own legal proceedings, to get the National Transfer Scheme working to ensure that all Local Authorities in the UK take on their responsibility for the care of UAS Children. The Court made clear that the Home Office must quickly implement an effective and successfully managed NTS to ensure that Kent’s Children’s Services will never again have to announce the position of being so overwhelmed it can no longer to take any new referrals of children into its care and Kent’s services and taxpayers unfairly burdened simply because of our geography in relation to the shortest crossing route.

“I understand that this change of use for Ocean Heights is particularly sensitive in the local community whilst we are publicly consulting on the closure of Blackburn Lodge care home, but this consultation will separately address the care needs of residents on the Isle of Sheppey.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We take the safety and welfare of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children extremely seriously and providing care placements for them is a national issue that requires participation from local authorities across the UK.

“We are continuing to work with local authorities across the UK, including Kent County Council, to support them to fulfil their statutory duties to accommodate unaccompanied children nationwide.”

According to the latest figures from the Department for Education, Kent is looking after the highest number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children than in any other part of the UK.

The local authority is caring for 1942 youngsters.

In Hampshire, 1853 lone child asylum seekers are being looked after, while in Oxfordshire there are 881 children seeking asylum.

It comes as latest figures revealed more than 5,000 migrants have crossed the English Channel this year.

Nearly 800 made the journey over the Easter bank holiday weekend.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The unacceptable number of people who continue to cross the Channel demonstrates exactly why we must get flights to Rwanda off the ground as soon as possible.

“We continue to work closely with French police who are facing increasing violence and disruption on their beaches as they work tirelessly to prevent these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary journeys.

“We remain committed to building on the successes that saw arrivals drop by more than a third last year, including tougher legislation and agreements with international partners, in order to save lives and stop the boats.”

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