By Lin Taylor
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The number of lone refugee children in English foster homes rose by 50 percent in the past year, data showed on Thursday, prompting the U.N. children's agency to urge the UK to do more to help "unprecedented" numbers of children fleeing conflict.
In the 12 months to March this year, unaccompanied refugee children in foster care in England jumped by 54 percent to 4,210 from 2,740 in the previous year.
As of March 31, lone refugee children made up 6 percent of the entire population of children in foster care.
"Given the unprecedented number of children facing crisis around the world, and the rise in the number of unaccompanied children being taken into care, the UK could and should be doing more," said Sol Oyuela, director of Public Affairs at UNICEF UK.
She said the government must reunite lone refugee children who have become stranded in Europe with their families in Britain, and ensure local authorities are equipped to care for unaccompanied child asylum-seekers.
"Both central and local government must work together to ensure these children are given the stability, certainty and the help they need to rebuild their lives," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In 2015, nearly 96,000 lone children sought asylum in the European Union, almost four times as many as the previous year, according to the European Asylum Support Office.
Rape, forced labor, beatings and death are just some of the dangers faced by children traveling without their parents, UNICEF says.
In Britain alone, 3,472 children applied for asylum in the 12 months to June this year, an increase of 54 percent compared with the previous year. The highest number of claims came from children arriving from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iran.
Under the Children Act 1989, British councils have a legal responsibility to care for children who arrive from abroad, seeking asylum.
As the closest British county to Calais in France, where hundreds of child migrants have ended up living in squalid camps, Kent council in southeast England is on the frontlines of refugee arrivals in the UK.
According to official data released on Thursday, Kent had 865 unaccompanied minors in its care as of March 31 this year, hosting a fifth of all lone refugee children in England.
Kent council says it is struggling to support the children they have in their system, and has urged other local authorities to take in some minors through a voluntary dispersal scheme launched in July.
UK charity The Fostering Network said it was confident the British care system would cope with the rise in lone refugee children.
"We know that for some areas, the increase in the number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children has created significant pressure on resources, including finding the right foster family," a spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We believe the care system will cope with these increased numbers, and will help these children to settle into life in the UK and to thrive," he added.
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women's rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)