Kent charity on the front line of the refugee crisis

The Kent Refugee Action Network has experienced a significant increase in young people needing support

< This article has been amended; see final paragraph

In a draughty church hall in Canterbury, Kent, a group of 15 to 18-year-olds are engaged in animated debate with their teacher. "Look," she says eventually, "I've worked in a college and I'm telling you- if you're doing a test, you aren't allowed to talk."

The boys are stunned and definitely not impressed, but the test resumes in silence.

Despite being indoors, most of the boys keep their coats on, still not used to the British weather. They are all refugees who have made the traumatic journey to the UK from countries such as Eritrea, Syria and Iraq - and they have done so alone.

They have wildly differing levels of education and English, and many would struggle in mainstream education. Instead, they are being supported by the Kent Refugee Action Network, which offers unaccompanied refugees under the age of 18 a combined programme of mentoring, drop-in advice sessions, asylum application help and education to prepare them to enter the mainstream system.

In 2015, 3,253 unaccompanied minors arrived to claim asylum in the UK, a 67 per cent increase on the year before, according to the Refugee Council. By January, Kent County Council found itself responsible for 924 of them.

"The summer of 2015 is not one I would want to live through again," says Ann Whitbourn, the charity's chair.

As the refugee crisis intensified amid public and media hostility, the charity's workload almost doubled overnight and an overwhelmed local authority asked it to support more.

The charity, which in the year to 31 March 2015 had an income of £199,000, was mentoring between 30 and 40 young people. Now it's nearer 70, Whitbourn says, and there are about 35 in formal classes.

It was also stretched for space. The previous harsh winter had rendered the charity's premises in Folkestone unusable.

Two of the charity's funders, Comic Relief and Children in Need, will be unable to renew funding for the charity’s 16 to 18 work because the government has raised the education participation age to 18, which meant that Kran's work counted as statutory provision, which neither body funds.

The collapse of Kids Company also prompted uneasy funders to order an audit. "The audit was good, in a way, because it made us look at what we wanted to do," Whitbourn says. "I knew we had most of what we needed in place, but it wasn't strongly in place."

Research body

The charity began as a research organisation in 2000 when an influx of Romani travellers escaping persecution in eastern Europe arrived in Kent. But by 2015 it had moved into service delivery, and Whitbourn, who had been chair since 2010, wondered if the charity had reached the end of its journey.

After seeking advice from the Cranfield Trust, she decided to continue, but with a completely revamped trustee body that now includes a former Home Office civil servant, an international consultant and the former head of an NHS clinical commissioning group.

With the help of funding from the Lloyds Bank Foundation, she also took on the charity's first chief executive, Razia Shariff, who started three months ago.

Kran is largely grant-funded by the Lloyds Bank Foundation, the Tudor Trust, the Henry Smith Charity and Kent County Council, among others.

To make up for the future loss of the Children in Need and Comic Relief money it currently receives, the charity has sought joint funding from the schools that would otherwise be required to take on the charity's students.

One positive has been a flood of donations from members of the public concerned about the plight of refugees. "I've never worked for an organisation where donations just show up in the post before - it's incredible," Shariff says.

The charity is now secure enough to look to its future, Whitbourn says, and share the model it has developed with others. Unlike the Folkestone premises - now replaced by the Canterbury church hall - the charity has come through the storm, altered but stronger.

"Charities go on journeys and you've got to recognise when you need help to go further," Whitbourn says. "You should stop every couple of years to look at yourself and say 'are we still needed?'

"Which we very much are, it seems," she adds

< The article has been amended to make it clear that the charity is still receiving money from Comic Relief and Children in Need and that it has not discussed the potential loss of funding with either grant-maker as a result of changes to education participation age.

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