We need to end 'failed policy' that makes young people vulnerable
Matthew*, a torture survivor who came here from Iran when he was 17, was refused asylum. He wanted to appeal the decision but his solicitor did not want to support his case so he went to court unrepresented. He was made homeless for one year.
He was cut off from local authority support while undergoing counselling: 'They said "It's okay, you don't need any support". That made me feel horrible – when you don't have money you can't manage yourself. I hate asking people for money. To survive I took food from the bins in the back of restaurants. I didn't often go to charities to get food because I didn't have money for travel.'
Stories like Matthew’s are sadly all too common for the young people that we support, and our services are seeing more and more young people and families being made destitute for purposes of immigration control.
More young people living without food, medicine or a bed
Although no central government data is published on the number of children and young people forced to live without regular access to essential resources – eg food, medicines, toiletries and a safe place to live – evidence from the civil society sector suggests the numbers could be in the many thousands.
Alarmingly, over the last few years the numbers appear to be increasing. For example from our New Londoners programme we know that 14% of the young refugees that accessed our project in 2009-10 were destitute. This rose to 17% in 2010-11 and 34% in the first half of 2011-12 (April to September 2011).
Children and young people experience destitution for a number of reasons but primarily because their immigration status prevents them from accessing much-needed support and access to the labour market. Many young people who have no family in the UK are refused support because their age is disputed by the UK Border Agency and local authorities, leaving them destitute and homeless.
Other young people we've worked with have deliberately been made homeless and refused financial support as they turn 18, despite being unable to return to their country of origin.
Devestating effects of destitution
The impact of destitution on children and young people has severe consequences and these raise serious safeguarding concerns. Young people supported by our services who have experienced destitution have been made vulnerable to exploitation and abuse of many forms including sexual exploitation and labour exploitation.
While street homeless a number of them have been subjected to racism and abuse from passers by. Some of the young people we've supported have attempted suicide or have self-harmed.
Young People Seeking Safety Week
This year’s Young People Seeking Safety Week, running from 30 March through 5 April, is dedicated to raising awareness around the issues facing young people caught up in the asylum and immigration process. It brings together organisations of all sizes, including The Children's Society, concerned about the safety of these young people by organising activities to widen the debate on this issue.
Despite its statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, the UK Border Agency continues to pursue measures that jeopardise children and young people's safety and well-being for the purposes of immigration control.
Iain Duncan Smith: forced destitution is a ‘failed policy’
In his preface to the Asylum Matters report by the Centre for Social Justice, Iain Duncan Smith – the current work and pensions secretary – referred to the policy of forced destitution of asylum seekers as a 'black hole' and heavily criticised the previous government for this 'failed policy'. Mr Duncan Smith wrote: 'UK policy is still driven by the thesis, clearly falsified, that we can encourage people to leave by being nasty.'
We believe it’s time to rethink this policy before more children suffer. Our recent report I don't feel human which details the experiences of refugee and migrant children and young people who have been destitute and sets out a series of recommendations on how we could ensure that children do not end up destitute in our country.
This week and beyond, the government should recognise the problem of destitution as a serious child protection concern and take immediate steps to address this policy.
By Ilona Pinter, Policy Adviser
* The name of this young person has been changed to protect his identity. (Return to story.)