Posted: 05 August 2014

First ever guidance promises better support for unaccompanied children

Every year almost 3000 unaccompanied children arrive in the UK alone. Some of them are seeking asylum, some have been trafficked and others have been abandoned by their family.

They are a very marginalised and vulnerable group. Many have escaped severely traumatic situations, do not speak English and have noone looking out for their interests. Their vulnerability is compounded by their uncertain immigration status and their susceptibility to further exploitation and abuse.

Local authorities are the main organisation tasked with their care. But our experience  tells us these children often fall through the gaps, are turned away from vital services and don’t get the protection and support they need and are entitled to in law.

Until recently, local authorities had no guidance on how to plan for these children’s needs. But the Department for Education has now issued new statutory guidance for local authorities. This sends a clear message that unaccompanied and trafficked children need to be supported and protected, irrespective of where they come from.

Our ongoing work with civil servants has helped shape this document and we’re pleased to see many of our suggestions have been taken on board, including in the following important areas.

Specialist legal advice is essential

Most unaccompanied and trafficked children are likely to have unresolved immigration issues which need to be dealt with immediately and effectively to ensure their welfare and safety. However, our projects find that social workers often don’t believe securing legal advice for children is within their remit.

The guidance now states that advice should be sought to ensure a child’s international protection and human rights issues are fully explored by a registered specialist advisor experienced in working with children.

Disputing a child’s age should not be routine 

Unaccompanied and trafficked children are often assessed by the local authority to determine their age because they do not hold the correct documentation and are sometimes thought to be adults. If they are children, the local authority has a responsibility to provide care and support for them.

We find that too many children are treated with suspicion and have their age unnecessarily challenged, causing substantial stress and delays to their access to services, education and healthcare.

The guidance previously did not even mention age assessments but it is good to see this issue has now been addressed. It states that local authorities must adhere to established case law when assessing a child’s age and that an age assessment should not be a local authority’s routine response to these children.

Uncertainty for older children must be addressed

Many unaccompanied and trafficked children in care experience additional challenges from the age of 16. At that time, their life can be disrupted because their immigration status changes, causing uncertainty about their legal status in the country. We find this can mean they become homeless and destitute  because local authorities do not effectively plan for this change. 

We are pleased that the new guidance highlights the local authority’s role in planning for an unaccompanied child’s transition into adulthood. This includes assisting the young person in submitting an application in time for further leave to remain before they reach 18 as well as assistance in continuing their education and preparing them for independent living.

What next?

This guidance is a substantial step in the right direction and will be a helpful tool in challenging bad practice among local authorities and in advocating for the needs of individual children.

But guidance on its own is not enough. Local authorities, central government and the voluntary sector now need to work together to ensure it is successfully implemented so unaccompanied and trafficked children get the support and protection they are entitled to and deserve.

By Lucy Gregg - Policy team

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