Posted: 01 July 2016

Lone children on the move

Starting today local authorities which have higher numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children in their care will be able to transfer responsibility formally to other local authorities. 

Until now unaccompanied children arriving in the UK without parents or carers, are normally accommodated by the local authority in which they ‘land’ or are identified in.

However, last year we saw a sharp increase in the numbers of children coming into particular local authorities within a short space of time – most notably Kent – leaving agencies struggling to provide effective care and supervision.

In response, the Government established a mechanism as a protocol which was set out in the Immigration Act 2016 to transfer responsibilities for unaccompanied children from one local authority to another.

Although there is general agreement that these provisions may be helpful in enabling local authorities with key ports of entry to provide a better service to the young people in their care by making sure that any one local authority does not face an unmanageable responsibility in accommodating and looking after unaccompanied children, the way in which this will be implemented has yet to be fully worked out.

Questions still remain about how the welfare considerations and best interests of individual children will be taken into account. For example, what will happen in cases where young people have siblings in that local authority and how will this be factored into decision-making to protect family relationships.

Navigating the ‘advice deserts’

One of the concerns that we have at The Children’s Society is about children’s access to legal advice and representation.

We know from our research published last year - ‘Cut Off From Justice’ – that the legal landscape has changed significantly in recent years due to significant cuts to legal aid in immigration cases, including those involving separated children.

Our research found that since the legal aid cuts came into effect in 2013, there has been at least a 30% reduction in regulated immigration advice services across the country and an almost 50% decrease in the number of non-fee charging services regulated to deal with appeals and representation in court.

The data highlighted huge discrepancies between the numbers of regulated advice providers across the different UK regions with very limited provisions in certain regions like the East of England, East Midlands and the North East.

This means that even those who are still eligible for legal aid, like unaccompanied children with asylum claims, will struggle to get effective advice and representation as providers are likely to be oversubscribed.

Losing out from legal aid cuts

The Government estimated that around 6,000 cases involving children (under 18s) bringing cases in their own right would no longer be eligible for legal aid following the implementation of its reforms including around 2,500 cases related specifically to immigration issues.

An additional 69,000 cases involving young people (18-24 year olds) would go ‘out of scope’.

In the first year after the cuts, cases involving children and young people (under 25s) who got legal aid fell by 13%. As JustRights’ research shows, some young people were hit worse than others; immigration cases fell by 20% while social welfare cases fell by 55% in the same period.

Young people in crisis without legal support

In practice, this has meant that children’s immigration claims are being avoided, or ‘sat on’, and remain unresolved.

Our research with separated children found that this often leads to a transitional crisis for the child as they turn 18 and their status comes to bear more heavily on their access to services, such as housing, education and employment; even more so now under the Immigration Act 2016.

Where children try to resolve their immigration issues on their own, they might be forced to prepare witness statements and gather evidence on their own without the benefit of expert advice, making their chances of success much worse.

Worryingly, some young people told us they have had to raise thousands of pounds to pay for legal advice themselves.

We heard how young people are being exploited or put at risk of serious harm including being sexually exploited and groomed by criminal networks because they are desperate to resolve their immigration issues.

Making things better

As the Government implements its transfer protocol, serious consideration needs to be given to how unaccompanied children are going to be supported across the country.

One way to do this would be to make sure legal aid is reinstated for every child within their immigration case.

But there is also a role for local authorities. As part of their corporate parental responsibilities, they are key agencies to support young people in their care to access free legal advice just as any parent would for their own child.

 If you would like to find out more about our work on legal aid or if you are a young person who has experienced difficulty accessing legal advice or representation, please contact Ilona Pinter or all 02078414600.

By Ilona Pinter - Policy team

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