Posted: 22 June 2016

Refugee Week: Protecting child refugees in the UK

This week thousands of people across the country from all walks of life are joining together to celebrate Refugee Week – a programme of arts, cultural and educational events and activities that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK and promote better understanding of why people seek sanctuary.

Services across our organisation, including in Blackburn, Leeds and Newcastle, are busy organising events to mark this week.

Today we are also celebrating the memory of Jo Cox MP on what would’ve been her 42nd birthday. A passionate advocate for refugees particularly those fleeing the Syrian conflict, Jo also fought hard for the refugee children arriving in Europe.

There has been a significant increase in the numbers of refugees around the world - over 65 million people were displaced by war and conflict around the world at the end of 2015 - 5 million more than the previous year. Around 38,000 claimed asylum in the UK including over 3,000 unaccompanied children - those applying for international protection on their own with no parents or carers looking after them. Many of these children would have been targeted for military recruitment, because of their parent’s or their own political activities, or because of their ethnicity, disability and gender.

Supporting refugee children since the Second World War

At The Children's Society we have been working with refugee children for many decades, ever since the Second World War. Today we run specialist services for refugee, migrant and trafficked children and young people across England, through group work, one-to-one case work, as well as orientation programmes to support young people's integration into their new communities.

While some children do find safety and security after arriving in the UK and are cared for by a loving foster family, unfortunately too many children, particularly older teenagers, don't get the protection they need and end up in dangerous and precarious situations.

Often young people face an intimidating asylum determination process and are subjected to multiple and protracted age assessments because the authorities don’t believe their age. As our research report Not Just a Temporary Fix shows, too many children do not get a lasting solution to their immigration status leaving them in legal limbo when they turn 18.

This means they face destitution, homelessness or return to a country where they still face serious risks of persecution and violence.

No legal guardians to protect unaccompanied children

One of the gaps faced by unaccompanied children in England and Wales is that there is currently no system of independent legal guardianship to help them through complex legal maze which they need to engage with.

While local authorities are responsible for providing a range of services to care for these children as their corporate parent, ultimately the care system is not set up in a way to protect these children effectively and conflicts of interest arise from increasingly limited resources.

For example, we continue to work with children whose age is wrongly disputed by statutory agencies leaving them homeless, in detention or in asylum accommodation for adults. In fact this week we saw another case of a child from Sudan being unlawfully detained by the Home Office.

In some local authorities, children's ages are routinely disputed or there appears to be an approach to assess children as older than they claim in order to place them into independent accommodation despite their vulnerabilities and need for supervision.

Without an independent legal guardian to act on their behalf, often the only way that children can challenge these assessments is through legal means. In addition, when children don’t get the right decision in their immigration claim, there is no one with knowledge of the system to help fight the child’s corner and make sure that decisions about their immigration status are made with their immediate and long term best interests in mind.

This is likely to increase under the new arrangements brought in by the Immigration Act 2016 where children will be transferred to different local authorities around the country where there may be limited awareness or experience of supporting refugee children.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recognised these shortcomings recently in its examination of the UK’s progress on protecting children’s rights and recommended that the Government 'establish statutory independent guardians for all unaccompanied and separated children' throughout the UK.

This system is already in place in many other European countries like Sweden and the Netherlands. It’s also in place in Scotland and shortly will be in Northern Ireland. We urge the Government to make this important reform to protect children in England and Wales as well.

By Ilona Pinter - Policy team
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