Posted: 28 July 2016

The Situation Facing Unaccompanied Migrant Children in the European Union

On Tuesday, a committee in the House of Lords published their report ‘children in crisis: unaccompanied migrant children in the EU’ following an inquiry into the complex, multiple difficulties faced by unaccompanied migrant children travelling through the EU. Two young people supported by The Children’s Society and their support workers gave oral evidence to the Committee about their experiences of seeking protection in the UK.

The report mentions the 3,045 unaccompanied migrant children that applied for asylum in the UK last year, but the cohort of unaccompanied migrant children arriving in the UK is likely to be higher as not all will have applied for asylum. Unaccompanied migrant children continue to encounter substantial problems upon arrival into the country, including vulnerability to sexual violence and exploitation and high risk of trafficking, lack of reliable information and advice services, lack of legal advice and support and invasive methods used by the Home Office and local authorities to assess age, despite inconsistent and variable results.

Legal aid

The provision of independent, high quality legal advice and representation is essential to ensure that the rights of unaccompanied migrant children are appropriately safeguarded. Evidence submitted to the inquiry highlights that the provision of free legal advice in the UK has been severely limited since widespread cuts to legal aid from 2012 following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Our ‘Cut off From Justice’ (2015) report chronicles the harmful impact this has had on access to justice for unaccompanied migrant children who can no longer access legal advice or representation with their non-asylum immigration cases. We support the inquiry’s scrutiny of these provisions and call upon the Government to reinstate legal aid for all separated children in their immigration cases, to ensure their rights are protected.

Durable solutions

Unaccompanied migrant children require comprehensive assessments that take into account their views, protection needs and concerns in order to determine a durable solution for their long-term development and throughout their lives. Our ‘Not Just a Temporary Fix’ (2015) report goes into detail about the need for durable, lasting solutions and ways that different agencies can facilitate long term support for them.

The inquiry report highlights that durable solutions appear to currently be a ‘mantra’ rather than an effective guiding principle in Home Office decision making and in local authority support for unaccompanied migrant children. We support the inquiry’s recommendation that there should be a stronger focus, along with adequate resources, on developing durable solutions for unaccompanied migrant children. We also urge the Government to ensure that decisions on the future of each unaccompanied migrant child, particularly about the type of leave they are granted, is timely, comprehensive and takes the child’s perspective and their best interests into account.

Guardianship

Independent legal guardianship of unaccompanied migrant children could be an effective way of ensuring that this cohort is protected and advocated for effectively. It can also be an effective way of saving costs to the public purse in the long run. Our joint analysis of the costs and benefits of guardianship with UNICEF UK highlighted that for every £1 spent on a guardianship service over three years, as much as £1.25 could be saved. We support the inquiry’s recommendations for the Commission to bring forward legislative proposals to require the appointment of an independent guardian as soon as possible, where a child is identified as unaccompanied, and for the guardian to act in the child’s best interests until a durable solution is identified.

The EU Referendum

The inquiry, as well as most of the published report, was completed before the outcome of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was decided. Although the outcome of the referendum was that the UK should withdraw from the EU, the UK currently remains a full member of the EU, until full withdrawal is ratified, and all of the appropriate responsibilities apply. The UK Government must continue to work with EU partners to address the grave situation facing unaccompanied migrant children.

Next steps

Further inquiry recommendations around ensuring children’s best interests are centred in any decisions made about their welfare, preventing unnecessary and intrusive age assessments of unaccompanied migrant children and co-ordinating support across Government, civil society and international organisations would go a long way to protect the rights of unaccompanied migrant children. We hope that the UK government fulfils its responsibility to this vulnerable group.

 

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By Rupinder Parhar - Policy team
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