Children who arrive in the UK alone and seeking asylum are often treated with suspicion and a lack of care, a damning new report revealed today.
MPs and peers on the joint committee on human rights raised concerns that immigration targets were overruling the UK's commitment to the UN convention on the rights of the child.
"Unaccompanied migrant children have often fled conflict situations abroad or have been victims of abuse and exploitation, including those who arrive as victims of trafficking," committee chair Hywel Francis said.
"We do not find it satisfactory that immigration concerns are too often given priority when dealing with such children.
"This is starkly demonstrated by the 'culture of disbelief' about the age of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children."
The committee found evidence of the children being put in interrogation situations when they arrive in the UK, despite often having fled violence or abuse. They are often not provided with translators.
There was also evidence of the children being put in inappropriate accommodation facilities, often without support staff.
The committee recommended:
- Overcoming the ‘culture of disbelief’ about the age of unaccompanied migrant children – The Committee concludes that the age of unaccompanied migrant children is too often disputed, putting their welfare and best interests at risk. It stresses that changing that culture is a paramount concern. The Report calls for the benefit of the doubt to be given more often as part of a more sensitive process, and notes the need to provide robust data for the full scrutiny of cases where age is disputed.
- Clearer decision-making about the future of children – The Report concludes that decisions on children’s futures are too often delayed until they approach adulthood, leaving children uncertain about what their futures will hold. The Committee calls for clear and thorough decisions to be made as soon as possible, with children fully informed about what those decisions will mean for their future. It also recommends the establishment of a pilot tribunal to take on decision-making in some cases, and calls on the Government not to return any children to Afghanistan or Iraq while conflict and humanitarian concerns persist.
- More concerted efforts to bring best interests to the fore in making and implementing policy - The Report calls for a clear cross-Government strategy to be developed to safeguard and support unaccompanied migrant children. It also recommends that the Department for Education be given a more prominent role in overseeing the welfare of unaccompanied migrant children, in particular in administering grant funding to local authorities to support those children.
- A child-focused asylum and immigration process – The Report calls for a stronger emphasis on the age and background of children in those processes. It calls for the development of a training programme to enable frontline staff to better understand the needs of children, and for the issuing of clear guidance that stresses the importance of considering children’s best interests.
- More effective support for trafficked children – The Committee concludes that the framework for identifying victims of trafficking uncovers too few cases, and is failing to prevent victims of trafficking being brought within the criminal justice system as perpetrators. The Report calls for an independent review of the framework, and for more work to be done to raise awareness of its operation in the safeguarding workforce, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. It also recommends that responsibility for the system be taken from the immigration authorities and given to the UK Human Trafficking Centre, to give a greater perception of its independence.
- More comprehensive support structures – The Committee notes that support for children is too inconsistent across the country, especially during the transition to adulthood, because of resource constraints, uncertainties about the legal framework and a lack of specialist expertise. The Report calls for: A picture to be built up of good practice in local authorities, with centres of excellent developed to spread that practice more widely; Government funding to local authorities to provide fully for the costs of supporting children, reducing the burden on local authorities; and development of a clear legal framework for support services, which ensures they support is provided for all children through to adulthood, even where appeal rights are exhausted.
- A trial of a system of guardianship for children – The Committee noted that the complexity of the asylum, immigration and support systems made them difficult to navigate for unaccompanied migrant children. It concluded that specialist advice and advocacy was crucial, and recommended: The establishment of pilot programmes in England and Wales to appoint guardians for unaccompanied migrant children, to advocate for their best interests and to support them through the processes they are subject to; and an assessment of the quality and availability of legal services for unaccompanied migrant children in England and Wales, alongside consideration of the cost-benefit case for bringing all cases involving such children into the scope of legal aid.