Recent reports of kidnap highlight the Home Office’s failure to protect vulnerable young people who have made the dangerous journey to the UK for sanctuary, reports Lauren Crosby Medlicott
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A shocking investigation by the Observer has revealed how dozens of asylum-seeking children were kidnapped by gangs from a Home Office-run hotel in Brighton. A whistle-blower working for contractor Mitie said children had been picked up from outside the hotel, disappeared and not been found. “They’re being taken from the street by traffickers,” the source said.
Days later, Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said that more than 200 children and young people under the age of 18 were missing from Government-approved accommodation.
Meanwhile, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper accused the Government of “a total dereliction of duty that is putting children at risk”.
These recent findings highlight the Home Office’s failure to protect vulnerable, traumatised children who have made the dangerous journey to the UK for sanctuary.
“There is the process of what should happen and what is currently happening,” Stewart MacLachlan, legal and policy manager at children’s rights charity Coram, told Byline Times.
He said most unaccompanied minors under 18 arrive in the UK via small boat crossings. After arriving, they should be briefly interviewed by immigration officials, receive an identity card, have fingerprints taken and then immediately be handed over to local authorities, which are expected to accommodate and look after the child. They should also help the child to obtain a solicitor who will assist them to claim asylum in the UK.
“The local authority is their corporate parent, essentially acting as the child’s parent,” MacLachlan said. This care includes arranging access to their GP, education, and accommodation. “A lot of local authorities will put children under 16 into foster care. If over 16, some will go into foster care and some go into semi-independent accommodation. It just depends on each child’s needs.”
While this process is put in place to protect and support vulnerable young people with traumatic backgrounds, MacLachlan said it isn’t being adhered to.
In recent years, local authorities near ports, such as Kent, have said they cannot take on any more children, resulting in the National transfer scheme being made mandatory as a means of transferring unaccompanied asylum-seeking children throughout the UK.
While awaiting the transfer – which usually lasts between five days and one month according to MacLachlan – children are accommodated in hotels. “During that time, not much support is happening,” he said. “There is no clarity about who the corporate parent looking after the child is.”
The confusion over who has responsibility impacts a child’s asylum claim and safety.
If a child sits in a hotel without legal support to make an immediate asylum claim, there is a risk their asylum claim could be impacted as they could turn 18 before the claim is reviewed by the Home Office, being assessed as an adult rather than a child.
The delay also means a child could lose out on leaving care support. “If you’ve been looked after by a local authority for 13 weeks or more, you’re entitled to leaving care support,” said MacLachlan. “It’s ongoing support to help with continuing accommodation, financial support, and other assistance and advice. A child my lose out on this support that they otherwise would have been entitled to.”
Although he said there are cases when asylum-seeing children go missing from local authority care, the issue of missing children is exacerbated when there is no one holding responsibility for them while waiting in hotels, exposing young people to trafficking, modern slavery and exploitation risks.
Another safeguarding concern is the age assessment carried out by immigration officials upon arrival in the UK.
“If a person’s physical appearance and demeanour looks significantly over the age of 18, they are treated as an adult,” he told Byline Times. “In the past year, we’ve seen huge numbers of children and young people come to the UK, be treated as adults, and get moved into adult accommodation (temporary hotels). It puts them at risk of trafficking, exploitation, and abuse from older people. It’s an ongoing problem and there aren’t near sufficient safeguards.”
Without strengthening child protection and safeguarding for unaccompanied children seeking asylum, MacLachlan is worried about what the future will look like.
“If you take away the fundamental child protections that are there, will they actually come back in the long-term?” he asked. “A few years ago, I didn’t think we would be trying to work out who was looking after children arriving in the UK. And now, it’s happening. We’ve got serious concerns.”
Problems While Awaiting Asylum Decisions
Once a young person is in the asylum system awaiting a decision from the Home Office, charities have said they struggle with the small income provided – currently around £40.85 per week.
“It’s not enough,” Evie Booton of charity Big Leaf Foundation, told Byline Times. “The young people we work with are often at huge risk of county lines, trafficking, modern slavery, or work with withheld pay as they are desperate to work and make an income.”
She has seen young people’s mental health deteriorating without treatment while they await their asylum decisions: “Home Office delays and waits are hugely detrimental on their wellbeing. They’re also vulnerable to social isolation. These children often wait eight months or more for a school place, and it is up to charities to fill in the gap to provide any extra-curricular support, transport fees, warm clothes and more. They’re not getting the same care as looked after children in care.”
Another concerning safeguarding issue for unaccompanied children seeking asylum is that of family reunification.
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Nick Beales, of Refugee & Migrant Forum of Essex and London, works extensively on family reunion applications for children who want to join their family members in the UK. He told Byline Times it could take multiple years and several thousands of pounds to obtain a visa for a young person to join a family member here.
“If you’re living in uncertain circumstances where your safety isn’t guaranteed, you’ve got the choice to either sit and wait for the worse to happen, or take flight,” Beales said, arguing the arduous and expensive family reunion process is in part why so many unaccompanied minors risk their lives journeying to the UK. “The chances of a young person making that journey avoiding any exploitation is slim to none.”
If the Government wants to protect unaccompanied children attempting to join family in the UK, Beales explained the steps he believes it needs to take: “Expand family reunification to create safe routes to get to the UK and create a refugee visa so refugees overseas can apply to come to the UK.”
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