Unaccompanied migrant children are those who arrive in the United Kingdom separated from their parents and other relatives, and who are not being cared for by an adult with a legal or customary responsibility for doing so. In 2012 around 1,200 such children sought asylum in the UK, and around 2,150 unaccompanied migrant children were being cared for by local authorities.
These children are entitled to protection under domestic legislation and international agreements, the most universally accepted of which is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Providing protection and support effectively is crucial: the asylum and immigration process can be complex, and the stress it can cause can be particularly acute for children. In this Report we examine how effectively support is provided at present, and how it could be provided more effectively in the future.
Bringing best interests to the fore
The best interests of unaccompanied migrant children must be at the heart of all asylum and immigration processes affecting them. However we find that immigration concerns are too often given priority instead. We call for change to shift the emphasis accordingly.
Leadership from the Government
We welcome the Government's pledge to give greater consideration to the UNCRC, but call for more concerted efforts to put the best interests of children and young people at the heart of policymaking. We urge the Government to ensure that all those working with unaccompanied migrant children are given clear guidance about the importance of these best interests, and that it evaluate whether more formal processes are required to properly determine best interests in cases involving unaccompanied migrant children. We also call for the establishment of a clear strategy for coherent joint working within the Government, and for the UNCRC to be used as a yardstick by which to judge departmental performance.
We urge the Government to examine whether there should be a greater role for the Department for Education (DfE), as the department responsible for safeguarding children and young people, in overseeing the support of unaccompanied migrant children. We recommend in that regard that the DfE should be given responsibility for administering grant funding to local authorities for the care of unaccompanied migrant children, as a clear signal that best interests should be given priority in its distribution.
The asylum and immigration process
Best interests should also be a focus throughout the asylum and immigration process. However, we find that there is too little emphasis on the needs of children and of the need to tailor processes to their age and background. This manifests itself when screening children at the outset and when gathering information about their asylum claims, and we call on the Government to make clear to staff the importance of supporting children throughout their time in the UK. More broadly, we call on the Government to develop and deliver a training programme designed to improve awareness and understanding among safeguarding and immigration staff of the UNCRC, particularly with respect to best interests.
It is also important to identify unaccompanied migrant children and to provide support appropriate to their age and situation. We find that there is an unwelcome "culture of disbelief" in assessing the age of those claiming to be unaccompanied migrant children, with too little multi-agency input in the process of doing so. We consider improvements in this area to be of paramount concern. We urge the Government to produce robust data on the number of cases in which age is disputed to inform public debate. We also recommend the development of clear statutory guidelines which make clear that children should more often be given the benefit of the doubt in a more collaborative age assessment process, and that x-ray examinations should play no part in assessing age.
Some of those children who arrive in the UK have been trafficked, and those children must be quickly identified and supported. We are concerned by evidence that the framework for doing so, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), is identifying too few cases of trafficking and is failing prevent children being brought within the criminal justice system as perpetrators rather than victims. The framework should be reviewed independently, with robust statistics produced on its operation to inform public scrutiny. We also call for sole responsibility for the NRM to be transferred to the UK Human Trafficking Centre, to give a greater perception of its independence from the immigration authorities. Finally, we conclude that there must be more awareness of the NRM, driven by targeted materials and training for those in the safeguarding workforce, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
Making decisions about the futures of unaccompanied migrant children
We must also make sure that when decisions are made about the future of unaccompanied migrant children, it is with their best interests in mind. We are not convinced that this is the case at present. Discretionary leave to remain is used too readily at the expense of properly considering other options, such as asylum, which hinders access to further education and to the labour market in adulthood. The Government should ensure that all unaccompanied migrant children have asylum claims evaluated fully, have decisions made about their future on robust evidence as early as possible, and are able to appeal decisions that are made regardless of their leave period. We urge the Government to establish a pilot tribunal that can take on decision-making in a small number of cases, in order to evaluate whether the decision-making framework requires fundamental reform.
There is also an insufficient focus on welfare when making decisions about whether to return children to their country of origin or third countries. The Government should affirm that it will not participate in any programme that would return children to countries such as Afghanistan or Iraq where there are ongoing conflict or humanitarian concerns.
Supporting unaccompanied migrant children
In keeping best interests in mind, we must provide a strong support network to help children navigate the asylum and immigration processes. Local authorities play an essential and invaluable role in providing that framework, but support is too inconsistent across the country. This is especially so during the transition to adulthood, where resource constraints, uncertainties about the applicable legal framework and a lack of specialist expertise all hinder the support services provided.
The Government should take clear action to remedy these issues. It should build up a clear picture of where good practice is located, and use that knowledge to develop centres of excellence that can spread that practice more widely. It should also ensure that the grant funding it provides to local authorities to support unaccompanied migrant children covers the full costs of their care. Finally, it should ensure that there is a clear and well-understood legal framework in place to provide support for children during the transition into adulthood, even where their appeal rights are exhausted.
Such support includes providing for children's educational needs. However, in our evidence we saw concerning accounts of the educational provision on offer, and dissatisfaction that children were being hindered in their access to higher education by funding arrangements. The Government must affirm its commitment to ensure equal access to education, regardless of immigration status.
Specialist advice and advocacy
Unaccompanied migrant children also require specialist support, including legal advice. However, we are concerned by evidence that it can be difficult for children to get access to good quality legal advice, particularly outside London, and are concerned that changes to the legal aid regime could exacerbate the situation. We urge the Government to conduct an immediate assessment of legally-aided asylum and immigration legal services in England and Wales, to identify and remedy issues in their provision, and to give serious consideration to the cost-benefit case of bringing all cases involving unaccompanied migrant children into the scope of legal aid.
There may also be a role for other individuals to advocate the best interests of unaccompanied migrant children. We are persuaded that providing children with a guardian could support children more effectively in navigating asylum, immigration and support structures and help them to have to have their voices heard. We therefore support establishing pilot programmes in England and Wales to examine the case for guardianship in more depth.