Select Committee on European Communities Twelfth Report


Letter from the Rt Hon Michael Howard, QC, MP, Home Secretary, to Lord Hoffmann, Chairman of Sub-Committee E

  Thank you for your letter of 17 December[1] concerning the proposed EU Joint Position on Unaccompanied Minor Asylum Seekers. Although Sub-Committee E has decided to refrain from undertaking a detailed enquiry in this matter, it has asked for clarification on a number of points.

  Data on the numbers of unaccompanied children has been maintained separately only since 1992. The numbers of applications are:

    1992 - 190

    1993 - 275

    1994 - 416

    1995 - 597

    1996 - 262 (to end June)

Figures are not available for decisions before May 1995, when a specialist caseworking unit dealing with asylum applications from unaccompanied minors was established. From May 1995 to November 1996 the following decisions were made:

    Granted refugee status - 7

    Granted exceptional leave - 282

    Refused outright - 293

As at 1 December 1996, there were 470 applications outstanding.

  The Sub-Committee has asked whether we will be able to secure a change to the draft text to include children abandoned after entering the country. Discussions on the text are still at an early stage but there seems to be an acceptance that a more flexible definition of unaccompanied minor will be required.

  Article 3 (Reception) reflects among other things the use of reception centres for children. Although this is not the practice in the United Kingdom, some children may be accommodated by local authorities in residential homes. We recognise that accommodating young people over 16 in independent living arrangements may, in appropriate cases, be the best way of meeting their needs, and the text should allow for this.

  It has already been agreed that Article 4 (detention) should be amended to more accurately reflect the arrangements across EU Member States. It remains the policy of the United Kingdom Government that unaccompanied minors are detained only as a last resort and normally temporary admission is granted so that the child can be placed in the care of a suitable sponsor or the relevant Social Services Department. The legal basis for detention derives from Schedules 2 and 3 of the Immigration Act and no age limits are specified. In deciding whether to detain, account is taken of all individual circumstances. It is already our policy to detain unaccompanied minors, whether asylum seekers or not, as a very last resort and every effort is made to keep periods of detention to an absolute minimum. The authority of an Immigration Inspector is required for the detention of anyone under the age of 18 and detention is reviewed by an Assistant Director within 24 hours. A check of detention records on 2 January showed only two people in detention claiming to be under the age of 18: both are believed by the Home Office to be over 18.

  Where detention is considered unavoidable minors are accommodated in immigration detention centres, which are run on the lines of secure hostels. Although some immigration detainees are held in Prison Service accommodation under powers in the Immigration Act 1971, this does not apply to a person under the age of 18.

  On the question of age assessment (Article 7), information is not available on the number of applications where adults have claimed to be minors, but there are certainly cases where this has happened and it is a problem that other agencies have encountered (Mrs Williamson refers to it in the Refugee Council's submission to the Sub-Committee). It is common for asylum seekers to have no documentation; where this involves young people, they are frequently given the benefit of any doubt about their ages. Our general position remains as outlined in paragraph 20 of the Explanatory Note. Where there is an age dispute the burden of proof rests with the applicant and if acceptable documentary proof cannot be provided, due weight will be attached to any medical age assessments that the child or his representatives wish to present. If a decision is reached that the applicant should not be accepted as a child then that decision can be questioned and reviewed at any appeal proceedings. If the dispute involves someone who is detained then there is the opportunity for the applicant to state his case at a bail hearing. These are practical and independent safeguards.

  The submissions to the Sub-Committee agree that any medical examination must be by consent and this is explicit in Article 7. However, if the burden of proof rests with the Secretary of State, there is a real risk that more people who are over 18 would destroy their documents and claim to be children, knowing that if they withheld their consent to a medical examination it would be very difficult to disprove their claims.

3 February 1997

1  Printed in Correspondence with Ministers, 5th Report, Session 1996-97, p. 35. Back

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