When unaccompanied asylum-seeking children turn 18 their support can be completely cut off – no matter how long they have been in the UK
Do you remember your 18th birthday? Was it a time of anticipation, excitement and joy? Your whole life ahead of you and so much to look forward to.
Not so much if you are an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child in the UK. You might have been here for a few years, done well in school, be happily settled with your wonderful foster parents – but your life is about to be turned upside down.
Your journey to the UK is likely to have been harsh, cruel and unforgiving. The country you left was at best impoverished; at worst, war-torn and dangerous.
But you made it here and we cared for you. Social workers, teachers and foster carers have helped you to recover from the trauma suffered. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) tend to learn English quickly, engage positively at school and many could go on to university if allowed.
However, your 18th birthday looms. You are about to stop being a vulnerable child deserving of our care and support and start being a statistic in our Alice in Wonderland immigration system.
The 2016 Immigration Act seeks to: “Reduce pressures on local authorities and simplify support for migrants pending resolution of their immigration status or their departure from the UK.”
They have achieved the second part, because they have all but removed support for UASC who turn 18 while leaving local authorities in the invidious position whereby: “Local authorities will continue to provide support under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to meet any other needs of a child, or their family, in order to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare.”
For this the Home Office will provide £200 per week – meant to cover everything – but not if the young person’s appeal rights to remain in the UK have been exhausted.
And here we get to the nub of the problem. Like so many political decisions this one is being made on the basis of how politicians wished the world was, rather than how it actually is. Our asylum application and removal and deportation services don’t work very well. This isn’t a political point: Labour have been just as inept as the Tories on this.
As they approach their 18th birthday, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children must apply for extended leave to remain in the UK, and the majority are turned down. However, the Home Office does not then remove them from the UK. The appeals system is byzantine and inefficient. Many young people go off grid and become more vulnerable. Often the Home Office have no idea where they are or how many of them there are. The removals system is inefficient, under resourced and overwhelmed.
You do not become less vulnerable by being 24 hours older. It beggars belief that while we allow foster children to stay put until 21, we are deliberately sabotaging good work undertaken with unaccompanied children by removing support at a critical juncture.
At a meeting last week, I asked the immigration minister James Brokenshire if it would not be simpler and more humane to offer the same leaving care support to unaccompanied children as to other care leavers. His answer was that this would “not be appropriate as we are not preparing them for adult life in the UK so the approach must be different”.
This is as casually callous as it is nonsensical. Is he seriously suggesting that allowing an unaccompanied child to stay in their foster home until 21 and attend further education college or university (for however short a time) is a worse preparation for returning to their country of origin than being made functionally destitute? Or maybe he just accepts that destitution is what we are sending the young person back to?
Our whole approach to UASC is confused, grudging and wrong. It seems there has been a very cynical political calculation made that we can’t deport children so must be seen to be caring and magnanimous but, at 18, all bets are off.
The only reasonable approach to returning UASC to countries of origin is to do it soon after they arrive in the UK. This would be after a proper best interests determination by a family court which has also been given control over the immigration decision. If a young person has a viable situation to return to in their country of origin, or with a relative in another country, then that can be pursued. If not then the local authority should take a care order and the young person be given permanent leave to remain.
The Home Office will howl that this will encourage more children to travel to the UK. This totally misunderstands why children travel; it is often to escape an existential threat. We live in a dangerous, desperately unequal and uncertain world. Our corner of it is safe, prosperous and, despite the best efforts of successive home secretaries, tolerant and welcoming. This is why children travel, not because of this benefit or that service.
Local authorities that support UASC are already worried about the impacts of removing services. There are conflicts between the Immigration Act and local authorities’ statutory obligations, and the added cost implication if they do have to provide some form of support. The constant threat of judicial review which almost always proves a lengthy and expensive way of dealing with inequitable policy is very much present.
Today, in the Lords, The Adolescent and Children’s Trust – the charity where I am chief executive – will try to undo the damage done to vulnerable unaccompanied and refugee children who turn 18. We are introducing an amendment to the children and social work bill to give unaccompanied young people the same access to leaving care services, university and further education and training as all other care leavers until they leave the UK.
These are our children. Every child leaving care matters and we must not let the government divide up care leavers into the deserving and undeserving for narrow and cynical political ends.
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