Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeker Children: Flawed Processes and Protection Gaps in the UK

Article excerpt

My experience of working as an immigration lawyer on unaccompanied asylum-seeker children's cases has highlighted a number of serious flaws in the processes which determine their futures.

Every year an unknown number of unaccompanied migrant children enter the United Kingdom.1 In some cases, these children have been trafficked for labour or sexual exploitation. In other cases, they have left their countries at their own instigation or at the wishes of their parents or guardians for safety from persecution or for economic reasons. Some are victims of domestic violence or even accusations of witchcraft.

The UK, like other European countries, treats 'unaccompanied asylum seeker children' (UASC) 2 more favourably than other asylum seekers, both in terms of reception services and asylum procedures.

Reception services: UASC are the responsibility of the social services department of the local authority in whose area they are for the time being. Social services carry out an assessment and immediately provide assistance. UASC under the age of 16 are normally placed with a foster parent or in residential care. Those of the older age group might be placed in more independent living arrangements, for example in shared flats or supervised accommodation. Once a child is accommodated, the local authority has further ongoing duties to safeguard and promote the child's welfare, provide an appropriate package of support and conduct reviews on a regular basis to ensure that the child's needs are being met. Overall, UASC should not be treated differently from British children who have been taken into care.

Asylum procedures: UASC are subject to an asylum determination procedure which is designed to be more appropriate for a child than the normal procedure. They also have the right to receive legal aid to prepare their cases, to be accompanied to interviews and to be represented at asylum appeals, and to have their claims assessed by a specialist children's unit. Furthermore, they should not be subject to immigration detention. The consequences of an adverse decision (refusal of their claim for asylum) are also less extreme in the short term for a child than for an adult because children are normally granted discretionary leave to stay until they are aged 17 and a half if there are no adequate reception arrangements in their country.3 This means that they will be entitled to live, study and work in the UK until that age.

Problems with current practice

One of the issues often arising with respect to UASC is whether they are indeed children. Where the age is disputed, UASC may be treated as adults. Many of these disputes remain unresolved. The Home Office suggests that the main problem is that of adults pretending to be children in order to access services and support to which they are not entitled. However, it is often in the economic and practical interests of the local authorities not to accept young asylum seekers for longterm care. It is the local authorities that carry out age assessments, which are then forwarded to and relied upon by the Home Office in the context of asylum determinations.

The local authorities' competence to carry out age assessments raises serious conflicts of interests. The procedure is notoriously subjective, and is known to be fallible for a number of reasons: age documentation is often regarded with suspicion; it is difficult to obtain consistent testimonies from children who have to speak through interpreters, have a different calendar system from ours, and have little or no education; some social workers do not have sufficient skills and expertise to make reliable assessments, relying too heavily on physical appearance or socially constructed ideas of appropriate behaviour to determine age; sometimes children are scared, do not trust adults and only repeat what smugglers or family members have told them to say.

There are also flaws in an asylum decision-making process that does not take into sufficient account that child asylum seekers are children, particularly when it comes to believing a child's story. …