Unaccompanied asylum seeking children: councils’ reaction to dispersal proposals

What are the implications for social work practice of government proposals to redistribute unaccompanied asylum-seeking children across UK councils, lightening the load on the South East? Anabel Unity Sale reports

More than 15,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have entered the UK since 2000 and their plight remains a serious concern for those working in social care.

Last month, a Home Office consultation paper proposed reforming services for this vulnerable client group.(1) The paper describes the current process of how children pass though the asylum and support system as “confusing” and says it needs to be clearer about how and where children are affected (see Care routes panel). This will include moving unaccompanied asylum-seeking children away from London and the South East, and building on the work of models such as the Safe Case Transfer Pilot set up between Kent and Manchester (see Kent’s safe case transfer pilot).

The Immigration and Nationality Directorate spends more than £140m a year supporting these children by funding councils directly to provide accommodation, care and support services. Currently, there are more than 130 local authorities across the UK supporting 6,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, but the numbers in any one area vary widely.

As of August 2006, London councils cared for about 2,700 unaccompanied minors and the South East cared for another 1,000. This has placed a big strain on these councils. For example, the London Borough of Hillingdon looks after more unaccompanied minors than any other authority in the UK and it claims a £6m cut in its funding from central government in 2006 has had “calamitous effects” on services.

To redress this imbalance, the government wants to create between 50 and 60 specialist authorities caring for up to 100 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children each. The following criteria are likely to be applied when selecting these councils:

● Services that offer value for money.
● Access to necessary health care facilities.
● Willingness to provide safe and secure arrangements for the children, bearing in mind some may have complex needs.
● Access to suitable educational services.
● The availability of legal advice on immigration issues.
● The capacity of the voluntary sector to provide advice and assistance to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. ~
● Proximity to local immigration offices and the ability to establish joint working arrangements.

So what are the implications for social workers of the proposals? There will be an increased onus on information-sharing with the other local authorities involved in the transfer arrangements. Social workers will also need to make use of the National Register for Unaccompanied Children, which was launched in November 2004 to facilitate information-sharing.

Head of international and UK policy at the Refugee Council Nancy Kelley recommends that practitioners should undergo training on information-sharing between agencies and address any difficulties that arise out of it. Staff will also have to be available to travel with children moving between authorities, but who will pay for this, especially if a child moves between several authorities before settling, is unclear.

Social workers will also be required to build stronger ties with immigration caseworkers. Practitioners from both sides must develop closer working arrangements to ensure care plans are delivered for as long as these children are allowed to stay.

Stefan Stoyanov, policy officer at Save the Children, accepts the case for reform, but says the charity wants to be sure that any local authorities becoming specialists take the time to train their staff and inform the local community about the move. “For this system to work it is going to have to be invested in. Councils will need to address community cohesion and raise people’s awareness of these children’s needs. Schools should also make sure they are prepared to deal with the linguistic challenges.”

For Merrick Cockell, chair of London Councils (formerly the Association of London Government), whatever changes happen local authorities will require further funding to meet the extra work of looking after these children. He says London Councils regularly urges the government to help authorities bear these extra costs, and last year negotiated an additional £11.6m.

But immigration minister Liam Byrne has already indicated to MPs that there will be no more money for these reforms.

The paper expects councils that have already cared for asylum-seeking children to be interested. But in the light of the experience of Hillingdon and others, particularly in relation to the funding and support of these children once they turn 18, it is unclear whether councils will be queuing up to volunteer.

To encourage participation, the Home Office is proposing to reduce the need for care leaver services for these children by ensuring the vast majority are returned to their country of origin as soon as they turn 18, if not before. Methods to achieve this include granting shorter periods of leave to remain or no leave at all for the post-16 age group, or timing periods of leave to expire when a young person reaches 17 and a half to ensure applications to extend their leave are concluded before their 18th birthday.

“We firmly believe that the measures we are introducing will alleviate problems with excessive post-18 leaving care costs (caused by delays in determining the young person’s immigration status),” the paper states.

Stoyanov questions the assumption underlying these proposals that most children seeking asylum do not have a legitimate claim: “We completely disagree with this logic and the Home Office itself agrees that the asylum decision-making process needs to be improved.”

Even if these somewhat dubious tactics do succeed in reducing the number of asylum-seeking children requiring leaving care services, early indications from councils are that not many will be rushing to take on “specialist” duties unless the government puts up more money. For these reforms to work, the Home Office may yet need to reconsider its opinion that current expenditure on this group of vulnerable children is already too high. 

Related articles
Unaccompanied child asylum seekers: should they be treated differently?

Further information
(1) Planning Better Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children, Home Office, March 2007.
Views on the consultation should be sent to UASC.Reform@ homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk  by 31 May 2007

Kent’s Safe case transfer pilot (back)

In February 2002, Kent Council wrote to all local authorities in the UK explaining the crisis it was facing in coping with the large numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving on its doorstep.

Kent was running out of money and wanted to know whether other authorities agreed that this was a national problem and, if so, whether any would help them tackle it.

Three councils of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) agreed to help and a steering group involving them, Kent, the Home Office, and the Department for Education and Skills was set up. Policy and procedures for the transfer were agreed, as well as criteria under which young people would be transferred, which included they were male, had agreed to the transfer and had no major mental or physical health problems.

In the six months that the safe case transfer project ran it transferred 30 unaccompanied young males. However, once the pilot finished, a change in policy meant that the scheme was no longer sustainable.

“When we started the project, unaccompanied minors were supported under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which meant that the receiving authority wouldn’t have obligations when they left care [at 18],” says Kent’s senior policy manager, Mary Blanche. “But then the guidance changed, which meant that receiving authorities would have these obligations.”

The AGMA would have been prepared to carry on, but because it couldn’t resolve the dilemmas concerning leaving care, other local authorities did not want to take on responsibility.

Blanche adds: “You can understand why they didn’t want to take on a blank cheque for young people who weren’t originally theirs.”

Care routes (back)

Typical local authority route proposed for an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child.

● Initial assessment.
● Transfer to specialist authority.
● Contact made with immigration case worker, social worker and personal adviser.
● Core assessment of needs and placement.
● Care planning meeting with immigration case worker, social worker and personal adviser.
● At 16, pathway plan for care leavers, including offer of voluntary return package.
● At 18, return to country of origin if asylum claim has been rejected.

Contact the author
   Anabel Unity Sale

This article appeared in the 23 March issue under the headline “Redress the balance”

This weeks other feature articles

The therapeutic value of care farms

Agency working: the pros and cons

Mental capacity act: how the law will work

Homeless young people in Kidderminster put proposals on DVD



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