Proposed changes to the way unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are supported faced strong criticism from campaigners when they were published last March. Many argued it would lead to an inferior system for this group of children.
Yet despite this, the government announced last month that it would push ahead with most of the plans anyway.
Destitution among asylum seekers whose claims have failed is well documented, but those under 21 have generally escaped this fate. Under the latest plans, campaigners fear this will change, with young people aged 18 and above being left on the streets.
In its original consultation document, the government spoke of 50 to 60 councils becoming specialist authorities looking after all unaccompanied minors in order to relieve pressure on London and the South East. Yet, from the off, many councils were reluctant to become involved, and the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) says it is now in talks with a much smaller group – Liverpool, Solihull, Glasgow, Cardiff and Leeds.
Money is the sticking point. Many local authorities have long argued that the funding they receive from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) for young asylum seekers is inadequate.
Related leaving care costs are a large part of the problem. The government’s original document included plans to cut the number of children entitled to such support by ending the widespread practice of granting periods of discretionary leave to remain when claims fail and removing young people more quickly. But the latest document offers no further details on this, and a significant number of councils remain unconvinced.
Solihull Council is exploring with the BIA the possibility of becoming a specialist authority. Its acting chief executive, Mark Rogers, says that, although the authority is interested in the idea, funding is an issue.
“We have always been clear – as have a whole range of councils – that for post- and pre-18s the reform programme hasn’t got the right funding regime,” Rogers says. “There aren’t any significant changes to funding for over-18s leaving care. And that will need to change.”
Leaving care costs
Funding for leaving care costs for the group in England comes from the DCSF. But the new document says that, from April, this will move to the BIA so funding for pre- and post-18s comes from the same department.
Rogers says the key question is whether any extra money will be provided in the grant – something the document fails to address. A Home Office spokesperson says it is “too early” to say how funding will be provided to councils.
The government wants unaccompanied minors who are not granted asylum to have exhausted their appeal rights by the time they turn 18. But Lisa Nandy, policy adviser for young refugees at The Children’s Society, warns that, given the government’s poor record on returning asylum seekers, this could lead to 18-year-olds with no recourse to public funds being left destitute.
“Eighteen is one of the most vulnerable ages for children,” Nandy says. “Having all your support cut off is dangerous. There are risks that they will fall into illegal working and [into the hands of] traffickers.”
Most councils currently fund leaving care services for unaccompanied people aged over 18 who have exhausted their appeal rights out of their own pockets for humanitarian reasons or for fear of legal challenges on human rights grounds. In the latest document, the government says consultation responses indicate that some councils are supporting young people who are not eligible as a result of misunderstanding schedule 3 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, under which failed asylum seekers can have support withdrawn or withheld. It is set to put out new guidance to local authorities to ensure they are “clear about their statutory responsibilities”.
But Barbara Donovan, regional strategic project manager for asylum-seeking children at Manchester Council, speaking on behalf of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services’ Asylum Taskforce, says it remains unclear as to whether schedule 3 should take precedence over a council’s duty to support care leavers under the Children Act 1989.
One option put forward by the government is for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who are 18 or older and have exhausted their rights of appeal to have their eligibility for leaving care services removed and instead have access to basic support, board and lodgings, under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services says that, if this happens, it will be imperative that the nature of the support is clear to ensure local authorities are not challenged in the courts.
“Until there is more clarity, we will struggle,” says Donovan. “We must have the funding, we have to be protected from judicial challenges, and we have to look at performance indicators to ensure councils will be able to meet their statutory responsibilities to the children.”
Although Rogers recognises the group’s care is a complex area, he remains adamant that the issue should be guided by the principle that, if a local authority has looked after a child before they turn 18, they should continue to do so until they are removed.
The new document claims the specialist authorities should be operating by the autumn. But campaigners say the government will first need to ensure specialist services are available to these authorities, and that there has been little work on this.
Syd Bolton, legal and policy officer (children) at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, is sceptical about the timeframe. He says the foundation had an initial discussion with the Home Office 18 months ago but hasn’t been approached by any council about providing support.
“There’s a lack of discussion on the details of delivery,” Bolton says. “You need specialist services around torture and seriously harmed children. You need legal services. And I don’t see where that discussion has taken place and how that structure is in place.”