Forgotten act

The Children Act 1989 and the United Nations Convention on the
Rights of the Child are clear. Any unaccompanied child who enters
this country seeking asylum should receive protection, humanitarian
assistance and supportive care.

But tell that to the 16-year-old Afghani boy, alone in London,
sleeping in an abandoned car and denied social services assistance
because his recently received refugee status means he is entitled
to benefits and “can therefore take care of himself”. Or the
13-year-old boy who has escaped a 60-hour week work regime imposed
by distant relatives and is told that social services cannot help
him because he is in the country illegally. Or the 15-year-old girl
being passed between male informal carers unaware of the help she
is entitled to.

These are just some of the many examples of unaccompanied children
who are falling through the threadbare net of regulations
surrounding support for asylum seekers. Unable to apply to the
National Asylum Support Service (Nass) until they reach 18, they
must rely on the Children Act’s catch-all requirement for councils
to care for all children in need in their area.

Unfortunately the interpretation of this requirement appears to
differ widely between authorities. In a survey of 90 unaccompanied
asylum-seeking children carried out last year by the Children’s
Society, the Refugee Council and Save the Children, 13 had no
access to social services support at all and 31 received
accommodation support but little else.1 Only 21 of the
90 were provided with proper protective care under section 20 of
the Children Act 1989.

According to Susan Clare, a project worker with the Children’s
Society’s refugee and homeless project in Newham, London, many
social services departments are almost wilfully obstructive when
dealing with child asylum seekers.

“I’d say about a quarter of my cases are like this,” she says.
“Technically, social services should be looking after them. But
that isn’t always the reality. Because they do not fit into any of
the normal categories they fall through every net there is.”

The Newham project seeks to fill in some of these gaps in care by
offering the children advocacy services with their local authority
and putting them in touch with local groups and support networks.
And where that does not work, good old-fashioned litigation can do
the trick. In the case of the Afghani boy living in a car, Clare’s
threat of legal action brought a last-minute climbdown by the local
authority involved and the boy was offered accommodation.

“Child protection also caught up with him about a year later, but
by that time he had got himself sorted and didn’t want anything to
do with them,” says Clare.

The children most likely to be denied social services support are
those aged 16 and 17. Often mature beyond their years and without
documentation proving their age, these children may become subject
to lengthy disputes about their eligibility for care. Surprisingly,
a successful asylum application can also work against them. Even
temporary refugee status brings with it eligibility for housing
benefits, which many councils interpret as ending their requirement
to provide accommodation.

“But the benefits often don’t cover the cost of the rent. And even
if it does, how many landlords will let a 16-year-old sign a
contract?” says Clare. “Many end up on the streets or stay with
inappropriate people.”

Judith Dennis, policy adviser for the Refugee Council, points out
that even if they do find accommodation, child asylum seekers are
likely to have other needs requiring social care. Many have
witnessed terrible scenes of violence, some have been child
soldiers, others involved in prostitution. All are vulnerable. Left
to their own devices without an allocated social worker, many
become isolated and at risk of exploitation or delinquency.

“There needs to be recognition in social services that these
children’s needs go beyond just housing,” she says.

With a 27 per cent rise between 2000 and 2001 in the number of
unaccompanied children applying for asylum in the UK, it is clear
that more needs to be done to shore up the inadequate support many
of them receive. And, as war beckons in the Middle East, there is
no time like the present. 

1 J Dennis, A Case for
, Children’s Society, Refugee Council, Save the
Children, 2002

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