Young lives in limbo

Scared, hungry and tired

For unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, arriving at an
airport can be the first stage of a terrifying journey into the
unknown. They can’t understand the tannoy announcements or
read the information boards, they may have only a vague knowledge
of where they are or where to go, they may be frightened of the
uniformed security guards and immigration officials,
writes Natalie Valios.

At Heathrow, at least, unaccompanied minors are welcomed by a
friendly face – that of James Davies, young person’s adviser
for the Refugee Arrivals Project. Based at the London airport and
dressed casually in jeans and trainers to differentiate himself
from immigration officials, he exudes reassurance. His job – the
only one of its kind in the country – is to provide advice and
support to unaccompanied children.

Davies is called to the terminal by immigration officers whenever
an unaccompanied child arrives. He stays with them until they leave
the airport, explaining what is happening through an interpreter
until they are assessed by Hillingdon social services – which
covers the Heathrow area. Although his involvement often speeds up
the process it can still be lengthy and children can be kept at the
airport for several hours or overnight.

Davies also advises staff at other entry points in south east
England, including Gatwick and Stansted airports, Dover, and
Waterloo station, as well as other social services departments. He
believes there is scope for more people like him. “When
children arrive there is nobody properly concerned with their
welfare. I don’t have to worry about resources. I can spend
time with them and find out their needs, rather than just ticking
off the things I would have to do in a statutory role.”

He can also challenge any misconceptions: “These children are
scared, hungry, tired, and worried about deportation. This can make
them seem aggressive and defensive when questioned, which can come
across as suspicious. That can lead to immigration officers and
social workers working aggressively with them because they
don’t feel they are being told the truth.”

The question of age

Determining age is a common problem. Most unaccompanied children
are sent here by their families, to escape war, torture,
persecution or poverty. They may have come in on their own passport
or they may have travelled on a false passport with an agent who
leaves them once they reach their destination. Additionally,
because millions of births worldwide aren’t registered, the
child might not have documentary proof of their age or even know
their date of birth.

Yet for the local authority, determining their age is important,
as  under the Children Act 1989, under-18s with no means of support
are their responsibility. They are either accommodated in foster or
residential care (under section 20 of the act), or provided with
accommodation and services under section 17. Those under section 17
often end up in bed and breakfast accommodation with no named
social worker and scant support. But there is little incentive for
local authorities to support children under section 20.

Councils do receive a grant from the Home Office for unaccompanied
children. But, according to Alison Harvey, principal policy and
practice manager at the Children’s Society, the grant is
based on an expectation that most (or at least most over 16s) will
be supported under section 17. There simply is not the money to
provide the support these young people need.

High court ruling

But a recent High Court ruling (news, page 9, 4 September) should
change this. Many councils had been proceeding on the basis that
only children supported under section 20 were entitled to services
under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. However, the High Court
ruled in a case brought against Hillingdon Council that the act
also applied to those accommodated under section 17 and that
councils should act as corporate parents to unaccompanied minors
until they reach 24. This, of course, raises an even bigger issue
about money. Hillingdon alone estimates that the ruling will cost
it £5m a year.

Last year, 5,945 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in the UK,
but this doesn’t include those who applied in a previous year
but have not received a decision or those who have been given leave
to remain until 18. Currently, at 18 their leave to stay will
expire. The child will then have to apply to extend their leave, or
make a fresh claim for asylum. During this period some are
supported under the Leaving Care Act, and some supported by the
National Asylum Support Service.

You can go home now

Harvey says government policy to grant leave to remain until their
18th birthday can create years of uncertainty and stress:
“It’s a fudge to let them stay until they are 18 and
then say ‘you can go home now’. It’s saying that
once you’re 18 it doesn’t matter what we do as long as
we don’t do anything dreadful when you’re a

Laurence Chester is chairperson of the sub group for
unaccompanied asylum seeking children, part of the Home
Office’s national refugee integration forum. He doesn’t
think it is necessarily wrong to return children to their country
of origin before they turn 18: “For some, their family
hasn’t made the right decision and they should be returned.
Standard social work practice has been skewed by the political
agenda. If you had a child who came from Glasgow to London and was
sleeping on the streets and whose best interest was to go back to
Glasgow to their family, that is where we would send them. A lot of
these kids suffer while they are here and we should consider a safe
return programme.”

Isolation and separation

The biggest issue for an unaccompanied child in Chester’s
view is isolation, with the loss and separation they have
undoubtedly suffered feeding into that. This can leave them
susceptible to exploitation and traffickers. “Contact in the
past with traffickers indicates current risk,” he says.
“There needs to be a national strategy of police and social
work training so they can undertake investigations into child
exploitation which are clearly sensitive but evidentially

Part of the solution is to educate people in the countries of
origin of the dangers their children may face when they arrive
here, as well as educating communities here about what they can do
if they have concerns about a child.  Whatever an unaccompanied
child’s reason for coming here, it certainly isn’t for
a holiday. The statutory agencies with responsibility for
supporting them need to recognise them as children first and asylum
seekers second. CC

Case studies by Janet Snell

‘I set myself goals and want to go to

Stephan is 15 and arrived from Kosovo two and a half years
ago. He could not speak any English. This summer he passed seven
“At the start, school was very hard as there was no
translator so I had no idea what the teacher was saying. I had an
English lesson once a week and tried to learn as quickly as I
“After six months it got easier. I share a house with other
boys which means getting yourself up and making your breakfast –
the other kids have parents to tell them to do it. The social
workers help with money and stuff and they go to parents’
evenings with you to talk to teachers. And they are someone to talk
to if you have a problem.
“But you have to be mature and control yourself. If I go out
I don’t have to be home on time but when I was studying I
made sure I didn’t stay out late.
“Some people my age have gone a bad way or got into trouble
but I know I have to study or I won’t get my exams.
“I set myself goals and I want to go to university. After
that who knows? I don’t know what job I’ll do. I want
to help other people. I think I might be a

People see the asylum seeker but they don’t
see the child’

Simon Shreeves is a social worker with the unaccompanied
children asylum seekers team in Norfolk.
“In February 2002 we had 15 unaccompanied minors but now we
have 50. The day they arrive they have a glazed look. Sometimes
they step out of a lorry and don’t know what country
they’re in. The driver will drop them at a petrol station and
say ‘call the police’. Others just leave them in a
“We found one child who’d been sheltering in a derelict
guards hut at the end of platform five of Norwich station for three
nights. He had come to this country on the underside of a coach.
He’d run away from abuse and doesn’t even know how old
he is.
“Like so many of them, he’s just a lost child. Their
lives have been turned on their heads yet people see the asylum
seeker but they don’t see the child.
“We can place children in specialised foster care, the YMCA,
and we also use one B&B where the owner keeps an eye on them.
Longer term we use homes where they share a house with other
youngsters like them.
We try and offer them a bit of normality, a place where the world
isn’t spinning out of control.”

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