Unaccompanied child asylum seekers: should they be treated differently?

When the Care Matters green paper came out last October one group in the care system – unaccompanied asylum-seeking children – were notably absent. The government has sought to deal with this by starting a consultation on support for these children. But campaigners have not welcomed the plans. Many argue that they are at odds with the green paper and will lead to a second-rate system for unaccompanied minors, compared with other looked-after children.

While the consultation opens with a government pledge that these children matter “every bit as much” as others in terms of the Every Child Matters outcomes, campaigners say the plans are driven by removal targets and a wish to keep costs down.

One of the more stark examples of different treatment for unaccompanied minors is the proposal for them to leave foster care at 16 and move into more independent living arrangements. But Care Matters proposes giving looked-after children a veto on leaving care before they turn 18 and allowing them to continue living with foster carers up until 21.

The government says unaccompanied minors have different needs to other looked-after children, making more independent facilities, such as shared housing with varying levels of supervision, generally appropriate once they reach 16. It says that this is particularly the case if they are expected to leave the UK when they turn 18. But Adrian Matthews, adviser on asylum to the children’s commissioner for England, does not think this is the real driver behind the plans: “It’s financially driven because the rates that the National Asylum Support Service pays [to councils] for under-16s are double that for someone over 16. That’s clearly the motive although they dress it up in a guise of independent living.”

Others are equally sceptical but argue that the reasons behind the plans are more deep-rooted. Syd Bolton, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture’s children’s lawyer, sees them as a deliberate attempt to undermine children’s relationships with their foster carers. This, he suggests, would weaken any arguments that their rights to a private and family life, under the Human Rights Act, would be breached by being removed.

Under the plans, the Home Office wants 50-60 councils to care for the children to relieve pressure in London and the South East, which currently cares for most of them. But last week, a source close to the plans alleged that councils were reluctant to come forward as potential areas due to leaving care costs.

The consultation document acknowledges that many councils have concerns about such costs and it proposes to slash the numbers who will be eligible for leaving care funding by speeding up removals.

Lisa Nandy, policy adviser for refugees at The Children’s Society, says that the plans run against Care Matters which says looked-after children remain vulnerable beyond 18 and may still require support. “This document is completely the opposite. At 18 [under the plans] an asylum seeker may become destitute or be sleeping on the street.”

The great danger with the proposal, says Matthews, is that as soon as unaccompanied minors realise the only option for them is to return home once they reach 18 they will disappear. “They won’t be allowed to be employed and they won’t have access to benefits so where are they going to go? Quite frankly they will end up in prostitution,” he says.

The Home Office admits the proposals are designed to address cost through relocating services out of London and the South East where services are generally more expensive. However, a spokesperson says cost is “by no means the only relevant factor” and denies the plans will lead to a second-rate service for the group, adding that councils should not treat unaccompanied minors any differently from other looked-after children “when it comes to providing the main care support services”.

However, the Home Office says that unaccompanied minors’ circumstances mean it is best to have distinct policies for them. Steve Liddicott (pictured) , divisional director for children, young people and learning at Croydon Council, and corporate parent to one of the highest numbers of such children in the UK, agrees: “To say that everything that’s approved for every other looked-after child applies to [unaccompanied minors] is not being very realistic because you have to recognise how children become unaccompanied minors in the first place,” he says.

Currently, councils pay out of their own resources to support former unaccompanied minors aged over 18 whose claims have failed and who have exhausted their appeal rights. The document proposes removing the decision whether to support this group from councils and passing it to the Home Office.

This would lead to them being provided with board and lodgings, know as Section 4 support, rather than leaving care support, which is much more generous.

Liddicott says that while in some respects the proposals to reduce leaving care costs would be attractive to councils, the government has to ensure they do not lead to former unaccompanied minors being left languishing in hostels for long periods with little support.

He adds: “I don’t think anybody would want lots of young people ending up in Section 4 support with nowhere to go, having not been removed. That would be simply shifting the problem from one place to another.”

Where are we now?

About 5 per cent of unaccompanied minors have their asylum claims upheld per year and 30 per cent have their claims turned down at an early stage. The rest are granted a period of temporary leave.

Most reach 18 without a final decision on their claim and therefore receive leaving care support until the decision is made and any appeals they make against it have concluded. Those whose claims are turned down and who have exhausted their appeal rights before they are 18 are granted temporary leave until they reach this age.

At this point councils are required to carry out an assessment on the young people to determine if denying them support would be in breach of their human rights on the grounds that it would make them destitute. Croydon Council children’s services director Steve Liddicott says most councils choose to support such children despite not being reimbursed for doing so.

The government says that it recognises that councils’ obligations to this group are unclear and is set to publish new guidance on the issue.

Councils’ funding for leaving care costs comes out of the Department for Education and Skills’ leaving care grant. This is cash-limited, meaning that there is a ceiling on the highest rate available, and many argue it would not cover costs.

How might this change?

The government wants to deal with asylum claims more quickly. It suggests granting children aged over 16 no or shorter periods of temporary leave and removing them once their appeal rights have been exhausted, even if under-18.

Another option put forward would ensure temporary leave expires when the young person reaches 17 and a half so any applications to extend temporary leave would finish before they reach 18 and gain leaving care support.

Further information
Planning Better Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children

Contact the author
   Amy Taylor

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.