What’s needed for local authorities to better support Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children

How an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill could better help Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children

Photo: Lydia Geissler/Fotolia

by Jasmine Ali

The closure of the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais has, once again, put the plight of unaccompanied asylum seekers under intense public scrutiny.  At the same time, the Children and Social Work Bill has cast a policy spotlight on the needs of care leavers.

However, there is a tension between the 2016 Immigration Act and the proposed children’s legislation. If left unchecked there is a risk this could give rise to a two tier system of care, riddled with inequity.

Young people that leave the care system can go on to make a success of their lives, but far too many end up with the opposite.

Proposed legislative changes acknowledge poor outcomes for care leavers, and advocate support up to the age of 21, with personal adviser support up to the age of 25. But this is not always the case for the unaccompanied asylum-seeking care leaver.

Automatic support

The 2016 Immigration Act removes the automatic right to support from local authorities for the unaccompanied asylum seeker who has exhausted their appeal rights and established no lawful basis to remain here following their 18th birthday, making their transition from a child to an adult fraught with insecurity.

This latest tension between the Home Office and the DfE will have an impact on all asylum seeking care leavers – including those supported by TACT.

Just this week, in a written statement to parliament, Edward Timpson, minister for vulnerable children and families, said that the government will publish a strategy with a foster care focus for unaccompanied asylum seekers. This will be published by May 2017 and, in recognition of the important role fostering plays in caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children, the new document will set out measures to increase the number of foster carers.

Many TACT foster carers have almost 20 years’ experience of supporting unaccompanied asylum seekers – so we welcome an announcement that acknowledges the foster care role. However, if things don’t change, the pressures will remain: if you are supporting an asylum seeker in care when they reach their 18th birthday, payment for support could abruptly stop.

The 2016 Immigration Act

Local authorities can claim £200 for the support of post-18 asylum seekers, and despite legislative change on immigration, local government must fulfil its duty to safeguard asylum seeking young people.

Many local authorities near to ports of entry have responded well under difficult circumstances.  Kent, Hillingdon, Croydon, Harrow and other local authorities close to the ports can all demonstrate good practice. But many other local authority children’s services departments are still overwhelmed with demand.

Councils are currently half way through a scheduled 40 per cent cut in central government funding, and having delivered £10 billion of savings in the three years from 2011/12, local authorities have to find the same savings again in the next two years.

There are hidden costs in supporting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) and young people. Many local authorities report additional costs over and above the expected support costs.

According to analysis of Home Office data, nearly all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children under 16 are fostered. The increase in demand for fostering services means that many local authorities work with private ‘for profit’ fostering agencies which will incur significantly higher costs than existing asylum seeking grant agreements cover.

The Department for Education, the Home Office and local authorities are in perpetual discussion about long-term and sustainable plans for the future. Despite several dispersal programmes to move asylum seeking children from the ‘port’ or London authority’s asylum seeking facilities to purpose-commissioned accommodation around the UK, the bulk of responsibility remains with the same local authorities.

The Children and Social Work Bill 2016

The proposed ‘local offer’ to care leavers will benefit children and young people leaving the care system.

This is a welcome measure, given that the transition of a child in care to adult is notoriously difficult. But what is missing is any reference at all to unaccompanied asylum seekers. This is astonishing considering there are over 3,043 in the UK care system.

As they approach their 18th birthday, UASC must apply for extended leave to remain in the UK, and the majority are turned down. However, the Home Office does not then remove them from the UK. The appeals system isn’t efficient so many young people go underground and become even more vulnerable.

The removals system itself is inefficient, under resourced and overwhelmed.

Care leaver reforms and UASC

The Children and Social Work Bill provides an opportunity to improve services to care leavers, enabling support to continue to the age of 25 through the development of a ‘Local Offer’. If the proposed ‘Local Offer’ is to help care leavers then it must include unaccompanied asylum seekers in their transition to adulthood. This notion is at the core of an amendment to the Bill to better support UASC.

Currently if you are a young unaccompanied asylum seeker leaving care, then under the current arrangements you will not qualify for the Staying Put scheme, benefits, student loans. Even if you want to go on to higher education you will be treated as an overseas student and charged overseas fees which are generally three times higher than for others.

Parity of services 

On their 18th birthday, the unaccompanied asylum seeker will cease to be a ‘vulnerable child’ in the eyes of the state, but like any other young person they may well be vulnerable and certainly will not be exempt from any danger they might be in if they go back to their country of origin.

By adding UASC to the category of those entitled to the ‘Local Offer’, our amendment will enable local authorities and their partners to work with unaccompanied asylum seeking young people as they progress into adulthood for as long as they remain in the UK.

Extending the Local Offer to asylum seeking care leavers will first and foremost bring about a parity of services that will reduce prejudice and discrimination in the design and delivery of the offer for care leavers, promoting positive outcomes in LAC planning and delivered via leaving care provision.

The extension of a Local Offer to unaccompanied asylum seeking young people will bring about a more integrated service between the local authority and health services for children and young adults with poor mental health. More important still, it will greatly reduce the chances of vulnerable asylum seeking young people going under the radar, disappearing, and becoming susceptible to emotional, financial or sexual exploitation.

Towards a positive and child-centred policy for asylum seeking care leavers

Positive policy needed to better support UASC is:

1) Post 18 support for unaccompanied asylum seeking children

  • Amend the Children and Social Work Bill to include unaccompanied asylum seeking children in the category for the local offer.
  • Be explicit that the purpose of the support will prepare the young person for either refugee status or returning to their home country.

2) Review the financial arrangements for reimbursing local authorities

  • Financial support for local authorities supporting unaccompanied asylum seeking children and care leavers should reflect the real costs incurred and be on a full cost recovery basis

3) Safeguard all children including refugees

  • Meaningful, well-funded and managed, protection of children at the point of entry in refugee camps at the UK borders, including Calais.

4) Child-Centred Assessment

  • Make sure assessments of unaccompanied asylum seeking children take into account that the asylum applicant is a child first, and ensure that moves are made to make the interviews less intimidating

Jasmine Ali is a senior policy advisor for TACT.

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