Concerns raised about treatment of unaccompanied children at asylum unit

Home Office guidance for agency social workers at unit criticised for focus on conducting age assessments over safeguarding of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children

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Serious concerns have been raised about the treatment of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children being held in an intake unit in Kent, on the back of guidance issued by the Home Office.

The concerns have been raised by charities who work with unaccompanied children, who said the guidance for social workers at the unit focuses too heavily on age assessments over safeguarding and providing crucial support.

The guidance, published last month, was produced to deal with the situation of unaccompanied children arriving in Kent since the council announced in August it no longer had the capacity for new arrivals, which is still the case.

As a result the Home Office’s Border Force took over responsibility for the children and young people and have been keeping them at the unit until another local authority can take them into their care.

To manage this, the Home Office has recruited a team of four agency workers to work at the unit, which is located within the port of Dover and has a short-term holding facility for both adults and children.

The guidance states that unaccompanied children are prioritised on their arrival, to ensure they remain in the unit for the “shortest possible period”.

Age assessment focus

The agency social workers are working with Home Office staff at the unit, where the Refugee Council also provides support to children.

The guidance says that the social workers’ “primary objective 1” is to provide opinions on the age of young people or, if necessary, carry out short age assessments in cases where Home Office staff at the unit feel there is doubt about their age.

It also lists as “primary objective 2”, providing social work support where there are “immediate welfare concerns” concerning children who are accompanied or unaccompanied. These may include cases where there are reasonable grounds to believe the child may have been trafficked or the child may be at risk of significant harm, or there are delays regarding the transfer of unaccompanied children to appropriate local authority care.

“General safeguarding assistance” – including helping with transferring unaccompanied children to other local authorities by undertaking brief assessments and appropriately safeguarding them while they are waiting – is listed as a “secondary objective”, which the social workers should fulfil if they have spare capacity.


The guidance has prompted criticism from charities. Debbie Busler, head of refugee support and lead on unaccompanied children at the British Red Cross, said:

I am disappointed that the immediate focus appears to be on determining the age of deeply traumatised children, rather than providing them with care and support. Social workers should be allowed to prioritise what they do best – safeguarding children from harm and helping them to rebuild their lives.”

Social Workers Without Borders (SWWB), which offers support to asylum seekers, refugees and those impacted by borders, said it believed children and young people should not be placed in non-care settings and, under no circumstances, in detention centres.

It added: “The primary objective of this Home Office strategy appears to be to complete age assessments with the view of limiting the number of people who are then transferred to services for children and young people.

“We are of the view that this guidance represents a conflict between immigration and border controls, where the objective is to reduce net migration figures, and the social work objective of protection and meeting the welfare needs of children and young people.

“Therefore, it is wholly inappropriate and unethical for social workers who are embedded in a Home Office team to be instructed by such guidance, and for social work practice to be determined by the Home Office agenda.”

It also said that the guidance – and the fact that it emanated from the Home Office as opposed to the Department for Education – meant these children and young people were “being considered apart from other children and young people in terms of statutory context of the provision of services and support”.

‘Two-tier approach to children’s rights’

The charity added: “The approach of embedding social workers within a Home Office team is further cementing this two-tier approach to children’s rights. It does not ensure that social workers will be able to practice objectively and in adherence to our professional standards.”

In response to the criticisms, the Home Office said: “This is an unprecedented situation and we have acted swiftly in the best interests of children arriving on the south coast.

“Our efforts remain focused on ensuring every single unaccompanied child receives appropriate support and social workers employed by the Home Office are able to offer children the necessary care and support whilst we seek a permanent place for them with a local authority. They are always prioritised and held at the Kent Intake Unit for as short a period as possible.”

‘Short’ age assessments

SWWB also raised concerns about the guidance referring to social workers undertaking “short Merton compliant age assessments” if the practitioner was of the view that the claimant was potentially clearly an adult.

A Merton compliant assessment is one carried out in accordance with guidelines set out by the High Court in the case of R(B) v Merton [2003]. This includes that the assessment must be holistic, and not just based on the claimant’s appearance, the social worker must not simply accept the Home Office’s view on age and that the young person must be given a chance to put their case.

The Home Office guidance says that such a “short” assessment must only be conducted if assessed as being appropriate, in the social worker’s opinion, and must be carried out in accordance with case law and separate 2015 age assessment guidance from the Association of Children’s Services.

SWWB said it was concerned about the reference to “short” assessments, adding that “completing these assessments as proposed by this guidance and complying with the ADCS guidance is at points contradictory and unachievable. We are concerned that there is a real risk that this approach could lead to a less rigorous and evidence-based approach to this highly complex field of work”.

In response to SWWB claims that the Home Office guidance did not comply with ADCS’s, the association’s president, Jenny Coles said: “The practice guidance was designed to fill an obvious gap in national policy to support social workers conducting age assessments, however, it’s important to recognise it has no formal status rather it it there to advise and assist social workers. ADCS is encouraging the Home Office and the Department for Education to think longer term about the establishment of a national resource for conducting age assessments.”

The Home Office said: “Our guidance is very clear that it is only appropriate to do a short age assessment in cases where the individual claiming to be a child is clearly an adult – this is entirely in line with existing case law and does not perpetuate a culture of disbelief.”

Call for mandatory transfer scheme

When it said it could no longer accept anymore unaccompanied children in August, Kent said the national transfer scheme – set up in 2016 to more evenly share the costs of supporting unaccompanied children – needed to be made mandatory, or new ways had to be found to incentivise councils with lower unaccompanied asylum-seeking child populations to take a larger share.

Following this, the government launched a consultation on measures to share responsibility more evenly between authorities, including by making the scheme mandatory.

Fostering and adoption charity TACT also backed the need for the transfer scheme to be compulsory. It said it had places for unaccompanied children in foster homes but was unable to easily get the children held in the intake unit placed in them.

Chief executive Andy Elvin said: “We have foster homes available now, today, for these young people, but the Home Office can’t place directly with us because the local authorities in which our foster carers live need to give their permission because they will take on the statutory responsibility for the children once they are placed.

“Essentially the issue is very simple – that is the national transfer scheme, and it doesn’t work because it’s not compulsory, so some local authorities have opted in and some haven’t… and underlying all of this is the fact that the [service] is under-funded.”

The Home Office said that more local authorities needed to come forward to accept new arrivals, “We are grateful to the more than 80 local authorities who have pledged more than 330 places to support our national transfer scheme, but we need more to come forward and do their bit for vulnerable children.”

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14 Responses to Concerns raised about treatment of unaccompanied children at asylum unit

  1. JustanotherSW October 16, 2020 at 5:47 pm #

    As always with this user group, the welfare of the budget is paramount. Its just ridiculous that local authorities have to plead for limited funding from the Home Office to be able to provide a service to these young people rather than being centrally funded by Government as per the rest of the Child in Care population. This in itself is discriminatory and very problematic, as local authorities are then forced to make decisions about taking transfers from a resource perspective, rather than the child-centred approach which is much needed when working with these young people. And then there is the issue of when these young people leave care and the lack of funding available to local authorities to meet such duties and responsibilities owed to them post-18, as again for some reason this is not centrally funded and requires a number of hoops to be jumped through before local authorities can access funding, with such hoop jumping largely being a means of ensuring immigration compliance and enforcement. Unless and until local authorities are properly funded there will always be a reluctance to extend any offer of support or services because unfortunately, bringing children into care costs a lot of money. A compulsory transfer scheme will work in many ways but not all; meeting the needs of these young people is also more than just being about money, it is about integration, inclusion, amongst many other things, which some local authorities are just not equipped to manage in the context of the resources, services and general infrastructure available to support migrant children and young people.

  2. Freedom October 16, 2020 at 5:49 pm #

    The sadness of this situation is around we now have men claiming to be under 18. Fights breaking out in reception centres and one culture against another. With genuine children in the middle. I have first hand experience. Many with age assessments have Claimed asylum and refused in another European country, sometimes we are talking back in 2010 which would mean they were six or seven which is not true and that’s why the home office is being diligent and requesting an age assessment. In Germany they do not finger print unless your 14 years old so why are our European children services not providing care like we do? I know the traffickers promise so much and it’s disappointing to some that can not get a job till their leave to remain which can take years. I know it’s hard to make a judgement but there is more evidence to it then what the refugee council is reporting. Unfortunately if they have exhausted all avenues in say Germany many will try their luck in the UK. Sadly many arriving to the uk who do look older than 18 are over 18 and a lot older which is a massive drain on children social care resources and is taking away those resources for genuine children.

  3. Andy October 19, 2020 at 9:17 pm #

    The structures and practices of children’s social work were NEVER originally designed to address the issue of age assessment. There is no other field in which the specific age of a person must be so specifically determined in order to become eligible for such a fundamental and crucial service.
    It must be obvious to anyone that the “ideal” is to be deemed to be under 18 if at all possible hence the almost inevitable and widespread abuses of our asylum system highlighted in Freedom’s comments (above).
    It is difficult to imagine the uproar which would follow a critical incident in a care setting resulting in harm to a young person which involved someone who turned out to be over the age of 18.
    By the way, that is a grossly misleading headline. The article does not refer to any mistreatment of any young people anywhere.

  4. Sanjay October 20, 2020 at 10:01 am #

    Social workers need to own their complicity. Stop blaming everyone else and own the part you play. When I was unemployed to my shame I applied for a similar post. At interview being asked 3 times how I would feel, react and act if “someone” claimed to be a child and I showed they were not I understood what the real purpose of the “assessments” I would be undertaking were for. I didn’t get the job and would not have accepted it if offered. We are very skilled in social work in not seeing our part in injustice and authoritarian practice. Honest reflection on our individual roles rather than blaming the ‘system’ for supposedly forcing us to act against our moral and professional principals is the right thing to do.

  5. Samuel October 21, 2020 at 9:09 am #

    Strange times indeed when a social worker who must know what is involved in “proving” age thinks that none of this in
    all instances can be “mistreatment”. Why might there be “abuse of our asylum system” I wonder. Our supposed “small and overcrowded” island is a paradise abused by scheming, lying, cheating, wiley adult men who exploit the decency and the generosity of fair play Britons, who have always and forever stood up in disgust when adults have abused children. There is never abuse in care settings so hero social workers have to guard against it from men pretending to be children. Great Britain ia after all a beacon of enlightenment and decency. Those hordes of decent indigenous born and bred British citizens charging into ‘asylum hotels’ politely knocking on bedroom doors to reassure stayers that all they want is to ensure they are legitimate asylum seekers? All is love there. Good to know that when it comes to people with a “tinge” to their skin, social work is more Britain First than all that other guff about justice compassion and empathy. Vigilance and purity, now where did I hear this before?

  6. Richard Jones October 21, 2020 at 11:07 am #

    Poor social workers, forced by these pretend children to do what they normally NEVER need to do with the true Brit children. One hopes that social workers will not be forced to consider human rights next. Allow the heroes, clap clap, to get on with compassionately supporting deserving children. Might there be a connection between such dedication and a landslide Tory election victory I wonder?

  7. Stuart McAndrew October 21, 2020 at 12:56 pm #

    The “ideal” is that we stop exploting and brutulising countries so their citizens flee the wars and poverty of our making. Nobody ever asked me aged 17 to prove my age so I could buy alcohol, cigarettes and see the Exorcist. My blonde hair and Wellington School accent was no doubt a factor. Shame on you social workers who do the grubby work of the State and then convince yourselves that you are acting ethically.

    • Andy October 22, 2020 at 9:25 pm #

      Social workers have always been specifically employed to do the “grubby work of the state” in all its forms. I don’t think you’d seriously want anybody but fully qualified social workers doing those age assessments; can you imgine the outcomes if they were done only by Border Agency staff? Or perhaps social workers should somehow be prohibited from applying for such jobs in order to preserve the ethical premise of the profession.
      The “ideal” is that rich countries revise their international economic mechanisms and structures to guarantee better outcomes for entire populations of poorer countries rather than dangling the meagre prospect of uncertain residence for just a few thousand of their most resourceful citizens who manage the protracted journey across the whole of Europe and then the English Channel.

      • Stuart October 23, 2020 at 10:23 pm #

        What’s so special about social workers that I would be outraged if these assessments were done by Border Agency staff? Age assessment training hardly imparts superpowers to social workers when it’s little more than a general discussion about cultural factors and a bit of case law lobbed in. Be complicit in guess work but don’t claim unique special skills, you don’t have it anymore than some Serco minion.

  8. Amanda Sutherland October 21, 2020 at 1:10 pm #

    Never mind, not long to go before we take back control from those horrible continentals and get to look after “our own”. Pity we can’t stop worldwide movement to prevent asylum seekers pretending to be children getting to Kent. Still at least our social work jobs are safe even it the duplicitous claimants aren’t. That contemporary social work has descended into this stains us all. What next, eugenics as a means of stopping abuse in special hospitals?

  9. Andrew October 21, 2020 at 10:10 pm #

    I am confused, how is prioritising age assessments over safeguarding helping ‘real’ children Andy and Freedom?

  10. Samuel October 23, 2020 at 8:22 pm #

    Somebody ‘has’ to do it so why not a qualified social worker is dangerously similar to ‘just following orders’. As a Jew, I know where abandoning an “ethical premise” leads to.

  11. Anita October 24, 2020 at 10:46 am #

    “few thousand of their most resourceful citizens who manage the protracted journey across the whole of Europe and the English Channel” Those pesky foreigners traversing the globe to get to dear old Blighty to partake of our largesse. Typical social work, appearing compassionate but really believing that “we” are the ones being taken advantage of.

  12. Jonathon Cardew October 25, 2020 at 9:37 pm #

    Who knew that constantly moaning about how difficult and challenging and stressful social work is was doing the “grubby work of the state”.