Dec 2020 Guest blog: To Prevent Poverty and Destitution, Unaccompanied Asylum Seeker Children Need the Right to Family Life in the UK
Athiei Ajuong is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service UK, an immigration law firm that can help asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in regulating their legal status.
As the UK is finalising its exit from the European Union, concerns surrounding the new immigration policies have been innumerable.
The new Immigration and Social Security Coordination (EU Withdrawal) bill passed in early November, missed the opportunity to address issues that asylum seekers and their children would face post-Brexit. Asylum seekers are already placed in difficult circumstances where they do not have enough government support and their children may face even greater challenges come January.
In October, the House of Lords battled with the House of Commons to ensure a number of amendments were included in the bill. Sadly, these amendments were rejected and thus, many children will no longer have protections from the EU’s Dublin Regulations. This was a piece of EU legislation that ensured asylum seeking children would have the right to join their families if they were legally in another country.
The UK had a similar scheme called the Dubs Amendment. It was intended to bring over 3,000 children who seek asylum in the UK to the country. By 2020, 480 unaccompanied child refugees were brought to the UK with 478 settling in the country. Named after Lord Alf Dubs, who escaped the Nazis and came to the UK as a child refugee, the amendment allowed unaccompanied children to live safely in the UK even if they did not have a direct family link here. Under new regulations, children will not have those explicit protections for family reunion and will be unable to re-join relatives in the UK.
Unaccompanied children that are currently seeking asylum in the UK are still unable to sponsor any family members to join them. In the Amnesty International report “Without my Family”, they highlighted unaccompanied children that were granted asylum in the UK and had remained separated from family for years. One such child was 18 year old, Merhawi Hagos from Eritrea. He had been separated from his mother from the age of 14 and though he was granted asylum they were unable to reunite. Like Merhawi, many children face the challenges of navigating a new country and any trauma they had experienced, alone.
According to reports, 320 children were recorded at the port of Dover after crossing the Channel in small boats between June and August. The number of those unaccompanied were unclear, yet over 400 unaccompanied children arrived in Kent up until August. The Home Office has been reluctant to confirm numbers due to “safeguarding concerns”. Beyond the numbers of children seeking asylum, there are other challenges to ensuring their safety, rights, and development.
Other than seeking asylum alone, many children face a range of challenges that impact their ability to access support or continue education. This is due to the priority placed on their immigration status rather than their welfare as children. According to a report from Justice Inspectorate, children are kept in reception centres for long periods of time while awaiting social workers. The Home Office had a six-month target time to make decisions on UK settlement applications, but in recent years the decision times have increased drastically. It is common for a decision to be reached after a year.
Throughout this period, children can be assessed as the wrong age and find themselves with a lack of qualification under the Child Poverty Act 2010. This leads to them being kept in detention centres for longer and having any potential support from local authorities withheld. This situation leaves them increasingly disadvantaged and at risk of falling into destitution without someone to turn to. It is incredibly difficult for adults without indefinite leave to remain to survive in the UK on the minimal supports afforded them. It would be even more difficult for unaccompanied children if the system avoids providing every possible support.
For children to flourish, they require a safe and stable environment to live in. As Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC), there are some entitlements for asylum seeking children. There are supports for them under section 17 and section 20, where children are to be safeguarded by the state and sometimes provided accommodation. Tragically, the unaccompanied children that find themselves in the care system can be bounced between homes and without a stable environment.
These harrowing issues for unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK could have been addressed under the new bill.
With the new immigration and social security bill there was a chance to reunite unaccompanied children with their family members in the UK. The combination of them being in care and having an insecure immigration status of extended periods of time can mean they will mean that many shall slip through the cracks of the immigration system.
To prevent children from facing poverty and destitution, the Home Office should start by ensuring that unaccompanied children can re-join their family members and seek to lower the time spent in detention centres. Simultaneously, there need to be legal safe routes that help asylum seekers rather than militarising the country’s response. This could prevent some of the worst abuses faced on asylum seekers’ journeys to safety.