09/12/2020Immigration Advice Service- Unaccompanied children seeking asylum must have their right to family life enshrined.

There are a few things guaranteed to spark controversy among members of the UK government, with Brexit and COVID-19 currently ranking at the top of the list. Neither of these, however, is as long-standing a problem as that of immigration - and the many thorny branches that stem from this one all-encompassing root.

One of these branches has to do specifically with children who arrive to seek asylum in the UK and are not legally allowed to sponsor close family members. Historically, refugees and asylum seekers whose immigration status have been confirmed and upheld by the UK government are only able to apply to reunite with their partners and dependent children. Although this limit is problematic enough, pre-Brexit, such family reunions are at least protected under the Dublin Regulations.

Spurred on by Brexit and a desire to move to a points-based immigration system, the UK government pushed the Immigration and Social Security Coordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill to finally achieve Royal Assent to become law in November, after a two-year-long fierce fight between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. 

Once the UK leaves the EU at the end of December 2020, family reunion will no longer enjoy its current legal protections under Dublin. Many campaigners pushed for an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill to solidify it’s legal status. This was championed by Lord Alf Dubs, who himself came to the UK as a refugee and asylum seeker, having escaped Nazi Germany as a child on the Kindertransport. 

Given the current government’s recent actions, MPs unsurprisingly refused all amendments, proving that their supposed commitment to family reunion is nothing but hot air. Furthermore, unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the UK still cannot sponsor close family members. 

The effects of this refusal on children are disastrous. Having to leave people and places they love behind to forge a safer life for themselves can induce PTSD and Survivor’s Guilt, among other mental health problems. The current state of the law deprives child refugees and asylum seekers of an immediate way to heal from their psychological trauma. 

Even arriving in the UK does not ease it. Instead of welcoming them as the victims they are, many children are instead sent to inadequate facilities like the Kent Intake Unit for over 24 hours with no access to beds. Their first experience in the country that’s supposed to be their salvation is to be treated as nothing more than a number to be processed.

If they’re ‘lucky’, these children won’t have to survive this treatment for long. They will be moved into care homes under the obligation of a specific local authority, with courts ensuring that local councils take on care arrangements. The Children's Act 1989 states their duty to assess them, and almost always to accommodate them. The local councils that do are themselves not supported adequately by the UK government and struggle to cope financially.

For one thing, many such councils do not have the legal expertise to train their care workers on the intricacies and complexities of the immigration process. Children refugees and asylum seekers under their care may miss crucial legal deadlines because their foster carers or designated social workers are simply not aware of them. There is also, of course, the fact that the UK is experiencing a shortage of social workers and foster carers, who play a crucial role in increasing children’s sense of belonging. Brexit and the hostile environment policy will make things worse.

On top of all that, children face the prospect of waiting until they’re 18 years old to be able to apply for indefinite leave to remain and only then apply to become British citizens and finally sponsor their families. Child refugees and asylum seekers often live with fear and uncertainty over a number of months and even years. Fear that their asylum claim won’t be honoured, leading to deportation straight back into danger. Or that even if they were accepted, the whole process was too long a wait to see their families again, not knowing if relatives are dead or alive.

Above all else, the ‘looked after’ status of children within the care system should guide their treatment and their entitlements, which include ‘emotional and behavioural developments’ and ‘family and social relationships’. However the conditional status of their right to be in the UK creates a short term focus, which could further hinder their emotional wellbeing and personal development. 

Education access is imperative to ensure past traumatic events do not prevent potential attainment. Recent research by the Nuffield Trust shows children in care perform significantly lower than their peers, with an attainment gap of between 25-30% depending on age. Moving around frequently, effects of traumatic events and lack of family support networks as a result of the care system can result in ongoing difficulties. These children have battled extreme odds and abilities and resilience should be nurtured. However the hostile environment immigration policies mean social workers, care staff and teachers must enforce immigration rules to the child’s detriment.

Why does the UK government do this? It believes that closing legal routes to family reunification will prove an effective deterrent to illegal migrants, underestimating the heights a desperate person will climb. Ask yourself. What would you do to ensure that your loved ones were safe? If you knew you were going to die, would you not take any way out to survive? And if you were physically unable to do so, would you not send your child - alone, if necessary - to try and save themselves?

The UK Home Office denies accusations of cruelty and abuse. They insist that not only do they provide safe legal routes, they cannot give children the right to sponsor their immediate family because that would be an open invitation for criminals to separate families and force more children to face the dangerous risks of travel to the UK on their own. One wonders exactly what criminal gangs hope to gain by such actions.

In any case, this is not enough to justify the kind of psychological torture inflicted by the UK government on unaccompanied children refugees and asylum seekers. According to Amnesty International, not only is the UK the only EU country that refuses to grant child refugees the right to be reunited with even their closest family members, the decision to do so runs contrary to national and international law.

In other words, the UK government not only treats children refugees and asylum seekers inhumanely, it also acts as a criminal as well. What should the government do to change all this? First, the scapegoating needs to end. Political point-scoring through denying children the right to a family life whilst demonising them as opportunistic and exploitative is victim blaming of the highest order. 

Second, unaccompanied children must be allowed to sponsor their close family members. The UK government already does this for other migrant children. Why not for refugees and asylum seekers?

Third, the whole process of receiving children seeking asylum needs to be completely overhauled. Viewing them as criminals-in-waiting inevitably colours the way they are treated. When they are received, they must be cared for. Instead of focusing on meeting immigration policy requirements, we must start with their comfort. While local authorities apply when they are children, Home Office delays on asylum applications can mean children turn 18 while still in legal limbo, with a lack of communication on how this may affect them. The number of people waiting over the six month target for asylum application processing has doubled over three years. Uncertainty grows, with young futures hanging in the balance.

Evidently, train local councils and empower them to be strong advocates for these children to protect them through this system and enshrine their right to family life. They’ve already lost and endured so much. They need knowledgeable people who’ve got their backs and who can tell them what they need to do in order to secure settlement. They need to know they are accepted and welcomed; that in this country, they are truly safe. 

The Home Office still refuses to release adequate data around the actual numbers of unaccompanied children arriving in the UK and therefore how many of them go on to receive protection. Even if what the government spokesperson said were true and they were sent to the UK by criminal gangs, they have escaped conflict and potentially abuse. If children’s wellbeing was at the heart of a policy that was fair to all children in the UK, no matter where they came from, not only their right to reunite but their power to bring their family back together would be beyond doubt. 

Jade MacRury & Rachel Trafford are content writers for the Immigration Advice Service, an immigration law firm based in the UK &Ireland which provides invaluable legal support to migrants.