Do you remember your 18th birthday? Was it a time of anticipation, excitement and joy. Finally legal to drink in pubs? Your whole life ahead of you and so much to look forward to.
Not so much if you are an unaccompanied asylum seeking child in the UK. You might have been here for a few years, done well in school, be happily settled with your wonderful foster parents but your life is about to be turned upside down.
Your journey to the UK is likely to have been harsh, cruel and unforgiving. The country you left was at best impoverished at worst war torn and dangerous, threatening your very existence.
But you made it here and we cared for you. Social workers, teachers and foster carers have helped you to recover from the trauma suffered and gave you an opportunity to shine, many of you have taken that opportunity. UASC’s tend to learn English quickly, engage positively at school and achieve, many could go on to University if allowed.
However your 18th birthday looms and you are about to stop being a vulnerable child deserving of our care and support and start being a statistic in our Alice in Wonderland immigration system.
The Immigration Act 2016 seeks to:
“Reduce pressures on Local Authorities and simplify support for migrants pending resolution of their immigration status or their departure from the UK. “
Well they have achieved the second part, because they have all but removed support for UASC’s who turn 18 whilst leaving local authorities in the invidious position whereby;
“Local Authorities will continue to provide support under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to meet any other needs of a child, or their family, in order to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare.”
For this the Home Office will provide £200 per week for everything but not if the young person is appeal rights exhausted.
And here we get to the nub of the problem. Like so many political decisions this one is being made on the basis of how politicians wished the world was rather than how it actually is. Our asylum application and removal and deportation service doesn’t work very well, never has really. This isn’t a political point, Labour have been just as inept as the Tories on this. In fact Labour were worse as they allowed the Home Office to detain children and families in Yarlswood and, to their credit, the Coalition ended this. I was very closely involved in the process of ending child detention in the immigration process and it was a close run thing, detaining children was administratively convenient for UKBA.
As they approach their 18th birthday UASC’s must apply for extended leave to remain in the UK, the majority are turned down. However the Home Office does not then remove them. The appeals system is byzantine and inefficient. Many young people go off grid, they make their way as they can, and becoming more vulnerable by doing so. Often the Home Office have no idea where they are or how many of them there are. The removals system is inefficient, under resourced and overwhelmed
You do not become less vulnerable by being 24 hours older. It beggars belief that whist we seek to allow foster children to stay put until 21 and hopefully extend this to young people in residential care we are deliberately sabotaging good work undertaken with UASC’s to prepare them for adult life by removing support at a critical juncture.
I asked the Immigration Minister James Brokenshire this week why it would not just be simpler and more humane to offer the same leaving care support to UASC’s as to other care leavers. His answer was that this would “not be appropriate as we are not preparing them for adult life in the UK so the approach must be different”
This is as casually callous as it is nonsensical. Is he seriously suggesting that allowing a UASC to stay in their foster home until 21 and attend further education college or University (for however short a time) is a worse preparation for returning to their country of origin than being made functionally destitute? Or maybe he just accepts that destitution is what we are sending the young person back to.
Our whole approach to UASC’s is confused, grudging and wrong. It seems that there has been a very cynical political calculation made that we can’t deport children so must be seen to be caring and magnanimous but, at 18, all bets are off.
The only reasonable approach to returning UASC’s to countries of origin is to do it soon after they arrive in the UK after a proper best interest determination by a Family Court that is given control over the immigration decision also. If a young person has a viable situation to return to in their country of origin, or with a relative in another country, then that can be pursued. If not then the local authority should take a care order and the young person be given permanent leave to remain. The Hillingdon Judgement is overdue to be overturned, all UASC’s should be on s.31 care orders as who has consented to their care and who, in the UK, has parental responsibility.
The Home Office will howl that this will encourage more children to travel to the UK. This totally misunderstands why children travel. It is often to escape an existential threat. We live in a dangerous, desperately unequal and uncertain world. Our corner of it is safe, prosperous and, despite the best efforts of successive Home Secretaries, tolerant and welcoming. This is why children travel, not because of this benefit or that service.
Local authorities that support UASC are already worried about the impacts of removing services from vulnerable young UASC’s. There are conflicts between the Immigration Act and local authority statutory obligations and the added cost implication if they do have to provide some form of support whether that be welfare or legal. The constant threat of Judicial Review which almost always proves a lengthy and expensive way of dealing with inequitable policy is very much present.
Today in the Lord’s TACT will try and undo the damage done to vulnerable unaccompanied and refugee children who have the temerity to turn 18. We are introducing an amendment to the Children & Social Work Bill to give Unaccompanied young people the same access to leaving care services, university and further education and training as all other care leavers have until the point at which they leave the UK.
These are our children, every child leaving care matters and we must not let our government divide up deserving and undeserving care leavers for narrow and cynical political ends.