Joint Committee On Human Rights Seventeenth Report


10. Memorandum from Refugee Children's Consortium

Introduction

The Refugee Children's Consortium is urging the Government to carefully consider the potential impact of the measures contained in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill on refugee children of all ages. Refugee children are children first and foremost and should be afforded the same rights as any other child in the UK. Refugee children also have specific needs that require particular attention.

In particular, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) provides a critical standard against which the UK can be assessed in respect of its treatment of refugee children. The Government should, therefore, use the provisions of the UNCRC as its guiding principles on all matters relating to refugee children.

It is important to recognise that for children, integration cannot wait until a final positive decision has been made on their asylum claim. What may be a relatively short period of time for an adult can seem like a lifetime for a child and represent a significant part of their childhood and development. The Government must, therefore, consider how any policies affecting children's lives may contribute to or militate against the realisation of its integration strategy. Proposals to provide services and to educate refugee children separately will have a long-term detrimental effect on their development and successful integration into society.

Accommodation Centres

The Refugee Children's Consortium is opposed to the inclusion of children and their families in accommodation centres, as proposed (see in particular, Sections 15, 25, 26, 30, 31 and 33), on the following grounds—

    —  The Government has failed to demonstrate that placing children and young people in accommodation centres is in the best interests of those children (Articles 3 and 6 of the UNCRC).

    —  The placement of children and their families in accommodation centres will remove opportunities for them to participate in social, leisure, recreational and cultural activities available to other children in the UK (Article 31 of the UNCRC).

    —  It is unclear what child welfare frameworks and inspection regimes will apply to accommodation centres—for instance, how will the provisions of the Children Act 1989, the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, the Care Standards Act 2000 and the Regulation of Care (Scotland) Act 2001 apply? We are particularly concerned about child protection issues and the possibility of less rigorous procedures and practices in accommodation centres.

    —  Some of the proposed locations for the accommodation centres are in isolated areas, where it will be difficult for families to make cultural links and participate in normal community life (Article 15 of the UNCRC).

    —  The creation of accommodation centres will create physical and social barriers between asylum seeking and other families, which could lead to a deterioration in community relations.

    —  The communal experience of accommodation centres potentially militates against the rights of children to privacy and a family life (Articles 16 and 18 of the UNCRC).

    —  Families will be denied a say in the location and type of accommodation that would best meet their needs and the best interests of their children (Articles 5 and 18 of the UNCRC).

    —  Children will be denied a voice in major decisions that affect them (Article 12 of the UNCRC).

Finally, this is the third major reform of the support system in six years and as a result there will be three different systems running concurrently by the end of 2002 with inherent inequality of treatment. We cannot continue to experiment with children's lives.


Children and their families should not be placed in accommodation centres, as proposed in this Bill


Access to Mainstream Education

We are dismayed by the inclusion of Sections 30, 31 and 33 in the Bill, which remove refugee children in accommodation centres from the application of key sections of the Education Act 1996 and of Scottish education law. We believe that developing segregated education provision is both regressive and discriminatory, and could contravene the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, as well as the UNCRC (Article 28 refers to the right of the child to education on the basis of equal opportunity).

Furthermore, mainstream nursery or school is the ideal starting point to enable refugee children to rebuild their lives whilst enhancing the genuine inclusion of all children and their families in the local community and mainstream society. The structure and routine of a regular school day can help to provide a sense of normality and security in a child's life, vital to promoting their emotional, physical, educational and social development and well-being. There is some evidence from other European countries, where children are educated outside of the mainstream, that their educational progress is adversely affected.

We have specific concerns in relation to children with special educational needs. It is unclear whether or not the local education authority will retain the duty to draw up a statement of SEN for children in accommodation centres and whether or not the new SEN Code of Practice will apply. It also unclear what types of 'special cases' will be covered by Section 31.

In January this year, in response to a parliamentary question, Government education minister Baroness Ashton said:

'Children of asylum seekers and refugees have the same right as any other child to access the education system in the United Kingdom.'

The fact that this policy has now been reversed is a worrying development, and demonstrates that the Government is treating refugee children as asylum seekers first and children second. It is also disappointing that the Government has made no attempt to consult on this far-reaching decision.


Children should be educated within mainstream nurseries and schools. The implementation of a two-tier discriminatory system of education in the UK is completely unacceptable.


Induction Centres

A child's first experiences on arrival in the UK are essential in bridging the gap between their past experiences and the start of a new phase of their life in the UK. These first experiences may have a lasting impact on the child's long-term welfare and positive integration into school, community and wider society. It is essential, therefore, that induction processes are child-centred.


A full assessment of need, taking into account family circumstances and the need for specialist services, should take place at the induction stage. This is vital to inform decisions about dispersal and to help ensure that dispersal arrangements work.




Children and their families should be supported in smaller child-friendly induction centres. This would mean having trained staff who are able to provide a supportive environment for children.




Children should be able to access play and learning facilities within the centres so that their physical, emotional, educational and social needs and rights are met.




There should be appropriate opportunities for children to express their wishes, views, feelings and experiences and to participate in all matters that affect them, including the asylum application process.


Support Levels

We support this Government's broader agenda of tackling poverty and promoting social inclusion and cohesion—and we believe that those who oppose the social exclusion of children must also oppose the social exclusion of refugee children.

The Refugee Children's Consortium welcomes the Government's decision to replace the voucher scheme with a cash-based system. However, calls for the abolition of vouchers were based partly on concerns about the stigmatisation and discrimination that they engendered and partly on concerns about the level at which they were set. We are very concerned, therefore, that support levels will continue to be inadequate to meet the basic needs of destitute asylum seekers—and that this Bill does nothing to redress this.

Support for an asylum-seeking couple with two children under 16 (from April 2002)



Support rates for asylum seekers

Income Support

% of Income Support
Couple
£59.26
£84.65
70%

2 children

£67.00

£67.00

100%

Family premium

-

£14.75

0%

Total

£126.26

£166.40

76%

In-kind support *

£23.00

-

-

Total

£149.26

£166.40

90%

* Home Office estimate, May 2001

We believe that ensuring equal entitlement to benefits would send a clear message that the Government's commitment to ending child poverty in twenty years applies to all children in the UK regardless of their immigration status.

We oppose the Bill's provision to allow the Secretary of State to remove entitlement to cash-only support. This would cause severe hardship not only for many asylum seekers but also for the friends or family members with whom they stay. Removing the option of receiving cash-only support would increase the number of destitute asylum seekers or increase the number of asylum seekers claiming for both support and accommodation.


The rates of support for asylum seeking families should be increased to full Income Support levels and include passported benefits such as milk tokens and free vitamins.




Children and their families should have the option to live with family or friends without forfeiting their entitlement to subsistence benefits.




Under no circumstances should families be left without any means of supporting their children. Nor should children be made to suffer as a result of the choices of their parents or their failure to comply with conditions for support.


Unaccompanied Refugee Children

The Refugee Children's Consortium believes that all unaccompanied refugee children should receive the level of care and protection to which they are entitled. Under the Children Act and Children (Scotland) Act services should be provided to unaccompanied children on the basis of a full assessment of their needs. It is therefore unjustified that in a system based on need, the grant available to local authorities for the support of unaccompanied children is determined by the age of the child. Furthermore, the fact that the grant is paid retrospectively inhibits the ability of local authorities to plan the effective delivery of services, to the detriment of the children for whom they are responsible.


The grant paid for the support of unaccompanied children (Section 36) should be paid in advance, should not distinguish between under and over 16 year olds and should meet in full the reasonable costs of their support


Detention Centres

The Refugee Children's Consortium is very concerned by the Bill's provisions relating to detention and removal. We remain opposed to the detention of any child, on the grounds that it is incompatible with the principles of the UNCRC and other human rights instruments. We draw particular attention to the interference with the child's rights to freedom, to a normal social life, and to education, as well as to the duty on States to ensure the development of the child to the maximum possible extent. (See also the earlier reasons for objecting to the placement of children in accommodation centres.)

Section 48 of the Bill removes the (never implemented) right to automatic bail hearings for detainees created in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. This means there will be no legal safeguards to prevent refugee children and their families from being held in detention at the discretion of immigration officials and for longer periods without just cause.


Children and their families should not be detained in removal or detention centres


 
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