10. Memorandum from the Refugee Council
When the UK Government ratified the United Nations
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in December 1991,
they entered a reservation relating to immigration and in particular
the right to enter or remain in the UK or to acquire British citizenship.
The Government continues to believe that this reservation is justified
in the maintenance of effective immigration control and further
state that the human rights of children are protected under The
Human Rights Act, which applies to all children in the UK. The
Refugee Council has already submitted evidence to the Joint Committee
outlining our concerns that refugees and asylum seekers are subject
to marginalisation and discrimination in many areas of their lives.
However it would be appropriate to consider some specific breaches
of Human Rights legislation that apply to refugee children and
the inevitable consequence which is that their rights under the
CRC are not upheld.
Returning someone to a country of origin where
they have been, or where there is a risk that they may be, persecuted,
opens up the possibility that upon return they could be killed,
thus breaching Article 2. We thus need to ensure that when the
UK refuses an application for asylum the decision is correct and
that the impact of return on any children affected by the decision
has been fully assessed.
The Children Act (1989) and associated guidelines
provides a clear framework to help identify which local authority
is responsible for the assessment of vulnerable children and the
provision of services arising from the assessment. However the
experience of the Refugee Council is that many unaccompanied
refugee children have difficulty accessing support and are often
passed from one borough to another. This is exacerbated because
it is rare for local authorities to liaise with each other in
such instances. Children often feel that local authorities do
not believe them and do not care about them. They also feel bewildered,
unwanted and frightened. All in all quite degrading. In some instances
children fail to access support completely and have no choice
but to sleep "rough". This exposes them to unnecessary
risk and we know of at least one youngster who recently became
a victim of street crime having been refused support by the local
authority he had approached.
Many refugee children are unable to provide
the paperwork necessary to reliably prove their age. In consequence
the stated age of many adolescent refugee children is often disputed
and assisting young people to establish their age to relevant
agencies is currently a real theme of work with refugee children.
In the main an "age dispute" effectively means the applicant
is treated as an adult until they can prove otherwise.
In some instances however, local authorities are proactive in
attempting to establish age. We know of many cases where clients
are asked to undergo dental examination, sometimes requiring X-rays.
The Refugee Council also worked with one young man who was subjected
to a wrist X-ray even though the Royal College of Radiographers
have stated that this practice should not be followed and alarmingly
we know of a young women whose age was assessed following an examination
of her genitalia.
There is growing evidence that a significant
number of refugee children are trafficked into the UK prior to
commencing an exploitative working relationship with a third party.
It remains a challenge to instigate child protection procedures
in such cases and we have yet to systematically develop procedures
for supporting and protecting these children. Indeed the state
still seems to have difficulty in always perceiving trafficked
children as victims rather than perpetrators of crime.
The Immigration Service has powers to detain.
In the recent Home Office white paper a clear intention to detain
more asylum seekers was noted as part of a commitment to return
increased numbers of failed asylum applications. Children are
sometimes detained as part of family groups, rather than be separated
from their carers, though without an assessment by a child care
specialist that this is in the child's best interest. The immigration
service reserves the right to detain unaccompanied children in
There is no automatic right to a bail hearing
and thus we cannot assume that there is always judicial oversight
when children are detained. Even when there is an appearance before
a court cases would be heard before a judge/adjudicator experienced
and specialised in making decisions concerning children. There
are no Immigration detention facilities that provide the necessary
support for unaccompanied children and indeed such children would
be detained alongside adults. Many (if not all) staff working
in detention facilities are not subject to employment checks and
very few receive training in identifying and responding to child
The asylum determination procedure is complex.
Most children within families would not lodge their own claim
but would be linked to an adult family member. Thus many children
do not have an opportunity to present their cases for asylum which
could have substantive differences to that of the person to whom
they are linked.
There is reference in the immigration rules
regarding the gathering of information relating to the asylum
applications of unaccompanied children and the decision making
process but the UK effectively subjects unaccompanied children
to an adult asylum determination procedure. It is not possible
to divert unaccompanied children into a child-focused procedure
because there isn't one. An unaccompanied child who appeals against
a refusal of asylum is liable to find themselves before an appeal
hearing. The safeguards that would normally exist in other court
settings for children, whether they are in family proceedings
or a juvenile court are not in place in Immigration appeal hearings.
For example adjudicators do not specialise in working with children,
welfare reports are not available, there is no independent representative
such as a guardian ad litem to advocate on the child's
behalf, and there is not provision to protect children when they
are being interviewed about traumatic experiences.
The paperwork relating to asylum applications
is always in English and interpreters appointed by the Home Office
or the courts do not necessarily have skills required for working
There is little demonstrable commitment to family
reunion, whether in the UK, in a safe third country, or in the
country of origin in relation to unaccompanied minors. Indeed
even where unaccompanied children have been granted a status allowing
them to remain in the UK the right to family reunion is discretionary.
Children arriving alone to be reunited with
family often experience difficulties with the practicalities of
joining their families, particularly if the family group have
been dispersed. There is provision for the National Asylum Support
Service to find transport costs but confusion abounds as to how
to access this funding. Younger children may be unable to travel
long distances unescorted and again there appears to be a lack
of clarity around the responsibilities of various agencies to
In concluding this submission it should be noted
that many refugee children are alone, isolated from their communities
and vulnerable. They are often unfamiliar with the processes and
systems in the UK or what entitlements to care and support are.
Many feel either uncomfortable about challenging agencies that
are not upholding their rights or they do not know how to set
about doing this. A Children's Commissioner would be a very positive
step towards ensuring that the rights of refugee children are
fully addressed thus giving them an opportunity to rebuild their
lives and enhance the opportunities to achieve their full potential.
22 November 2002