Safeguarding unaccompanied children

Exactly one year after it was promised by the then ministers for immigration and children, the government published its safeguarding strategy for unaccompanied children on 1 November.

The strategy’s introductory and welcome message is that refugee and migrant children are children first and foremost, and must not be defined by their immigration status. It makes clear that all children seeking protection in the UK must have access to the care, services and support they desperately need. Much of the strategy outlines future government commitments, such as specialist training for 1,000 foster carers and support workers to improve their skills and confidence in caring for unaccompanied child migrants; and research on the support for unaccompanied children and families reunited under the Dublin Regulation. The training will be backed by funding worth £200,000 between 2017 and 2019, and an additional £60,000 investment will provide additional resources for social workers.

Statutory guidance

The strategy release also coincided with the publication of revised statutory guidance on the care of unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery, and update on the similarly titled guidance of 2014. This must be complied with by local authorities in England, unless there are exceptional reasons which justify a departure. While the guidance, rather unhelpfully, is presented online as though it is limited to child victims of trafficking, it in fact sets out “the steps local authorities should take to plan for the provision of support for looked-after children who are unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, unaccompanied migrant children or child victims of modern slavery including trafficking”. This is significant – Coram Children’s Legal Centre estimated earlier this year that there are 2,300 children from outside the EU cared for or supported by a local authority who are subject to immigration control but have not claimed asylum. This is in addition to the 4,560 unaccompanied children seeking asylum in care last recorded in the Department for Education’s 2017 statistics.

The guidance was expanded to set out how those undertaking the initial assessment of an unaccompanied child should be mindful of the issues facing this group of children. They should be alert to the possibility that the child may have been a victim of modern slavery, the risk of the child going missing, and other needs and vulnerabilities. There is more detail on health and education assessments, pathway planning in advance of children turning 18 given that their immigration status may be uncertain.

It also reflects recent changes, including an increase in children being brought to the UK under the Dublin III regulation, and the introduction of the National Transfer Scheme, launched in July 2016. A new section provides information on the reunification of unaccompanied children with family members and the guidance signposts to the National Transfer Protocol. This sets out the process to be followed in transferring children between participating local authorities and forms the basis of a voluntary agreement made between local authorities to ensure a “fairer distribution” of unaccompanied children across the UK. However, NGOs and local authorities have recently highlighted a number of problems with the scheme and the protocol is under review.

Access to legal advice

The guidance makes clear that social workers should have an understanding of asylum,  immigration applications, and the trafficking referral processes. It also makes clear that “one of the most crucial aspects of the social worker’s role is accessing specialist asylum and/or immigration legal advice and representation for all unaccompanied children and child victims of modern slavery. This specialist advice will be required to ensure the child can fully present their case for asylum or leave to remain”. There is no legal aid for immigration cases, and therefore the local authority must pay for legal advice and representation – an additional cost falling to local government. A failure to assist the child to obtain legal advice or representation where it is needed amounts to a breach of statutory duties, which has been highlighted in Local Government Ombudsman decisions against the borough of Greenwich and Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council in recent years. As the strategy sets out, unaccompanied children “can be some of the most vulnerable children in our society. They are alone and in an unfamiliar country, at the end of what could have been a long, perilous and traumatic journey”. The government’s steps to improve the care for this group are to be welcomed.

Points for practice

  • Social workers and other practitioners should acquaint themselves with the revised guidance
    Care of Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Child Victims of Modern Slavery.
  • Local authorities should ensure they are taking steps to identify children in their care with unresolved immigration issues and obtaining legal representation to address those issues.
  • All social workers should receive appropriate training on asylum, immigration, the signs of trafficking and the operation of the National Referral Mechanism.

This article was written by Kamena Dorling, Head of Policy and programmes, and appeared in Children and Young People Now as part of its monthly Legal Update.