There has been much said in the news in recent weeks and months about asylum seeking children; the increase in the looked after children population due to the increase of children seeking asylum in the UK, the whereabouts of asylum seeking looked after children being unknown to local authorities, and the Home Office changing the dates of birth of unaccompanied children seeking asylum so that they are regarded as adults. The latter is particularly worrying as children are subsequently being sent to centres such as the one in Manston in Kent, which has been the subject of controversy in recent weeks due to reports of overcrowding and unsafe conditions.
Children seeking asylum are extremely vulnerable children who have experienced and witnessed significant trauma and distress in their home countries, and they have arrived in the UK to seek a safe, stable and protective environment. Many have made journeys across Europe that have involved violence and torture, on top of the trauma they suffered in the country in which they previously lived. Many will have lost their documents along the way. Children who are clearly identifiable as children will move to the care of the local authority, but where there is discrepancy over age further assessment is required. Those who have had their ages changed, as reported in the media this week, and sent to centres such as that in Manston have reported being frightened, witnessing fights and aggression, and have clearly not been protected as children should be, therefore exposing them even more trauma and fear at a time when they need additional care and safeguarding.
The number of asylum seeking children in local authority care has increased by 34% in the past year, according to the Department for Education statistics, and 5570 asylum seeking children in care was the highest ever number recorded. Between April and June 2022, 315 children were moved from Kent to other local authorities and 693 children moved from Home Office facilities to local authority care. There is a significant lack of available foster care placements and an increase in the number of foster carers resigning, largely due to the cost of living crisis but also as a result of increased pressures foster carers feel they are facing around lack of support being provided by local authorities. It is therefore difficult to imagine how the target set by the Home Office for councils to accept referrals for children under the National Transfer Scheme within five days could be practically met as it is clearly an unrealistic one, recognised by local authorities themselves.
The issue regarding children being correctly identified as children is an important one and one of the reasons why age assessments are necessary, and it works both ways – to ensure that children are rightly identified as children and that adults claiming to be children are rightly identified as adults. Certainly, the majority of age assessments we have undertaken at WillisPalmer have been commissioned due to it being thought that the person being assessed is an adult claiming to be a child.
Unaccompanied young people claiming to be children should be treated as children until a decision is made following an assessment, and if there is doubt as to whether they are an adult or a child a local authority age assessment is required. All local authorities have a duty to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need” and the Children Act 1989 applies to all children in England, irrespective of their immigration status. If an unaccompanied young person has a “Merton compliant” assessment by a local authority social worker at the point of making an asylum application and before speaking to the Home Office: ‘It is Home Office policy to give prominence to a local authority age assessment which is Merton compliant and it is likely that the local authority’s decision will be decisive in most cases.’
The Department for Education 2017 guidance regarding unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery states that “Age assessments should only be carried out where there is reason to doubt that the individual is the age they claim. Age assessments should not be a routine part of a local authority’s assessment of unaccompanied or trafficked children.”
It is important that local authorities are able to meet the short and long term needs of unaccompanied asylum seeking children, both their practical needs in terms of being appropriately housed and access to education, but also their emotional needs, because those needs are likely to be significant given the trauma the child will have suffered in their home country, as part of their journey to the UK, and the feelings of loss as a result of separation from their families and friends. They need stability, security, care, and therapeutic support to help them feel able to talk about and understand their life experiences, but it is likely that local authorities need additional funding and resources in order to make this a reality.