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Hundreds of children left in limbo by asylum system: Children’s Commissioner calls for fundamental change

10 April 2014

A report published today (10.04.14) by the Office of the Children's Commissioner reveals that some children who arrive alone in the UK seeking asylum face a struggle to get their voices heard in a system designed to deal with adults. Children and young people who claim asylum are placed in the care system until they turn 18 but if their claims fail they are then required to leave the UK. This interrupts their education and disrupts their lives. Having learned English and settled in the UK, they are then asked to return to countries they have not seen since childhood, where languages are spoken which they may not be able to write.

Based on interviews with young people who arrived in the UK as unaccompanied children seeking asylum and with professionals who work with them, "What's going to happen tomorrow?": Unaccompanied children refused asylum examines the arrangements for helping an unaccompanied child to put a case before a decision-maker, and at what happens if that case is rejected. The report shows the uncertainty these young people face as their stay in the UK progresses, causing them stress and anxiety. The report recommends that they should be provided greater stability whilst in education or training, making them better equipped to establish themselves when they are then made to leave the UK.

The Children's Commissioner's report recommends that this group of young people's permission to remain should be aligned with care leaving legislation to allow them to complete their education or training. This would provide the vital grounding they need to progress with their lives successfully after leaving the UK, taking with them skills that could benefit the countries to which they are returned.

Key findings in the report include:

• There is an unresolved conflict between the UK's leaving care and immigration legislation. The grant from the Home Office that supports these young people beyond the age of 18 is withdrawn once permission to stay is finally refused, leaving local authorities to foot the bill for any further care and support they provide. This applies even where the Home Office accepts that there are barriers to the young person's removal

• Once final permission to remain in the UK is refused they enter a limbo state. They cannot be returned home, yet they cannot gain legal employment or claim benefits. Too many of them fall into destitution, illegal work or possibly crime, costing the UK more than they should, and yet unable to return home even after their claims have been refused

• Changes to the provision of legal aid for lawyers supporting their cases make it hard for those lawyers to act in the best interests of the child

• Although European law places a duty on states to secure legal representation for unaccompanied children, the report finds that in practice, no single UK agency owns the duty to ensure this happens

• Loss of any further legal basis to stay means the young person concerned having to report to an immigration office. When they do so some are detained pending their removal. This situation creates anxiety ahead of these visits. For some young people this becomes a trigger to disengage with all services, and to go underground, becoming invisible to the services that could protect them, as well as to the agencies that would like to see them removed once doing so is confirmed as a safe option. Tracing and working with them when this happens also costs money

• Some young people involved in this study, who had achieved well in school in England, were illiterate in their mother tongue meaning that opportunities would be limited back home. This would be compounded if they were deported in the middle of their studies and without adequate preparation for return.

Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England said "None of us at the Office of the Children's Commissioner believe in open or unguarded borders. But these are children when they arrive here, often traumatised and in the cases of these we worked with for this study, unaccompanied and unsupported. We wanted to hear what young people taken into care on arrival, but at age 18 removal, many having spent much of their childhood in the UK, had to say about their lives here and their concerns about returning home. As a nation, if they are on our soil we have a duty to uphold their rights. The report argues that it makes sense to ensure young people required to leave the UK have the best chance of integrating into and becoming active members of their future communities. Allowing them to complete their education in the UK provides the best chance for a sustainable return."

A young person interviewed for the report said "If they let me to stay for like four years more, for me it would be good because I have only left four or three more years to finish my own education. So then I can use it in some other country if they send me back. I can go to a different country with that qualification and can start my life easily. But if they send me back now, when I don't have my qualification from uni, then nothing works for me. If I go back to my country I don't even know my language. I know how to speak it but I don't know anything about writing or reading. I started my education with English so it wouldn't work for me."