Help at Hand is the Children’s Commissioner’s advice and representation service for children in care, children living away from home, children working with social services and care leavers. Advisors from the service visited Home Office accommodation for unaccompanied children seeking asylum on Thursday 9th March. These children have predominantly entered the UK via small boats and are waiting, in Home Office accommodation, to be taken into care by a local authority.
Some of these children have made the journey on their own. Others have become separated from their families on the journey. While they wait for a local authority to care for them, they are in a child rights lacuna – they have no one who has legal responsibility for their care. The accommodation they are in is neither a children’s home nor regulated by Ofsted or any other body.
This visit was Help at Hand’s second to this particular location. There were fewer than 10 children there – this was a radical change from our last visit in November when there were approximately 50. All the children except for one were under 16, and all came from countries known widely to be unsafe: Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea and Iran. All children are vulnerable, but these children’s vulnerability is compounded by their lack of English, their lack of familial or other support network in the UK and their lack of knowledge of their rights. The Children’s Commissioner is worried that they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
The children we met told us that they had little control over their final destination when they fled their country of origin. One said “it was not a choice” but instead up to the smuggler. Another said he wanted to seek refuge in the UK as he spoke some English and heard that England was “kind to children”; two of the children had a relative already in the UK.
None of the children understood the asylum or care system in the UK and none knew anything about the proposed Illegal Migration Bill.
On previous visits, the primary concern of the children we spoke to has been the length of time they have been stuck waiting for their lives to start, with some having told us they had been in Home Office accommodation for more than three months. However, on this visit, likely due to bad weather and Home Office payments to local authorities, no child had been in there for longer than three weeks. Three weeks is still too long, but it is good news for these children that they are not waiting for months, as it is only when they are moved that they can get the support they need.
The disadvantage of having small numbers in the hotel is that some of these children have no one who speaks their language in the accommodation. To communicate with staff, they may use Google translate and there are no in-person interpreters. This would be an easy change to make sure children’s voices are heard.
One tearful child was extremely distressed because he thought his whole family may have been murdered – he was the only one to escape. He had no way of contacting them. He did not have anyone in the accommodation who spoke his language and he was lonely. Our understanding is that no referrals are made for the Red Cross family-finding scheme while children are living in the hotels; instead, children are waiting until they are moved into care. Help at Hand will try and assist this child with expediting this process.
There was only one girl living in the hotel. She was always accompanied by staff when out of her room. She said she did not mind this as it made it “less lonely”.
After our last visit to this accommodation, the Help at Hand team made recommendations to officials about how to improve the children’s experience whilst living there. Encouragingly, some of these have been implemented. The facilities had improved, along with the food, and there was now a recreation room set up for the children. We have also been assured that qualified English language teachers will soon begin to teach these children.
Only one of the children we spoke to had arrived on or after 7th March, which is the day the Illegal Migration Bill was introduced to Parliament. He will therefore be subject to the provisions of the new Bill, if it is passed in its current form, unlike those who arrived before him.
Under the proposed terms of this Bill, he will be liable for deportation when he turns 18 and he could be deported before then, although the criteria for this are not known. What will happen when he turns 18 is also unclear, as his country of origin is known not to be safe to return to. Will he be sent to Rwanda? Will this new system cause a large rise in the numbers of children and care leavers going missing as they seek to avoid deportation? What kind of accommodation and care will these children have while they wait for a local authority to care for them?
Does the lack of clarity on these important questions in the new Bill signify a lack of thought or a lack of care – or both?
These are the Children’s Commissioner’s key concerns. She has relayed these to the Home Secretary in a letter today asking for urgent clarification ahead of the Bill’s second reading in Parliament.