As Children’s Commissioner for England, I have a statutory duty to promote and protect the rights of all children in the UK. I have a particular duty towards those with a social worker or living away from home, which includes unaccompanied children seeking asylum.
As I have outlined publicly through my statement and in my briefings to MPs, I am deeply concerned about the impact that the Illegal Migration Bill will have on the lives of the vulnerable children arriving in the UK to seek safety and refuge.
My team and I conduct regular visits to the hotel accommodation where unaccompanied children are housed to provide them with independent advice and assistance through my Help at Hand service. Across my team’s visits to the hotels, it is clear that these children are acutely vulnerable and are in need of care and protection. Some children have travelled for long periods, often up to a year by the time they arrive in the UK. Children don’t seem to have much control over where they end up either. One child told the team ‘it was not a choice’, but instead up to the smuggler.
In the month since the Bill was introduced, it has progressed swiftly through the House of Commons from Second Reading to Committee Stage. I have consistently reiterated the need for amendments to be made that ensure unaccompanied children arriving in the UK to seek asylum are protected from harm and provided with the stability and care they need.
I have been glad to see so many members recognise the needs of unaccompanied children, and children with their families. During Committee Stage I was reassured to see important points raised by Dame Diana Johnson MP, Tim Loughton MP, David Simmons MP, Stella Creasy MP and Alistair Carmichael MP.
As I set out in my briefing to MPs ahead of Committee Stage, much greater clarity is needed about how local authorities will retain all their duties under the Children Act 1989 towards every child. The Bill has the potential to make it harder for them to fulfil these duties in relation to ensuring stability for children as their cooperate parent and to protect and support child victims of trafficking and exploitation.
There needs to be many more safe and legal routes for children and their families who are who are fleeing war to come to the UK. Moreover, children – whether accompanied or unaccompanied – should be excluded from the changes to detention rules the provision in the Bill which would render their claims to asylum inadmissible.
Children and their families should be excluded from the duty to remove. It’s vital that unaccompanied children should be removed from the power to remove, and also from the duty to remove beyond their 18th birthday. Having the threat of removal hanging over children’s heads as they reach adulthood will risk many of them going missing in an attempt to avoid this, leaving them open to exploitation and abuse.
I have said on multiple occasions that the Home Office should not be provided with the legal power to accommodate children. I do not believe it has been able to adequately care for children in the hotels it has been providing since 2021, and creating this new power would likely exacerbate the issue.
I am deeply concerned about some of the provisions in the Bill that aim to strip away the protections for victims of trafficking and modern slavery. Children and their families must be allowed to make a claim to asylum if they have been a victim of trafficking or modern slavery. Modern Slavery Act protections should apply to children and parents. Any children and families who have been identified as victim of trafficking or modern slavery should also be able to access support through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Ahead of Report Stage of the Bill I will be outlining the need to center the debate around the need to protect vulnerable children – whether unaccompanied or with their families.