The Illegal Migration Act was introduced on 7th March 2023 and received Royal Assent on 20th July 2023. During its rapid passage through parliament, I raised my concerns about its potential impact on the most vulnerable children. Since its introduction, my team have continued to visit the children who arrive on our shores to seek asylum, to understand more about how the measures within the Act could be mitigated. This includes most recently:
- a visit to children housed with their families in a hotel;
- a visit to unaccompanied children in hotel accommodation before they come into care;
- a visit to age disputed young people in HMP Elmley.
My Help at Hand team, who offer advice and assistance to young people, have been working to support many of these children – particularly those who have been waiting for a long time to move out of hotels and reception centres.
I feel a profound sense of responsibility towards these children who have faced hardship like few others – fleeing persecution, war and exploitation, and facing harrowing journeys here. I have a particular duty towards the children who arrive here alone, with no parents of their own in the country, who should become ‘looked after’ children from the moment they arrive. I fully agree that we must do more to stop children arriving by dangerous means. But I remain convinced that the way to do this is not to abrogate our duties towards the children who do arrive here, as this will do nothing to tackle the people smugglers or traffickers who bring them.
Update on the Illegal Migration Act
There have been some significant developments since the Act was passed. Many of the measures within the Act have not yet been commenced – this means that they do not yet have legal force. However, there have been regulations laid about the introduction of ‘scientific methods’ for age assessment, including the use of x-rays and MRIs. Children will be required to agree to these methods being used, or be treated as an adult.
Additionally, after a legal challenge about the use of Home Office hotel accommodation the High Court has made clear that unaccompanied children should not be placed in hotels, and should be in the care of local authorities. The Home Office are working to move children out of the hotels, but as things stand children are still being accommodated there as they await a move to foster care or other local authority care.
This blog therefore first sets out what my team found on their recent visit to HMP Elmley, where age disputed young people are held in custody, and the concerns this raises about how age assessment is happening. Secondly, it describes their visit this week to a hotel in Kent where unaccompanied children are living.
Concerns about Age Assessment
Many of the measures in the Illegal Migration Act will make it harder than ever to keep children safe from further exploitation and harm. However, while many protections for children will be watered down by the Act, it does still acknowledge the need for children to be treated in a different way.
That is why it is essential that no child is wrongly categorised as an adult, and that age assessment is carried out in a safe and robust way. As we know from the latest available statistics, the majority of those who claim to be children and whose age is disputed are in fact shown to be children on further assessment. It is of course also vital that adults are not wrongly categorised as children, as this could also carry safeguarding risks.
I am extremely concerned about the way age assessments are currently conducted when children first arrive – they happen very quickly, and are not carried out by trained social workers as a full and thorough assessment (known as a ‘Merton compliant assessment’) would be. I have met children, living alone in hotels with adults, where a rushed assessment has somehow concluded they are an adult.
Visit to HMP Elmley
Perhaps the starkest consequence for children wrongly assessed are those who are sent to an adult prison for entering the UK illegally. This issue has been identified by the organisation Humans for Rights Network. My team recently visited HMP Elmley and met with some young people in this situation. Home Office guidance states that someone claiming to be a child should be treated as one unless ‘their physical appearance and demeanour very strongly suggesting that they are significantly over 18 years’. This was certainly not the case for the young people my team met, who appeared to be young, scared and confused.
An adult prison is no place for a child to be. While I was relieved to hear that the prison has taken several safeguarding measures, including making referrals for full age assessments where necessary, their presence their raises serious questions, and not only about how the initial age assessments are conducted. It is very concerning that these referrals for further assessment are only happening weeks or even months down the line, when these young people are already in prison. I want to understand what professionals – within police, or the courts – could have done to divert them from the adult criminal justice system at an earlier point. I will urgently be seeking assurances from the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and CPS about what can be done to address this issue. I also want to see government guidance urgently issued about what additional safeguards need to be in place while the young people remain in prison.
This is just one example of why we must get age assessment right, but I am worried we appear to be moving in the wrong direction. The Government has recently introduced regulations which will allow for ‘scientific measures’ such as x-rays to be used in age assessment – and that if a child does not consent to this they will be treated as an adult. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have made clear their ethical concerns about using x-rays for non-medical purposes, and concerns about their accuracy. I have previously set out my concerns which I still hold about how a child can truly consent to something if they will be punished for not doing so.
Every child deserves care and protection – and to make sure that happens we need, at the most basic level, to know who those children are. We then can and must do everything possible to keep them safe from further harm.
Home Office Accommodation for Children
Two weeks ago my team visited unaccompanied children in hotel accommodation. What we are always are most struck by in the conversations with these children is how, although they have faced uniquely challenging circumstances, their hopes and needs are universal. They want, often desperately, to have an education. To make friends, to fit in with their peers. To live somewhere where they are loved and cared for. And more than anything else they crave stability so that they can plan for their future.
Over the past two years, these children have been placed in hotels run by the Home Office as they await foster care or other care placements provided by the Local Authority. Although the High Court recently ruled that these hotels were unlawful, children are still living in them as the work is done to find alternative placements for them.
The visit confirmed that since I first visited some day-to-day standards have improved – there is better food, and children are being provided with more activities including the English lessons that are often their first priority. The social workers on site in the hotels, as well as other staff, spoke thoughtfully about the needs of the children.
But the fundamental challenges remain the same. The first is the uncertainty for the children. The first thing every child asks is ‘how long will I be here? When will I go to the family who will look after me?’. Their lives are on hold, and they are overwhelmed with confusion and despair. Some of the children had been in the hotel for nearly two months as they awaited transfer to a local authority.
And this first challenge is related to the second – namely, how to keep these children safe. They are highly vulnerable to further exploitation, including (but not limited to) trafficking. And I firmly believe that the most important thing in keeping vulnerable children safe is loving relationships. It is that which enables children to open up about risks, and be protected. But for that to happen they need to be looked after in stable care placements. It is next to impossible to develop these kinds of protective relationships in the kind of temporary, makeshift arrangements in place in hotels.
Next steps on Accommodation for Unaccompanied Children
It is vital that the measures in the Illegal Migration Act, which would create a legal basis for children to be accommodated by the Home Office, are not brought into force. The High Court ruling has made it clearer than ever that local authorities’ duties under the Children Act must be adhered to. We need these children to come into care, and to stable placements. I want to see ambitious answers for these children – including specialist foster care placements – to avoid the need to move children from one temporary arrangement to another. I want to see the Department for Education doing more centrally to directly provide this, so as to address the disproportionate resource implications for those local authorities where most children arrive.
I am my team will continue to visit, and advocate for, these deeply vulnerable children.