As Children’s Commissioner for England, it is my mission to make sure every child is protected from harm and has their rights upheld. I am therefore deeply concerned about the Illegal Migration Bill, as it is opaque on what it means for children and their rights.
Any child arriving in the UK must first and foremost be viewed as vulnerable and in need of love and care. Often, they are victims of trafficking and exploitation and must not be held accountable for the crimes of their adult exploiters.
At present, I have many questions about what the specific provisions in the Bill will mean in practice for children on which I am seeking urgent clarity from the Home Office. In particular, I want to see evidence of what assessment has been made of the impact on children’s rights.
I am concerned that, while unaccompanied children are exempted from the duty to remove, the Secretary of State would be able to make arrangements for their removal before they can claim asylum, and at the moment they turn 18. This is a violation of their rights. It is likely to dramatically increase the number of children going missing, as they fear what will happen on their 18th birthday.
What legislation and regulations will guide the care plans of any children not designated a looked after child? Will local authorities be required to provide the same duty of care towards these children to protect them from harm, including from trafficking and exploitation?
Will the Bill allow for retrospective deportations of children already here, on turning 18? This would risk an unacceptable level of fear and instability among a vulnerable population who have already experienced significant trauma in their lives.
How will families be prioritised and prevented from being separated?
I am also deeply worried about formalising the role of the Home Office as the provider of accommodation for these children. These are children, and they need care, not just accommodation while they await removal. I do not believe that the Home Office has been able to adequately care for children in the hotels it has been providing since 2021 – these children should have looked after status from the moment they arrive and be in the care of local authorities. They must have access to legal aid, advocacy, education and care, in foster homes or children’s homes. For the Home Office to be able to direct a local authority to cease caring for a child, so they can be returned to Home Office accommodation, is likewise unacceptable.
The Bill is similarly unclear about the future of this kind of accommodation – will the practice of housing unaccompanied children in hotels continue? What alternative accommodation does the Home Office intend to use for these children and what regulations will they be abiding by in managing this?
I will seek clarity and protection for children as this bill progresses – but there are children today living in temporary hotel accommodation who need to have their voices heard. My team and I have stepped up our visits to the children in the hotels run by the Home Office over the past 18 months and have a programme of monthly in person visits planned alongside much more regular advice and advocacy through Help at Hand. This week is no different, as my advice and assistance team is today speaking directly to these children to hear about their experiences and make sure their needs are met.
This team supports an increasing number of young people in acute need, but this is still only a fraction of those we could be reaching. I want to be able to support all unaccompanied children in the hotels with this direct advocacy but at present that simply isn’t possible with the resource we have available. On multiple occasions, I have set out my proposals to the Home Office for how we can expand this service for these children but have not had a response.
It is the mark of a civilised, compassionate society how it treats the most vulnerable individuals. A child is a child, no matter their country of origin.