Lack of specialist legal advice likely to be exacerbated by legal aid cuts
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has called for extensive reforms in the way that unaccompanied migrant children are treated on their arrival in the United Kingdom.
In 2012 around 1,200 such children sought asylum in the UK, and around 2,150 unaccompanied migrant children were being cared for by local authorities. Such children are entitled to protection under domestic legislation and international agreements. However, in a newly published report – Human rights of unaccompanied children and young people in the UK – the Joint Committee has found that immigration concerns are too often given priority.
The Committee urges the Government to examine whether there should be a greater role for the Department for Education as the department responsible for safeguarding children and young people, in overseeing the support of unaccompanied migrant children. It says that the child’s best interests should form the focus of the asylum and immigration process. Support given should be appropriate to the child’s age and situation.
The Committee is also concerned that whilst unaccompanied migrant children require specialist support, including legal advice, the difficulty for children of accessing good quality legal advice, particularly outside London, is likely to be exacerbated by changes to the legal aid regime.
Coram Children’s Legal Centre (CCLC) has welcomed the report. It agrees with the Committee that the Government must find better ways of assessing and meeting these children’s care and protection needs when taking decisions that will determine and shape their future.
‘Unaccompanied refugee and migrant children have often been through experiences unimaginable to most of us. They are alone in the UK with no one to care for them. The Committee’s report is a timely reminder that the UK is still failing to meet its legal obligations to these children. Too often their rights are not realised in practice and they are denied the support and protection they so desperately need.
‘It is long overdue that children’s best interests are truly put at the heart of all decisions made about them, whatever their status. It is vital that central and local government take real and prompt action to implement the many practical and systemic changes needed, as recommended in this important report, so that we do not continue to fail these children.’
CCLC strongly agrees that unaccompanied children must be able to access publicly funded legal representation throughout the long and complex administrative and legal processes they face in their asylum, immigration and trafficking cases and when they have problems with the care and support they receive.
CCLC also fully supports the Committee’s recommendation that the Government should consider an alternative, more holistic means of judicial oversight of unaccompanied migrant children’s cases, through the development of a new pilot children’s court. CCLC is about to commence a UK wide study and report, supported by EU funding, to explore possible new models of children’s courts and decision-making, including best interests assessment and guardianship, which will help to inform the establishment of a new child-appropriate court process.
CCLC has long highlighted the challenges children face in demonstrating that they are under 18 and the problems of age assessment and welcomes the Committee’s calls for:
- improved data collection to be published on children whose age is disputed;
- clear statutory guidance on how social workers should conduct age assessments;
- a multi-agency age assessment process; and
- further action to ensure that children whose ages are disputed are never held in adult detention, nor placed within the Detained Fast Track system.
The Committee’s recommendations support the calls made by CCLC in its recent report Happy Birthday? Disputing the age of children in the immigration system, which highlights both the human and financial cost of a deeply flawed age assessment process that fails to adequately consider the needs of the individuals involved.
SOURCE: Family Law Week