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In their best interests?

12 June 2013

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) today publishes its Report on the human rights of unaccompanied migrant children in the United Kingdom

Unaccompanied migrant children are those who arrive in the UK separated from their parents and other relatives, and who are not being cared for by an adult with the legal or customary responsibility for doing so. 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.

The Committee heard evidence of the range of issues that unaccompanied migrant children face during their time in the country. Children who had often faced traumatic journeys, many of whom are fleeing violence or who have been subject to abuse and exploitation, faced intensive interviews on arrival for which there were too rarely interpreting facilities available. There was also evidence of children being placed in inappropriate accommodation facilities without suitably trained staff to provide support, which was a point of particular anxiety where children were victims of trafficking. Concerns were also expressed about the educational services provided, with delays in enrolment due to documentation and too little development as language skills improved. These concerns built upon those expressed in a recent inquiry by Members of both Houses regarding destitution and inadequate support.

The Committee concludes that, despite the rights to protection and support owed to those children by the UK under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, immigration concerns are too often given priority. The Report calls for a change in emphasis to put the best interests of such children at the heart of the often complex and stressful asylum and immigration processes affecting them.


The Committee recommends:

  • Overcoming the ‘culture of disbelief’ about the age of unaccompanied migrant children – The Committee concludes that the age of unaccompanied migrant children is too often disputed, putting their welfare and best interests at risk. It stresses that changing that culture is a paramount concern. The Report calls for the benefit of the doubt to be given more often as part of a more sensitive process, and notes the need to provide robust data for the full scrutiny of cases where age is disputed. 
  • Clearer decision-making about the future of children – The Report concludes that decisions on children’s futures are too often delayed until they approach adulthood, leaving children uncertain about what their futures will hold. The Committee calls for clear and thorough decisions to be made as soon as possible, with children fully informed about what those decisions will mean for their future. It also recommends the establishment of a pilot tribunal to take on decision-making in some cases, and calls on the Government not to return any children to Afghanistan or Iraq while conflict and humanitarian concerns persist.
  • More concerted efforts to bring best interests to the fore in making and implementing policy - The Report calls for a clear cross-Government strategy to be developed to safeguard and support unaccompanied migrant children. It also recommends that the Department for Education be given a more prominent role in overseeing the welfare of unaccompanied migrant children, in particular in administering grant funding to local authorities to support those children.
  • A child-focused asylum and immigration process – The Report calls for a stronger emphasis on the age and background of children in those processes. It calls for the development of a training programme to enable frontline staff to better understand the needs of children, and for the issuing of clear guidance that stresses the importance of considering children’s best interests.
  • More effective support for trafficked children – The Committee concludes that the framework for identifying victims of trafficking uncovers too few cases, and is failing to prevent victims of trafficking being brought within the criminal justice system as perpetrators. The Report calls for an independent review of the framework, and for more work to be done to raise awareness of its operation in the safeguarding workforce, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. It also recommends that responsibility for the system be taken from the immigration authorities and given to the UK Human Trafficking Centre, to give a greater perception of its independence.
  • More comprehensive support structures – The Committee notes that support for children is too inconsistent across the country, especially during the transition to adulthood, because of resource constraints, uncertainties about the legal framework and a lack of specialist expertise. The Report calls for:
  • - A picture to be built up of good practice in local authorities, with centres of excellent developed to spread that practice more widely; 
    - Government funding to local authorities to provide fully for the costs of supporting children, reducing the burden on local authorities; and 
    - Development of a clear legal framework for support services, which ensures they support is provided for all children through to adulthood, even where appeal rights are exhausted.
  • A trial of a system of guardianship for children – The Committee noted that the complexity of the asylum, immigration and support systems made them difficult to navigate for unaccompanied migrant children. It concluded that specialist advice and advocacy was crucial, and recommended: 
    - The establishment of  pilot programmes in England and Wales to appoint guardians for unaccompanied migrant children, to advocate for their best interests and to support them through the processes they are subject to; and 
    - An assessment of the quality and availability of legal services for unaccompanied migrant children in England and Wales, alongside consideration of the cost-benefit case for bringing all cases involving such children into the scope of legal aid.

Committee Chair

Dr Hywel Francis MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"Unaccompanied migrant children in the asylum and immigration processes are some of the most vulnerable young people in the United Kingdom. They have often fled conflict situations abroad or have been victims of abuse and exploitation, including those who arrive as victims of trafficking. It is crucial that they are supported effectively.

We do not find it satisfactory that immigration concerns are too often given priority when dealing with such children; in doing so the UK is falling short of the obligations it owes to such children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is starkly demonstrated by the ‘culture of disbelief’ about the age of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

From when unaccompanied children enter the country, through to the final decision being made about their future, we must bring their best interests to the fore. We call on the Government to make the changes that will ensure that focus, and by doing so demonstrate its commitment to the rights of all children in the UK regardless of their immigration status."

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