Safeguarding Refugee Youth: Problems with Current Practice

As the previous posts have shown, there are many problems faced by unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who turn 18. A large number of the issues these young people face are due to structural flaws within the system. I’ll identify some of the most pressing problems in this post, and examine what difficulties they cause in the lives of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

[h3]Lack of training for social workers[/h3]Social workers are the frontline of the UK’s interaction with separated children. They are the government employees with direct interaction with these young people. Unfortunately, some social workers with asylum seekers on their caseload have pointed out that it is hard to stay up-to-date with immigration and benefits system as these entitlements change frequently. Those social workers looking after separated children are not being given the specialist immigration training they need to be effective advocates for their clients.

An example we found was with a young person whose social worker did not understand his immigration status and struggled to get access to other services. Later the social worker found out that he had been granted refugee status and should have had full access to services the entire time.

[h3]Complex guidelines for who is entitled to support[/h3]Young people whose appeal rights have been exhausted are in perhaps the most precarious situation of all. Though they have legally been denied asylum, for one reason or another they have not been removed from the UK. These young people are living in the UK unable to legally work–but who is responsible for them?

While unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are under 18 and in care, the UKBA provides reimbursements to the local authorities. Section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 places the responsibility for support after 18 on the local authority without the UKBA reimbursements. Since the UKBA generally ceases reimbursements three months after these young people turn 18, the burden for any continuing interaction is placed on the local authority.

The situation becomes even more confusing when examining which young people local authorities are required to support. In many cases, ceasing support requires a Human Rights Assessment but there is no singular protocol in place for this assessment. Furthermore, the criteria used to determine whether a young person should receive continuing support are sometimes nebulous (i.e. ‘face practical obstacles to returning to their country of origin’), making local authorities even more confused on whether they should be providing support.

The bottom line for social workers should be that local authorities are responsible for ALL young people including those who could become destitute when they turn 18. If the UKBA is unable to deport these 18 year olds, then the local authorities still have a responsibility to support them. It is not the role of local authorities to become immigration officers.

[h3]Withdrawing support leaves UASC at risk of destitution[/h3]In practical terms, one of the most terrifying aspects of the confusion surrounding support to people who have exhausted their appeal rights is that refusing support leaves these young people at risk of destitution. Without the ability to work and without access to benefits, it is difficult for these young people in particular to find a way to stay afloat. These young people are at risk of homelessness and destitution. This problem is related to confusion surrounding who is entitled to benefits. However, the problem is broader and rooted in the shirking of responsibility by local authorities to provide for all residents in their region. Forcing 18 year olds into destitution should not be the policy of local authorities or the UKBA.

[h3]UKBA provides less money for care leavers[/h3]When the UKBA does provide benefits for some unaccompanied asylum-seeking children leaving care, those benefits are not always enough to provide full financial support for the care leavers. Payments for care leavers are less than the amount given for looked-after children, intensifying the gap in available money to live on. The UKBA provides £150 per week for care leavers, which must cover all costs including accommodation, living expenses, education, and other expenses. Even when benefits are being received, the local authority may not provide for a care leaver at the same level as when they were in care. This can significantly damage the young person’s plans in education and for their future.

[h3]Lack of specialist legal knowledge[/h3]Legal representatives for asylum-seeking children must be well versed in child law as well as immigration and asylum law. Most separated children are placed with immigration solicitors, who may or may not have dealt with an asylum seeking child before. There are very few solicitors who work exclusively on children’s immigration cases, so most separated children are placed with solicitors who do not specialise in this area.

[h3]Conclusions[/h3]While there are many problems in practice for helping unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, the five outlined here are the most urgent. One common thread through each is confusion on how the law applies to UASC, demonstrating the disconnect between the people making the laws and those navigating through the system–asylum-seekers, solicitors, and social workers alike.

These young people are not criminals or benefit-scroungers looking to live for free– they are children who fled violence and war, grew up in care in the UK, and are now being forced into destitution. Officials at the UKBA and within local authorities cannot turn a blind eye to the impact of their confusing policies and lack of communication. They are responsible for helping to transition these children when they turn 18 and destitution is an unacceptable outcome.

In my next post, I will outline what can be done to improve the system and support these young people.

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