According to the UN Refugee Agency, ‘Unaccompanied refugee children are those who are separated from both parents and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, has responsibility to do so’.
The House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union described the problems that confront unaccompanied migrant children as ‘a harrowing picture of the squalor, destitution and desperation’, not helped by the lack of support from Member States to receive and protect these vulnerable children.
The aforementioned Committee details of the necessity of a competent guardian in overseeing the child and a legal representative in cases of judicial proceedings or asylum-seekers, and importantly, in having their ‘best interests’ acted upon. However, despite the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s General Comment No. 6 that ‘response should be immediate’ wherever children are identified, this is not the case. The process of securing a beneficial response for the child is hindered by a plethora of issues that unaccompanied children face. This article will explore a few of them, explaining the persisting problems encountered in the UK after their isolated and tumultuous journeys from their places of origin.
The problem of social isolation should be obvious in the definition of ‘unaccompanied children’ and their separation from loved ones. However, this issue of isolation and despair may be prolonged even after their arrival in the UK. Unlike adults with refugee status, unaccompanied migrant children do not have rights to be reunited with their parents, further prolonging their sense of isolation. No legal aid is allocated for refugee family reunion, and the UK Government was brought up by the Committee to reconsider this restrictive stance. Article 31 of the Directive 2011/95/EU Parliament conveys that Member states should start tracing the family members of the unaccompanied minor as soon as possible. But such immediacy is not evident in the UK.
When unaccompanied children are identified, they may make asylum claims within the UK. But this process is greatly impaired by the issue of age assessment and the risk of misidentifying the individual’s correct age. The Committee’s call for authorities to give young people claiming to be children the benefit of that doubt is a testament to the reality that some children are being identified as adults. The initial assessment process is typically done through visual assessment – hardly a reliable test, hindered also by the lack of staff expertise and access to proper and appropriate identification, registration and documentation. The insensitivity with which the claims are handled may seriously jeopardise the minor’s future, as it places the child through adult procedures for which they are not prepared, emotionally and mentally.
Absence of Guardianship
A recent independent evaluation done by the University of Bedfordshire concluded the positive effect of guardians – appointed individuals who support the children through immigration procedures. Professor Ravi KS Kohli also related this view, stating that ‘Guardians provide clarity and coherence both for children and for other public authorities.’ As a result of these evidence, the Committee called on the Government for a ‘guardianship service in England and Wales for all unaccompanied migrant children’. Through the involvement of a guardian, as well as a legal representative, a relationship of trust could be fostered in which the opinions of the child may be better communicated, thus, serving the minor’s ‘best interest’. However, the fact that only Scotland and Northern Ireland are currently running these guardian schemes demonstrates the absence of a formal guardianship to be a persistent obstacle for the children.
In summary, there are significant obstacles and large holes within the UK’s system of treating and safeguarding unaccompanied children. These problems generate detrimental impacts on unaccompanied minors – children, whose lives up until their arrival in the UK would have already been dominated by emotional turmoil and difficulties. There is a significant amount still to do to act in the children’s ‘best interests’.