The Home Office has released their response to a consultation about how unaccompanied asylum seeking children are treated in the UK. Planning Better Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children" follows a period of consultation since the original proposals were set out in March 2007. It includes proposals for specialist local authorities to be appointed to look after all these children, and consideration of how they may be returned to their countries of origin if their application fails.
The Government proposes that unaccompanied child asylum seekers who are refused the right to stay in the UK are to be removed before they reach 18. The Border and Immigration Agency's current practice is to wait until the child turns 18 before beginning removal proceedings. The proposals come as a new code of practice for the Border and Immigration Agency are being introduced.
The Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne, also announced yesterday that the Border and Immigration Agency will be consulting on lifting the UK reservation on the UN convention on the Rights of the Child. This follows the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, making an announcement to the same effect to the House of Commons on 14 January, as reported in Newswatch, 14 January.
In a further announcement that will be welcomed by many immigration and children pressure groups, Liam Byrne added: "I am hopeful too that we can avoid detaining children who are awaiting removal in most cases and can announce that we will be piloting alternatives to detention."
In response to the publication of the Government's reform plans for the treatment of unaccompanied children seeking asylum, Donna Covey, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council said:
"We're pleased the Home Office has recognised that it needs to improve the way they safeguard and protect these children. However we have serious concerns about some of the proposals outlined, and we oppose government plans to forcibly return children to their country of origin. The government should not try to force any child to return against their wishes where their safety and welfare cannot be guaranteed.
"Any way forward has to reflect the experiences of these children; some are trafficked, some have been politically active, some have been the victims of violence, including torture and sexual violence. These are not children who come here seeking a better life, with their families waiting for them in peaceful homes. Many of them are children from war zones.
"While we recognise age assessment procedures need to be improved, it is clear from the consultation responses and subsequent work that x-rays are not going to be the answer. We hope that further consultation will lead to this idea being dropped altogether."
Also commenting on the Government's plans, the Children's Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, said:
"The Government has listened to our concerns about age assessment procedures and we hope to see improvements in the treatment of children who undergo this process.
"However, we remain concerned about proposals to forcibly deport children or withdraw care and financial support at 18 when their asylum applications have failed. The majority of unaccompanied children come from conflict-affected countries and, if returned, it is critical to ensure that they are safe. If they feel unsupported in the UK, these children could disappear from a local authority's care well before their 18th birthday. This puts them at serious risk of harm and totally undermines efforts to keep them safe."