If we fail unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, then we have failed full stop

Kerri Prince is a member of Open Labour’s National Committee, and a Councillor in Hillingdon.

Much has been said about the Nationality and Borders Bill that has passed the House of Commons and is now in the House of Lords. The Bill is a gross attack on the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers and seeks to create a tiered system whereby the route you arrive in the UK can determine your status and rights. It is one of the most inward-facing and cruel pieces of legislation that I have seen be brought forward, and it has no place on the statute books of a modern and progressive Britain.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems with our immigration and asylum procedures – because there absolutely are. But they primarily revolve around severe delays in the courts, a lack of a resource for local authorities to effectively respond to demand, and a nasty and damaging rhetoric used by Governments that asylum-seekers are economic migrants looking for a quick and easy way into the UK.

The Nationality and Borders Bill is full of objectionable proposals that opposition frontbench and backbench MPs have been opposing for months – but one area appears to be getting less attention than it deserves which is the treatment of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC).

In the UK, there are specific rights that a person under the age of 18 can expect to have, and this also applies to UASC. A child that arrives in the UK unaccompanied becomes the responsibility of the local authority who will be required to provide for their needs, including accommodation and support. Due to the drastic change in rights and responsibilities a person has before and on their 18th birthday, there is often a requirement for an age assessment to be carried out on the person if there is any doubt about their claimed age[1].

We know that there have been several cases of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children being wrongly placed in adult accommodation with adults even before an age assessment has been carried out, which is a significant safeguarding concern. The Government in their legislative proposals have stated their worry about an adult wrongly being placed in child accommodation – but this is not comparable to the worry of a child being placed in adult accommodation where there is not the safeguarding or support available that children are legally entitled to.

As it currently stands, there are many issues facing UASC including court delays for appeals, interruptions in education provision, physical and mental illness, how they are made to feel when being questioned by Home Office officials, and language barriers. The Nationality and Borders Bill fails to address any of these issues, and instead the Bill contains a series of changes to age assessments which are designed to make it more difficult for a person to claim that they are a child.

The most controversial of these is allowing the use of scientific method to determine age. It is widely agreed by professional associations of medical professions that there is no scientific method that can accurately determine age. In fact, there is no way to accurately determine age. People are not trees you can cut open to check the number of rings it has. The physical and mental trauma that a young person will have gone through to reach the UK could make them appear significantly older than they are and can physically ‘age’ them. There are also significant differences in how a young person matures compared to the standard of white Western children. Judging the bones, or height, or stature of a young person by what can be reasonably expected of a child that was born and grew up in the UK is unfair and fails to take into consideration the impact that life conditions can have on a person. The Bill gives the Secretary of State permission to authorise scientific methods that can be used on a young person, and it also says that if a young person refuses to undergo a scientific method, this will damage their credibility. This is coercion, and it is not what we would tolerate for our own children – so why are we turning a blind eye when it is a child from overseas who has arrived in the country unaccompanied? Many young people who have travelled to the UK through unconventional routes will have been at risk of physical, sexual, and mental abuse. Forcing a potentially invasive medical procedure on them just for the purpose of guessing an age within a 4-year margin of error, is gross and cruel. And we should not accept it.

The Bill also allows the Secretary of State to carry out age assessments on UASC through a person chosen by the Secretary of State, which could override local authority decisions and there is a fear that this will become a political issue. We have all seen the photos in tabloids of teenage boys arriving in the UK, with headline casting doubt that they are under 18 – and that they must actually be nearer their 30s. Their justification for this? Built, strong frames, facial hair, height, and hardened facial expressions. All factors that be influenced by ethnicity, background, and trauma making them age beyond their years. Yet if the media and public latch on to a particular case, this will add pressure to the Secretary of State to carry out their own assessment, which may not be as impartial and objective as one you’d expect from local authority social workers.

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are being thrown to the wolves with the Nationality and Borders Bill. The risk of politically motivated age assessments, potentially invasive and unnecessary medical procedures, and a failure to address the real challenges that UASC face.

There is a tendency to forget that UASC are children before they are anything else. They need support, understanding, and care to get on in life. The Bill does nothing to achieve that.


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