Children seeking asylum – problems and prejudices

Children seeking asylum – problems and prejudices


Written by: Sian Samad

A new report explores the world of children seeking asylum in the UK and the legislation, practices, misconceptions and injustices surrounding the application of the law towards this vulnerable group.

At a time when asylum seekers are the objects of a politically-infused debate, this report about unaccompanied or separated children seeking asylum, is an eye-opener. It highlights the plight of these young children in a human rights context that is found lacking and misdirected. The research, which centred on England and Scotland, is set alongside investigations of similar situations in the United States and Australia.

Decision-making ignores the fact of being a child

With the incorporation of the European Human Rights Convention and the Refugee Convention into domestic law, the UK has become party to international human rights laws and responsibilities, and, as this report reiterates, party to conventions on the best interest and well-being of a child migrant. Despite several attempts at educating, providing guidance and promoting awareness about the processing of applications from children, only 2 per cent of unaccompanied or separated children were granted asylum when they applied in 2004. ‘The quality of decision making is poor. Decisions don’t reflect the fact that the claim is by a child. There is no difference between adult and child refusal letters.’

The report shows that there is a great discrepancy between government policy and government practice in dealing with asylum application cases for minors. The UK’s legal structure also seems lacking when it comes to the protection of these children because of insufficient legal representation, inadequate numbers of immigration judges and the inability of the Home Office to formulate a suitable and efficient framework for making initial decisions in such cases. Furthermore, the work highlights the lack of interest in the protection and welfare of unaccompanied or separated children who are seeking asylum in the UK. There is virtually no government research into the general causes of migration of minors, despite regular statistical publications by the Home Office into unaccompanied children seeking asylum.

Surprisingly, the Home Office’s statistics show that more unaccompanied children than adults seek asylum, and yet this has hardly had any policy impact in the UK. Crucially, the lack of research on child asylum seekers may be a reflection of the fact, which the report emphasises, that many immigration officers (the first point of contact for these children) do not accept the reasons children give for seeking asylum, such as ‘forcible recruitment as child soldiers’ and ‘trafficking’, as falling under the Refugee Convention. One other major find reiterated in this report is that procedures to assist asylum-seeking children in making their claims exist on paper but not in practice. ‘They just told me I needed to tell my story and I would be safe. I didn’t know what asylum itself was or that what I was doing was called asylum,’ one child told the researchers. The disparity in the rate of granting asylum to children and adults bears this out.

Disbelieving children

The UK’s lack of appropriate legislation and structure with regards to child asylum seekers may, the report suggests, be due to two critical factors, namely, a ‘culture of disbelief’ and the labelling of migrants as a ‘problem’ rather than a vulnerable group in need of protection. ‘An Albanian age disputed child at Oakington Reception Centre was told that the original of his birth certificate was not being accepted because Albanian documents were often forgeries.’

There is a belief in the asylum system that children do not encounter persecution as do adults and that children’s claims to ill-treatment and abuse are fictional and unlikely. The fact that unstable situations in their native countries may mean that if faced with deportation, they will return to an unsafe and torn country, where, in many cases, they no longer have a family is completely overlooked. However, the report consciously notes that the UK government is actually looking into changing the infrastructure for returning failed minor asylum applicants in their countries of origin, including those with notorious human rights records, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Vietnam and Angola.

This report provides an abundance of statistics and information for academics, students, policy-makers and researchers – all those whose work includes meeting and safeguarding the rights and needs of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum and anyone interested in international human rights.

The themes covered are:

  • Overview of the statistics, the definitions and the realities surrounding child asylum seekers;
  • A background to and the present legal framework in the United Kingdom for processing applications of unaccompanied or separated children seeking asylum;
  • The models surrounding and associated with determining the age of child asylum seekers;
  • The detention, accommodation and care of the unaccompanied child asylum seeker and the need for and role of the legal guardian;
  • Applying for asylum: the processes involved – from the screening process to the appeal process;
  • Recommendations for improved policies and practices.

Related links

Download a copy of Seeking Asylum Alone – Unaccompanied and Separated Children and Refugee Protection in the U.K. by Jacqueline Bhabha & Nadine Finch (pdf file, 3.9mb)

Seeking Asylum Alone - Unaccompanied and Separated Children and Refugee Protection in the U.K. by Jacqueline Bhabha & Nadine Finch is available to download at the link below.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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