Pressure is mounting on Bolton Council, from national and local organisations, not to force an asylum-seeking family into homelessness and take their children into care under new government measures.
In the first test of new legislation, which provides for the withdrawal of all support from ‘failed’ asylum-seeking families, the Sukula family lost their appeal at the Asylum Support Adjudicators at Croydon last Thursday. Under Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, currently being piloted in Greater Manchester, families can be left entirely destitute, save for the obligations of local authorities under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 to provide accommodation for any child in need within their area – which entails separating the children from their parents. Five of the Sukula family’s six children – including a seven-month-old baby – would thus be placed in the care of social services and separated from their mother, father and 18-year-old sister.
It now falls to Bolton Council – in particular the Housing and Social Services departments – to decide whether to implement the measure. The family’s home in Great Lever, Bolton, is owned by the council and leased to the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). Bolton Council have told the Sukula Family Must Stay campaign that it is sympathetic to the family and want to be as considerate as possible. A number of local authorities in the area have already made urgent representations to the Home Office, calling for a review.
In 2003, when the new policy was being discussed, the then Immigration Minister Beverley Hughes told the Select Committee on Home Affairs that she hoped the policy of separating children from their parents would never have to be implemented. She accepted that it would not be ‘in the best interests of those children’ and she said that she hoped ‘it would not come to that in any individual circumstance at all’.
The family’s plight is now receiving national attention, after media coverage in the Guardian, on Channel Four News and on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Locally Bolton UNISON and Bolton NUT are supporting the family’s campaign.
The family have also won the support of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW). In a press release issued last week, BASW said that it ‘deplores’ the implementation of the new policy of enforced homelessness. It added: ‘It is inhumane to withdraw all means of basic support from children and their families rendering them destitute. Furthermore, the possibility of children’s social services removing children from their families as a result of Section 9 is incompatible with UK childcare legislation which upholds the fundamental right of all children to live with and be cared for by their parents. Local authorities have a duty under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need and their upbringing by their families. The separation of children from their parents, even for short periods of time can result in life-long emotional damage. What is more, it is wholly inappropriate to use the threat of their removal as a means of coercing their parents to voluntarily leave the United Kingdom.’
BASW’s concerns were echoed by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Professor Al Aynsley-Green. ‘I believe that every child really does matter,’ he said, ‘and that must include every child who is here in this country while going through the asylum process.’ He continued: ‘I am especially concerned about the effect of asylum policy and the level of support offered to the children of families seeking asylum, particularly those facing the traumatic possibility of being separated from their parents and taken into care. It is vital to ensure that the state should only ever use its powers to take children away from their families where it is clear that it is the best thing to do for the child and not simply to be “tough” on failed asylum applicants.’ Under the Children Act 2004, the Commissioner has the power to hold an inquiry into issues of wider relevance to children and young people but not to investigate individual cases.
In the asylum support adjudicator’s judgment last week, which dismissed the Sukula family’s appeal against NASS, the adjudicator accepted the fact that NASS had failed to follow procedures in relation to the termination of support. In particular, NASS should have halted its termination procedure for a period while a new asylum claim was being considered. But the adjudicator concluded that had proper procedures been followed it would simply have ‘delayed the inevitable’. The family are now considering the possibility of a judicial review of the decision.
The Khanali family from Iran, who were in a similar situation to the Sukulas and also had their appeal heard last week, were successful in overturning NASS’ decision to terminate support.
The Sukulas came to Britain to seek sanctuary in 2002 after being forced to flee from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Ngiedi Lusukumu (Sukula) was badly beaten by government militia and threatened with further violence. The militia were looking for her husband, who had already been forced to leave as a suspected opponent of the government. The beating inflicted on Ngiedi left her with permanent scars but, after claiming asylum in Britain, the family were told by the Home Office that their claim was unfounded and it was rejected by an appeals adjudicator in February 2004. Ngiedi’s youngest child Benedict is seven months old, Exhauce is two years old, Sarah is four, Destin is six, Daniel is fifteen and Flores eighteen. Over two thousand people in Bolton and elsewhere have signed a petition calling for the family to stay in Britain. The petition has also been supported by the Bolton Evening News.