Unaccompanied child refugees and the decline in opportunities to access the UK

Tomos Owen

It is difficult to truly understand the plight of unaccompanied child refugees. If you are like me it is likely that you did not begin to have a semblance of independence from your parents until your mid-teens and that can be considered commonplace in many Western nations. It does, however, form a disconnect from the truth that others have a far more difficult upbringing. 

The impact of war leads to situations where the lives of innocent children can be changed beyond repair within a matter of hours. In places like Syria, children can leave for school in the morning and return later to find their neighbourhood reduced to rubble. In scenes of chaos, where they may have no idea if their own family has survived, these children can easily be sucked into a procession of people fleeing the city as they fear more attacks. It is difficult to truly imagine the fear and confusion that a child would feel in this situation and in most cases this only marks the beginning of a harrowing ordeal in their search for safety. 

This situation is not uncommon and demonstrates just one of a number of circumstances where a child could become an unaccompanied refugee. The reality is that EU countries received over 17,000 applications from unaccompanied children seeking refuge in 2019 (Eurostat). This number is representative of possibly the most vulnerable group of people in the world and every one of those children deserves protection from this situation.  

The position of the UK

Over the past several years, the position of the UK in assisting unaccompanied child refugees has come under increased scrutiny. It could be hoped that with one of the largest economies in the world we would be in a position to take in and support a large number of these children, although the reality is that we appear to be becoming more resistant. 

The first indication of this resistance came in 2016 in the midst of the refugee crisis. Parliament were debating what became the Immigration Act 2016, during which opposition MPs and various stakeholders called for the government to include provisions for taking in around 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees. This position was also championed by Lord Alf Dubs, a Member of the House of Lords and himself a child refugee who travelled from Czechoslovakia to England in 1939. Given the scale of the crisis at the time, this would have been a timely intervention and removed many from the poor conditions in refugee camps around Europe. Lord Dubs introduced an amendment to the Bill which would have legislated for this number, however the government were openly opposed and rejected the amendment. 

A new Dubs Amendment was eventually introduced and accepted. Unfortunately, this only committed the government to protecting ‘a specified number’ of unaccompanied child refugees. Hopes that this number would be significant were quickly dashed when the government settled on the number 350, almost 10 times fewer than proposed by Lord Dubs. The Home Office later increased this number to 480, although admitted this was due to an administrative error rather than driven by a motivation to protect more children. It has now been confirmed that these places have been filled and that the scheme will be ending. There are also no plans to introduce a new scheme to take its place. It is increasingly difficult to understand the reasoning behind this position particularly as Safe Passage, a charity that assists refugees, has suggested that councils would provide 1,400 spaces if a new scheme was devised.

Nevertheless, the approach of the government has continued and Brexit has created even more uncertainty for those hoping the UK will assist unaccompanied child refugees. In the many years prior to Brexit, the UK was subject to numerous EU laws which sought to ensure that the rights of refugees, and particularly the most vulnerable refugees, were protected. Notably, the Dublin III Regulation aimed to identify which EU country should process an asylum application and ensure that a Member State will review the application of an unaccompanied child if a relative of theirs is resident in that state. The application of this Regulation, or the introduction of something similar, is now in doubt.

Earlier this year, Lord Dubs again attempted to address this issue, this time introducing an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. This amendment sought to include a commitment that the government would seek an agreement with the EU to allow unaccompanied child refugees to come to the UK if they had a relative there. This would have simply ensured a continuation of the process the UK were already undertaking through the Dublin III Regulation. However, on this occasion, the government was resolute and voted decidedly against the amendment, perhaps callously citing that this was in the interest of bolstering their negotiating position moving forward. This should never have been seen as something to be negotiated and the UK now appears to be devoid of any obligations to protect unaccompanied child refugees. 

The question is, are we really going to say that we are happy with this? We only have to look back to our position in WWII to see that this is not right. During WWII, the UK provided refuge to between 70,000 and 80,000 Jewish refugees, but since then it seems our position has become more focused on restricting measures. We must revert back to viewing this as a moral issue of helping those in need rather than accepting refugee flows as inevitable and avoiding any responsibility for it. Lord Dubs is testament to the fact that by providing refuge to those in need we are not only helping them, but we are also exposing ourselves to people of different backgrounds and cultures who can help improve the UK. It is now imperative that the UK moves swiftly to ensure schemes protecting the most vulnerable of these people, unaccompanied child refugees, are restored or new measures are introduced to compensate. I fear that if this is not done we will look back in several years with considerable regret.

Call for an end to the UK’s indefinite detention of immigrants

Robert Wilcox

People fleeing war and persecution, torture survivors, and victims of rape and human trafficking, are just some of those being held in immigration detention centres across the UK for months and, in some cases, even years, without knowing when they will be released. 

The UK detains tens of thousands of people in immigration detention centres each year. The authority to detain a person for reasons of immigration control is found in sections 3 to 5, and schedules 2 and 3, of the Immigration Act 1971. A very small list of exceptions notwithstanding, there is currently no statutory time limit on the detention of immigrants in the UK; paragraph 55.1.3 of the Home Office’s Enforcement Instructions and Guidance merely states that detention should be for “the shortest period necessary”. Without a clearly defined time limit in place, individuals are being detained, even though they are not accused of committing a crime, for time periods which can outstrip the length of certain prison sentences. Some of those are individuals who have legally resided in the UK for many years. 

The right not to be arbitrarily detained by the state is fundamental, and enshrined in both Article 9 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is also found in Article 5(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The reasons underlying it are obvious; it cannot be right in a fair and civilised society to detain people for unspecified periods of time and simply for the sake of administrative expediency. This is especially so when one considers that the authority to detain a person is discretionary. 

The effects of indefinite detention on a person cannot be overstated. It can have serious consequences for a person’s physical and mental health. Between 2010 and 2017, there were 13 cases of suicide and nearly 2,000 incidents of other forms of self-harm reported at immigration detention centres. In the case of R (on the application of MD) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2014] EWHC 2249 (Admin), the High Court found that the mental health of a 24-year-old woman, who had no pre-existing mental health conditions, had deteriorated to such an extent, as a result of her detention, that her detention “amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment in breach of Article 3 of the ECHR”. She had come to the UK to join her husband under a refugee family reunion visa and had been detained for 17 months. It is clear that the system is not only failing already vulnerable people (or, perhaps more accurately, people who have been through terrible ordeals), but is itself responsible for the onset of mental disorders in those who are detained. Just being detained without knowing when you will be released is likely to do significant psychological harm.   

Independent research by Matrix Evidence has found that £75m is wasted every year because individuals, who ultimately are released into the community, are detained for unreasonably long periods. Then there is also the question of compensation for unlawful detention. Between 2015 and 2017, the Home Office was required to pay out £7.4m in compensation to people who had been unlawfully detained. These figures are, perhaps, less shocking in their demonstration of the extent to which tax-payers’ money is wasted than in their indication of the scale of the injustice caused by immigration policy in this country. Not only are people being arbitrarily detained for longer than necessary, but some people have been detained in immigration detention centres who should never have been there at all.

Apparently, this practice is justified on the basis of immigration control. But it fails even according to its own rationale. Over half of the people held in immigration detention centres are eventually released into the community. This means that they have a legal entitlement to reside in the UK but have, nevertheless, been held in detention without knowing when they would be released. It is nothing short of shameful that we are the only country in Europe that has failed to establish a time limit for detaining immigrants. 

This cruel practice has no place in a fair and civilised society. We must stop punishing immigrants simply for wanting to build a better life. MPs are expected to be given a vote on this issue in July. Please write to your MP now, urging them to oppose the indefinite detention of immigrants.