The deportations of unaccompanied asylum seeking children

As reported yesterday, the UK Border Agency is set to open a £4m “reintegration centre” in order to begin its process of deporting unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) back to Afghanistan.

Immigration officials hope to initially return 12 young boys a month, alongside 120 adults.

There are currently 4,200 UASC, 405 of which started claiming asylum in the first three months of this year alone. Almost 175 of the children recorded in the first quarter are from Afghanistan.

Aside from upsetting those for whom the deportation of lone children is beyond the pale, local authorities will now have to rework the way they deal with UASC.

There have been many recent changes in the way central and local government work with UASC. In 2003, the Hillingdon judgement in the High Court ruled that UASC should enjoy the same legislative status as those leaving care, which entitles them to continue receiving support from their local authority up until the age of 21 or 24 in certain circumstances.

This meant, also, that gateway authorities (such as Hillingdon, Croydon, Kent) receive increased government funding.

Owing to the status of most of the young people those councils had in their care, how to prepare for what training and educational services they put in place were unlike in most other councils. Unlike other authorities where it was just part of the process that leaving care services included information on further education or apprenticeships, authorities with large numbers of UASC needed to devise something that prepared its young people for the worst.

The Care Matters White Paper (2007) says:

“[p]athway planning for [UASC] is concerned with providing them with the skills and services necessary so that they can make a successful transition to adulthood in their home communities. For the small minority whose asylum claim is accepted, their community will be the UK. However, 95% of asylum claims are refused and young people will need to be prepared to be resettled in their countries of origin. Therefore, the pathway planning process must also be relevant to the circumstances and needs of those UASC who will be required to return to their countries of origin” (p. 116)

The groundwork for this change in the system is there, but the speed with which immigration officials are going to be sending young people back will certainly stun those workers who are in charge of transition for UASC.

One of those gateway councils, Croydon, has around 15% of the entire UASC population in its care. Of the 1071 looked after children in Croydon in 2009, 685 (64%) are UASC.

Croydon currently runs a project called compass, convened by local charity Off the Record, which provides weekly counselling for 11-18 year old UASC. The project works with 137 young people from 16 different countries, 60% of which are from Afghanistan.

Plans to step up deportation come at a time when child detention centre closures are a hot potato for the new coalition government. For this there is no coincidence. But it does put a lot of well-meaning people in a tricky position. For example, earlier in the year a very interesting debate erupted from a blog entry written by Neil Robertson on Liberal Conspiracy on the subject of Yarl’s Wood.

Yarl’s Wood is a child detention centre that offers everything you might expect from a first rate residential care home, doctors, nurses, councillors, play creche workers etc etc. But reports of ill treatment, hunger strikes, and children detained for great periods of time spelt bad PR for the centre.

And for good reason.

But my point at the time was these centres were in violation of the rights of a child, particularly the right of the child to be safeguarded from harm. Even the UK Border Agency, and any private company it commissions, is covered by safeguarding laws now, as can be found in section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009. Because the law was broken, people should have been called up for it at Yarl’s Wood, but the call for the centre to be shut down erroneously suggests that child detention equals abuse, which does not have to be true.

Of course, the word detention throws up many negative connotations, causing people to come out in defence saying no child should be a prisoner. And this is true, but would people’s attitudes change if the centres were called children’s homes for UASC, and where the law – which they must abide by – is practiced? That is what Yarl’s Wood should be, and how it promotes itself as. But since they broke the law, the appropriate action should result.

My concern is that others calling for the closure of Yarl’s Wood just didn’t like the idea of it. Quite. It’s not a nice idea, but it’s a lesser of evils, where the law is abided by.

I wonder if those people will change their minds on reforming child detention centres now that the main alternative to them is deportations en masse – something that, if a child is alone, really is indubitably inhumane.

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