I wrote this post in September 2015 because I was struck by how our school experience of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK had been reported across the UK by the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights. I subsequently added an update in July 2016 following publication of the House of Lords European Union Committee report Children in Crisis: Unaccompanied Children in the EU. You can read this report here (the info graphic on p7 usefully summarises key information). Sadly, this report echoed many of the concerns of the earlier report of the Joint Select Committee.
Of all the students starting the new academic year with us, I was perhaps most proud that we were providing an education for some who had recently arrived from Syria. Not having been in school for up to three years because of conflict, they were pleased to be in lessons again. I just hope that they don’t have to go through some of the experiences of many of our previous students seeking refuge from conflict.
Select Committee Report
In March the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights reported some concerns on the way unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were treated by the judicial processes to establish their status. The report can be found here and a Guardian interview with the Chair, Hywel Francis MP here. Both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Children’s Act, 2004 include a commitment to put the interests of children first, without discrimination. The committee had concerns that in several ways this commitment was not being met. These included:
- concerns that the numbers of children and young people receiving special welfare legal aid and asylum & immigration legal aid had fallen by nearly two thirds due to cuts in legal aid funding;
- a tendency for immigration considerations to override the commitment put the rights of the child first;
- a ‘culture of disbelief’ surrounding age assessments; and
- a tendency to grant lower forms of leave to remain rather than full asylum, meaning young people could be removed at 17
Our School Experience
Our school is a wonderfully diverse community and includes several students who are refugees. In order to support these children to re-engage with education, we have to support them in a number of ways. Unfortunately one of these has to be mitigating the impact of the Home Office judicial processes referred to in the Select Committee report. We have found that (as the committee noted), no move is usually made to remove a young person until they are 17, but judicial processes are carried out beforehand, when they are children, often with little or no English, or family members in the UK. The support we provide includes explaining the process, providing emotional support, and, when necessary, accompanying them to interviews and hearings. This is made harder because these hearings occur at a range of venues. We had one 15 year old student, for example who was required to attend three different meetings and hearings, in Cardiff, Croydon and Birmingham.
The committee called for a better support structure “to help children navigate the asylum and immigration processes” and for the government not to “return children to countries such as Afghanistan or Iraq where there are ongoing conflict or humanitarian concerns.” I have to agree. In my experience it is charities and school staff who currently provide the support, and the judicial processes do not demonstrate a commitment to the interests of the child. Children who gain Higher education places, are simultaneously denied the possibility of funding and face moves to remove them to the very conflict zones and countries mentioned in the report.
Supporting these vulnerable students is vital but much of the work we do lies out of the remit of the school, and certainly beyond the job descriptions of teachers. I’m concerned that with tight finances it may be unsustainable. It’s therefore my hope that the recommendations of the select committee are acted on by the new government.
A recent report by the House of Lords European Union Committee has called for urgent action to improve the EU response to the refugee crisis and the unaccompanied children are treated by the immigration system within the UK. The report concludes that children face a pervasive climate of suspicion and disbelief, especially about their age, may be detained inappropriately, lack legal advice and support, and are put at risk. The report calls for a consistent approach across the EU member states, reiterates the ‘best interests of the child’ principle of the UNCRC (which, together with the Children’s Act, would apply irrespective of Brexit), and calls for all unaccompanied children to have a guardian.
I find it disturbing that over a year after the original select committee report, so little seems to have changed. It is true that the number of children seeking asylum in the UK increased by 56% in 2015, but so has national, and international, interest in the refugee crisis. As schools receive more UASCs, we may find ourselves acting as advocates in the absence of any formal provision.
I would be really interested to hear of the experiences from other schools who support refugee children, or charities who work with schools.