On Wednesday there was the announcement that we would not take any more child refugees. Noticeable that the government released this statement the same day of the Brexit vote! And this story was not even on front pages yesterday.
Where is our compassion? Should we not be taking in the most vulnerable victims of horrendous conflicts that have caused children to flee their own country? This saga has gone on for too long, and now the news that the UK will not accept more. The 350 children we will have taken by the end of March is far fewer than other countries have done. Based on our size and wealth, we should feel an obligation to take so many more children. But we don’t seem to have a heart anymore.
I was at a seminar on Wednesday convened by Lord Roberts in the House of Lords about how to better support unaccompanied asylum seeking children. Representatives from the Refugee Council, Amnesty, UNICEF and the Immigration Law Practitioners Association all spoke. This was before the news broke on not taking any more refugee children. The ideas of what the UK should do (and the assumption was that we would be taking more children) were:
- Recognise the right to family life that all children have. Reunite children, whose asylum claims have been accepted, with their families. Some would be orphans, or their families would be lost, so it would not be possible. But where possible, parents and siblings should be brought to the UK and offered asylum in order to keep family units together. This is in accordance with Human Rights law and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- When their application is approved, all unaccompanied asylum seeking children should be assigned an independent guardian. This person should not be a social worker or connected in any way to the system. An independent guardian will offer support, advice and the help children need to access services, and would better protect children from exploitation.
- At the age of 18, asylum seeking children should not be pushed into the adult asylum system and housed with adults, but should be housed with other young people within the existing framework of support offered to children leaving care.
- Age assessments should always be done by trained social workers, not, as often is the case, by Home Office border officials. This is a specialist area that needs expert assessment. How a child looks, or their dental records, is not an accurate way to assess the age of someone who may be malnourished, exhausted from a complicated and dangerous journey, and ravaged by the effects of war. Anyone claiming to be an unaccompanied minor should, unless there is overwhelming evidence that this is not the case, be protected as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child and assessed properly.
- The protections currently offered to care leavers by the Children Act 1989 should be written into the Immigration Act 2016. Specific protections around safeguarding need to be written into government regulations.
- All unaccompanied asylum seeking children should have independent legal advice.
So we should be doing more, not less. We should be protecting vulnerable children, not shunning them. We should ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as I wrote in an earlier blog and accept these rights apply to refugee children in this country.
I am ashamed this government is not going to accept more unaccompanied asylum seeking children. We seem selfish and heartless. Where is our compassion?
* Kirsten Johnson is the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Spokesperson for Oxford East and a member of the Federal International Relations Committee.