The forgotten children

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04 Jul 2016

Last month, the High Court made an important ruling which could transform the futures of unaccompanied children arriving in the UK. Refugee Council Policy Manager Judith Dennis explains what happened and why the ruling is so important.

Kabir’s mental health is in ruins.

Astoundingly, it wasn’t his experiences in Iran which doctors say caused his disorder. There, his dad was murdered and his brother was thrown in jail for opposing the repressive regime.

Nor was it the experiences he had when he fled his home alone on a long, perilous journey – the same sort of journey that UNICEF say lone child refugees face the threat of rape, forced labour, beatings or death.

The trauma that tipped Kabir over the edge happened to him right here, in Britain. The country where he’d hoped to find refuge.

Like many refugee children who arrive in the UK by themselves, Kabir had no way of proving his age to the authorities.

Most countries that refugees come from don’t register births in the same way we do, although some will have documents that can help provide information about age.

Even if refugees do have documents with them, they may be not actually belong to them; they may have been bought from or given to them by a smuggler. This is a reality acknowledged by international refugee law; after all, it’s pretty hard to persuade a Government you’re escaping to give you a passport and an exit visa. Any documents lone child refugees do have are likely to have an adult’s date of birth because children would not be allowed to travel alone.

Kabir was 15. That’s what he tried to tell the people who found him in the back of the lorry he’d arrived in. He’d been there for days and wasn’t sure where he was, but he was hoping that he was safe and that these adults would protect him.

That’s not what happened. The authorities didn’t believe him. They thought he was a liar. They thought he looked older and shockingly, they were allowed to decide simply by looking at him that they were not going to refer him to an expert.

Up until now, the UK allowed immigration officials to ignore a young person’s claim to be a child if they believe that they look significantly over the age of 18. They weren’t obliged to consult social workers, who have professional skills in assessment of children and whose views can only be decisive if they follow certain procedures and have been trained specifically in this subject. It’s usually these assessments that later show that the decisions made by Immigration Officers were wrong.

Before he knew what was happening, Kabir was taken to an immigration detention centre to be held with other adults. He couldn’t speak English so couldn’t ask what was going on. He was terrified.

It’s accepted fact that locking children up is bad for their health; both physically and mentally. In 2010, the Coalition Government finally acknowledged this was the case, and pledged to end the detention of children for immigration purposes. Finally, a child’s well being and safety looked set to trump political expedience.

But six years on, although the numbers are lower than before, the Government is still locking up children like Kabir in immigration detention.

Kabir spent six weeks behind bars before the Refugee Council helped to secure his release so he could have his age assessed properly.  Social workers decided he was in fact a child. He’d been telling the truth.

By this point Kabir was traumatised and suffering from mental health problems. The psychiatrist who assessed him said that he six weeks he was locked up, when he felt abandoned and terrified about his future, were the cause of his disorder.

We see the impact of immigration officials getting the ages of lone children wrong every day.

Between 2010 and 2014 the Refugee Council helped secure the release of over 120 unaccompanied children from Britain’s murky immigration detention estate. Since 2015 until the end of March this year we helped release a further 21 young people from detention. We suspect this figure to be the tip of the iceberg, with more cases of children being wrongly detained as adults going unreported and unchallenged.

Many other lone children will also be wrongly assessed as adults and never detained.

Last month, the High Court made a hugely significant ruling which could change all of this. They’d been ruling on a case not dissimilar to Kabir’s, involving an unaccompanied child from Sudan who’d been wrongly said to be an adult and locked up as a result.

In the judgment, the court ruled that someone’s age was a matter of ‘objective fact’ and cannot be based on physical appearance or demeanour. This means that the Home Office’s current policy is unlawful and that children who have been affected by it could be entitled to damages.

Yet the Home Office plans to fight the ruling. In court, Home Office lawyers said the judgment meant the Home Secretary ‘could face major difficulties operating her detention scheme’.

Since when did an obsession with throwing people behind bars simply because they’ve sought protection here take priority over the wellbeing of vulnerable children?

It appears clear to everyone except the Home Office that the stakes are far, far too high for children to be arbitrarily detained with adults on the basis of guesswork. Instead of wasting public money fighting this ruling, the Government should instead ensure that everyone who claims to be a child receives a sensitive, timely, lawful and expert led age assessment.

We hope that with the right care, Kabir will recover from his experiences. And we hope that the Government won’t put any other children through the same thing. Children should be treated as children first, regardless of their immigration status.

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