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W3C Compliance

6.4.1 Trafficked and Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children

RELEVANT GUIDANCE AND LINKS

The International Child Abduction and Contact Unit

DfE, Care of unaccompanied and trafficked children, Statutory guidance (2014)

Safeguarding Trafficked and Exploited Children, London Child Protection Procedures

NRPF Connect

Guidance to assist social workers and their managers in undertaking age assessments in England (ADCS, October 2015)

AMENDMENT

This chapter was fully and comprehensively amended in November 2016 to reflect local procedures for Merton, including the relationship with the Home Office and the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC), together with its role within London Borough Councils in managing young people from abroad, etc. The chapter recognizes the issues with respect to age assessments of some applicants and the requirements for these to be ‘Merton Compliant’. A link to The International Child Abduction and Contact Unit (ICACU) has also been added, and this contains a link to ‘GOV.UK ICACU - Request for co-operation form and guidance 2016’.


Contents

  1. Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children
  2. Referral and Assessment
  3. Specific Considerations for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children


1. Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children

1.1 Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children are vulnerable and in need of safeguarding and care because they are children, alone, who may have experienced considerable physical, sexual and emotional harm and exploitation, and are separated from their families, local communities, and cultures. They are the responsibility of the local authority because they meet the Section 20 criteria of the Children Act 1989 by the fact of there being no person with Parental Responsibility for them, and/or the person who has been looking after them is prevented (for whatever reason) for providing them with accommodation, and/or they are lost or abandoned.

Any child presenting as such in Merton must be referred to Merton’s Children’s Services. It must be remembered that in addition to the sometimes very complex needs of the unaccompanied asylum seeking child, they may also be experiencing post traumatic stress disorder, depression, social isolation, misunderstanding and racism.

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children will be assessed and cared for by Merton in exactly the same way as for children local to Merton who are assessed as Children in Need and become looked after under section 20 criteria. Every child will have their unique and individual needs, aspirations, personalities, potential, and wishes taken into account in the placement, planning and reviewing processes.

1.2 Trafficked Children

Greater awareness and knowledge now exists of the organised and criminal trafficking of children into the UK. See: Care of unaccompanied and trafficked children (DfE, 2014). The trafficker may receive payment from the child’s parents or from the child, and from those who are exploiting the child once in the UK. Sometimes the child is trafficked from within the UK, having been born in the UK or brought to the UK. Traffickers mostly operate for financial gain. Those who exploit children who have been trafficked have a variety of motives, including sexual abuse, sweatshop work, begging and criminal activity, benefit fraud, drug smuggling and dealing, and inter-country adoption. Trafficking is always criminal and abusive and exploitation is always criminal and abusive. The crime and the exploitation are always serious offences, and they have serious consequences for the child victims who may be controlled by means of violence, drug and alcohol misuse, psychological abuse, subjected to sexual violence and harm, and their health and educational needs neglected.

It can be difficult to know if a child has been trafficked, or to tell from the way that they are presenting to you, and the child may be too scared to reveal their circumstances to anyone. Some of the signs of abuse may be present; the child may be isolated, depressed, anxious, ill-kempt, have frequent bruising or injuries, be uncommunicative, not share in peer activities and interests etc., but sometimes the signs are hard to recognise. The important thing is for any adult who may be concerned that a child has been trafficked to act, by alerting Merton Children’s Services to their suspicions, or by contacting the police, or the NSPCC.

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) has existed since 2009 to identify victims of human trafficking, and since 2015, the victims of modern slavery as defined by the Modern Slavery Act 2015. From the 31st July 2015 all referrals about a suspected victim of child trafficking from a “first responder”, which includes Merton council, among others (for example, police, NSPCC, Refugee Council, local authorities, Salvation Army) are reported to the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC). The manager of Merton’s 14+ Team will complete the referral form to UKHTC with the agreement of the Head of Service for Looked After Children. The consent of the child is not required. The UKHTC will investigate the alleged trafficking and work with the child, the police, and the local authority to determine what needs to be done to bring the perpetrators to justice and to safeguard the child, who may wish to be returned to their family or to their country of origin, or may wish to remain in the care of the local authority.


2. Referral and Assessment

2.1 Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Child Presenting to Merton

Children below the age of 16 years and presenting to Merton Children’s Services are the responsibility of Merton and will be assessed as a Child in Need using the Single Assessment Framework. The MASH is the first point of contact and the child will be referred to the 14+ Team for assessment. If there is reason to believe that the child may have been trafficked into the UK, the 14+ Team will commence a Section 47 Child Protection Investigation and make referral to the National Referral Mechanism. The 14+ Team will escort the young person at the earliest opportunity, to the Asylum Seekers Unit of UK Visa & Immigration, Home Office, Lunar House, Croydon, for the child to make a claim for asylum. The Home Office does not receive young people after 1.00 pm and so whatever the age or of the child, Merton must assess and accommodate overnight. If the child is stating an age of 16 years and older to Merton, then the 14+ Team will alert the Croydon Children’s Services asylum duty team so that the duty social worker at the Home Office can ensure that the Pan London Rota arrangements are applied if the child’s stated age of 16 years and over is accepted by UKBA officials.

If the child is below 16 years the 14+ Team will return the child from the Home Office once the child has made their claim and accommodate. The Child in Need Assessment will likely result in the child being accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. If the child is 16 years and over, and their stated age is accepted by the Home Office, the child will not be returned to Merton, and instead Croydon Children’s Social Care will allocated the child to a London borough under the rota arrangement. However, children aged 16+ years with a connection to Merton remain the responsibility of Merton at all times, and they will not be transferred to another council through the rota arrangements. On arriving at the Asylum Seekers Unit of the Home Office, the Croydon duty team will determine if a young person has a prior connection to another borough and the child will be returned to that borough. Prior connection means that the young person has received a service or accommodation from that local authority, or established residence in that borough (defined for the purposes of this protocol as 5 or more days of living within the borough), and/or has relatives living in that borough.

2.2 Child Allocated to Merton by the London Rota

The Pan London Protocol is a voluntary agreement made between the councils of London for the safe care of Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) aged 16 - 18 years arriving into the UK. The rota is administered on behalf of the London councils by the London Borough of Croydon. Emergency accommodation (EA) on arrival is provided by the London Asylum Seekers Consortium (LASC) managed by the London Borough of Westminster. The rota is the mechanism for achieving an equitable allocation of UASC aged 16+ years across the local authorities. No London council is exempt from the rota and no London council may refuse a child allocated to them by the rota administrators. It is in the best interests of the London councils that children are accommodated equally among them, and the rota is a good example of close partnership working among the London councils with regular oversight of the London Association of Directors of Children’s Services.

On arrival at the Asylum Seekers Unit of the Home Office, Lunar House, Croydon, a person presenting themselves as a child and accepted by the Home Office to be aged below 18 years is given a screening interview. Anyone claiming to be a child but not accepted on arrival by the Home Office (HO) to be a child; has their claim processed from that point onwards as an adult. The decision of the HO to initially accept that the person presenting as a child is a child is dependent on further decision making during the screening interview.

The Permanence Delivery Service 1 of Croydon Children’s Social Care and Family Support (PDS1) maintains a duty social worker permanently at the HO to attend all screening interviews with young people claiming asylum. If during the screening interview the age of the young person is accepted to be below 18 years, that young person is granted asylum status as a child. If the decision of HO from the screening interview is that the person claiming to be a child is in fact an adult, HO will process their application as an adult. If the age of the young person is agreed during the screening interview to be below 16 years of age, the child will be accommodated by the London Borough of Croydon if the young person has not first presented themselves to Merton. If the age of the young person is decided to be 16 years or over during the screening interview, the duty social worker arranges f to allocate the young person to the local authority next on the rota list to receive a young person. The rota is operated in alphabetical order, so that the authority next in alphabetical order from the last local authority to receive a child is allocated the next arrival.

Merton’s 14+ Team is responsible for beginning a Child in Need assessment on the day the young person is allocated to them under the rota arrangement, or by the following working day. The Croydon duty social work team will also notify LASC so that Emergency Accommodation can be provided on behalf of Merton if the initial assessment interview cannot take place until the next day and while that council makes the arrangements for the longer term placement of the young person. Merton has responsibility for the young person as a looked after child from the moment of receiving the notification from the Croydon duty team that the young person has been allocated to them.

London Asylum Seekers Consortium (LASC) commissions emergency accommodation for children from local independent providers. The accommodation is semi-independent provision and subject to supervision and monitoring by LASC. Clearly it is emergency accommodation in purpose as the child’s needs have not yet been assessed and therefore it has not been chosen as best suited to the child’s needs. For this reason, although LASC will continue to provide Emergency Accommodation on behalf of Merton for a period of up to 5 days, this should be understood as an extreme exception. Best practice is for the allocated local authority to transfer the young person to their own local authority accommodation the next day. Young people presenting at HO have arrived in the UK with a range of life experiences and backgrounds and require social care assessment and safeguarding as a priority. It is expected that the 14+ Team will make arrangements to transfer the young person from LASC Emergency Accommodation to their own placement within 24 hours following notification of allocation.

Transfer arrangements from LASC Emergency Accommodation to Merton will be coordinated by LASC who use a Westminster City Council contractor. All transfer staff are DBS checked. LASC will email a template of the transfer booking form to the 14+ Team on the same day that it receives notification of their allocation from Croydon Permanence 1 Service. LASC will send email confirmation of transfer arrangements to Merton, to the Croydon UASC Duty Team and to the emergency accommodation, and will also contact Merton to ensure the young person has arrived safely. Cost of transport is payable by LASC, reimbursed by HO. If a child goes missing from LASC Emergency Accommodation and /or there are fears of trafficking/exploitation, the allocated local authority will be informed by LASC and they should take all necessary safeguarding actions including referral to the National Referral Mechanism if required.

2.3 Children Who Are Age Disputed and Age Assessments

During the screening interview, the Home Office (HO) may accept the young person to be below 18 years of age but dispute the age stated by the child as true. The child may be initially considered by the HO to be older or younger than the age that they are stating. The local authority allocated to receive the child might also dispute the stated age of the child. In these cases it is the responsibility of the allocated local authority to complete a Merton Compliant age assessment. This refers to the process of ensuring that the child fully understands the assessment purpose, is supported by an appropriate adult, understands their legal rights, has the services of an interpreter, and there are sufficient refreshment and comfort breaks during the assessment interview by two social workers, remembering that this is a child.

If Merton concludes from the age assessment that the young person is an adult the14+ Team will return the adult to the Asylum Screening Unit at the Home Office, and If accommodation is required overnight this must be agreed with the Home Office who will approve referral to London Initial Accommodation. Their helpline is 0208 196 0104 (between 9:00am - 5:00pm) or out of hours 07917067548. The local authority can also contact the Refugee Council Children’s Panel first on: 020 7346 1134 or 0808 808 0500, who will arrange for support if the call is received during office hours.

The age assessment of unaccompanied asylum seeking children is a challenging process, as stated by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, which in October 2015, issued Guidance to assist social workers and their managers in undertaking age assessments in England (see Age Assessment Guidance and Information Sharing Guidance for UASC). It is widely accepted that age assessments are not intended to be a forensic or exact means of establishing the actual age of the child; they are approximate and based on the reasonable confidence of the assessing social workers about the child’s age. Without credible documentary evidence the age of the child cannot be determined with certainty.

The use of clinical and dental information is a controversial issue. It should be noted that the British Dental Association is not currently of the view that dental x-rays for the purpose of age assessment are ethical, or that they can establish the age of the child with accuracy. It is suggested by experts that there are other clinical and dental, as well as psychiatric and psychological means for establishing a child’s age, but these are yet to be ruled upon in the courts. Recent case law establishes that for the purpose of defending an age assessment, the local authority can bring forward the expert witnesses of its choice.

The age assessment should only be undertaken when it is absolutely necessary or requested by the Home Office, and the two social workers allocated from the 14+ Team will be experienced and clear about the procedures, recognising the trauma and distress that may be caused to the child. The venue and timing of the assessment should be carefully chosen, and care taken to ensure that an appropriate adult is present, that there is an interpreter, and that there are sufficient refreshment and comfort breaks. The guidance establishes the principles of collecting the views of all those in contact with the child, particularly the views of foster carers, teachers, health professionals, and the Refugee Council; and of giving the benefit of the doubt to the child if there is insufficient evidence to establish with confidence an alternative age that the one the child is stating. As the guidance states, there are potentially far more serious safeguarding consequences for assessing a child to be an adult, than for assessing an adult to be a child.

Merton’s 14+ Team use the Guidance to assist social workers and their managers in undertaking age assessments in England, 2015 for all age assessments.


3. Specific Considerations for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children

3.1 Health

Young people should be helped to access relevant primary health care services (GP, dentist, optician) as soon as possible after their arrival. This task is usually undertaken by their carers or supported housing key workers, and needs to be actioned in Care Plans/Pathway Plans.

For young people supported under Section 20 the statutory LAC Medical should be arranged as soon as possible, so that it can be completed within 20 working days. UASC will have no previous health records, and it is important that their health is assessed and their needs recognised at an early stage. The Designated Nurse (DN) for LAC will be notified by the 14+ Team and will arrange for the initial Health Assessment to be completed; this may require the assistance of an interpreter. The Health Assessment will establish if they have any medical conditions or are likely to have been exposed to certain diseases, which may be more common in their countries of origin. (See LAC Health Care Assessments and Plans Procedure). The immunisation programme will be initiated. For female UASC, it is also important to establish if they have been the victim of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

Experiences in their countries of origin or during transit to the UK may cause young people to suffer emotional trauma and distress and where appropriate the 14+ Team will make referral to counselling services and/or to CAMHS, depending on the level of need.

The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (see Freedom from Torture website) provides specialist counselling and therapeutic support to victims of political violence and has a specialist Child and Adolescents team. In some cases, solicitors will have already discussed or made a referral to the Medical Foundation for young people to obtain a medico-legal report as evidence for their asylum claim.

3.2 Education

Young people will need particular support in accessing appropriate education. For many, this includes English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes which are held at local colleges or community learning centres. In addition to this, UASC can access other courses for 16-19 year olds at colleges of further education, and these should usually be free of charge, provided the young people are able to present Home Office documentation. For children under the age of 16 years, a local primary or secondary school will be identified for them to attend.

Good Practice also entails encouraging young people to maintain their first language. Libraries should have books in some more common languages, and young people should be provided with funds to purchase a dictionary. Refugee community groups may be able to offer further advice on language groups.

Young people in care or care leavers can apply for the 16-19 bursary fund (formerly Education Maintenance Allowance). The young person may receive a maximum bursary of up to £1200 annually. For young people that are unable to access the bursary due to their immigration status, the Leaving Care/UASC Team will fund the equivalent of the bursary if they access education.

3.3 Referral to the Refugee Council Children's Panel

The Refugee Council Children's Panel can provide advice and support for UASC, particularly in the following areas: accessing appropriate and competent legal immigration advice, contact to refugee community organisations, advocacy or contact to family tracing services.

If a young person is considered to be particularly vulnerable and in need of additional support, the Refugee Council may allocate a Panel Advisor who will have regular contact, usually during the initial period after a young person has arrived in the UK. However, any UASC can use the drop-in facilities at Brixton.

3.4 Community Support

Young people should be supported in establishing community links, including access to local religious facilities, youth groups, Leaving Care groups and ethnic community groups. The Refugee Council in Brixton holds social evenings for unaccompanied minors on Tuesdays.

3.5 Family Tracing and Contact

Where appropriate, a young person should be helped to make contact with the British Red Cross for international family tracing. It is important to bear in mind that this process might take a long time, be unsuccessful or even bring the young person bad news about their family. There are also risks of jeopardising the welfare of family members in the country of origin. Young people should be prepared for the fact that they will only be able to trace family members if they can provide enough details about last addresses etc. It should always be the decision of the young person to undertake family tracing, and the Red Cross will not take referrals from professionals.

The Red Cross may advise a young person to write a letter to their family members if this is possible.


4. Asylum Status

Newly arrived unaccompanied minors will usually be asked to return to the Home Office within 2-4 weeks. Depending on age and choice, they should be accompanied by a responsible adult, a legal representative, Refugee Council Panel Advisor, social worker or key worker, or carer. The 14+ Team will ensure that the young person is accompanied to the meeting and will provide to the Home Office a letter from Merton Children's Services stating that the unaccompanied minor is cared for by Merton.

In the first 4 weeks, young people will also need to see their solicitor to receive legal advice on their asylum claim and complete their Statement of Evidence (SEF) Form. In some cases, young people may need to be accompanied to some of these meetings by any of the responsible adults listed above.

It is essential to discuss the importance of matters relating to their asylum claim with the young person, as well as to liaise regularly with their solicitors, particularly if the young person has received a decision on their claim or they are approaching 18.

Young people who are successful in their asylum claim are granted Refugee Status and Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK. This gives young people the same benefit entitlements as citizens (subject to their status as eligible / relevant children, they may only be able to access Benefits Agency benefits after their 18th birthday). Only young people with refugee status are entitled to refugee travel documents, applications for family reunion and, after a certain period and providing they meet the relevant criteria, British citizenship.

In cases where criteria for recognition as a refugee is not seen to be satisfied, the Home Office may grant a young person Humanitarian Protection on the basis that they would be in danger if returned to their country of origin. This used to be granted for a period 4 years, but is now usually for 3 years or less. Young people are entitled to public funds (i.e. Benefits Agency allowances and Housing Benefit) while they have leave to remain. Access to travel documents is very restricted (young people need to prove they have good reasons for travel and for not being able to obtain a passport from their national embassies).

If the Home Office does not recognise the young person (UASC) as a refugee or a person who qualifies for humanitarian protection, they may give the young person another type of temporary permission to stay in the UK. This permission is called 'discretionary leave to remain'. How long the young person is allowed to stay will depend on their circumstances, but it is unlikely to be more than three years initially.

The young person can apply for an extension/further leave before they turn 18 years old (usually 17 ½ years old). If this application is made within time (i.e. before the Leave to Remain expires), their right to stay (and to receive Benefits Agency/ Housing Benefit) continues until a final decision has been reached. Current experience is that the Home Office's decision on whether or not an extension is granted can take a long time, and it is important to identify a contingency plan within the young person's Pathway Plan.


5. UASC Care Leavers and the Immigration Act 2016

Where the care leaver has immigration permission to remain in the UK after the age of 18 years, they will remain with the 14+ Team after their 18th birthday and the Team will be responsible for providing care leaver support. Young people with immigration permission are eligible for public funds, including Income Support, Jobseekers Allowance and Housing Benefit, and they can be legally employed. They are also entitled to social housing, or to enter into a private tenancy of their own.

If a young person's asylum claim or application for further leave to remain in the UK has been refused, and they have exhausted their appeal rights (“Appeal Rights Exhausted”) they have no leave to remain, and are no longer entitled to public funds. The Immigration Act 2016 has amended the duties of local authorities to care leavers under the Children Act 1989 when they have no lawful basis to remain in the UK and can return to their country of origin. Merton no longer has a duty as Corporate Parent to ensure the welfare of former unaccompanied asylum seeking children who were in the care of the council if they are now aged over 18 years and have no permission to remain in the UK. This means that the young person is not eligible for accommodation, financial support, a Personal Advisor, a Pathway Plan, funding for education and training, or a Staying Put arrangement with foster carers. Financial support will be available to them from the Home Office.

For care leavers with no permission to remain in the UK but there is a genuine obstacle to their returning to their country of origin as determined by the Home Office, the Home Office is responsible for their accommodation and subsistence. The Home office may request that Merton continues to keep the young person in the accommodation that was provided to them by the 14+ Team prior to their no longer having permission to remain, in which case the costs will be funded by the Home Office.

The 14+ Team is a member of NRPF Connect and shares information with the Home Office on former looked after children without recourse to public funds.

However, there will be no change in the care leaving responsibilities of Merton if the young person is:

  • Already receiving support and assistance from Merton under the care leaver provisions of the Children Act 1989, prior to the new act coming into effect;
  • Pursuing their first asylum application after age 18;
  • A national of a country in the European Economic Area (EEA): for a full list of member countries see: UKCISA: UK Council for International Student Affairs (but subject to a human rights assessment by Merton);
  • Granted refugee status by another EEA country (but subject to a human rights assessment by Merton).

Please refer to Merton policies and procedures on the completion of Human Rights Assessments.

Also consider the following guidance:

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