Unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) are going missing in the UK due to increasing delays to being placed in accommodation, a watchdog report has found.
Inspectors said the Home Office had a “considerable amount of work to do” to improve the way it deals with lone minors who arrive on UK shores, after it emerged children were waiting on average one month to be resettled, with some waiting up to three months and occasional delays of 150 days.
MPs said the government’s process of settling these minors was “not working as intended”, and was leaving a handful of councils struggling to provide support, which they said was “deeply unfair” for vulnerable children.
More than one in 10 (11 per cent) asylum claims registered by the Home Office in the year to June 2017 were unaccompanied children – amounting to 2,952 overall. Many of these children have come through Calais and Dunkirk, where numbers of unaccompanied minors rose after the government announced the closure of the Dubs scheme last year.
The majority (89 per cent) were registered at the asylum screening unit in Croydon, with the remaining 14 per cent registered in Kent, usually after crossing the Channel. The National Referral Mechanism was launched in July 2016 to enable the safe transfer of unaccompanied children from one local authority to another in a bid to ensure the responsibility for supporting them does not fall disproportionately to these two councils.
The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration found that while the Home Office was found to be registering children’s asylum claims within the target of 10 days of their arrival, they were failing to meet the target of registering minors under the transfer scheme within three working days.
Staff felt the target had become “unmanageable”, citing issues with delays in completing transfers, funding difficulties, lack of information sharing by the Home Office, and failure to demonstrate that the child’s best interests were a primary concern, the report stated.
The report found that the delays increased the likelihood of children going missing once they were notified they were being transferred, because they had become settled and were reluctant to move areas. They also caused difficulties in accessing education, English language tuition, legal advice and specialist healthcare.
Local authorities told inspectors that the rationale behind the scheme had not been effectively communicated to them, and that subsequently “the wrong advice” had been given to unaccompanied children attempting to register their asylum claims locally to where they were living.
They cited that a “dearth of placements”, linked to funding and competing pressures on local authorities, including from other better-funded refugee programmes, all contributed to the delays.
Not all the local councils in England had signed up to the scheme, and although the Home Office said it was working to persuade more to do so, some of those that had joined had since withdrawn, largely because they considered the funding insufficient.
Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, told The Independent: “This scheme is clearly not working as intended. Too few local authorities are participating and the government hasn’t done enough to reach out to other local authorities who’ve expressed a willingness to participate.
“There are also delays in children being transferred and wrong advice being given to children. The government’s failing scheme means a handful of councils are left struggling to provide support and care for large numbers of children with insufficient funding from central government.
“This is deeply unfair, not least on the young people themselves.”
The Independent revealed last year that more than 100 unaccompanied minors known to have crossed from northern France via unauthorised routes since last August remained unaccounted for by British authorities, raising concerns that missing youngsters were at risk of exploitation by trafficking and smuggling gangs, to whom they are often in debt.
The report also found that of 1,938 initial decisions on asylum claims from unaccompanied children by the Home Office last year, 26 per cent were asylum refusals with grants of “UASC leave”, which is granted for a period of 30 months or until the child turns 17 and a half, whichever is shorter.
Local authorities and NGOs warned that these children suffered from “unnecessary distress” as a result, saying the uncertainty about their long-term future came at a time when many would be taking exams, completing training apprenticeship programmes or looking for employment.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “This report recognises the knowledge and commitment of our staff in relation to their duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of unaccompanied asylum seeking children.
“However, we are not complacent and we accept the independent chief inspector’s conclusions that there is more to do. The recommendations he has made fit well with our own ongoing reform plans, and we have already taken action to address some of his concerns since the inspection took place.
“For example, after consultation with stakeholders we published revised guidance on age assessments and we have committed to produce more child-friendly information in a range of languages to help children better understand the asylum system.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies