* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Fears around detention and removals can push young people into forced labour and other exploitative situations
Unaccompanied children are some of the most vulnerable children in England and Wales. In 2017, around 2,400 children arrived here alone, without a parent or carer; some as child victims of trafficking. They arrive seeking protection from violence, conflict or persecution. With no one with parental responsibility for them, they navigate a range of complex processes alone as they try to rebuild their lives.
Statutory agencies have duties to ensure they safeguard and promote the welfare of unaccompanied children. But the reality is that often their most basic needs are not met. Children often face inconsistencies in support, professionals with a lack of specialist knowledge and significant challenges in accessing adequate legal advice.
During ECPAT UK’s training sessions for frontline professionals, it becomes obvious that the many issues facing this group of children get passed between professionals like a hot potato. Just yesterday we were told of a fifteen-year-old child from Eritrea who attended his Home Office interview alone because his foster carer thought the social worker was going, and vice versa.
Then there are the numerous cases where children’s social workers are convinced the child’s immigration status is regularised when they receive UASC leave; or when they‘re so inadequately represented their immigration solicitor forgets to lodge their witness statement. We frequently hear about children who have been in limbo in the system for two years, all the while they’re out of education; or those already on their fourth social worker within the space of a year.
International standards state that a guardian must be appointed for all unaccompanied children. This commitment has already been adopted by Scotland and Northern Ireland, with both governments enshrining this right in human trafficking legislation. In England and Wales, the opportunity presented itself through the Modern Slavery Bill, when many organisations highlighted the urgent need for a model of guardianship for all unaccompanied and trafficked children. Unfortunately, the act only sets provision for trafficked children, through the Independent Child Trafficking Advocate (ICTA) scheme.
The ICTA scheme aims to ensure children who have been exploited receive access to specialist support, but this relies on the flawed logic that child victims of trafficking are easily identified. There are a range of complexities around victim identification and disclosure, which mean unaccompanied children, who are particularly at risk of exploitation, may remain unidentified as trafficking victims and therefore unsupported.
One reason this is so concerning is because unaccompanied children are highly likely to go missing from care. ECPAT UK and Missing People recently conducted research which showed that in 2017, 15% of all unaccompanied children went missing from care, in addition to 24% of all identified or suspected child victims of trafficking. 190 of these missing children have never been found.
The vast number of unaccompanied children come into local authority care under Section 20 of the Children’s Act, which means no one has parental responsibility for them and local authorities have looser duties should they go missing. In practice, this means unaccompanied children who go missing may have no one actively looking for them. Another significant gap in support for unaccompanied children occurs when they transition to adulthood. Turning eighteen can be a source of great despair, particularly if a child’s immigration status is not resolved.
Fears around detention and removals can push young people into forced labour and other exploitative situations. Just last week we heard of a young person who, with nowhere to turn after turning 18, was kept in a restaurant for over a year - facing regular beatings, no pay, and sleeping on a mattress on the shop floor.
So why aren’t unaccompanied children given the support they need? Even after hearts and minds have been won over, the question always comes back to costs. The government is yet to produce a holistic assessment of a guardianship service for all trafficked and unaccompanied children; one that takes into account the savings in support costs that could be made from having early preventative tools. UNICEF and The Children’s Society found that for every £1 spent on the guardianship service over three years, as much as £1.25 could be saved.
Having guardianship enshrined in statute would bring us closer to securing protection for unaccompanied and trafficked children. Teenagers’ worries should be limited to spots and crushes, fitting in and schooling. They should not shoulder the burden of First Tier Tribunal appeals, finding competent legal representation and accessing education, on their own. Having this vision would be a significant step forward.
The current review of the Modern Slavery Act gives us a fresh opportunity to ensure the law is changed so that all trafficked and unaccompanied children are provided with an independent guardian. This is the action ECPAT UK is calling on the government to take, if it is serious in its agenda to end modern slavery.
Laura Durán is Senior Policy, Research and Practice Officer at Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK).