Every year thousands of children arrive in the UK without their parents, or any adult relatives, seeking refuge from persecution in their own country.
Unaccompanied asylum children can be some of the most vulnerable children in society. In the UK there are special policies and procedures in place to help safeguard and promote the welfare of these children.
The following guide provides a brief summary of the rules relating to unaccompanied asylum children in the UK.
The definition of unaccompanied asylum children
An unaccompanied asylum seeking child is an individual who:
- is under 18 years of age when the asylum application is submitted.
- is applying for asylum in their own right, and
- is separated from both parents, and is not being cared for by an adult who in law or by custom has responsibility to do so.
The eligibility criteria for unaccompanied asylum children
Any child under the age of 18 is entitled to seek asylum in the UK in their own right if they do not have an adult relative who is also claiming asylum.
As the name suggests, an ‘asylum seeker’ is someone who is awaiting a decision as to whether or not s/he will be granted refugee status and be allowed to remain in the UK.
The grant of refugee status for unaccompanied asylum children, as with any other asylum claims, will be determined with reference to the definition set out under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. A person of any age may qualify for refugee status under the Convention.
An unaccompanied child will fall within the definition of a refugee if, owing to a well-founded fear of persecution in their own country because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group, is unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country.
The application process for unaccompanied asylum children
Unaccompanied asylum children can arrive or be encountered in the UK in a variety of ways, for example, at a port of entry, as clandestine illegal entrants or by attending a walk-in appointment at the Asylum Intake Unit in Croydon.
Regardless of how or where an unaccompanied child claims asylum, given the potential vulnerability of these applicants, particular priority and care is given to the handling of their cases. Close attention should be given to the welfare of the child at all times.
Unaccompanied asylum children do not have the same screening interviews as adults, rather they must undergo a welfare interview and a series of checks. A welfare interview is to ensure that the child understands what is happening and why, and to ensure necessary information about their welfare is obtained.
Where the child is unable to speak English, s/he will be provided with a qualified interpreter. In the event that fingerprints are to be taken at this early stage, and the child is under the age of 16, a responsible adult must also be present.
All children aged 5 years or over must have their fingerprints taken. Children under the age of 5 should not be fingerprinted, although their photograph must always be taken.
An unaccompanied child may also need to be interviewed about the substance of their claim, unless s/he is unfit to do so. In most cases, it will be appropriate to interview any unaccompanied child aged over the age of 12, although there may be instances where an interview is not necessary or may not be in the child’s best interests.
A guardian, representative or another adult who has responsibility for the child must be present during any substantive interview. The child is also entitled to have a legal representative present.
Unaccompanied asylum children making a claim in their own right are eligible for assistance in the form of legal aid, where the Legal Aid Agency will fund a legal representative’s attendance at the substantive interview.
There is no requirement for legal representation when the welfare interview is conducted because the child should not be asked questions at that stage about issues that relate to the asylum claim. The immediate priority is the child’s welfare.
How claims are decided for unaccompanied asylum children
In deciding whether or not unaccompanied asylum children meet the criteria for granting refugee status under the 1951 Convention, account will be taken, amongst other things, of the applicant’s maturity.
However, in assessing the claim of a child, more weight should be given to objective indications of risk than to the child’s state of mind and understanding of their situation.
In particular, regard will be had to any information obtained from any contactable family members, as well as independent sources of information on the political and human rights situation in the child’s country.
An asylum application made on behalf of an unaccompanied child should not be refused solely because the child is too young to understand their situation, or to have formed a well-founded fear of persecution.
In broad terms, unaccompanied asylum children ought to be granted refugee status in the UK where refusing their application would result in them being required to return to a country in which their life or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.
Establishing the age of unaccompanied asylum children
All asylum seekers who claim to be under the age of 18 will be asked for documentary evidence to help establish both their identity and age.
This is important so as to ensure that those who are accepted as being children are provided with the appropriate services, such as local authority care.
Further, if a child is detained in an immigration detention centre because they are regarded as an adult, the resulting detention will be unlawful if s/he is in fact subsequently found to have been a child – even it was reasonably believed that s/he was an adult at the time.
Where the age of the unaccompanied child is in doubt, with little or no supporting evidence of the child’s age, a referral may be made to the Refugee Council to assist in this regard.
Local Authority care for unaccompanied asylum children
All unaccompanied children must be referred to local authority children’s services at the earliest possible opportunity. In these circumstances a duty social worker should attend to transfer the child into local authority care.
There is a statutory obligation upon local authorities to provide care to all children in need within their jurisdiction that require it. Any unaccompanied asylum children, including those who have entered the UK clandestinely, are entitled to the same local authority support as any other child in need.
The outcome of claims for unaccompanied asylum children
When an unaccompanied child does not qualify for refugee status, consideration will be given as to whether they instead qualify for humanitarian protection or leave on any other human rights basis.
Alternatively, discretionary leave may be granted to unaccompanied asylum children where there are no adequate reception arrangements in the country to which they would be returned if leave to remain in the UK was not granted.
In the vast majority of cases, a grant of 2½ years is the maximum length of discretionary leave that will be granted at any one time, although this can be extended until the child reaches adulthood.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.