Monday, 5 March 2007

Government’s Policy Leaves Refugee Children Destitute

An investigation by the leading children’s charity, Barnardo’s and the Refugee Children’s Consortium has revealed the serious damage being done to vulnerable children by the British government’s new asylum and immigration policy.

Barnardo’s and the Refugee Children’s Consortium investigated 33 local authorities, including 18 that have been taking part in the government’s pilot implementation of section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004 and found that the removal of basic support is leaving families destitute.

Section 9 of the Act removes or significantly restricts the welfare entitlement of families who have reached the end of the asylum process and who have “failed to take reasonable steps” to leave the United Kingdom.

In a statement issued after the investigation, Barnardo’s and the Refugee Children’s Consortium said: “The removal of basic support by local authorities under the 1989 Children Act is leaving families destitute. The government’s belief is that this will encourage families with children to leave the U.K. once their asylum claim has been decided. Whilst section 9 is not unique in its use of welfare restrictions to ‘encourage’ return, it is unique in the way it deliberately impacts negatively on refugee children.”

Key findings from the investigation were that all local authorities interviewed believe section 9 is wholly incompatible with existing child welfare legislation, and some fear section 9 will undermine the well-established principle that the child’s welfare should be paramount.

“There is evidence that the different approaches taken by authorities are likely to lead to a ‘postcode lottery’ in support.

“Many local authorities are fearful that in working with these families they are leaving themselves open to legal challenge,” said the statement from Barnardo’s and the Refugee Children’s Consortium.

In addition to these failings, the investigation revealed there is little evidence that this policy is effective in achieving the government’s objective of speeding up returns.

Many families do not understand their position, and of the 116 families involved in the pilot, not one has returned to their country of origin. At least 35 have disappeared, and are now living on the margins of society, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Nancy Kelley, who authored the report on the investigation titled “The End of the Road: Families and Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004,” which was published on Nov. 1 2005, says, “Refugee children often come to this country traumatized by what they have seen. Unfortunately, arrival in the U.K. rarely marks the beginning of a safe and comfortable life; indeed, they are likely to experience continued stress, hunger, poor health and extreme poverty. Whatever the intention of Section 9, it is being implemented in a way that runs the risk of causing life long damage to children and families who are already among the most vulnerable people in society.”

Alison Webster, Barnardo’s principal policy officer says: “Children should not be being used as tools for enforcing immigration decisions. For them their parents are often the only stable part of their lives.”

Barnardo’s urged the British government to uphold the principle that refugee children are children first and foremost, and U.K. asylum policy should protect their welfare as a first principle.

“The government should take the opportunity to repeal section 9 before its implementation does further damage to the lives of children and families.

“The government should review its asylum policy as a whole, specifically considering the extent to which it is compatible with existing child welfare and human rights legislation including the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

One hundred and sixteen families, with 36 adult dependants and 216 children have been affected by the government’s pilot implementation of section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004. The affected families include 25 families from Pakistan, 16 families from Somalia, 8 families from the Democratic Republic of Congo and 10 families from Zimbabwe.

The families affected are reluctant to return to their countries of origin because the countries are unsafe. Many of the families are at risk of arrest, torture, detention and death at the hands of agents of the state should they return to their countries of origin. In October of this year, three judges in the British Asylum and Immigration Tribunal ruled, in a test case, that a Zimbabwean asylum seeker, who cannot be named for legal reasons, would be at risk if he were sent back to Harare. One of the results of this ruling is that the British Home Office cannot return Zimbabweans to that country because to do so would be in violation of the tribunal’s ruling.

The Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act of 2004 is the third piece of asylum and immigration legislation introduced by the British government over the last five years. Each of these acts has included provisions that have had a very negative impact on the quality of protection available to asylum seekers in Britain.

“Over time, it has become increasingly difficult for refugees to reach Britain and claim asylum, access essential legal services, or simply survive day to day life as a result of poverty,” Nancy Kelley says.

The Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act of 2004 had its first reading in the House of Commons on the Nov. 27, 2003, and received Royal Assent on July 22, 2004, after extensive debate, much of which focused on the potential impact of section 9.

Section 9 of the Act amended schedule 3 of the Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act of 2002 by inserting paragraph 7A. It created a new category of people described as “failed asylum seeker with family” and set out the circumstances in which these people may lose their entitlement to financial or material support under domestic welfare provisions including the Children Act of 1989, the Children (Scotland) Act of 1995 and the Children (Northern Ireland) Order of 1995.

Specifically, it provided that where a failed asylum seeker with child dependent(s) failed to take “reasonable steps” to leave Britain or place themselves in a position to leave and the secretary of state issues a certificate to the effect that they have failed to do so without reasonable excuse, then the adult family member’s entitlement to support from the state may end, unless withdrawal of support would lead to a breach of the Human Rights Act of 1999.

The government’s stated belief is that this will encourage families with children to leave Britain once their asylum claim has been decided.

Whilst not unique in its use of welfare restrictions to “encourage” returns, section 9 is unique in its deliberate impact on refugee children, already amongst the most vulnerable groups in the United Kingdom.

Throughout the passage of the Act, the Refugee Children’s Consortium, alongside other voluntary agencies, lobbied for section 9 to be deleted from the bill on the grounds that refugee children should be viewed as children first and foremost, and that to use children as a tool by which to coerce families into cooperating with return is unethical and potentially in breach of the Children’s Act of 1989, the Human Rights Act of 1998 and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Concerns that section 9 might lead to negative impacts on children’s safety and well being were expressed in both Houses of Parliament and by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. At the heart of these concerns was the fear that children would be left destitute, or be taken away from loving families as a result of this new policy.

“Despite this widespread disquiet, section 9 passed on the statute books unchanged,” Nancy Kelley says.

The Refugee Children’s Consortium, founded in 1998, brings together 25 organizations committed to the needs and rights of children and young people seeking asylum.

This article was first published in the World Press Review.


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