Across the globe, persecution, conflict, and famine drive people from their homes.  In 2014 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced, of whom more than half were children (UNHCR, 2015).  In the summer of 2015, forced migration gained particular prominence in the world’s media, and EU leaders discussed refugees late into the night at a series of emergency summits.  The exceptional media attention on forced migrants inspired a range of responses from the British public and politicians: many marched in solidarity with the refugees, and to demand a more welcoming approach from the British government; others maintained a vigorously anti-immigration stance.  The Home Secretary even said that she wished to ‘review the international definitions of asylum and refugee’ (Independent, 2015).

The rights of refugee children are protected by the same national laws and international treaties that protect those of citizen children: The Children Act (1989), the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Human Rights Act (1998), which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law.  All asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to register with a GP, and refugee children and families, and those in the asylum system, have the right to access NHS care in the same way as British citizens.  People seeking asylum in the UK also have the right for their asylum claim to be dealt with in a timely manner, so that they are not left waiting in limbo.  This was demonstrated by a recent case in which a child, who had been made to wait ten years for an asylum decision after his family had all been granted refugee status, was awarded compensation by the courts.  All children have the right to protection, regardless of immigration status. 

There are some situations, however, where the principle of upholding the rights of refugee children can be vexed by their immigration status.  Working with children and families who have not been granted asylum, and who have reached the end of the appeals process, may present difficult problems for professionals.  Home Office support, which is provided whilst the family is going through the asylum process, will usually be stopped.  Where families lack the resources to provide children with the basic necessities of life, such as food, heating, or adequate clothing to protect against the cold, the children may be assessed by social care as being ‘children in need’ under section 17 of The Children Act.  If a family has ‘no recourse to public funds’, however, social services may not have a duty to provide support to the family, unless it can be demonstrated that they face destitution, as this would constitute a breach of their human rights under the HRA.  Families are likely to need specialist advice and support when navigating these processes.  They may not wish to make themselves known to social services, for fear of bringing attention to their case, and possibly hastening detention and forced removal from the UK.  This can lead to the incongruous situation of children being cold, hungry, and malnourished in one of the richest countries in the world.

The detention of refugee children is another difficult area.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has published guidelines on the detention of asylum seekers, which emphasise that the detention of asylum seekers ‘is an exceptional measure’.  The guidelines also offer a reminder that children ‘should in principle not be detained at all’, and that ‘the extreme vulnerability of a child takes precedence over the status of an “illegal alien”’ (UNHCR, 2012).  The number of children in detention has dropped significantly since 2010.  During 2014 however, 128 children entered detention at some point.  Where a child is threatened with detention, and it is possible that his rights could be infringed, organisations such as the Refugee Council or Bail for Immigration Detainees may be able to help. 

Separated children (sometimes referred to as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, or UASC) are amongst the most vulnerable people in any society, and face many potential infringements of their rights.  The term ‘separated children’ describes children who have arrived in the UK, who are under 18 years of age, and who are be separated from both parents, or from a ‘customary primary caregiver’.  Some children have fled war or persecution with their families, and have been separated along the way; some have fled alone; others may have been trafficked; still others may have fled poverty and lack of opportunity. 

Children who have arrived in the UK alone are looked after by children’s services in the same way as other looked-after children, under Section 20 of The Children Act.  There are some differences between the arrangements made in the different countries of the UK; for example in Scotland every separated child is allocated a dedicated guardian who is able to advocate for their interests. 

In 2015, 2,168 asylum applications were made by separated children.  It can be difficult to compile accurate statistics of the final outcomes of the asylum process for these children, but Bhabha and Finch (2006) found that 94% of applications made by separated children were ultimately refused.  Many of the children who apply for asylum will have their claims refused, but will be afforded discretionary leave to remain (DLR) in the UK, which is usually valid until they reach the age of 17 ½.  Many children do not have a good grasp of the asylum system, and some do not realise that whilst they have been granted DLR, their asylum application has been refused, and that they have the right to appeal.  Specialist immigration advice can be of great value to these children.  

Disputes over a young person’s age may also lead to infringements of their rights; if a child is taken to be an adult, his rights as a child will inevitably not be upheld.  Many of the young people who arrive in the UK alone can be uncertain as to their exact age.  This may be because age is not commonly recorded in their country of origin; because of a lack of robust birth registration processes; or because documents were lost in conflict or flight.  Many separated children may also appear older than their chronological age, as a result of their experiences of dispossession, flight, and survival in difficult circumstances.  In cases where a child’s age is disputed, children’s services carry out a detailed age assessment; the child has the right to challenge this assessment if they feel it has not been carried out accurately. If they are judged to be older than their stated age, it can also lead to loss of a fostering placement or accommodation, and may even lead to their being detained. 

Whilst it is important to recognise the many possible vulnerabilities of refugee children, it should be acknowledged that refugees are amongst the most resilient people in the world.  They have found the resolve to leave situations of extreme danger, and undertaken risky journeys across the world to find safety.  They have endured much, and are often courageous and independent, looking not only to make a living in a new country, but also to give something back to their new society.  By acknowledging theses children’s many strengths, and supporting them to realise the rights that are guaranteed to them in law, we can uphold a proud British tradition of offering sanctuary to all those fleeing persecution and violence.