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The government must urgently make clear who is responsible for children seeking asylum

The Department for Education must urgently clarify who is responsible for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

Home Office
The Home Office has not assumed ‘corporate parent’ responsibilities for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

Following reports that hundreds of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) had disappeared from Home Office care, Matthew Fright argues that the Department for Education must urgently clarify who is responsible

In 2021, the Home Office, which is not a recognised corporate parent 49 An organisation that is responsible for the safeguarding of children in its care. , was given an exemption from the Children Act so that it could house unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) in unregistered and minimally supported hotel accommodation. 50 Children England, 'Placing unaccompanied children in hotels is a breach of their rights', 30 July 2021, retrieved 1 February 2023, https://www.childrenengland.org.uk/news/vulnerable-children-must-receive-care As it stands, the Home Office has not assumed ‘corporate parent’ responsibilities for the children and local authorities where the hotels are based do not have statutory duties towards the children. 51 Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, An inspection of the use of hotels for housing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC), March – May 2022,  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1111982/An_inspection_of_the_use_of_hotels_for_housin…; This has left the children – both those currently in hotel accommodation and those missing – in legal limbo. 52 Hansard, Unaccompanied Asylum-seeking Children, https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2023-01-24/debates/290AF292-5D7E-411C-8FB8-A6E0F288365C/UnaccompaniedAsylum-SeekingChildren Someone needs to be held accountable for this failure – and the government needs to make clear which government department is responsible for looking after these children. 

The government has been warned repeatedly about risks to these children 

In the Home Office’s November 2017 safeguarding strategy it noted “Unaccompanied children can be highly vulnerable and can be particularly at risk of going missing due to trafficking and exploitation. 53 Home Office ‘Safeguarding Strategy: unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children’ (November 2017) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/656425/UASC_Safeguarding_Strategy_2017.pdf Pg. 17.  Yet the safeguarding protections it put in place in these hotels have been criticised: 

These are repeated criticisms from individuals with deep knowledge of immigration and safeguarding needs yet the Home Office has been slow to act on their warnings. After news of the disappearances became public, the Children’s Commissioner for England highlighted the continuing vulnerability of children staying in these hotels. 57 Children's Commissioner, Letter to the Home Secretary, 24 January 2023, www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/2023/01/24/letter-to-the-home-secretary/

The Home Office is ill-suited to taking responsibility for these children 

Between 2013/14 and 2021/22 the number of cases received by the Home Office increased from 2,060 to 5,570 children, a 170% increase. 58 The Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Safeguarding Pressures Phase 8, December 2022, https://adcs.org.uk/assets/documentation/ADCS_Safeguarding_Pressures_Phase_8_Full_Report_FINAL.pdf, p.71.   As the Home Office carried out assessments and sought to find council accommodation, increasingly children were placed in Home Office-commissioned hotels. 59 Community Care, Growth in number of asylum-seeking children drives latest rise in care population, show DfE figures, 1 December 2022, www.communitycare.co.uk/2022/12/01/asylum-seeking-children-numbers-rise-dfe-figures/

In his May 2022 review of the facilities, ICIBI noted that while Home Office staff were clear on the commitment to safeguard young people housed in hotels – with processes and guidance in place – the Home Office was struggling to move beyond an emergency response to the volume of work. 60 Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, An inspection of the use of hotels for housing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC), March – May 2022,  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1111982/An_inspection_of_the_use_of_hotels_for_housin…

Drawing parallels to the response to small boats, ICIBI stated “this is clearly not a space the Home Office wants, or should be operating in” and recommended the Home Office develop and deliver a viable exit strategy from the use of these facilities. 61 Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, An inspection of the use of hotels for housing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC), March – May 2022,  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1111982/An_inspection_of_the_use_of_hotels_for_housin…
 
If the Home Office should not be operating in this space, then the question is which government department should. 

It is perverse to exempt the most vulnerable children from normal child protection rules 

On 25 January the PM sidestepped a direct question asking who was responsible for the missing children, instead emphasising that local authorities have a duty of care to children. Though an expedient media management approach, someone will need to be held to account for the failure of corporate parenthood.  

Government guidance is clear: “Nothing is more important than children’s welfare. Children who need help and protection deserve high quality and effective support as soon as a need is identified.” 62 HM Government, Working Together to Safeguard Children: A guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, July 2018, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/942454/Working_together_to_safeguard_children_inter_a… Children seeking sanctuary are vulnerable. Often suffering from trauma, many speak no English and many lack a support network. 63 Children's Commissioner, Letter to the Home Secretary, 24 January 2023, www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/2023/01/24/letter-to-the-home-secretary/ 64 Children England, Placing unaccompanied children in hotels is a breach of their rights, November 2022, www.childrenengland.org.uk/news/vulnerable-children-must-receive-care Like other vulnerable children, they need appropriate protection and the decision to remove normal safeguarding protections for these children was perverse at best.  

Ultimately, the Department for Education, as the department charged with oversight of child protection in England, is responsible for hundreds of these children going missing. Its decision to allow the Home Office to house them in hotels has been questioned on legal groundsxvi and it is a decision that has, on a practical level, failed. The DfE must urgently get a grip of the situation and locate suitable corporate parents for these vulnerable children.  

Position
Home secretary
Department
Home Office
Publisher
Institute for Government

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