Today’s report by the Children’s Commissioner, Landing in Dover, exposes gross double standards by UK Border Agency officials. The report reveals the existence of a so called ‘gentleman’s agreement’ operating at the south coast ports whereby an unaccompanied child who did not make an immediate asylum claim would be returned to France within 24 hours of arrival in the UK with no welfare or other assessment and no referral to social services.
The agreement was in place from at least 1995 through to November 2011, when the Children’s Commissioner discovered the existence of the agreement. At this point the practice was halted immediately by the new Chief Executive of UKBA, the inappropriately named Rob Whiteman.
The practice of returning unaccompanied children with no welfare assessment is so obviously in breach of the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children imposed by section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 that it beggars belief that UKBA officials continued with the practice. The practice was also obviously in breach of all the UKBA guidance to its staff about trafficking, which encourages staff to be proactive and alert in seeking to identify potential victims of trafficking.
Not only that, but the investigation found that the UK Border Agency is still detaining children despite Government commitments to the contrary:
The report finds that children are in fact not currently being held for the ‘shortest appropriate period of time’. Rather they are detained whilst significant interviews that will inevitably bear on their prospects of being granted permission to stay in the UK are conducted. From the cases we have considered in preparation of this report, we find that the local authority is only informed of the child’s arrival several hours after initial detention and well into the interviewing process. The report concludes that interviewing children in depth immediately on arrival is unnecessary and not in their best interests and should be reconsidered.
Even where children said that they were tired or ill UKBA staff would apparently carry on regardless and press on with further interviews without referring the child to social services. The report identifies the following failings:
- Children are generally not fit for interview due to illness, hunger, tiredness, fear or a combination of these factors.
- The length of time between being placed into detention and release into care is too long. This is due to both the numbers of interviews routinely undertaken and the waiting times between the interviews.
- Telephone interpreting is generally used at the interviews and is not, in our view, ‘fit for purpose’.
- Children are in practice unable to instruct a legal representative or in most cases have an independent Responsible Adult present during interviews and yet the interviews can be relied upon by UKBA in the asylum decision.
- Even in the absence of a legal representative or independent adult, children are required to sign the screening interview record, confirm its contents are correct and confirm that they have understood legal warnings and instructions from the immigration officer.
This is all pretty horrifying, and it should inform judges and lawyers when they consider whether weight should be attached to information from screening interviews of unaccompanied children.
The good intentions of Ministers, senior managers and the people who write the UKBA policy documents are all very well, but what matters is what happens on the ground. Culture change is always hard but the UK Border Agency has a long, long way go before it can realistically assert that its staff take children’s welfare seriously.