Home Office defends plans to send back child asylum seekers
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Friday February 1, 2008
The Home Office is to start the forcible removal of lone child asylum seekers, despite fears that many will be sent back to war zones where their safety and welfare cannot be guaranteed.
The Home Office insisted yesterday that unaccompanied children under 18 would only be sent back to “safe environments”, but ministers believe that “it cannot be right that individuals should be allowed to remain in Britain” after refusing help and assistance to go home voluntarily.
“This will end the situation where they go into three or four years of limbo and are then sent home when they reach the age of 18,” said a Border and Immigration Agency spokesman.
In the past the Home Office has drawn up detailed plans to return groups of children to Vietnam and Albania but did not go ahead with either scheme because of opposition from the countries involved.
The Refugee Council said it would oppose the new plans: “The government should not try to force any child to return against their wishes where their safety and welfare cannot be guaranteed,” said Donna Covey, the chief executive.
“Any way forward has to reflect the experiences of these children; some are trafficked, some have been politically active, some have been victims of violence, including torture and sexual violence. These are not children who come here seeking a better life, with their families waiting for them in peaceful homes.”
The change in Home Office policy was buried in two consultation papers published yesterday by the immigration minister, Liam Byrne, on the treatment of child asylum seekers. He signalled the end of the dispersal of the 8,000 unaccompanied child asylum seekers around the country by announcing plans to place them in a network of specialist local authorities to ensure they receive the support they need.
Byrne also indicated that plans to introduce dental x-rays of those who claim to be child asylum seekers to prove their age are now likely to be dropped after sharp criticism from the medical profession. Instead a working group – including the children's commissioner, who has voiced strong concerns on the issue – is to look at other ways of determining their ages.
Byrne also announced more detail of his intention of developing alternatives to detention for children in families facing deportation by the end of the year. A former old people's home in Ashford, Kent, is to be used to pilot the scheme.
Local authorities said the proposals were a step in the right direction but the government had to remember that the young people involved were children first and foremost.
Roger Lawrence, chairman of the Local Government Association's asylum task group, said: “Councils are currently caught in a conflict between immigration laws and children's rights laws. Local authorities believe the welfare of the child should always be the priority.”