Home Office staff were committed to the welfare children in the asylum system and worked effectively with local authorities to ensure they were safeguarded. However, there were significant inconsistencies in the timing and outcome of applications depending on where they were made, and the legal obligation to trace family members was not being met in most cases. These were the findings in the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s report into the handling of asylum applications made by unaccompanied children.
Asylum applications by unaccompanied children and young people form 5% of all asylum claims in the UK and are some of the most important that the Home Office is required to consider. They are a particularly vulnerable group and for that reason their applications are subject to specific procedural safeguards.
This inspection examined how they were treated by the Home Office when first encountered at ports, airports and elsewhere, the handling of cases where the Home Office disputed the applicant’s age and the application of procedural safeguards to children’s asylum interviews and to the decisions made on their claims.
The Chief Inspector was pleased to find:
• Home Office staff were trained and committed to safeguarding children, and working effectively in partnership with local authority social workers;
• where staff disputed the age of an applicant claiming to be a child, we found that they adopted an appropriately cautious approach;
• the Home Office only placed those claiming to be children in the adult asylum system if it had evidence to support that approach or the individual appeared to be significantly over 18;
• there was evidence for nearly all the asylum interviews in the file sample that responsible adults (e.g. social workers) were present; children were offered breaks during interviews in most cases and the average interview lengths were not excessive;
• when it came to decision-making, objective information was given greater weight where the child lacked maturity or understanding of the asylum process;
• no children were forcibly removed from the UK.
However, the Chief Inspector also found:
• in the ‘London and South East’ region, children’s applications were decided in an average of 64 days but it took 141 days in the ‘Midlands and East of England’, which was unacceptably long;
• 37.5% of unaccompanied children were granted asylum in the Midlands compared to 15.3% in London;
• the Home Office’s legal obligation to endeavour to trace the family members of unaccompanied children was not carried out in 60% of our file sample;
• the mandatory requirement to notify the Refugee Council within 24 hours of a child’s asylum claim was being done in only 39% of files we sampled, and only at Croydon and Heathrow;
• in 54% of cases we sampled, staff did not check as they should, that the local authority age assessments had been carried out in accordance with legal requirements;
• an inconsistency in the content and timing of screening interviews. Of particular concern were instances where children were questioned at screening about the substance of their asylum claims, contrary to Home Office guidance;
• the Home Office only sought information from individuals with a direct knowledge of the child in 19% of cases. Obtaining such information could have allowed them to make better-informed decisions.
The Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration, John Vine CBE QPM, said:
“Unaccompanied children claiming asylum are some of the most vulnerable people that the Home Office have to deal with. Therefore, I was pleased to find that staff were committed to their welfare, and worked effectively with local authorities to ensure that children were safeguarded. Most asylum interviews were conducted in a sensitive and appropriate manner. In respect of age dispute cases, the Home Office adopted an appropriately cautious approach.
However, I was concerned to find asylum decisions took an average of 141 days in the Midlands, which is unacceptably long and double the time they took in London. Children were also less than half as likely to be granted asylum in London as in the Midlands. We were offered no clear reason for this discrepancy. The Home Office must ensure that all children’s cases are decided in a timely fashion, and that law and policy are applied consistently and correctly.
The Home Office is currently assessing the feasibility of new targets for asylum casework. It must ensure that, in this sensitive area where children’s futures are involved, performance targets do not adversely affect the quality of decisions on their applications.”
The Chief Inspector made nine recommendations for improvement to the Home Office. These included applying the law consistently and correctly to children’s asylum claims regardless of where they are considered, ensuring that it meets its legal obligation regarding family tracing and refers all unaccompanied children who apply for asylum to the Refugee Council within the agreed timing.