Children and the Hostile Environment

23 January 2024: Written jointly by the Refugee Council, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Humans for Rights Network ‘Forced Adulthood -The Home Office’s incorrect determination of age and how this leaves child refugees at risk.

It was written jointly by the Refugee Council, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Humans for Rights Network. It found that at least 1,300 refugee children were placed in unsupervised adult accommodation and detention in an 18-month period (January 2022 to June 2023), after being wrongly age-assessed on arrival in the UK. We think that real numbers are likely to be much higher as data was not received from all local authorities. 

This data paints a bleak picture of separated children‘s experiences on arrival in the UK. Behind each case there is a child who has been failed by the system, experienced abuse, exploitation, distress, or harm. All of these traumas are entirely preventable, children are subjected to these harms as a direct result of being wrongly placed in adult accommodation due to the Home Office age assessment policy at the point of entry.

This is a safeguarding crisis on an unprecedented scale which we like to bring to your attention in the hope it will be possible for us to work together to address system failures and ensure that all children are protected from the moment they arrive in the UK.

Additional findings reveal that:

  • Children as young as 14 have been forced to share rooms with unrelated adults, with no safeguards in place;
  • 14 children spent periods of time in custody with adults in adult prisons because they were wrongly treated as adults and charged with immigration offences under the Nationality and Borders Act;
  • In the first half of 2023, nearly 500 children were placed in adult accommodation or detention;
  • Figures were obtained through FOIs from local authorities in England, as the Government refuses to publish data on these children. In responses from 69 local authorities covering the period January to June 2023, over 1,000 referrals were received of children placed in adult asylum housing and detentionOf the 847 cases where decisions had been made, 57 percent (485 children) were found to be under 18 by the local authority and removed from unsafe facilities;
  • In the same 18-month period (from January 2022 to June 2023), over 800 safeguarding episodes were recorded by Humans for Rights Network, where the organisation had strong reasons to believe that a child was sharing accommodation with an unrelated adult.
  • In the same timeframe, the Refugee Council’s Age Dispute Project assisted 185 children who had initially been determined to be adults, with 98 of them subsequently taken into local authority care from an unsafe adult setting, some pending further assessment. 

We made several recommendations based on our findings and direct experience of supporting this group of children through our services. We call on the Home Office to only dispute a child’s claimed age in exceptional circumstances, and to routinely notify local authorities whenever a potential child has been determined by them to be an adult. We also like to see full statistics on age disputes to be published, showing the number of children who are taken into care from the adult asylum system. The Government currently refuses to disclose this data. 

Humans for Rights Network produced a relevant report with Helen Bamber Foundation and Asylum Aid in April 2023 :

12 June 2023: Guardian: Data undermines Jenrick’s claim about asylum seekers saying they are children

Minister said up to a fifth of adult males seeking asylum pretended to be children, but Home Office figures say it is 1%

A claim made in parliament by the immigration minister that up to a fifth of adult male asylum seekers pretend to be children when they arrive in the UK has been undermined by the Home Office’s own data, which shows the actual figure is just 1%.

The factchecking organisation Full Fact has obtained new freedom of information data that shows that between 1 January and 7 November 2022 only about 1% of all males arriving on small boats at Western Jet Foil claimed to be under 18 but were later found to be over 18.

Full Fact has written to Robert Jenrick asking him to correct the parliamentary record or to provide data which supports his claim.

Read more:

12 March 2023: Webinar on Monday 17th April from 17:00 to 18:30: Children and the Hostile Environment

Social Scientists Against The Hostile Environment (SSAHE) is a project of the Special Interest Group (SIG) on Refugees, Migration, and Settlement established by some Fellows of the Academy of Social Sciences (AcSS). As social scientists based in universities and the third sector, SSAHE’s work focuses on issues of racism and migration in the UK and globally. SSAHE believes in a duty as social scientists to use research to inform political debates and to challenge the ‘Hostile Environment’ for migrants produced by current government policy.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, SSAHE began to run a monthly ‘webinar’ where SSAHE members and colleagues in the academy and community organisations came together to present, explore and discuss issues of racism, migration, and migration policy in the UK and globally, in relation to the pandemic and in broader terms. These webinars continue, bi-monthly, now, and frequently attract an audience of up to 100 people. 

The next webinar is being held on Monday the 17th of April from 17:00 to 18:30, and the details are below. The webinar is free to attend and can be booked here on Eventbrite.

SSAHE April webinar: Children and the Hostile Environment

In early 2023, an investigation by the UK Observer newspaper raised concerns that several ‘unaccompanied’ refugee children are going missing from the hotels in which they have been placed by the Home Office. In response to questions, Robert Jenrick, Minister of State for Immigration, has told Parliament that 440 of the more than 4,600 ‘unaccompanied minors’ who have been accommodated in hotels since July 2021, have gone missing. While almost half of them have been found, 200 are still missing, 13 of whom were aged under 16 when they disappeared. A whistleblower revealed that children seeking asylum were threatened and subjected to racist abuse by staff at a Home Office-run hotel, driving them onto the streets where some have been picked up by criminals.

These revelations helped to make the UK public conscious that children are subject to hostile immigration policies that can leave them exposed to trafficking, severe hardship and danger. It has long been known, however, that the hostile environment has dire consequences for ‘undocumented’ children. As long ago as 2011 the Council of Europe published a report on ‘Undocumented migrant children in an irregular situation: A real cause for concern’. The evidence available shows that ‘undocumented’ children are often unable to access education, healthcare and welfare support. They have great difficulty in obtaining documents to regularise their immigration status, partly because they (and their parents where relevant) are legally debarred from access to public funds. They are, therefore, destitute and have no access to legal aid or means to pay application fees. Many are subject to age verification tests or even DNA tests to check their relationships to their parent(s). This treatment is likely to have negative impacts on their mental health.

While there has been a gradual accretion of work on children and the hostile environment, it is still the case that relatively little attention is paid to children’s experiences of the hostile environment, whether they migrate with family members or on their own. A number of pressing questions arise from this. For example: What protection is given to those arriving without family members by those appointed by the state to take care of them? What are the implications of the privatisation of such care? What is the experience of those living who arrive with their parent(s)? How do those experiences fit with legislation about children’s rights? How can the more welcoming approach to children and parents escaping the war in Ukraine inform best practices for other child migrants?

In this webinar, we will host three excellent speakers who are particularly well-placed to address these issues from research policy and practice perspectives.

The event will have three papers followed by a Q/A. 

Postponing destitution and deportation through enclosure by Rachel Rosen, an Associate Professor at UCL’s Social Research Institute

Becoming adult on the move: transitions to adulthood of unaccompanied migrant minors in a hostile environment by Nando Sigona, a Professor of International Migration and Forced Displacement and Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity at the University of Birmingham

Defend Digital me and Against Borders for Children (Schools ABC) by Jen Persson, the Director of the not-for-profit organisation, Defend Digital Me, which campaigns for children’s privacy and broader digital rights in UK education and the wider public sector.