Asylum is often a controversial subject and the experiences of children within this context are often lost in the debate. I am currently part of a parliamentary inquiry examining the support provided to asylum seeking families and whether it is sufficient to protect children and young people’s welfare.
It is all too easy to forget that Britain has a long and glorious tradition of providing safety to those fleeing violence, persecution and turmoil of which we should be proud. Forty years ago, a Conservative government enabled fleeing Ugandan Asians to come to Britain, a matter highlighted recently in the Commons.
As part of this inquiry, which is being led by former children’s minister Sarah Teather MP and supported by The Children’s Society, we are hearing evidence from a wide-range of experts and from parents and children themselves about what life is like for them and whether we are living up to our commitments to protect all children, regardless of where they come from. The reality on the ground is clearly very stark for some. One girl we heard from highlighted the difficulties faced by her as a young carer and her mother, who has severe mobility difficulties. Riyya (not her real name), fled Pakistan with her disabled mother when she was 11.
Even though they asked for support, none was given making life for the mother and child very difficult.
Everything was left up to Riyya despite her young age. She had to do the shopping, take her mother to the hospital, prepare her food for the day before leaving for school. She had to travel long distances to collect their weekly asylum allowance vouchers, which meant coming home after dark on her own, which is dangerous given her age. She also sometimes missed school because of her responsibilities as a carer.
Sometimes, they were left without food and had to depend on food parcels from friends, neighbours and support from The Children’s Society. They were placed in accommodation that was unsafe and infested with vermin.
Despite their rights to medical help, health services wrongly turned them away on the basis that they were asylum seekers.
Clearly this should never happen. Anyone in Riyya’s position should be regarded as a child in need and her family should’ve been given the support they needed.
From the evidence I have heard so far, Riyya’s family is not the only one to have experienced difficulties in the asylum support system and it is clear that in some parts of the country systems work better than others.
Children and young people’s welfare should never be put at risk, regardless of where they originate or where they live in the UK. It is important that access to support be consistently good.
The education select committee recently called on the government to review the impact of immigration policy upon child protection and to make sure that children are treated as children first, not just immigration cases. I know from my work with the education select committee that when agencies do not work well together, children and young people are put at risk. Social workers, doctors and teachers need to work together to protect vulnerable children in the immigration and asylum system.
This inquiry comes at a particularly important time as there has been no formal review of the asylum support system since 2009, when a statutory duty was placed on the home secretary to safeguard and promote children’s welfare under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act.
We have a real opportunity to scrutinise the asylum support system and make sure the children who depend on it are able to thrive.
Neil Carmichael is Conservative MP for Stroud and a member of the education select committee.