Consistency needed for children whose lives lack just that

30 Jun 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 10 Aug 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

Last month saw horrific revelations concerning separated children within Northern Ireland. Scope hears how implementation of already-passed legislation could make huge improvements.

It is hard to imagine someone in a more generally vulnerable position than a child, alone, in a foreign country.

Cultural barriers, linguistic barriers, no settled home, little or no money, all occurring in whate tend to be circumstances with little or no future planning – the problems would be daunting for adults, let along anyone younger.

The term separated children applies to those children who away from their home country and apart from their parents or any other legal guardian.

A BBC Spotlight investigation last month revealed that since 2005 eight such children who came to Northern Ireland unaccompanied, after fleeing their home countries, have disappeared while in the care of the authorities.

The Health and Social Care Board says no children have gone missing since 2014 but, nevertheless, politicans have been calling for an urgent inquiry. Concerns have been raised about systematic failures at many levels.

One broad criticism has been around the lack of consistent care for people within the system. Dedicated, independent guardians for each separated child in Northern Ireland could obviate against errors that have occurred over the past decade or so.

Legislation regarding this is already on local statute books but has yet to be enacted.

Fidelma O’Hagan, a solicitor with the Law Centre (NI) who deals directly with separated children, spoke to Scope about the many benefits of guardianship – and to call for the provision to be put in place as soon as possible.

“Guardians will be available to all separated children - as our legislation is wider than other parts of the UK - even if they haven’t been put into the trafficking process. That is because it seeks to capture all children who may have been trafficked or are being exploited but who may not disclose that initially. However, this information could emerge during a relationship with an independent guardian, where trust is built.

“There are a number of reasons why children might not disclose their true circumstances, even if they are bad – fear, including fear for their family who might remain at home; grooming; or disassociation from their experience.”

Current situation

Per the Law Centre (NI): in 2015, 53 potential victims of human trafficking were identified in Northern Ireland, of whom 40 were adults and 13 were minors - a 17.8% increase on the previous year’s figures. Labour exploitation was the majority experience among the adults and sexual exploitation the majority experience among the minors.

There remain significant gaps in statutory statistical knowledge regarding separated children – however, since Autumn 2014 there has been a new designated residential care home in which all supported children in NI can be accommodated – improving both provision and the monitoring of that provision.

Unaccompanied migrant children face myriad different and complex bureaucratic procedures – concerned with areas such as education, health and immigration – while those who are child victims of human trafficking face extra problems.

The health trusts are responsible for accommodating and caring for these children; however, if aged between 16 1/2 and 18 years old, a care order is rarely sought. This age group makes up the majority of the children the Law Centre represents through its Anti-trafficking Young People Project.

Ms O’Hagan said: “These children are particularly vulnerable – with possible experiences of trafficking, linguistic and cultural differences, and because of their age. They are here with no family members around, and they have to navigate numerous and complicated procedures. Within a few days they can meet solicitors, social services, UKVI [UK Visas and Immigration], if there are concerns about trafficking they will meet the police, and so on.

“Independent guardians wouldn’t be just about disclosure. The process can be overwhelming, happening in offices and other formal setting. They can make that process easier for them. They would assist procedures and give more credibility to the immigration process. Children could feel more confident to speak about.”

“Henri” – a composite case study

Law Centre (NI) provided Scope with a composite story, based on a number of unaccompanied minors who have been assisted by their Anti-Trafficking Young People Project, as an effective case study that also respected the privacy of those it represents:

Since September 2013, Law Centre (NI) has been assisting child victims of trafficking within the project. Henri (not the name of any child represented by the Law Centre) is 16 and a half. He entered the UK with an unrelated adult and was referred into the trafficking identification process on arrival at Belfast City Airport.

Henri did not disclose any details about his life experiences and journey to the UK and therefore the Home Office refused to recognise him as a victim of trafficking. The assessment of one of UK’s leading experts in child trafficking is that Henri is a victim of grooming and different forms of exploitation both in his country of origin and on route to Northern Ireland.

Henri is reluctant to get involved in any legal process to challenge the Home Office decision, which the Law Centre adviser believes would be in his best legal interest. No-one has parental responsibility for him which means no-one can instruct the Law Centre to act in his legal interests.

Under our 2015 Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act, an Independent Guardian would have the power to instruct a solicitor to act on the child’s behalf in situations such as this.

The trained and supported Guardian could also build a relationship with Henri and aid his psychological development and integration into society to ensure that a durable solution could be found for him in the short, medium and long term.

Case for guardianship

Ms O’Hagan said: “For some children this might be the first time they have a relationship with a trusted adult. It will add to the credibility of the procedures in their eyes, perhaps make them happier. The independent guardian will also help the child make informed decisions, in their own best interests. I hope that more children who come to me are increasingly informed about the processes they face, before they arrive in my office.”

Independent guardianship is now a matter of when, not if, but Ms O’Hagan also has further recommendations for how provision could be expanded.

“We would also like to see foster care used as an option for these children, as an extension of the trusted relationship with the guardian. It would be a trusted relationship with a domestic setting, in a domestic house so we would be supportive of the foster process being available for these children.”

Scope has previously written about modern slavery. Separated children are a distinct issue, albeit with some overlap, and also some general themes in common.

This, too, is not a widespread problem. Thankfully it affects only a relatively small number of people. However, these people are extremely vulnerable and the problems they face can be heartbreaking.

Just because this is a small cohort that does not mean the problem should be taken lightly.

Some of the mistakes identified in the BBC Spotlight report, such as authorities recording incorrect spellings of the names of two missing girls, suggest proper efforts were never made to look after these children when they were in the care of the state, or to look for them after they disappeared.

That is simply not acceptable in a society with as many resources as ours.

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