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Safeguarding Refugee, Asylum Seeking and Trafficked Children in the UK – An Interview with Emma Kelly and Farhat Bokhari

Posted on December 9th, 2011 in Social work & social care

Children from abroad who are alone in the UK are vulnerable and at increased risk of harm without the care and protection of their parents or caregivers. The new book, Safeguarding Children from Abroad: Refugee, Asylum Seeking and Trafficked Children in the UK, examine the issues and problems faced by these children, what their needs are, and how these needs should be met in order to ensure their effective safeguarding.

In this interview, authors Emma Kelly and Farhat Bokhari discuss their own experiences in the field of safeguarding children; why children from abroad who have been separated from their caregivers – including refugee, asylum seeking and trafficked children – often receive an inadequate level of support from UK services; and how professionals across a range of services can use the information in their new book to ensure this doesn’t happen.


Can you tell us about your own backgrounds, and the experiences that led you to write this book?

Emma: For the past eleven years I have worked in the field of safeguarding children, both as a child protection social worker and in learning and development roles. Working for ECPAT UK, a children’s rights organisation, I saw first-hand the challenges and difficulties that practitioners experience in supporting children who may have been trafficked. I also undertook research for the Children’s Commissioner for Wales on behalf of ECPAT UK to ascertain whether child trafficking was occurring in Wales. As a lecturer in Social Work at the University of Salford, I maintain my research and teaching interest in safeguarding children from abroad.

Farhat: My experience has encompassed research, writing and advocacy on the trafficking of children in the UK and internationally; and violence against refugee women and children in the Asian region. In 2009 I published a ground-breaking research study investigating the relationship between child trafficking and forced marriage, carried out on a research sabbatical at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull. It was while I was at Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organisation, that I first directly documented the experiences of young people and women seeking refuge from unsafe and hostile environments. I continue to advocate for their rights through legislative and policy reform.

Safeguarding Children From Abroad gathers together multi-agency guidance for those working with separated children. Why have you written this book, and who have you written it for?

We embarked on writing this book because of the growing numbers of children from abroad who find themselves in the UK without their parents or legal guardians to care for them or promote their interests. This leaves these children, known as ‘separated’ children, vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. We wanted to highlight how, and why, despite clear procedures and policy many separated children receive a different level of service from UK citizen children. Our focus has been on safeguarding these children in ways that promote their rights and inclusion in the UK. We hope that a variety of statutory and voluntary sector practitioners, academics and their students within the UK will find this a useful and informative text.

Children who are refugees, seeking asylum or who have been trafficked – separated children – will usually have experienced difficulties travelling to the UK. What kind of obstacles do they typically face on arrival?

The obstacles separated children face on arrival to the UK depends in part on their journey and entry status. Many separated children experience hazardous journeys, of some length, as well as the actual separation from their parents, families and communities. On arrival, the agent will permanently abandon some separated children and for others, such as trafficked children, the abandonment may be temporary and planned until a later date when contact is re-initiated and the child ‘disappears’. For those young people who come into contact with statutory services their experiences are generally poor, with most receiving little or no support. Instead, some are detained by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) as adult asylum seekers and moved to different parts of the UK.

The identification of separated children is not without complexity given the covert nature in which many of these children arrive in the UK. If a child arrives at a UK port unaccompanied, the authorities would make a referral to local children’s social services. However, problems arise when Immigration considers the child to be older than claimed and places the child into an adult detention centre until an age assessment is carried out by social services. This situation complicates and delays the identification process. Other children may be accompanied into the UK by an agent and abandoned later or they may escape. It is unlikely they would know where to go or what to do to receive help. Others may be kept away from statutory agencies and exploited. These different and dynamic scenarios make identification a challenge and show why it is crucial that professionals are trained in this area.

What are some common misconceptions about children who are refugees, asylum-seekers, or who have been trafficked?

One of the predominant misconceptions is that separated children lie about their age and claim to be younger so they can obtain a service from Children’s Services and an education. Related to this is a misconception that most separated children are actually economic migrants and not actually fleeing from war torn countries and other instability or persecution as they claim. This ‘culture of disbelief’ permeates much of the current statutory work with separated children and is contrary to the premise in safeguarding work that children should be believed. Finally, misconceptions abound that all children from abroad need to claim asylum, which is not the case for European Union children, or that all victims of child trafficking must also be asylum seekers.

People often confuse the terms used when describing children who are refugees, asylum seekers or trafficked. Why is this a problem?

These terms, although defined in law, narrow the focus on the circumstances of children from abroad and render some groups of children invisible. Using the term ‘separated children’ ensures we cover all groups of children who may end up in the UK, including unaccompanied asylum seeking children, victims of trafficking, children who are migrants but not seeking asylum (such as EU children), children who are accompanied into the UK but become separated after arrival, including those who end up in private fostering situations and those who entered with their parents but have been left in the UK following an unsuccessful family claim for asylum. In our experience, it is all too easy for organisations to be seduced by the need to label separated children for the purposes of service provision; whereas a broader focus and one which emphasises these children’s separation from primary caregivers should lead to a refocusing on their needs.

There is a clear legislative mandate that all children in the UK should be treated the same. Is this currently followed in the case of separated children?

Given the range of experiences that separated children are likely to have had before they arrive in the UK, it seems extraordinary that many will receive a lesser service from statutory services than citizen children. But, as our book shows, those working with separated children have long noted institutional discrimination. Much of this stems from the tensions that exist between immigration control and child welfare and safeguarding. Despite clear domestic policy and procedures, as well as international obligations, many separated children continue to find that their status as subject to immigration control takes precedence over their needs and rights as children.

In your experience, are professionals equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to understand, work with and protecting these children? If not, why might this be?

Confusingly, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, because all professionals who work with children have skills in supporting and safeguarding young people. However, some practitioners assume that it is somehow different when working with a separated child – it is not. The law and policy is clear: children from abroad should be treated just like any other child in the UK. Clearly there is some new learning about specifics, but practice should not alter. Unfortunately for some, bias creeps in and judgements are made about the economic impact of supporting separated children rather than taking a needs-led approach

Within the book, you emphasise that you take a child-centred approach – can you tell us about this?

In addition to the belief that separated children have a right to be children first and foremost, there are a number of other principles which have shaped the writings in this book; namely the right of separated children to be heard, their rights to have decisions made with them in their ‘best interests’. The voice and the needs of the child underpin all the chapters, as we have taken the position that listening and taking into account the wishes and feelings of separated children is essential. Building on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child principles, the importance of meaningful participation is made explicit.

You also talk about the importance of joint working. Can you give some examples of how this can be particularly effective?

Local authorities continue to face challenges in developing and maintaining a multi-agency approach and in cases of child trafficking this can be crucial. If all agencies recognise the complexity of these cases and the challenges in safeguarding them then they will realise the importance of working quickly to implement safeguarding measures for those newly identified as trafficked children. In this way, carrying out assessments of a trafficked child through a more streamlined single, holistic and multi-agency interview is to be preferred as compared to interviews by various agencies that can be traumatic for a child. There are some clear case examples in the book that illustrate this well.

What challenges do you see to the effective safeguarding of children from abroad in the next few years?

There continue to be a variety of challenges that we think merit on-going attention and will require amendments to policy. These include the on-going uncertainty on age assessments. Recent media reports suggest that the government is still intent on returning Afghan boys back to Afghanistan despite the country situation not having improved. The question of a guardian for trafficked children has been raised in a new report by ECPAT UK and the evaluation by the Scottish government continues to highlight the importance of this role in assisting vulnerable separated children.

We also feel that the public sector cuts are likely to have a major influence on refugee and asylum services as these see their already meagre budgets downsized.

The UK Government launched new guidance on safeguarding children who may have been trafficked on 18 October, to tie in with Anti-Slavery Day. What are your thoughts on the new guidance?

First, it was a good day to launch the 2nd version of this guidance; as you will read in the book, some separated children experience forced labour and domestic servitude in this country. Second, the guidance takes into account the huge changes that have occurred over the last few years. The ratification of the Council of Europe Convention has meant that a whole new system for national identification of victims has been introduced, and in preparation for this the London Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) did some great work on a Trafficking Toolkit to assist us in identification and support of trafficked children.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.


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