The airbrushing of asylum-seeking children from the care review

In this blog, Karen Goodman reflects on the UK government’s independent care review, launched in March 2021. Karen is an independent social worker and a member of the CCoM Advisory Group. This blog was originally published on the Care Review Watch Alliance website.

I feel privileged to be a member of the CRWA, a group of social workers and academics, some care experienced and some who have experienced other services from the care sector, who have come together to respond to the Care Review. As a participant I am surrounded by superb and expert colleagues in many areas of  social work and I have total confidence that they accurately reflect my views  and analysis of the Care Review with all its drivers, stages and implications. We share a common set of beliefs in how services should be established, funded and provided, with the State having a central role. There must be full and adequate funding of services  and without profit. All services must fully encompass the real and genuine human rights and best interests of all children, young people. This must include their families and communities, regardless of the multiple elements of their circumstances and identities, social, physical, emotional and also their immigration status.

I have worked as a social worker and senior manager for over forty years, about twenty five of these in the specialist field of asylum and migration.  I am all too familiar with the mantra which is so frequently trotted out:- “Social work is a human rights based profession and the UNCRC must be fully adhered to.”  Is it accurate, adhered to or genuine.  Does this happen in reality? In my opinion, tragically, a loud and clear no.  Are asylum seeking and migrant CYP genuinely included in this review and the recommendations?  In my view again, no.  They have all but been airbrushed out. Why and how is what I address in this piece.

Why? The sad and stark answer I believe is that policy is driven by the tribal nature of human kind. Or put more starkly, the human condition is to protect one’s own circumstances and to defend against the invading hoards, who are a perceived as a threat. This is of course nothing new.  History shows incomers are regarded as a threat, who rape and pillage, take  homes, jobs and scarce resources. Yet, despite this and throughout history, people have arrived on our shores having escaped by whatever means, found safety, contributed to our society in countless ways. And yet we continue to illtreat the incomer and pull up the drawbridge. 

It is these beliefs which I have believe have driven the political agenda regarding immigration. Recent UK election results dealt the majority party a good hand to drive the ongoing direction of policy of further draconian and racist policies. The Government has a clear mandate (and a big majority) to reduce public spending, with immigration being seen as a key driver of ‘overspend’. The Nationality and Borders Act is a culmination of many years of the Government’s determination to see UK’s borders being made ‘secure’ and the Home Office to become ‘fit for purpose’. How many Home Secretaries have fallen victim to what has been portrayed to the electorate as its failures? Too many to recall and this has applied  across the political spectrum.

It is absolutely clear to me that asylum seeking and migrant children suffer  the double whammy. They are unwanted migrants. And on top of that they are  incomers, making demands on our scarce national resources, unworthy of the high costs incurred in the care system. To me this is an extension of the concept in the poor laws with the deserving and underserving, asylum seeking children are not seen as worthy but as undeserving.

Please do not misunderstand me. I know there are many dedicated individuals in the  statutory and the voluntary social work sectors and in policy roles who do fantastic work to support these children. But the mainstream accepted view is that migrant children are a direct challenge to the aims of this government. Higher immigrant numbers equates to fewer votes and an electoral threat to the Government. This stance and by consequence the hostile environment, is not new. The Aliens Act of 1905 was ostensibly designed to prevent ‘paupers and criminals’ coming into the country and to set up a mechanism to deport those who slipped through the net but as Wikipedia says “one of its main objective was to control Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe”.  

One could be reading this today as applicable and as the objectives of the latest of countless subsequent Acts, right up to and including the latest as it gets Royal Assent!  The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 further embeds the hostility shown to ‘incomers’ via legislation with the latest hostile act of ‘off shoring‘ to Rwanda. As I write this we have asylum seekers, who are asking for our state to consider their application for international protection, taking the drastic step of a hunger strike. The lawyers are beavering away, bravely trying to prevent this policy being implemented.  An industry of people has grown, employed to draft, support, argue for and implement a system to ‘secure our porous borders”. One element of the brief given to those who drafted the Nationality and Borders Act and to the Home Office civil servants who now have to implement it is to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers and migrant children entering the care system. 

Theresa May as Home Secretary and PM said the parents of these asylum seeking children were the cause of their trauma, as it is the parents who chose to send them on these dangerous and perilous journeys. It suits their electoral ambitions to vilify the parents, rather than the traffickers and agents who exploit them and put them in danger.  What parent would choose such a perilous journey for their child if it wasn’t seen as the least of all the bad options they had. 

The Government fails to offer safe routes. Instead the ‘hostile environment’ purposefully sets out to establish as many deterrents as possible, to address what were, and still are, incorrectly seen as ‘pull factors’ in our welcome.  Parents don’t chose to send their child alone on such a perilous journey without justification. The agonising choices they face can impact for generations to come

This is a brief and broad brush summary of the background and context to the multiple drivers and motives regarding the draconian measures taken to hive off and separate out the asylum seeking children from ‘unjustifiably benefiting’ from our care system. The best interest of children, the UNCRC, the Children Act 1989 and all relevant laws and conventions for children are not applicable if the asylum seekers concerned are not believed to be children but adults viewed as illegally in the country.   

What has all this to do with the Care Review I hear you groan? A lot. For the asylum seeking and migrant children, it is crucially relevant to the Care Review, the clauses in the Nationality and Borders Act on assessing the age of the children have a specific and direct part to play in reducing the numbers of children coming into the care system. These clauses have quietly been included, slipped into the Act which the majority of the population are unaware of and for most are of little interest or consequence. However, for the the children who arrive in this country without their family and seek the duality of international protection by claiming  asylum and care protection through our care system, it is profoundly important.  These children  are seen as a threat to the nation for all the reasons described and the key driver is to keep their numbers and the “burden” they place on the state as low as possible. 

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 establishes in law a separate process for ‘dealing with ‘ these “illegal” incomers and aims to remove a significant proportion from being entitled to care services as children by making them adults. This legally removes their protection rights as children. The Act establishes the NAAB (National Age Assessment Board) and the NAATs (National Age Assessment Teams). Enshrined now in law, allowing the Home Office to create this  social work service, totally outside of all Local Authority provision. The Home Office now directly employs Social Work England registered social workers to undertake one aspect of work, age assessment. The work is single agency and not in reality following multi agency integrated working together best practice. The DfE is absent, the Home Office is drafting the Statutory Guidance which the NAAB and NAATs must adhere to and the staff recruitment is now underway.

Every indication to date is that the approach, methodology and  style of  this work, which has already been tested in various settings over the last two years, during the  implementation phase, is that the social work practice is deeply worrying. The work is governed by the Home Office. The  social workers as directly employed by the Home Office in teams working in an entirely and  separately delivered system to all other children’s services. The Home Office recruitment has not been through advertisements in the usual social work journals or websites. It is not behind closed doors but, in these times of chronic social work recruitment difficulties, this work has been  hived off from the DfE and recruitment is  not seen by the majority of social workers looking for work. It is important to ask why this work and the staff recruitment is being undertaken by the Home Office? Why is this work not undertaken by the mainstream services, multi-agency and by the professionals who will be working with the asylum seeking children? Why is age and identity not an integral part of children social care, part of the broader, holistic  and genuine assessment of need? The answer is that they are seen as illegal immigrants first and children second. This should be viewed as deeply concerning in numerous ways for the social work profession and it is contrary to social work ethical principles and practice.

 I believe this practice is underpinned by a flawed, incorrect pseudo-scientific methodology. The NAATS to me to resemble a ‘flying squad’ approach to social work. The NAATS arbitrarily and using single agency practice, decide these are not children but adults. The regulation and guidance governing their work also includes compelling all documentation, data and information held by the Local Authority children’s services being shared with the Home Office. There is understandable  concern that this ‘information grab’ will be used for immigration purposes.  While the asylum seeker waits to be ‘processed’ (including being ‘offshored’ to Rwanda,) they are not routinely placed in care but holding places, ‘hotels’ but unlike the hotels we stay in on holidays! 

It is very clear that there are big problems in the implementation of the Government’s immigration policy. We are only too aware of the pressures on the public purse from global issues, international war, conflict and climate change. It is tragic that asylum seeking children have become embroiled in this struggle and this is clear in the interface of the Nationality and Boarders Act and the Care Review by the virtual absence of children subject to immigration control. The review is, in its silence, about these children; is playing its part in reducing the numbers coming into care; is reducing costs, legally keep them out of care. By  rejecting them as children  they have been effectively airbrushed out.

I have carefully searched the multiple outputs of the Care Review through from the Terms of Reference, the Case For Change, through to the Main Report and the many annexes and  Supporting Evidence. Asylum seeking children and young people are hardly there despite it being acknowledged that they are a significant group in the care system. They are all but airbrushed out. In the Main Report the ‘acknowledging the wider context’ section has one short paragraph on immigration and the South London Refugee Association quotes the following and :-“estimates that one in every ten children in care and more than 10.000 young care leavers in England have potential unresolved immigration or citizenship issues.

The Expert by Experience Board notes UASC as a voice which may go unheard, and  appallingly the review continues this and fails to hear their voice. The brief mentions and data throughout the documents and reports about these children and young people is vague and unclear. The Main Report gives asylum seeking children three other brief mentions in total, and I believe they are deliberately inadequate in addressing  their needs and their rights as children first not migrants. It is deeply disappointing that they are not mentioned at all in the recommendations.

Data collection and information sharing is another aspect of The Care Review  recommendations which have hidden and worrying unintended consequences. Of course good communication is essential in social work and we know only too well the costs to children’s wellbeing and tragic loss of life due to the failures of ‘system to talk to each other’. However as mentioned above, the other side of this coin is trust. Social work is based on relationships of trust and when children share information about their lives in our work with them, if we betray this trust by sharing intimate details for totally other purposes from which they were given, we risk the trust and undermine our ethical practice. The Nationality and Borders Act gives to the NAAB and NAATs a legitimate ‘information grab’.  This combined with the data/technology issues in the  Care Review recommendations has the serious potential to damage the social work relationships with asylum seeking children. it can, and in my experience will, be used to discredit the child’s application for asylum.

In the Care Review’s seven supporting evidence reports and documents, the presence of asylum seeking children is no more visible. I counted about ten brief mentions of asylum seeking children in care or as care leavers throughout the reports.  And when they are  mentioned, it is mostly to note the data does not include them! I was especially  troubled by their  absence in the Costings and Technical Report. 

Unbeknown to most, even those who work in the social work arena with children, the vast majority of social work and care services for asylum seeking children and young people are directly funded on an entirely different basis to all out children and family services. The funding is directly from the Home Office, largely claimed by the Local Authority who provides accommodation and care services for the child or young person, on a per head per night basis on a retrospective grant claim system. The ‘additional costs’ these children bring on Local Authorities, for example, those associated with Judicial Reviews for age assessment challenges, wrongful detention of children, the National Transfer Scheme and associated costs, are significantly funded by the Home Office. 

The NAAB and NAATs are totally controlled and funded by the Home Office. Based on the asylum seeking children and young people being a small but significant proportion of the care and care leaving population, the fact that their funding is not mentioned is an appalling omission. Are they included in the data and costings of  fostering, supported lodgings, staying put, staying close? This is shrouded in mystery and not made clear in the costings. The Review says it takes each recommendation on a stand-alone basis and they do they do not directly take into account the interactions between different recommendations. However, as asylum seeking children are not adequately taken into consideration, their absence is deeply worrying and I can only ask if all the data and funding figures in the Care Review are therefore flawed?

The commissioned evidence report, Drivers of Activity of Children’s Social Care, again gives no more than a nod to asylum seeking children. But to me it is very unclear. It says, ”population growth and an increase in the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children explain 56% of the increase in looked-after children since 2013….the increase in the number of looked-after children is also partly driven by population growth, which accounts for 30% of the observed increase between 2013-2020, and by an increase in unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC), which accounts for 26% of the increase. These two factors combined account for just over half of the growth in looked-after children. “

The Report Racial and Ethnic Disparities has five short mentions of asylum, including “ The system does not adequately recognise the multiple disadvantages experienced by unaccompanied children who arrive in this country needing help”. But sadly it makes no recommendations on addressing this. It notes  “ As well as having a different entry route compared to others in the care system, UASC have a different experience when in care as they are overrepresented in independent living (43%) and semi-independent (36%) living arrangements (Department for Education, 2020). These types of homes specifically do not provide care, while different children need different types of homes to meet their needs, these will never be met by providing no care at all.” 

The DfE is all too silent in all the aspects I have outlined, the Home Office calls the shots and the DfE and indeed the wider social work leadership  is saying all too little about this. The proverb ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune ‘ is most apt in this situation.

The Care Review praises the wonderful British public for offering their homes to Ukrainians fleeing war and genocide. It fails however to mention the separated Ukraine children who we are aware of, who are without families and are caught up in the perilous overland journeys these children make. We know about the unimaginable trauma all these children experience pre and during their journeys. We are aware of the similarities in the experience the hundreds and thousands of children from for example Afghanistan, the Middle and Far East, Africa and many other part of the globe have all suffered on their journey’s here and then they face the cruel rejection by our legitimised legalised set of hostile and rejecting systems that we as social workers must abide by. I question if this meets our professional standards of registration or our obligations under the UNCRC.

So how does all but ignoring these children and young people, airbrushing them from the Care Review, meet our obligations under childcare legislation and convention? The answer I believe is that it does not. Due to what I see as both short and long term political expediency via the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 it makes their position worse. It is wrong in every way – morally and financially.  And it is against ethical social work practice.