My Perspective on Belfast

04 October 2021

A young refugee, who arrived in Belfast as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child, has written an open letter to the Lord Mayor of Belfast. The young person was assisted in their claim for asylum by specialist immigration practitioners at the Children’s Law Centre. The letter details the young person’s love for the city and how they have settled since arriving. It was be read at Belfast City Council’s October full council meeting.

Titled ‘My Perspective on Belfast’ the letter outlines how the now young adult feels “safe” in the city among the “friendly and sociable” people. It demonstrates the incredible resilience and positivity of a young person who arrived alone and scared, and how they’ve adapted to life as a new citizen of Belfast.

The open letter comes as controversial immigration and asylum changes are progressing through Westminster. The Nationality and Borders Bill, which has been widely criticised by immigration practitioners, will have devastating consequences for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Solicitors at the Children’s Law Centre have raised significant concerns that it will put them at increased risk of trafficking and will prevent them from accessing the quick, specialist services they need during a traumatic time.

Speaking ahead of the council meeting, Immigration Solicitor Maria McCloskey said: “The Children’s Law Centre represents the vast majority of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in this jurisdiction. We witness the impact of the trauma these children have endured and the vulnerable position they are in, with 40% of our clients recognised as potential victims of trafficking. To see how settled one of those young people has now become, and how positive they are about their new home in Belfast, is heart-warming. I’m so pleased to have been able to help them.

“However, we can’t hide from the fact that if the Nationality and Borders Bill was in place, 96% of the asylum claims made by the separated or unaccompanied asylum-seeking children we represent, would have been considered inadmissible. This means they would not have been entitled to the full protection of the Refugee convention of 1951. The government would, first, have tried to remove them to another country. Had they been unable to remove them, they would have granted them short term permission to remain, without access to any benefits or help with housing, leaving them potentially homeless and destitute in the future. The reality is that these are vulnerable children and changes to the asylum process on this scale are going to put them in harm’s way. It also undermines positive devolved efforts to tackle trafficking in recent years.

“Not to mention the dangerous rhetoric around refugees coming from the Home Office, the Bill also criminalises people who are legally seeking asylum. Refugees are not criminals just because they seek asylum. We are talking about people like you and I who have lost their home through war, fear or persecution and have nowhere to turn. Children, alone, trying to reunite with far off family members, or in the grips of modern slavery.

“This letter shows the reality of who we, as legal practitioners, support in our work. It is an example of the difference we can make by ensuring safe arrival, quick action and the opportunity to live a life without fear. An example of what will be lost if the worst reaches of the Nationality and Borders Bill are not curtailed.”

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Nationality and Borders Bill Will Harm Children

20 September 2021

Immigration solicitors at the Children’s Law Centre have raised serious concerns around the Nationality and Borders Bill. The solicitors have said the Bill will harm children, increase the risk of child trafficking and encroach on devolved matters in relation to trafficking and child protection.

Read our briefing note

The concerns have been raised ahead of the Westminster committee stage of the Bill, starting on Tuesday 21 September. The committee is expected to report to the House by Thursday 4 November 2021.

Barbara Muldoon, Immigration Solicitor at the Children’s Law Centre said: “The Children’s Law Centre remains deeply concerned about the wide-ranging impact the Nationality and Borders Bill will have on vulnerable children in this jurisdiction. We have made some good progress in relation to tackling trafficking over the last decade, but this will undo that progress.

“The Bill, as it stands, represents a major departure from long-standing international obligations and domestic law. Yet the consultation process fell massively short of basic standards. It’s notable that the vast majority of immigration practitioners have been critical to date.

“When it comes to vulnerable children and child victims of trafficking, the matter should be dealt with as a child safe-guarding issue. Yet the Nationality and Borders Bill seeks to weaken child safeguarding duties. Children will be put at increased risk of trafficking and re-trafficking, at risk of being criminalised and at risk of being detained in adult detention centres. This is far from acceptable.

“With child protection and the prevention of trafficking both being devolved matters, the Bill also massively over-reaches. We have heard concerns from practitioners in other jurisdictions concerning this already. It’s likely we are going to see decades of litigation in relation to this matter.

“We need to see a concerted effort to amend the Bill during the committee stage. As a minimum, it must remain compatible with the 1951 Refugee Convention and other domestic and international commitments. We also need to ensure mitigations are put in place by the NI Executive to protect our devolved powers and ultimately to protect children from the worst reaches of the changes.”

Briefing Note – The Nationality and Borders Bill: Implications for Children, Anti-Trafficking Measures and Devolution

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Young People Lodge Formal Equality Complaints About The High Street Voucher Scheme

14 September 2021

A number of young people, aged under 18, have submitted formal complaints to the Department for the Economy for failing to comply with its equality scheme in relation to its decision to exclude young persons under 18s from the High Street Voucher Scheme.

The young people have been assisted in their complaints by the Children’s Law Centre (CLC). Both CLC and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) had previously submitted complaints that the Department for the Economy had not equality tested the policy at all before making policy decisions to exclude under 18s.

The complaints by young persons were made on the basis of two key failures by the Department for the Economy. Firstly, that it failed to publicly consult on the policy, including with those directly affected. Secondly, that it failed to carry out an Equality Impact Assessment on the policy before making a decision.

Claire Kemp, Policy Officer at the Children’s Law Centre said: “This is a significant development and is the direct result of a number of failures by the Department for the Economy to comply with its own Equality Scheme. Had the Department consulted, and equality assessed the policy at the earliest possible stage, as it is supposed to, the negative impact of excluding children would have been highlighted and consideration for a more inclusive policy could have taken place.

“Equality screening should be carried out at the beginning of the process for a reason. It is there to highlight any negative impact on protected groups and ensure mitigating measures are put in place to avoid discrimination.

“It is not in the gift of decision makers or public bodies to disregard such an important step, or indeed to carry out their duties after the fact. The Equality Commission has also been clear that COVID-19 is no excuse for failing to abide by statutory equality duties.

“In any case, the High Street Voucher Scheme has been in development for close to a year now and it was only after we lodged a complaint with the Department that they carried out an equality screening, completing it just days before the scheme is scheduled to go live. There has also been no consultation with young people or mitigation to negate the adverse impact on under 18s.

“This policy has not been rushed, yet fundamental steps to avoid discriminating against protected groups, including young people, have been ignored or delayed to the extent of rendering them meaningless. The Department for the Economy is clearly in breach of its Equality Scheme.”

Only following the complaints by CLC and CAJ has the Department for the Economy belatedly produced an equality screening document. This however only considers the exclusion of under 18s as a ‘minor’ impact and does not propose any remedial action or commit to a full Equality Impact Assessment.

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Trust Breached Statutory Duty To Disabled Child Over Covid Respite Care Decision

10 September 2021

A severely disabled child, represented by the Children’s Law Centre, has been successful in a High Court challenge of the decision to repurpose temporary respite care facilities during COVID-19.

The decision to repurpose the facility was made in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, leaving vulnerable children without essential care. Over 50 families are thought to have been affected by similar decisions across the five health and social care trusts.

Read the written judgment

Emma-Rose Duffy, Solicitor with the Children’s Law Centre said:

“Respite services are essential for families with disabled children. The issues around accessing temporary respite care have been long-standing and it is past time the systemic failures were dealt with and the lack of adequate facilities to meet children’s complex needs is fully addressed.

“The decision to repurpose vital respite care facilities during COVID-19 only worsened the situation during a time of heightened need.

“This is a welcome judgment that recognises the severe adverse impact suffered by our client as a result of the trust’s decision. Unfortunately, this is only one of the many similar stories where children with disabilities are unable to access vital temporary respite care and suffer as a consequence.

“This is vindication for our client and the family. The problems around a lack of respite facilities have been there for a long-time and we now need to see urgent and meaningful action to address them once and for all.”

The mother of the disabled child said:

“I am absolutely ecstatic with the outcome of the case. After many difficult months I feel a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I welcome the decision which I feel has been long overdue for families like us. I hope this will have many positive implications on future services.”

Case Facts:

The child has severe autism with a severe learning disability, is non-verbal, displays extremely challenging behaviours and also engages in self-injurious behaviours. As a result of respite ceasing, and the lack of other support available, negative behaviours intensified and became even more difficult for the family to manage. Behaviours continued to intensify to the extent that both the child and parents sustained physical injuries. Mr Justice Humphreys ruled that the health trust was in breach of its statutory duty toward the child to provide the respite for the assessed need.

A copy of the written judgment can be found here

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SEND Children Again Facing Worst Impact Of Covid School Exclusions

08 September 2021

The Children’s Law Centre has warned that children with special needs and disabilities are once again being forgotten in the pandemic response. The warning comes after reports of disabled children facing severe negative impacts as a result of exclusion from education settings due to direct contact tracing or testing positive for COVID-19.

Rachel Hogan, Special Education Needs and Disability Expert with the Children’s Law Centre said: “We have consistently raised concerns that vulnerable SEND children have been some of the hardest hit during COVID-19. We voiced our concerns early during the first lockdown and it was too long before action was taken. We are seeing it again and it must be addressed urgently.

“Children with challenging behaviour on the edge of care are being sent home from special school when being identified as being a direct contact. Those who test positive are at home with no access to education or respite for ten days. Vulnerable children are suffering, parents and carers are being injured and families are facing breakdown.

“We are seeing the impact it is having on our clients in our day to day work.”

Mrs Hogan continued: “We need to see an urgent and joined up response from both the departments of health and education to protect these children. We cannot see the same mistakes repeated from the past. There can be no delay or failure to act collectively.

“We have already witnessed the drastic impact on vulnerable children when decisions are made without fully considering the adverse impacts. We cannot be looking back in weeks or months wishing action was taken earlier. Disabled children are being hit hardest when they are excluded from educational settings. Decision makers must do all they can to ensure their needs continue to be met.”

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