Heightened Risk of Child Trafficking “Deeply Concerning”

01 December 2021

Speaking ahead of the 2021 Children’s Law Centre Annual Lecture, UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons Especially in Women and Children, Professor Siobhán Mullally has raised her fears that the Nationality and Borders Bill will heighten the risk of trafficking and re-trafficking for child refugees.

Professor Mullally’s lecture will be delivered on Thursday 2nd December at 3:30pm and is titled ‘Responding to Child Trafficking: Rights Vs Rhetoric’. The lecture comes only a week after at least 27 people, including children, drowned crossing the English Channel. Following the tragedy, the UK Home Office was widely criticised for its hostile environment towards refugees and asylum seekers.

Speaking ahead of the lecture, Professor Mullally said: “The Nationality and Borders Bill is deeply concerning in its hostile approach towards refugees and asylum seekers. Immigration practitioners and human rights organisations have consistently raised concerns that the identification of victims of trafficking will become more difficult. Indeed, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has also made this very point. I have also officially written to the UK authorities, along with other relevant Special Rapporteurs, to highlight my concerns about the Nationality and Borders Bill and its compliance with the State’s obligations under international law to prevent trafficking in persons.

“There is little doubt that the risk of trafficking or re-trafficking will increase as a result of this Bill, particularly in relation to children. It will make it more difficult to identify victims or potential victims of trafficking, with changes to the ‘reasonable grounds threshold’ particularly concerning. It will also weaken access to services that meet the complex individual needs of victims of trafficking, and potentially treat child refugees as criminals.

“There is an established international rights framework set up to protect refugees and prevent trafficking. Such serious departure from this framework, coupled with the current rhetoric towards refugees, will have devastating consequences for people, including very vulnerable and traumatised children. Rather than address the refugee crisis and tackle trafficking, the Nationality and Borders Bill is a gift to people smugglers.”

Paddy Kelly, Director at the Children’s Law Centre added: “We are very pleased that Professor Mullally agreed to deliver our 2021 Annual Lecture. It comes at a critical moment where much of the good work carried out in this jurisdiction to tackle the causes and effects of child trafficking could be undone. It also highlights the importance of a strong rights framework, including domestic implementation of those rights in the protection of children. Just last week we witnessed the terrible impact of the failure to protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Until we recommit to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we will continue to fail child refugees.”

Download our briefing paper on the Nationality and Borders Bill

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“The Dark, The Fear, The Cold And The Desperate Hope”

25 November 2021

Children’s Law Centre Immigration solicitors have offered their condolences in response to the tragic loss of life in the English Channel. The solicitors have highlighted the lack of safe, legal routes as a key factor putting refugees at risk. They have also warned that the situation will worsen as a result of the Nationality and Borders Bill, and current rhetoric painting refugees as criminals.

Barbara Muldoon, Immigration Solicitor at the Children’s Law Centre said: “We would, first and foremost, like to offer our sincere condolences to those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy. Probably every single person on that boat had someone who was waiting to hear that they had crossed safely. I can’t imagine the grief they currently feel.

“It is deeply troubling to encounter a loss of life on this scale. The lives of vulnerable, innocent people who were desperate for a safer life, including a number of young children.

“At the Children’s Law Centre, we represent the majority of unaccompanied asylum seeking children in this jurisdiction, in their application for asylum. Almost every young person has recounted the horror of small boat crossings at some stage of their journey. The dark, the fear, the cold and the desperate hope. It’s difficult for many to understand quite how desperate that is, but it is the reality they face.

“We owe it to these people to look at why a tragedy like this happens, and we can’t hide from the fact that this loss of life was preventable. Immigration practitioners have made it clear for a long time that this is the reality forced upon refugees due to the lack of safe and legal routes to asylum. Separated and unaccompanied asylum seeking children in particular have no other option due to the ‘blanket prohibition’.

“We also need to face up to the reality that the Nationality and Borders Bill, alongside the current UK Government rhetoric towards refugees and asylum seekers is not going to prevent this. In fact, the vast majority of practitioners agree that things will get worse by further criminalising refugees and weakening safeguarding measures for child refugees. Clause 40 of the Nationality and Borders Bill would even have made it a criminal offence to intervene and attempt to save these drowning people, including women and children.

“We need to collectively denounce the dangerous rhetoric around refugees and face up to the reality that there is no ‘migrant crisis’ in the UK. There is no ‘influx of migrants’. Those coming to the UK are seeking asylum. They have a legal right to do so under the 1951 Refugee Convention. We must re-commit to international obligations and ensure that we protect these people, including young vulnerable children, from exploitation, from the clutches of traffickers and from perilous journeys.”

  • A briefing note on the impact of the Nationality and Borders Bill on children, anti-trafficking and devolution can be found here.
  • Statistic on asylum in the UK can be found here.
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New Immigration Plan Abandons Children’s Rights and Protections

12 May 2021

The proposed new immigration plan by the UK Government will trample on the rights of some of the most vulnerable children in Northern Ireland, breaching international obligations, domestic laws and devolved matters.

The changes depart from a range of international obligations and standards such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. They contradict a number of domestic laws, including the Borders Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 and the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. Significantly, for Northern Ireland, the plan also encroaches on devolution; trampling powers held by a number of NI Executive departments, statutory bodies and the courts.

This is the analysis of specialist immigration solicitors within the Children’s Law Centre. The Children’s Law Centre’s immigration solicitors provide advice in relation to looked after children who are in the care of social services and whose immigration status is insecure. They also advise and represent the vast majority of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASCs) in Northern Ireland, working with the Health and Social Care Board, all five Health and Social Care Trusts in Northern Ireland and Barnardo’s Independent Guardian Service. The team within the Children’s Law Centre holds extensive experience in representing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who have been subject to the asylum application, National Referral Mechanism and other immigration application processes.

What is the New Plan for Immigration?

The proposed plan includes a number of major changes including:

  • A two-tiered system for people arriving in the UK.
  • The introduction of temporary protection status.
  • Significant changes to processing procedures.
  • Changes to referral mechanisms.
  • New enforcement methods.
Download the Children’s Law Centre’s response to the ‘New Plan for Immigration’

Many of these new changes will hit children the hardest, including separated children, UASCs and the children of asylum-seeking families. The result will see the diminution of children’s rights, including safeguarding rights and the legal child protection framework. Traumatised children will be put at risk of abuse, neglect and destitution, as well as a heightened risk of trafficking and re-trafficking.

The Watering Down of Child Protection and Safeguarding Duties

The new plan, if implemented, will create a number of new bodies with a range of powers. One of the most significant in relation to children is the National Age Assessment Board (NAAB). Where the primary duty of age assessments, currently carried out by social services, is to protect children, the NAAB will focus on immigration control. The Children’s Law Centre, and a wide range of community and civic organisations believe this is going to have a devastating impact on the well-being of children. It will dramatically increase the risk of vulnerable and traumatised children being held in detention centres, instead of getting the support they need for social services. The NAAB also opens the door to dubious age assessment methods that are entirely opposed by medical professionals and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Another significant change will include a new ‘one-stop’ process that will curtail appeal rights by requiring frightened and traumatised children to immediately reveal the totality of abuse and harm they have endured. This is going to have a number of significant implications for UASCs in particular by introducing cut-off points around entitlements to protection. With many UASCs being extremely traumatised, it can often take time for them to ‘open up’ about their experiences of trafficking and abuse. This could now have implications for their access to protections. Excluding children from entitlement to safeguarding and protection from abuse is inhumane and a clear breach of Article 3 of the UNCRC and section 55 of the Borders Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009.

The proposals to withdraw financial support for asylum seekers who are deemed by the Home Office to have ‘failed’ to gain status is also deeply worrying, signaling a system of enforcement driven by the starvation and destitution of children.

Then there are additional plans seeking to erode protections for stateless children and raising the standard of proof for persecution. It is also alarmingly unclear whether detention for non-compliance with immigration rules will apply to children, or that separated children and UASCs could be placed in the newly expanded asylum estate when they turn 18. This all paints a bleak picture for the shift towards removing rights and protections from seriously vulnerable, traumatised and at-risk children.

The Heightened Risk of Trafficking and re-Trafficking

Rather than any pretence of streamlining the immigration process, it is clear to everyone outside the Home Office that the new plan will heighten the risk of trafficking and re-trafficking of children. By raising the ‘reasonable grounds’ threshold for sign-posting a child to be the victim of trafficking, children are being placed at risk of exploitation by preventing them from accessing necessary protection and support.

Separated children and UASCs may also, by the nature of their journey, be eligible for no more than temporary status under the new changes. This is due to the lack of a legal route for children to reunite with family members, described as a ‘blanket prohibition’ in the UK. This already drives vulnerable children towards trafficking, but failure to gain full status after arrival would heighten the risk of exploitation even further.

The plan completely fails to address this risk to children entering the UK. This is not a small number of vulnerable children either. Between 2010 and 2018, over 10,000 separated and unaccompanied children were granted asylum or some other form of protection in the UK. Rather than looking at how these children can be protected, the plan could be viewed as an attempt to close off the route altogether by increasing the risk of exploitation or detention of vulnerable children.

The Encroachment on Devolution

For Northern Ireland, the plan also encroaches on transferred matters under the devolved settlement. The creation of the NAAB in itself seems to ride roughshod over duties to protect children under NI law. In Northern Ireland, Social Services have a duty to conduct age assessments for the purposes of assessing what duties are owed to children under The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. However, the NAAB attempts to supersede this legislation and create a new process for conducting age assessments based on border control.

The new plan for immigration also looks troubling in its approach to trafficking. Again, trafficking is not a reserved matter, it is devolved. The identification and protection of victims, and the prevention of trafficking, are duties that fall to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Public Prosecution Service, the various Health and Social Care Trusts, the Independent Guardian Scheme and the Northern Ireland Court Service. All issues that fall under the control of the Executive.

A Dubious Consultation Process

Finally, it is unclear or perhaps even unlikely that the consultation process for the new immigration plan fulfilled legal requirements. With a lack of detail often apparent in the proposals, a lack of time for respondents to properly complete their responses and a closed process around the opportunity to respond, meaningful engagement was significantly curtailed. A fait accompli presented to respondents.

There is almost universal opposition to the majority of the plans. This was clear throughout the consultation process. It is now down to the UK Government to engage meaningfully with the submissions that are received and to take them on board before any new legislation is introduced.

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