THE BLOG

Support for Children in the UK on Their Own Is Needed Now

08/04/2014 17:01 BST | Updated 08/06/2014 10:59 BST

Every year, around 3,000 children find themselves in the UK on their own, with no adult to protect them, to help them make decisions about their life, or to help them navigate the complicated immigration and legal systems that they may have to go through.

Some are fleeing war, abuse and violence, while others are trafficked into domestic work or sexual exploitation. Many have been abandoned or separated from their families. All are vulnerable to a range of abuse and mistreatment.

Yesterday's vote in the House of Lords during the Immigration Bill report stage sends a clear message to government to provide legal guardians for trafficked children. Today's report by the Joint Committee on the draft Modern Slavery Bill has similarly called for trafficked children to be appointed guardians in law.

While we - The Children's Society and UNICEF UK - believe that providing a system of specialist guardians for all unaccompanied children, not just those who have been trafficked, would help protect all trafficked children from the moment they have been found, it would also assist other children who are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

By providing children with a guardian in law, the government could guarantee that any child who arrives in the UK on their own would have one trusted adult in their life who has their best interests at heart. Someone who understands the complicated system they will have to face and who can co-ordinate the agencies, services and processes that the child will have to navigate.

It's important that these guardians are independent of other authorities, so that they are free to make decisions based on what is best for the child rather than on other considerations such as budgets. They also need to have legal responsibility, in order to instruct lawyers and guide children through legal processes.

By being able to promote the child's interests, an independent legal guardian would protect them from the stress of having to tell their traumatic story over and over again, in many cases to people who doubt them and try to catch them out.

Guardians would also be able to protect these children from being wrongly categorised as adults and put in accommodation that is inappropriate for them such as adult hostels or B&Bs, or from being put in detention centres with adults. They would be able to protect the child's rights and, in cases where the child has been trafficked into such criminal activity as cannabis production, protect them from being criminalised when in reality they are clearly the victims.

Setting up and running a system of guardianship will inevitably have costs. But this approach also enables money to be saved through efficiency and cost savings. In the Netherlands a similar system in 2013 cost the equivalent of about £13 million over that year, but has been held up internationally for its effectiveness and the clear positive outcomes it has brought children.

In the UK, for example, guardianship could help streamline costly court cases over age disputes. The cost of an age assessment challenge ranges from £15,000 to £75,000 per case. In Scotland, a pilot guardianship scheme has helped simplify age assessments and maintain momentum, resulting in a more effective process.

Guardianship can also help identify and prevent unaccompanied children from being detained by immigration authorities. Detention centres are costly to run at approximately £120 a day per person. There are additional costs when children are detained unlawfully. In 2012, for example, over £2 million was paid in a court settlement 40 child asylum-seekers who were wrongly detained as adults by the Home Office. If guardians had been with them, these mistakes, which also have a serious detrimental impact on children's well-being, could have been avoided.

The government needs to listen to parliamentarians and use the Immigration Bill and the Modern Slavery Bill to make sure that independent guardianship is secured in law. This is the only way to make sure guardians have the independence and legal powers they need to protect these children.

England and Wales need to join the countries that already provide unaccompanied children with guardians to prevent children who have been trafficked from being re-trafficked and help other vulnerable children at risk of exploitation and abuse.

Matthew Reed is Chief Executive of The Children's Society and Anita Tiessen, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF UK