In this blog, Kamena Dorling talks about the problems with putting children who have migrated to the UK alone in ‘unregulated accommodation’. Kamena is a consultant on the CCoM project. She is the Head of Policy and Advocacy at Article 39, an organisation that fights for the rights of children living in state and privately-run institutions and used to manage the Migrant Children’s Project at the children’s charity Coram.
“What do you think needs to be changed to improve the accommodation provided to young people?
For social services to really listen to what we want before making decisions”.
Young person living in semi-independent accommodation
Following BBC Newsnight’s investigation into children in care being placed in unsafe and unsuitable housing, the Department for Education (DfE) launched a public consultation on the use of ‘unregulated accommodation’. If you are unfamiliar with term ‘unregulated accommodation,’ it covers accommodation such as hostels, flats, bedsits and shared housing where children live independently or semi-independently. While there may be supervisory staff or advice workers who can provide support, there is an important difference between this type of housing and children’s homes. Unregulated accommodation is not inspected by Ofsted and does not need to be registered with Ofsted because it is not providing ‘care’, only ‘support’, for the children and young people living there.
According to a report commissioned by the DfE, despite unaccompanied asylum seekers only forming 6% of the population of looked-after children, they form over a third of the children in unregulated accommodation. The Children’s Minister, Vicky Ford MP, has explained this difference as being because “the majority” are aged 16 and over and so are “more likely to benefit” from placement in these settings than other looked after children. It is true that most are over 16 – at 31 March 2019, there were 5,070 unaccompanied children looked after by local authorities, of which 4,330 were aged 16 and 17 years. However, the view that this group of children are “more likely to benefit” from unregulated accommodation seems to be based on sweeping assumptions about the resilience and independence of older teenagers who have migrated alone. Perhaps because many unaccompanied children may have experienced long and dangerous journeys to the UK they are seen as being ready to manage independent living.
But these assumptions are highly problematic for a number of reasons. For a start, they are in stark contrast to the DfE’s own statutory guidance, which makes clear that unaccompanied migrant children “can be some of the most vulnerable children in the country”. They “are alone, in an unfamiliar country and may be surrounded by people unable to speak their first language… They are at increased risk of going missing, often leaving the care of those who would protect them to return to traffickers who will continue their exploitation. All groups may have experienced emotional trauma in their country of birth, on their journey to the UK or through their treatment by adults in the UK.”
Also, there is an existing body of evidence that suggests that these children and young people’s needs are not being properly assessed prior to and after placement and are not being met in unregulated accommodation. They often do not understand their options for care/ accommodation and do not have their views taken into consideration. This evidence includes the submission to the consultation made by the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium (RMCC), a coalition of over 50 organisations working to promote and protect the rights of young refugees and migrants. The submission draws on the work of RMCC members and on interviews with 21 young people. It includes the quote above and highlights that many young people feel unsafe, unsupported and unheard in unregulated accommodation.
The RMCC believes that all unaccompanied children and young people should live in families or residential settings where they both receive both support and care. A safe space where relationships and connections between young people and adults can be developed is really important. In children’s homes, for example, care might include having adults around all the time, having meals and other ‘family-like’ activities, and having an adult around who young people can speak to and ask for guidance.
The RMCC is calling on the DfE to improve the standards across the board and take further action to ensure that all placement decisions are based on what is in the best interests of the child, as the law requires, rather than being resource-led and/or based solely on age. The deadline for submissions to the consultation has passed but there is further time for young people to share their thoughts directly with the DfE – they can do so until 23rd June. We can only hope that the government listens to the real experiences of those living in unregulated accommodation and introduces changes to ensure that the care system really does care for those it is duty bound to look after.