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Ministers back asylum-seeker policy

13 July 2012

THE Immigration Minister, Damian Green, has rebutted accusations that the Government is operating a policy of "forced destitution" in order to expedite the return of asylum-seekers to their country of origin.

Mr Green told the Parliamentary Education Committee, on Wednesday of last week, that "unless you take yourself outside the system, you should avoid destitution."

MPs held a one-off evidence session to investigate destitution among migrant and asylum-seeking children after the publication of a report on the subject by the Children's Society, which referred to an "alarming rise" in the number of destitute children, young people, and families accessing services ( News, 29 February). It accused the Government of withdrawing and withholding support to refused asylum-seekers to expedite their return to their country of origin. The policy director at the Children's Society, Enver Solomon, told MPs that there had been no progress since February.

  "We have women who are pregnant, who are unable to support themselves; very young children experiencing grave hardship, not being able to have enough food; parents not being able to buy nappies for their children, formula milk. . ." He suggested that "very small tweaks" could be made to funding which could have a "really significant impact on the lives of children in the asylum process".

Philip Ishola, of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, reported that, despite local authorities' (LAs') having a duty to support children in their care beyond the age of 18, there was a "conflict" between the Children's Act and the Immigration Act. LAs were "letting the UK Border Agency's desire for immigration control trump the needs [of children]".

The cabinet member for specialist children's services at Kent County Council, Cllr Jenny Whittle, said that the report was "spot on in a number of aspects", and that there was "inevitably a tension between the support that we offer and the immigration legislation". Support-ing unaccompanied minors who left care after the age of 18 was "burning a £3-million hole in our budget". Such young people were not permitted to work or gain access to education funding.

Government ministers defended the system. The Children and Families Minister, Sarah Teather, said that the law was "blind" to the immigration status of children, who had "inviolable rights", and that practice had "moved a long way in the last two years". She acknowledged that children who had turned 18 presented a "difficult area": "In the eyes of the Home Office they have no right to remain."

Mr Green confirmed this, but said that the rights of children were "centrally embedded" in the UK Border Agency, and that immigration control protected children by giving out the message that, by sending their children "halfway across the world", families were exposing them to death and danger during the journey. "Trying to get into Britain and living under the radar is . . . not necessarily a way to prosperity." Children received support "sufficient to avoid destitution", but to continue to support them until the age of 24 would not be a "helpful signal".

There was broad agreement among MPs and witnesses that a particular problem was posed by "undocumented" children in the UK, which research suggests could number 120,000.

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