In it for the long-term; campaigning for the rights of refugee children in the UK - Refugee Council
blog  |  November 20, 2019

In it for the long-term; campaigning for the rights of refugee children in the UK

Today is the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).  It is the most complete statement of children’s rights ever produced and is the most widely-ratified international human rights treaty in history.

The UK ratified the Convention in 1991 – but it was a far longer journey to see the rights enshrined in the Convention put into practice for child refugees and children seeking asylum. Below we’ve picked out a few issues relating to children’s rights that we’ve worked on – and one where the battle continues.

Change can take a long time, and here at the Refugee Council we have a tradition of never giving up – regardless of how long a campaign might take us!

2008 – All of UNCRC applied to children subject to immigration control for the first time.

Although the UK had ratified the treaty in 1991, it reserved the right to apply the legislation to children who were seeking asylum or citizenship in the UK. In practice, the reservation restricted the rights of children who were subjected to immigration control.

For almost two decades, a wide range of organisations working on refugee children’s rights, including the Refugee Council, campaigned tirelessly to remove this reservation from UK law.  And after 17 years of political lobbying, Parliamentary Questions, debates, legal opinions, amendments to numerous bills and acts – the Government finally agreed in 2008 to lift the reservation and made the announcement to the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

2010 – Section 55 duty to consider children’s best interests introduced

The 2004 Children’s Act places duties on a range of organisations and individuals to ensure that everything they do, is done with regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

However, the Home Office was exempt from this duty.

The Refugee Council lobbied for many years to change this, using various children’s legislation as it passed through parliament.

Finally – this was duty was extended to include the Home Office through Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009.

We were involved in the development of guidance to interpret this duty, (by commenting on drafts, attending stake-holder workshops) – which illustrates that our advocacy and campaigning work doesn’t stop when the Government says they’ll makes a change we’ve been calling for.

We carry on working to ensure that the changes are actually implemented and can have a positive impact on the lives of refugee children.

2014 – First statutory guidance for unaccompanied and trafficked children

Trafficked children can have very little opportunity to escape their traffickers and exploiters. They do not have a clear understanding of what is happening to them, or knowledge of their rights or available support.  This means the emphasis has to be put upon adults having awareness of the indicators of trafficking to enable discovery and identification.

Our 2013 research into the support provided to trafficked children, Still at Risk, concluded that guardians should be provided to all children alone and trafficked and/or seeking asylum.

Whilst we haven’t seen success in making this a reality – yet! – the Government response was positive, and they agreed to trial child trafficking advocates to help support and advocate for trafficked children, and introduce statutory guidance, which was updated in 2017. We particularly welcomed the updated guidance and the accompanying safeguarding strategy.

2019 and beyond…

Alongside others in the Families Together coalition, the Refugee Council has been calling on the Home Office to change the current refugee family reunion laws and allow more refugees in the UK to be reunited with their family.  Many parliamentarians agree with us and when the Committee on the Rights of the Child examined the UK government in 2016 called for the UK to “review its asylum policy in order to facilitate family reunion for unaccompanied and separated children”.

We know from our experience that change can be slow, with innumerable setbacks along the way.  However, crucially, we also know from our successes that when we don’t give up – change can happen.