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Child exploitation

Illegal Migration Bill: more harm than good?

A young girl sits alone on a set of outdoor steps. She wraps her hands around her knees and looks into the distance.

In this blog, Catch22’s Research and Development Officer, Sarah Parker, explains why the Bill that aims to protect vulnerable people may actually make people less safe.

Earlier this year, the UK Government introduced the Illegal Migration Bill intended to “prevent and deter unlawful migration, and in particular migration by unsafe and illegal routes.” The Bill introduces provisions that would amend current immigration, Modern Slavery and asylum legislation as well as Child Protection practice.

Much of the language in the Bill is couched in terms of protection of vulnerable people but, despite this laudable aim, Catch22 believes the proposed legislation could – paradoxically – make many people less safe.

Vulnerable, unaccompanied children

As a large provider of Missing Children and Child Exploitation Services across England, we are particularly concerned about the impact this could have on vulnerable, unaccompanied children, and the fact that “no child rights impact assessment has been undertaken on this Bill, which is of some concern” (Tim Loughton MP, former Children’s Minister).

Normally, a child who has no parents in the UK or cannot be cared for by their parents would instead be cared for by local authority children’s social care, according to the law and with all the safeguards that brings, including Ofsted oversight.

Two years ago, the Government changed the local authority duty of care for unaccompanied children arriving in the UK as a ‘temporary measure’, meaning these children no longer receive the same care and protections that other children receive. Alone in a foreign country, often frightened, confused and traumatised, some have been accommodated in hotel rooms across the country despite the fact that unaccompanied children are at significantly increased risk of exploitation.

Victims of exploitation

“You are coming from something traumatic, you are alone in a city you don’t know, people you don’t know. And your brain has so much to take, language, people, everything else, new environment … and going through the process of papers and everything else. And then you are just so tired…”

Young person from ‘Creating Stable Futures’ report, 2022

In January, a story broke in the national news that, of the 4,600 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who have been accommodated in hotels since July 2021, one in ten have gone missing at some point and 200 children remain missing.

Where are those children? Well, some of them may have family in the UK with precarious immigration status so have gone ‘under the radar’ in order to be with them without drawing attention to their circumstances. However, based on available evidence, it is reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of these children will be victims of exploitation. Many of them will have been trafficked into the UK in the first place, then picked up from their accommodation by traffickers who go on to exploit them for a range of purposes such as County Lines drug-dealing, cannabis cultivation, or sexual exploitation.

Gaps in protection

Anne Longfield, former Children’s Commissioner of England, states:

“We know from reports of missing children from hotels that there is highly-organised criminal activity going on around these vulnerable children and that is something that requires a highly-organised response.”

An inspection by the Government’s Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration last year found ‘inconsistent safeguarding and welfare outcomes’ and ‘gaps in protection’ for unaccompanied children in hotels. If this Bill passes into law, more children will be left in hotels at risk of trafficking and exploitation. They will be outside the care system with no ‘corporate parent’ as the Home Office simply doesn’t have the mechanisms or capacity to assume that role.

Equal rights and protections

This is why Catch22 has joined with over 100 children’s charities in a joint response to this Bill, calling for unaccompanied children to have all the same rights and protections as any other child, in accordance with the Children Act and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. We believe provisions in this Bill will weaken support and protections for children leaving them at risk of harm.

UPDATE: Since this blog was published, a decision was made in a ruling, that children who arrive in the UK without a parent or carer are entitled to protection under the Children Act 1989 – which means they are entitled to the same support from their local council as all other children in care.