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2.15 Children from abroad

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Practitioners should never lose sight of the fact that children and young people from abroad are children first, which may be forgotten in the face of legal and cultural complexities. The child’s immigration status should not affect the quality of care, support and services that are provided as a result of the assessment.


This procedure is focussed on children arriving into the UK:

  • In the care of adults who, whilst they may be their carers, have no parental responsibility for them
  • In the care of adults who have no documents to demonstrate a relationship with the child
  • alone
  • In the care of agents.

Evidence shows that unaccompanied children, or those accompanied by someone who is not their parent, are particularly vulnerable. The children and many of their carers will need assistance to ensure that the child receives adequate care and accesses health and education services. These children should be assessed as a matter of urgency. It must be recognised that these children/young people may be very geographically mobile and as a result their vulnerabilities will be greater.

Immigration legislation impacts significantly on work to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people from abroad. It is important to note that regulations and legislation in this area of work are complex and subject to constant change through legal challenge. This guidance, therefore, intends only to reflect broadly the additional issues faced by families operating within the context of immigration law. All practitioners need to be aware of this context to their contact with such families. Legal advice about individual cases will usually be required by children's social care.

A small number of children may be exposed to the additional risk of commercial, sexual or domestic exploitation. See also Child Sexual Exploitation procedure and Trafficked Children procedure.

Whenever any professional becomes aware of a child who they believe has recently moved into this country the following basic information should be sought:

  • Confirmation of the child's identity and immigration status.
  • Confirmation of the carer's relationship with the child and immigration status.
  • Confirmation of the child's health and education arrangements in this country.
  • Confirmation of the child's health and education arrangements in the country of origin and any other country that the child has travelled through.

This should be done in a way which is as unthreatening to the child and carer as possible.

If this information indicates that the child has come from overseas and is being cared for by an unrelated adult or one whose relationship is uncertain, children's social care should be notified in order that an assessment can be undertaken.

The quality of the first contact with the child or young person and/or parents/carers is crucial to the engagement with the family and the promotion of trust, which underpins the future support, advice and services.

Children who arrive in the UK alone or who are left at a port of entry by an agent invariably have no right of entry and are unlawfully present.

They are likely to be in a position to claim asylum and this should be arranged as soon as possible if appropriate. They are the responsibility of children's social care to support until they are 18 years of age, (under section 17 or section 20 of the Children Act 1989). If they have been looked after by the local authority for 13 weeks or more, children’s social care will have continuing duties after they reach the age of 18 (under section 23C of the Children Act 1989).

Children whose parents’ whereabouts are not known or have no access to their parents for consent when making important choices about their life. However, section 3(5) of the Children Act 1989 allows that in this situation the child’s carer may “do what is reasonable in all the circumstances of the case for the purpose of safeguarding and promoting the child’s welfare”. Children who do not have someone with parental responsibility caring for them can still attend school, and schools should be pragmatic in allowing the carer to make most decisions normally made by the parent.

Such children are entitled to healthcare and have a right to be registered with a GP. If there are difficulties in accessing a GP, the local Patient’s Services should be contacted to assist.

Emergency life-saving treatment should be given if required. However, should the child need medical treatment such as surgery or invasive treatment in a non-life-threatening situation, the need for consent will become an issue and legal advice will be required.

Children who arrive in the UK with or to be with carers without parental responsibility may have leave to enter the country or visas or they may be in the UK unlawfully. When an unaccompanied child or child accompanied by someone who does not have parental responsibility comes to the attention of any practitioner a referral should be made to children’s social care. Children's social care will have responsibilities towards them if they are assessed to be in need. If that is the case support and accommodation can be provided by children's social care for the child, and may also be provided for the family, if otherwise the family would be destitute. In addition, children's social care will have responsibilities towards the child if he or she is privately fostered.

Whereas many carers are genuine and provide good care for the children/young people, in other cases children and young people will be with adults who may not be familiar to them or who present a risk. There may be a risk of exploitation.

It is essential to assess the attachment and bonding between the child or young person and the adult who is not a parent.

Wherever possible, the details of the parent are to be obtained, and, if possible, contact made with the parents in order to ascertain their account as to why the child or young person is in the care of another person. It should not be presumed that a parent who is living abroad cannot be contacted unless this has been established by actively seeking to do so.

A child arriving from abroad who is unaccompanied or accompanied by someone who is not their parent should be assumed to be a child in need unless assessment indicates that this is not the case. The assessment of need should include a separate discussion with the child in a setting where, as far as possible, they feel able to talk freely.

Assessing the needs of these children is only possible if their legal status, background experiences and culture are understood, including the culture shock of arrival in this country.

Where it is considered that there may be a risk of significant harm, a Strategy Meeting is to be held within 24 hours, to share information and plan for the protection of the child or young person.

The Homes for Ukraine: Guidance for councils (children and minors applying without parents or legal guardians) guidance to councils about the processing of existing Homes for Ukraine applications made by children who are not travelling with or joining their parent or legal guardian under the Homes for Ukraine Scheme. It does not replace local council’s statutory duties or responsibilities.

Councils have a critical role in the delivery of the Homes for Ukraine Scheme. Their safeguarding role is particularly important for this cohort of children. In designing the scheme, safeguards have been introduced to reduce risks to children and young people who do not have the protection of being with a parent or legal guardian, although these risks cannot be eliminated entirely. Councils are required to carry out pre- and post-arrival checks and ongoing monitoring of sponsorship arrangements to ensure children are being cared for appropriately.

This guidance outlines the role of councils across England in supporting the scheme and should be referred to. The full guidance can be found here.

In cases where a new referral is received concerning an UASC presenting, then Social Care in partnership with Police should follow the ethos of Operation Innerste as a response. Operation Innerste identifies that if the presenting asylum seeker is claiming to be a child (aged under 18 years), then the response to the UASC by Police and Social Care will be that of them being a potential victim of trafficking in the first instance. Therefore, all appropriate attempts to prevent the presenting UASC from being arrested and taken to a Police Station will be made (unless there are concerns or necessity to best protect and support the presenting asylum seeker). Police and Social Care will work together to best respond to the presenting UASC’s needs both at the time of presentation, and to ensure safeguarding action can be taken if future concerns of trafficking or missing from care. Current procedure relating to Age Assessments process remains in place. If the presenting UASC is identified as being aged 18 years or older, then Police may opt to take steps to detain and transport the presenting asylum seeker to a Police Station in order to issue notification to UK Immigration and for the Home Office Asylum Support process to commence. In these cases, Social Care will be responsible for completing the Model Information Sharing Proforma (MISP), which will be shared with UK Immigration / Home Office.

If the presenting UASC is identified as potentially being aged 17 years or under, then a referral will be made via Police to the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH).

Police will share the presenting UASC’s finger print information with the Home Office Command and Control Unit (CCU) to identify any previously held information on the UASC’s identity, asylum claim or if they are known to any other Local Authority (including being reported as a Missing Person). This information will be shared with Social Care so that if the presenting UASC is already known to a Local Authority, action can be taken to contact that relevant Local Authority for them to arrange safe transportation back to their care.

Consideration should always be given to the use of interpreters when required. Unless they are fluent in English it is not possible to conduct an assessment without an interpreter. UASC should be provided with their information and assessments in the language of their choice.

The assessment has to address not only the barriers which arise from cultural, linguistic and religious differences, but also the particular sensitivities which come from the experiences of many such children and families.

The needs of the child have to be considered, based on an account given by the child or family about a situation, which the professional has neither witnessed nor experienced. In addition, it is often presented in a language, and about a culture and way of life, with which the professional is unfamiliar.

The views of the child/young person should always be taken into consideration and seen independently from their current placement/care giver in order to establish the following:

  • Their understanding of the situation.
  • Their knowledge of the adults with who they are travelling.
  • Their relationship to the adults with whom they are travelling.
  • Their wishes and feelings.

It is vital that the services of an interpreter are employed in the child's first language and that care is taken to ensure that the interpreter knows the correct dialect. Agencies should ensure that the interpreter shares a common language with the child, is professionally trained and has been screened through a DBS check.

The child should be offered an Independent Visitor and, if they decline, their reasons should be recorded. Any Independent Visitor appointed should have appropriate training and demonstrate an understanding of the needs faced by unaccompanied or trafficked children.

Particular sensitivities which may be present include:

  • Concerns around immigration status.
  • Fear of repatriation.
  • Anxiety raised by yet another professional asking similar question to ones previously asked.
  • Lack of understanding of the separate role of children's social care, and that it is not an extension of the police.
  • Lack of understanding of why an assessment needs to be carried out.
  • Previous experience of being asked questions under threat or torture, or seeing that happen to someone else.
  • Past trauma – past regime/experiences can impact upon the child's mental and physical health. This experience can make concerns from the authorities about minor injury or poor living conditions seem trivial and this mismatch may add to the fear and uncertainty.
  • The journey itself as well as the previous living situation may have been the source of trauma.
  • The shock of arrival – the alien culture, system and language can cause shock and uncertainty, and can affect mood, behaviour and presentation.

In such circumstances, reluctance to divulge information, fear, confusion or memory loss can easily be mistaken for lack of cooperation, deliberate withholding of information or untruthfulness.

Professionals should ensure that the engagement with the family is planned and thought through. This will provide opportunities to expand on the initial contact. The ethnicity, culture, customs and identity of this child must be a focus whilst keeping this child central to the assessment.

The assessment should take account of any psychological or emotional impact of experiences as an unaccompanied or trafficked child, and any consequent need for psychological or mental health support to help the child deal with them.

Seeking information from abroad should be a routine part of assessing the situation of an unaccompanied child. Practitioners from all key agencies – health, education, children's social care and the police – should all be prepared to request information from their equivalent agencies in the country or countries in which a child has lived, in order to gain as full as possible a picture of the child's preceding circumstances.

Other factors to consider are:              

  • The child's developmental needs ­– Consider: impact of trauma and loss; education, if any; self-care skills should not be judged by comparing a child or young person of the same age in this country; physical appearance may be affected by lack of nourishment; perceptions of disability; impact of racism.
  • Parenting capacity – Consider: mobility due to war, famine, persecution; stability of family unit may be more important than home; motive for giving up a child isn’t necessarily rejection; talking about family can be stressful and painful; additional issues of parenting a child conceived through rape.
  • Family and environmental factors – Consider: importance of economic and social hardship; family history and functioning may have included the loss of previous high status as well as periods of desolation.

Children in need of safeguarding

Where the Assessment indicates that a child may have suffered, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, the child's welfare must be safeguarded.

During the Assessment, additional factors need to be taken into account.

  • Perceptions of authority, and the role of the police in particular.
  • The additional implications of deciding to prosecute for a family where deportation is a real threat.
  • Balancing the impact of separation on a child with the likely history of separation/disruption.
  • Judgements about child care practices in the context of such different cultural backgrounds and experiences.

Children returning from Syria

Over the last few years, a number of British children have travelled to Syria either on their own initiative or were taken there by their parents. Having lived in a war zone, the majority of these children are likely to have been exposed to terrorism and extremist ideology, and witnessed incidents that will almost certainly have had an impact on their mental and emotional development. The Department for Education has produced guidance for local authorities on how to manage cases involving British children who return to England from Syria, and the centrally funded support available to help safeguard them. 

Immigration legislation impacts significantly on work to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people from abroad.

The immigration status of a child and his/her family has implications for the statutory responsibilities towards the family. It governs what help, if any, can be provided to the family and how help can be offered to the child.

Where families are subject to immigration legislation which precludes support to the family, many will disappear into the community and wait until benefits can be awarded to them. During this interim period the children may suffer particular hardship, e.g. live in overcrowded and unsuitable conditions with no access to health or educational services. They can be vulnerable to exploitation given their circumstances.

Children who disappear, where there are concerns about the child's welfare, should be considered to be missing and the Children and families that go missing procedure should be followed in accordance with the Referrals procedure.

In some cultures child rearing is a shared responsibility between relatives and members of the community. Adults may bring to this country children for whom they have cared for most of their lives, but who may be unrelated or ‘distantly’ related.

An adult whose own immigration status is unresolved cannot apply for a Child Arrangements Order to secure a child for whom he/she is caring.

Age is central to the assessment and affects the child’s rights to services and the response by agencies. In addition, it is important to establish age so that services are age and developmentally appropriate.

When an individual does not have any definitive documentary evidence to support their claimed age, and if there is doubt over their claim to be a child, there is a need to assess their age.

Local authorities can carry out what is known as a ‘Merton’ compliant age assessment. A Merton age assessment is a holistic, social worker-led assessment which must adhere to standards that have been set out by the courts in several judgments dating back to 2003. As a result, the requirements and standards expected from a Merton assessment are not set out in a single place. Therefore, we will aim to bring more clarity to the process by setting out in Regulations a uniform set of standards, adherence to which would be mandatory, in order to achieve greater consistency in age assessments.

Given the very difficult task of assessing someone’s age, the home office is also consider introducing scientific age assessment methods to widen the evidence available to decision-makers and improve the accuracy of their decisions.

The Home Office is considering a range of methods as a means of providing additional scientific evidence in the age assessment process, but no decisions have been made. Where a method or methods of scientific age assessment is considered to be appropriate, they will be specified in regulations that will be subject to the affirmative procedure.

Currently, where someone disagrees with the outcome of a Merton assessment, the only route to challenge that finding is to judicially review the decision. Resolving a dispute through judicial review can be a very costly and protracted process, which can absorb significant resources and involve a prolonged period of uncertainty for the young person concerned. A newly established statutory right of appeal will ensure that any challenge to the outcome of an age assessment can be resolved as swiftly as possible.

The UK is one of very few European countries that does not currently employ scientific methods of age assessment – such as X-rays of the teeth, clavicle/collar bone, and the carpal/wrist bones. In addition to this, we are aware of other techniques for assessing age that we will be exploring for potential future use.

Unaccompanied children very rarely have possession of any documents to confirm their identity or even to substantiate that they are a child. Their physical appearance may not necessarily reflect his/her age.

The Home Secretary will seek scientific advice directly from the Home Office Chief Scientific Adviser, and determine whether a method, or combination of methods, is appropriate for the purposes of an age assessment.

Care of unaccompanied and trafficked children: Statutory guidance for local authorities on the care of unaccompanied asylum seeking and trafficked children (2014) provides that where the age of a person is uncertain and there are reasons to believe that they are a child, they are presumed to be a child in order to receive immediate access to assistance, support and protection in accordance with Article 10(3) of the European Convention on action Against Trafficking in Human Beings. Age assessments should only be carried out where there is significant reason to doubt that the claimant is a child. Age assessments should not be a routine part of a local authority’s assessment of unaccompanied or trafficked children. Where age assessments are conducted, they must be Merton Compliant.

The assessment of age is a complex task, which often relies on professional judgement and discretion. Such assessment may be compounded by issues of disability. Moreover, many societies do not place a high level of importance upon age and it may also be calculated in different ways. Some young people may genuinely not know their age and this can be misread as lack of co-operation. Levels of competence in some areas or tasks may exceed or fall short of our expectations of a child of the same age in this country.

As the issue of age assessment in social work with asylum seeking young people remains controversial the ADCS (Association of Directors of Children’s Services) Asylum Task Force has worked with the Home Office to provide, New Age Assessment Guidance (2015). These documents are offered as practice guidance, by way of assistance to local authorities and their partners and are voluntary. The content does not, nor does it seek to, be binding on local authorities. It is simply a recommended approach.

The advice of a paediatrician with experience in considering age may be needed to assist in this, in the context of a holistic assessment. However, the High Court has ruled that, unless a paediatrician's report can add something specific to an assessment of age undertaken by an experienced social worker, it will not be necessary.

Under s. 54A Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 (inserted by s.3 Immigration Act 2014), the Secretary of State must consult the Independent Family Returns Panel in each family returns case, on how best to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children of the family, and in each case where the Secretary of State proposes to detain a family in pre-departure accommodation, on the suitability of so doing, having particular regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children of the family.

A family returns case is a case where a child who is living in the UK is to be removed from or required to leave the UK, together with their parent/carer.

Pre-departure accommodation is a secure facility designed to be used as a last resort where families fail to co-operate with other options to leave the UK, such as the offer of assisted voluntary return.

The Panel may request information in order that any return plan for a particular family has taken into account any information held by other agencies that relates to safeguarding, welfare or child protection. In particular a social worker or manager from children’s social care may be invited to contribute to the Panel.

If there are concerns that a child is a victim of trafficking, the practitioners will need to inform the National Referral Mechanism, which is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support. The child’s details should be provided using the forms available:  (the tick box matrix in section C has been designed to save time in completing the form by providing recognised child trafficking indicators which can be marked quickly and expanded upon in Section D). The relevant government documents are also available. 

Since the 31 July 2015, all UK referrals to the National Referral Mechanism Competent Authority (trained decision makers) must consider whether the person is a victim of human trafficking. In England and Wales, if someone is found not to be a victim of trafficking, the Competent Authority must go on to consider whether they are the victim of another form of modern slavery, which includes slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour. This relates to the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

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