The dispersal of unaccompanied asylum seeking children: in whose best interests?

Published 20 July 2016 / By Rachel Humphris & Nando Sigona

Back to Articles

On 1st July 2016, a new system for looking after unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) [1] began which allows local authorities to transfer their responsibility of a child to another local authority. The stated aim of the transfer protocol is to more equally share the responsibility of looking after children arriving in the UK alone across cities.

The timing of this change is important. Some areas (such as Kent) report that they are finding it almost impossible to fulfil their statutory duty to children arriving alone due to their already stretched resources. The difference in the distribution of children can be seen in the map below:

Number of UASC by LA


Our research, Becoming Adult: Conceptions of future and wellbeing among unaccompanied migrant youth in the UK, has shown that moving children around the country is not new, however the protocol does mark a shift towards the Home Office taking an ever more increasing role. From Freedom of Information requests sent to all local authorities in England we found that over the past three years children have been increasingly moved outside the local authority with the duty to care for them.

Children are accommodated in one local authority, while their social workers remain in another. Some children have never been to the local authority that has the duty to care for them. Of greater note is that the receiving local authorities are rarely informed of these transfers and keep no record of unaccompanied children placed from other LAs.

Number of relocated UASC

So the transfer protocol does not signal an entirely new system, but rather replaces informal voluntary arrangements at the local level to a national, formalised scheme coordinated by the Home Office.

This may be fairer to local authorities (and will save social workers time and money as they will no longer be travelling across the country to visit children) but what about the best interests of children? Which children are going to be moved around the country? [2] What support is going to be available to them when they get there?

This focuses attention on another key finding from the FOI requests. Although statutory provisions contain guidance regarding the care of unaccompanied children and care leavers, in practice the variation across cities is huge.

This extends to differences in what might be considered fundamental data collection - some local authorities do not record immigration status or nationality of children. The data for those over 18 years old but still under the care of the city authorities is even patchier.

In particular definitions around ‘missing’ children are widely interpreted and the timeframe for reporting a child or young person missing varies from 2 hours to 2 weeks. The problems surrounding numbers of missing migrant children have been identified. Our research show a significant gap between the number of missing UASC reported by the Home Office for 2013-14 (83) and what local authorities report in FOI responses for the same period (176).

The new transfer protocol needs to be well resourced including building capacity in areas that are not well experienced with working with unaccompanied children. If not, children may vote with their feet and move or return to places where they have support networks. This may increase the numbers of children that go missing, further uprooting their lives and life chances for the future.

[1] The UK Home Office definition of an Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Child (UASC) is a person under 18, who is applying for asylum in his or her own right, and is separated from both parents and not being cared for by an adult who in law or by custom has responsibility to do so. The duty of care for these children is governed by the Children Act 1989 (as amended by the Children and Young Persons Act 2008). When a child reaches 18 years old the duty to the young person is held within the Care Leavers (England) Regulations 2010 (amended in 2014 to require those duties are fulfilled with particular regard to the child's circumstances and needs as unaccompanied or trafficked).

[2] A flow chart has been produced to outline the protocol for those arriving but not those already identified in the UK