Children who come to the UK alone to seek asylum find the experience confusing, stressful and traumatic, a report suggests.
The study by the Children’s Society found there was a “culture of disbelief” among immigration staff dealing with children’s asylum claims.
It calls for a series of improvements to give young applicants more support.
The UK Border Agency said it was already addressing many of the issues raised in the report.
The charity spoke to 33 asylum seekers, aged between 13 and 20, who had fled war and persecution in countries including Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Syria.
All of those who took part in the study had come as children on their own to the UK, many arriving after a “dangerous and long journey” from their home country. Most of them were boys.
They were among many thousands of unaccompanied children to seek refugee status in the UK over the past decade – last year there were 1,277 such applications.
‘Traumatic and upsetting’
Child asylum seekers – those deemed to be under 18 – are placed either in foster care or local authority-supported housing while their claim is assessed.
They are entitled to attend school and have support from social workers.
According to the research, many struggled to understand the asylum process in the UK and to present their case effectively.
Last year, aged 17, Robar fled the fighting in Syria and came to the UK after a hazardous journey which included eight hours in the back of a freezer lorry. He did not know anyone in the UK.
Robar (not his real name) was arrested and held in a small, windowless room. At the start of the asylum process he wrote down his date of birth in Arabic – but the authorities misunderstood what he had written and assessed him to be older than he was. He was treated as an adult.
“I tried to explain, but nobody listened to me,” he told the Children’s Society report.
The teenager was then sent to a detention centre in Oxford.
“I cried so much during this time. I was very frightened,” he told researchers. “When I heard I was in England I could not believe it. It felt like Syria.”
Robar’s claim for asylum was turned down and he’s making a fresh application. He fears what will happen if he is refused permission to stay.
“The immigration system made them feel ‘powerless’ as they had no choice over what was happening with their case or the impact it had on their life,” the report says.
Although a few of the young people had a positive view of the system and the staff they encountered, most found the process “long, traumatic and upsetting”.
The only guidance information for young asylum seekers was said to be six years old and out of date.
They complained that some of the immigration staff they dealt with were rude and aggressive, treating them with suspicion and disbelief, trying to “catch them out”.
“A central pillar of our child protection system is to give children the benefit of the doubt, ” says the report.
“However, this does not appear to be the case in practice for children subject to immigration control who are disclosing abuse.”
The report says it is also “common” for the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to lose case files and identity documents of young asylum applicants, an experience they found “extremely stressful”.
The Children’s Society, a charity which helps almost 2,000 migrants and refugees each year, proposes eight changes to make the process simpler, fairer and less harsh.
They include establishing an independent, child-friendly complaints and feedback system; ensuring each young applicant has a legal advocate to provide them with support; and providing better information about how the process works.
A UKBA spokesperson said: “We take our responsibility for the care of children very seriously. We have specially-trained staff to handle their cases and the best interests of the child are at the heart of the decision-making process.
“Work is already under way in many of the areas identified by the Children’s Society but we will consider their report carefully.”
BBC © 2012
Danny Shaw- BBC Home Affairs Correspondent