Landing in Dover – Office of Children’s Commissioner

Executive summary
0.1 This report follows on from the Children’s Commissioner’s earlier report Landing in Kent.3 It focuses on immigration procedures to which unaccompanied children arriving in Kent are subject between their first encounter with the authorities and the time they are placed in the care of Kent County Council children’s social care services.

0.2 Unaccompanied children are held under detention powers on, and immediately after, their arrival. Government policy is that unaccompanied children should only be detained in the most exceptional circumstances and only while arrangements for their care and safety are made. This policy is in line with the standard set by Article 37(b) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which requires that children should only be detained as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.

0.3 The report finds that children are in fact not currently being held for the ‘shortest appropriate period of time’. Rather they are detained whilst significant interviews that will inevitably bear on their prospects of being granted permission to stay in the UK are conducted. From the cases we have considered in preparation of this report, we find that the local authority is only informed of the child’s arrival several hours after initial detention and well into the interviewing process. The report concludes that interviewing children in depth immediately on arrival is unnecessary and not in their best interests and should be reconsidered.

0.4 The evidence for this report was gathered by going to the Port of Dover immigration office and being ‘walked through’ the process an unaccompanied child would encounter on arrival. We were provided with written details of relevant procedures governing the relevant policies, and the working processes that should fulfil them. We then obtained consent from some newly arrived children to consider their ‘port files’ and were also able to interview some of the children in more detail. In two cases children provided us with their ‘reasons for refusal’ letter following the initial decision on their asylum claim. These showed how the interviews undergone shortly after arrival could impact on the asylum decision in the child’s case. We talked to representatives of the Kent Police Force, and the local authority, as part of our investigation. This report brings these different sources of information together to allow us to take a holistic view of the immigration procedures that unaccompanied children arriving in Dover encounter.

0.5 Chapter 3 considers the details of arrival recorded on individual port records, as well as what children told us at interview about how they had reached the UK from France or Belgium. Many young people’s first contact with the UK authorities is with the police rather than immigration officials. The report considers Kent police’s arrangements for holding them, and the arrangements made for transferring them into ‘immigration detention’. Children’s accounts of their first contact with the UK authorities are reported in their own words.

0.6 Chapter 4 considers what happens once children are transferred (by either customs officers or the police) to the port office at Dover, where they are handed over to immigration officials. Children are first searched and their property, including documents, removed. They are then ‘booked in’ and wait in a holding area pending interviews. The holding area and its facilities are described. Prior to interviews taking place, a Chief Immigration Officer (CIO) will conduct a preliminary age assessment. Any subject claiming to be a child, who in the view of the CIO is obviously not a child but an adult, will be treated as an adult from this point and will not benefit from the procedural safeguards provided to children.

0.7 Chapter 5 looks at the first two interviews children experience. The first is a short welfare interview to establish whether there are impediments to any further interviewing such as illness, tiredness or hunger. Evidence from both the port files and our interviews with children suggests that the welfare interview process provides immigration staff with considerable discretion to continue with further interviews. This happens even where children are claiming to be tired or ill or say they need to see a doctor immediately.

0.8 The welfare interview is followed immediately by the initial examination interview (IEI). The form used to record this suggests it is used to collect evidence where UKBA is considering prosecuting for the criminal offence of illegal entry. There are mitigating circumstances against prosecution including ‘being a child’ and ‘claiming asylum’. It was unclear from the files we examined whether children were asked if they wished to exercise their right to have a legal representative present at this interview, or whether they were asked and ‘waived’ this right. For those children who do not articulate an asylum claim at this point there has been provision, captured in a 1995 document named the `Gentleman’s Agreement’ to return them immediately to France. This is without recourse to social care services and in spite of these subjects being children supposedly afforded the full safeguard of the law. Following interventions in autumn 2011 by the Children’s Commissioner for England, and subsequent discussions between the Children’s Commissioner and the new Chief Executive of UKBA, the agency has agreed to cease forthwith using this provision in respect of children. It remains in place for adults.

0.9 Following the welfare interview and IEI, a full screening interview is conducted for those who have indicated that they wish to claim asylum. This screening interview is considered in detail in Chapter 6. The interview is designed to obtain details of the child’s identity, country of origin, family, history of travel to the UK, details of any previous claims, security related information and details of any accompanying adults. The interview lasts for around an hour. Children may only be asked about the basis for their claim where an independent Responsible Adult4 is present. It was not apparent whether this rule was complied with in all the cases we examined. However, in the majority of cases this key question was not asked at all, due to the absence of an independent adult.

0.10 Chapter 7 looks at the disadvantages faced by children under the current processing arrangements at Dover. The elements of this disadvantage are that:
• Children are generally not fit for interview due to illness, hunger, tiredness, fear or a combination of these factors.
• The length of time between being placed into detention and release into care is too long. This is due to both the numbers of interviews routinely undertaken and the waiting times between the interviews.
•  Telephone interpreting is generally used at the interviews and is not, in our view, ‘fit for purpose’.
• Children are in practice unable to instruct a legal representative or in most cases have an independent Responsible Adult present during interviews and yet the interviews can be relied upon by UKBA in the asylum decision.
• Even in the absence of a legal representative or independent adult, children are required to sign the screening interview record, confirm its contents are correct and confirm that they have understood legal warnings and instructions from the immigration officer.

0.11 The waiting periods prior to the screening interview are excessively lengthy given children’s physical and mental state as they arrive, unaccompanied, after undergoing whatever traumas their journeys to the UK may have entailed. Conditions in the holding area are not suited to excessive waiting for children, especially given their likely physical and mental states. First contact with the local authority is generally only made shortly before the start of the screening interview, meaning there is little opportunity for an independent Responsible Adult to attend in support of the children concerned. Children reported considerable difficulties in using the telephone interpreters provided, which in some cases resulted in misunderstandings occurring and incorrect information being recorded on the screening record. The records children were required to sign were not read back to them to check their accuracy.

0.12 Those children who were asked about their ‘fear of return’ in the absence of a responsible adult were not discouraged from elaborating on their reasons. Policy instructions to immigration staff on the issue of ‘elaborating’ on the reasons why return is feared are unclear and mean that children are allowed to expand on these without being prevented from doing so, and sometimes in the absence of an independent Responsible Adult as noted above.

0.13 In two cases we were able to consider the impact of the screening interview on the reasons then given for refusing the asylum claim. In both cases, conflicting evidence between what was recorded at screening and in the later substantive asylum interview was used to question the ‘credibility’ of the child’s account of what had happened.

0.14 In Chapter 8 we conclude that there is no strong imperative for children to be interviewed immediately on arrival beyond the taking of basic data to establish identity and to enable the correct and speedy placing of the child in the care of the local authority. Our investigation has led to one over-arching recommendation:

0.15 Interviewing, beyond the gathering of basic identity data, should be postponed until after a child has had a period of some days (or longer if deemed necessary by a childcare professional) to recover from their journey, and so that they have the opportunity to instruct a legal representative.

0.16 The aim of the recommendation is to ensure UKBA moves the child into local authority care as quickly as possible, both to allow recovery from their journey, and to ensure they can be made to understand the significance of the interviews they will take part in when they then return to the immigration office. The recommendation has implications for how the Local Immigration Team in Kent organises the processing arrangements for children, and also for the police and the local authority in how they deal with or receive these children. Acceptance of the recommendation will ensure that UKBA is compliant with its legal safeguarding duties, and with the standards set by the relevant international bodies – including the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the European Commission and Council of Europe – relating to the reception on arrival of unaccompanied and separated children.

0.17 In addition to the central recommendation which is directed towards the Local Immigration Team in Kent, we make a number of other recommendations applicable to the screening process in all locations. These are directed to UKBA’s children’s policy makers. The full additional recommendations are set out in Chapter 8. In summary they concern the following areas of practice:

0.18 Searching: We ask UKBA to consider whether searches should be video or tape recorded to ensure their accuracy and so that good practice can be verified and to give consideration to whether further searches of vulnerable unaccompanied children are wholly necessary when searches have already been conducted by the police.

0.19 Documents in the child’s possession: These should be copied and a copy returned at the earliest possible opportunity to the child or their legal representative.

0.20 Welfare interviews: Clear guidance and training should be provided to staff on when it is not appropriate to proceed with further interviews because a child is ill, hungry, tired, or clearly traumatised.

0.21 Initial Examination Interviews (IEI): The purpose of the IEI should be clarified with staff and any adults who might represent or support the child. Consideration should be given to whether they are necessary at all. Where the interview is undertaken children should be advised of their right to have a legal representative present.

0.22 The Gentleman’s Agreement: We acknowledge this will no longer be used in relation to children. However, many cases arise where an entrant’s age is disputed. Where an immediate return to France is proposed for such an age disputed young person the local authority should conduct an age assessment before removal directions are set by UKBA. All further removals under the Agreement should be monitored and reported on.

0.23 Telephone interpreting: This should not be used for interviews that will lead to any immigration decisions being made.

0.24 Screening: Chapter 6 of the process guidance should be rewritten to give effect to recommendations that: children should have legal advice before the screening interview and should be accompanied at the interview by a responsible adult; the record should only be signed in the presence of the responsible adult; the record should be read back to the child before they are required to sign it.


Adrian Matthews

January 2012