Published by The Democrat in co-operation with The Ferret
INVESTIGATION by KARIN GOODWIN
Migrant and refugee children have been left homeless – with one family of five, including a pre-school child, forced to sleep in a borrowed car – due to disputes between the Home Office and local authorities about who is responsible for their welfare.
In another recent case, a mother and her six-year-old child were found on the street at night after travelling to Glasgow from Manchester. They had claimed asylum but not yet been given Home Office accommodation due to system delays, which mean housing is sometimes not being provided to destitute individuals or families for up to ten days.
Under Scots law, the local authority must house destitute families to ensure they are not left homeless on the streets. But it is claimed the family was only accommodated after the children’s commissioner’s office intervened.
The children’s rights organisation claims the policy failure is ultimately the responsibility of the Home Office. But along with the director of the Scottish Child Law Centre, it is also calling for local authorities to uphold their obligations and help close the gap between Scotland’s “world-leading” policy on child rights and the current experience of migrant children.
Last week marked the second anniversary of the Scottish Parliament vote to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into law, but no progress on making it Scots law has yet been made. The Children and Young People’s Commission for Scotland, Bruce Adamson claimed that “every day of delay from the Scottish Government is another broken promise to children”.
Sarah Forster, director of the Child Law Centre, agreed there was currently an “implementation gap” between the commitment to child-friendly legislation and the experience of vulnerable children and their families.
Last October to December the centre ran an outreach pilot project in Glasgow’s Govanhill, which aimed to reach families who may be unaware of their rights, including migrants. Forster said she was taken aback by how “complex and urgent” the problems it identified were.
Homeless family with nowhere to turn
One of the first referrals was from a family of five, who had come to the UK under the EU resettlement scheme. But when they found themselves homeless, Glasgow City Council claimed they were not entitled to homeless accommodation because they had no recourse to public funds in the UK. They spent several nights sleeping in a borrowed car as a result.
One of the parents was working, which should have proved they were qualified for help, and the children were attending school and nursery.
“They were here legally and had permission to work,” said Forster. “This was the winter and it was freezing. Yet they had a letter from the local authority turning them away. It still makes me feel emotional.
“When their community link worker called me I told her immediately what she should do, but she’d done all that and they had still been turned away from all the support services.
“The family was told they had no recourse to public funds, so that’s why organisations were saying they couldn’t help them. But under the Children’s Act, their rights were being breached and those organisations should have been helping them.”
She contacted the children’s commissioner and Glasgow City Council’s chief social worker and the family was accommodated.
But she is concerned that others may be slipping through the net. “There are just not enough people specialising in children’s rights,” she added.
“I spent hours and hours on hold, had people turn me down or say that I was wrong – and that was when I was introducing myself as the director of the Scottish Child Law Centre so I can only imagine how that family would get on. We need to do better by children and their families.”
Selina Hales, founder and director of charity Refuweegee, agreed vulnerable families could fall through the cracks in the system with disastrous consequences. In late October last year she intervened in a case where a mother and her six-year-old – found on the streets in Glasgow city centre by another asylum seeker – struggled to get authorities to help.
The mother had been taken to McDonald’s overnight so she and her child would be safe but the next morning support agencies struggled to find someone to take responsibility for finding her somewhere to stay. She had tried to claim asylum but not yet been granted a screening interview or housing by the Home Office.
Hales said it could take up to ten days for the Home Office to offer accommodation to destitute people in the asylum system, including families in some circumstances.
“In between times there’s a fight between different organisations about who is responsible,” she added.
In this case the local authority social work team finally agreed to fund the family’s accommodation through the local authority on Friday at 4.55pm but Hales was told that as the service was closing, the request would be passed to the out-of-hours team.
The out-of-hours team told her they could not authorise accommodation and said the family had to go to the police station and declare themselves homeless.
Hales said: “I refused to send a black woman with a child to a police station on a Friday night, a place where they take criminals. In the end, Refuweegee put her up in a hotel for the weekend and we took back to social work on Monday.”
The charity has not experienced such an extreme case since. But in recent months it has hosted dozens of people in similar situations, who use the space while they wait to find out if the Home Office or the local authority will fund emergency accommodation.
“Most of the time the agencies figure it out before it gets to crisis point,” Hales added. “But some fall through the gaps and there is no back-up. We forget there are things happening in Scotland that we should be utterly ashamed of.
“It’s traumatising for people to be put in this position utterly confusing for the children. One easy fix would be to make sure the system worked so that they would be eligible for accommodation as soon as they claim asylum, but it feels like this too is part of the hostile environment .”
Jillian McBride, children’s policy officer for Scottish Refugee Council, said the charity was also concerned about the issue.
“There have been increasingly long delays to even register an asylum claim with the Home Office and people are often left destitute,” she said. “We find that our advisers are often involved in protracted negotiations with both the Home Office and local government in order to ensure that families are not left street homeless.
“At times, Scottish Refugee Council and other voluntary sector partners have paid for accommodation from our charitable funds but this is far from satisfactory. Nobody, and certainly no child, should suffer preventable destitution.”
‘Picking up the pieces of a broken system’
Nick Hobbs, head of investigations for the Children and Young People’s Commissioner of Scotland’s office, said the organisation has done lots of work in recent years relating to the impact of the Home Office’s no recourse to public funds policy on children.
In response to the situation of the family forced to sleep in a car – on which the organisation intervened – he added: “The circumstances were horrendous but unfortunately this is not the first time that we’ve seen children and families who are entitled to receive support from local authorities being turned away by frontline services.
“Often there’s a disjunct between policy to support children and families and the access to those services. If you don’t know you have the right to that it can be very hard to challenge those decisions, especially when all of your emotional energy is going into keeping your children fed and warm at night.”
He called for the Home Office to run a more “functional system” and to fund local authorities in “picking up the pieces of a broken system” but added: “The absolute duty is with the Home Office, but where there are problems, the local authority has to step-in.”
Some authorities denied there was an issue. A spokesperson for Glasgow City Council claimed the family with the six-year-old had only found themselves homeless because they had travelled from Manchester and did not know Glasgow.
They added: “Glasgow City Council is absolutely upholding the Home Office guidelines in this area. We do not think this is a systemic issue – it is a complex matter, but there are not families with children who are street homeless.”
But they said it was “difficult” to comment on the family forced to sleep in a car because they had not been identified by The Ferret, adding it provided “accommodation and financial assistance to all families who are assessed as no recourse to public funds (NRPF) and this remains established practice”.
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said that as immigration and asylum is reserved to the UK Government, the Home Office must ultimately take responsibility for providing people seeking asylum with suitable accommodation and support.
They added: “No one should be forced into homelessness or rough sleeping as a result of their immigration status and we are committed to doing everything we can within devolved powers to support people with NRPF or experiencing, homelessness.
“We will continue to engage with local authorities and the third sector to develop a cohesive approach to support those most in need and ensure that no individual falls through the cracks of available support.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “As required by law, we provide asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute with free, fully furnished accommodation, three meals a day and a weekly allowance. This applies from their point of arrival in the UK.
“Strong and important safeguards are in place for local authorities to support vulnerable people without recourse to public funds, such as where there is a risk to the well-being of a child.”
The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland have issued the following statement in response to the UK Government’s Illegal Immigration Bill.