The latest report from the research, ‘Lives on Hold: Our Stories Told’, led by the University of Liverpool School of Law, has found significant, systemic Home Office delays in the asylum process which are having a devastating and destructive impact on unaccompanied children and young people seeking asylum.
The research involved in-depth interviews with 69 young people (aged 16-25), over 80% of whom had arrived in the UK as children, interviews with over 50 legal and social care practitioners and in-depth analysis of law and policy. The research revealed that delays were significant for almost all young people interviewed, with little evidence of any efforts to mitigate delays which are known to be particularly harmful to younger people. This means that the majority of children who claim asylum in the UK ‘age out’ (turn 18) before they receive an initial decision.
The report ‘The violent impacts of delays on unaccompanied asylum seekers’ paints a complex and disturbing picture of where and why delay is occurring in the system and of its effects. Official statistics cited in the report show that lone child asylum seekers are facing a fivefold increase in waiting times to process their asylum claims, with some children waiting up to 3 or 4 years for an initial decision.
Powerful accounts of unaccompanied children and young people seeking asylum, and those that work with them, reveal that many children are at serious risk of suicide, self-harm, anxiety and depression as a result of being left in limbo about their future for so long.
One of the children interviewed for the report, Albana, now an adult but who arrived in the UK as a child, shared: “…I haven’t had my big interview yet. It will be two years in August, so that’s a huge wait. We were told we were going to wait six to nine months which is normal, or even a year, the maximum, but now it’s been two years and there’s this big cloud of instability around it…”
Highlighting the psychological impact of delays on these children, Artan, now aged 18, reflected: “That was a very, very dark period of my life… I was thinking I should go underground, but what is that going to do to me? I’m going to live my life in fear again”.
These thoughts are echoed by Iliri, now aged 18, “I feel so unstable and insecure and, you constantly keep thinking. And if you contact your lawyer and she tells you nothing, you can’t do anything about it. You just keep thinking about it all day, all night. Not hearing back… is such a scary experience and so intimidating… It’s just too much sometimes.”
The research highlighted that long delays in the asylum process keep young people in a perpetual state of uncertainty, with stories from some young people resembling accounts of those who have suffered from torture and psychological abuse.
The report points to a range of UK and international legal provisions and guidance that emphasise the importance of avoiding delay, particularly in children’s cases. Moreover, the European Court of Human Rights has recognised that ineffective asylum processes, that fail to take into account or exacerbate the vulnerabilities of asylum seekers, can constitute torture or inhumane and degrading treatment which is prohibited under Article 3 ECHR.
It continues: “Irrespective of its multiple causes, sites and consequences, it is indisputable that any delay in asylum processes is a breach of the law and, as far as unaccompanied young people seeking asylum are concerned, a breach of basic human rights obligations by which the UK is bound under international law.”
Researchers call for specific measures to expedite asylum processes for children and young people in the asylum system in line with other legal processes, which places their best interests and wellbeing at the centre of all decisions and prioritises prompt decision-making for children.
Professor Helen Stalford, lead author of the report said: “Unlike other areas of the justice process, there is no routine, expedited procedure for unaccompanied children seeking asylum despite the known, acute effects of delay on their welfare and legal status. It’s simply not good enough.”
“Our research has highlighted that we urgently need a systems-wide approach to reform that acknowledges and accommodates the specific needs and vulnerabilities of unaccompanied young people seeking asylum, including mental health support and enhanced communication about the system to help these children and young people cope with the consequences of delay”
Prof Stalford continued: “It’s paramount that action is taken to stop these devastating effects of delays on children who have fled to the UK for sanctuary.”
The LOHST project is co-ordinated by the University of Liverpool, University College London, University of Nottingham, University of Southampton and Shpresa.