Former Children's Minister Sarah Teather writes for PoliticsHome about launching a new inquiry into asylum support offered to families.
Over the years as a London MP, I have met many hundreds of families who have journeyed across the world to our shores to seek protection from violence, war persecution and torture. Usually the only thing they managed to salvage from the ruins of their life was their children.
But for many, the initial relief of arriving here safely quickly gave way to anxiety, uncertainty, isolation and poverty. Poverty that cripples not just the here and now, but that stifles the future of their children’s lives.
This week, I launched an inquiry into the Home Office’s system of asylum support for families. Together with a panel of cross-party MPs and peers, and support from The Children’s Society, I will be gathering evidence to increase the understanding of how asylum support affects children and young people’s welfare.
While a Children’s Minister, I became increasingly concerned by reports that many thousands of the children and young people who are caught up in the asylum system, are being forced to grow up in severe poverty. This inquiry will allow us to take a look at the current system in a transparent and open way. And most importantly, to listen to children and young people, to understand what it is like for them, first hand.
If you have never had a conversation with a young asylum seeker about their life, I recommend it. The countries from which they have fled reads like a roll call of some of the world’s most notorious regimes: Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea.
But if the story of their past trauma and arduous journey were not enough, it is the story of their struggle here, in our country, that always makes me more uncomfortable.
There are all the obvious challenges of new language and culture. And of arriving with nothing, destitute, cut off from relatives, friends and familiar support structures.
But then there is the battle with the complex Home Office decision making structure, and the battle to make ends meet while waiting.
Asylum seekers cannot work, but neither can they access key mainstream benefits like income support, child benefit or disability living allowance.
Instead they get support from the Home Office designed to meet “essential living needs”. But children need more than just the basics. They need a nutritious diet so they can develop and be healthy. They need ways to participate in society, develop socially and learn new skills just like any other child, such as by reading books and taking part in school trips. And disabled children need extra support.
The levels of financial support for these families vary, but in some cases they receive half of what an equivalent British family would get. As a result, many are living in severe poverty.
Some children spend many years on this type of support while their parents’ asylum claim is being considered or because they are unable to leave the UK through no fault of their own. Such prolonged periods of poverty can have a lasting effect on children’s development and the opportunity they have throughout their lives.
This inquiry is a chance to look at these issues through children’s eyes and to hear about their experiences. I also want to hear from experts, practitioners,government agencies and anyone else who works with children and young people.
As a country we are committed to ensuring that every child has a right to a standard of living adequate for their physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.
The Government has a responsibility to ensure this is possible for all children, regardless of their race, religion or immigration status.
Former Children’s Minister Sarah Teather MP has launched a cross-party inquiry into how the asylum support system meets children and young people’s needs. The deadline for evidence submissions is Friday 7 December 2012. Oral evidence sessions will be held at the House of Commons on Tuesday 20 and 27 November 2012, from 10am to 12pm. Please contact Nadine Ibbetson on firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.