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ECPAT UK welcomes end of 'gentleman's agreement' to return trafficked children to France

17 January 2012

ECPAT UK was shocked and saddened to learn that children who had been trafficked into the UK for exploitation were sent immediately back to France due to a secret ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that had been in place for at least 16 years.

The Landing in Dover report from Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England & Wales, discovered that unaccompanied children arriving into Kent were returned to France if they did not apply for asylum straightaway. This was despite the fact that many of the children were often ill, hungry, tired and traumatised – a clear breach of the safeguarding measures imposed by the United Nations Rights of the Child legislation and government safeguarding guidance.

Of particular concern were the cases of seven Vietnamese children, trafficked into the UK in 2010 to be exploited in cannabis factories, who were sent back to France. According to the Guardian, Kent Social Services claim to have known nothing of these children.

As a result of the commissioner’s investigation, ECPAT UK is pleased to learn that this practice has been stopped with immediate effect by the new chief executive of the UK Border Agency (UKBA).

Landing in Dover identified several other unacceptable practices that take place when unaccompanied children arrive at the docks in Dover or through the Channel Tunnel (during its investigation in 2011), for instance:

-    Despite legislation and government policy stating that children should be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate time, children are often detained for several hours before local authority care is notified of their arrival, and are then subjected to lengthy interviews that have bearing on their asylum status
-    Staff are given ‘considerable discretion’ to continue with interviews, even where children are claiming to be tired, ill or ask to see a doctor
-    It is unclear whether children are asked if they wish to exercise their right to have a legal representative present at their initial examination interview and subsequent interviews – despite the fact these interviews can be relied upon by UKBA in its decision on asylum. Children are also in practice, often unable to have an independent Responsible Adult present
-    Telephone interpreting is used at interviews with children and is not ‘fit for purpose’, according to the Children’s Commissioner
-    Even in the absence of a legal representative or independent adult, children are required to sign their screening interview records, confirm its contents and confirm they have understood legal warnings and instructions – often records that children signed were not read back to them to check accuracy

ECPAT UK welcomes Atkinson’s many recommendations in light of the findings of this investigation, principally:

-    Further training for staff to know when it is not appropriate to interview children
-    Interviewing being postponed until the child has had time to recover and time to appoint a legal representative
-    Ending the ‘excessive periods of detention’ for some unaccompanied children
-    Not using telephone interpreting for interviews that will lead to asylum decisions
-    Children being accompanied by a responsible adult when interviewed

Christine Beddoe, Director of ECPAT UK, said: “The UK is obliged under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to give children full enjoyment of their rights, to treat children with humanity and respect, and to let them have their voices heard. All decisions made about them must be with their ‘best interests’ in mind.

“ECPAT UK is pleased that UKBA in Kent has finally moved to ban the abhorrent practice of sending unaccompanied children who do not register a claim back to France and is now facing up to its responsibilities under UK and international legislation to safeguard and protect all children on its shores.

“We welcome the recommendations of Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England & Wales, and urge UKBA and Kent County Council to accept these changes swiftly in order to give the vulnerable and often traumatised children the protection that they require and are entitled to. What is imperative is that all ports and entries into the UK learn from these mistakes and incorporate these into current practice.

Additionally, ECPAT UK welcomes the Children’s Commissioner’s recognition of the need for a system of guardianship for child victims of trafficking and other unaccompanied children. Atkinson stated: “I will continue to advocate for the appointment of legal guardians for all children who arrive without anyone having parental responsibility for them. Many countries in Europe already appoint guardians in recognition that decision making in children’s best interests should at least be informed by someone in the role of the child’s parent.”

PRESS CONTACT
Christine Beddoe, Director, ECPAT UK
Tel: 07906 341 889 or 0207 233 9887

Information for editors:
-     ECPAT UK is a leading UK children’s rights organisation that exists to end the exploitation of children. We focus on protecting children from both trafficking and exploitation in tourism. This is done by campaigning, providing training, and working with other NGOs and professionals from around the world. We also work directly with child victims of both sexual and labour exploitation by helping them recover and giving them a voice to speak out

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