Painting a play room
They’re decorating the office next to the asylum interview room to make it into a play room.
These words spoken in 2007 by Anne Hubbard, from the Welsh Strategic Migration Partnership, mark the first impact of the childcare campaign for me.
A few weeks earlier Kat Banyard from the Northern Refugee Centre (NRC) had walked into a meeting of the Refugee Women’s Stakeholder Group (RWStG) in London. Kat announced that the key issue for women at NRC was having to take their children into their asylum interviews with them. The members of RWStG, an informal network of more than 50 members interested in the barriers that women asylum seekers faced, took note.
Kat pointed out that women seeking asylum couldn’t find childcare due to costs and lack of informal support networks. This meant that women and their interviewers were distracted during asylum interviews and also that women were unable to disclose their experiences of abuses, including rape and domestic violence, without risking traumatising their children. Kat noted that the lack of childcare impacted disproportionately on women. The solution she offered was onsite creches for children under 5 (older children would be at school). Kat had written this up into a campaign document, Why the Home Office should provide childcare.
The campaign begins
In order to determine the best way to take this issue forward, I approached Matthew Coates, Director of Asylum at the UK Border Agency (UKBA). The UKBA had just decentralised, setting up regional offices. Matthew said this childcare provision was a regional issue and that stakeholders should approach regional directors about it.
So in April 2007, on behalf of the RWStG, I circulated Kat’s document to all RWStG members. The idea was that members would lobby their UKBA regional directors through regional stakeholder forums. It was also anticipated that they would share information and good practice with each other. We publicised this in Women’s Asylum News.
The childcare campaign was born.
At which point Anne phoned and told me that in Cardiff they were already almost there!
What happened next
At this time, the Home Office was very clear that there was no national policy on childcare and it was a matter for individual regional directors to decide.
It would be two years before childcare was provided at another regional office. In early 2009 the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group in Glasgow, a policy influencing group composed of women with experience of the asylum system, alongside the Scottish Refugee Council, persuaded the UKBA in Glasgow to provide childcare.
By then the Welsh Strategic Migration Partnership had produced an evaluation of what was now termed the childcare pilot. This demonstrated that childcare in Cardiff resulted in:
- Shorter interview times as less need to reschedule due to distractions
- Compliance with equality legislation
- Compliance with the EU procedures directive requirement for a personal interview (article 13)
- Better quality disclosures
- Less risk of harm to children either through accidents in the interview room or distress at hearing their mothers’ disclosures
In response to NGOs, the Code of Practice on keeping children safe from harm published by the UKBA in January 2009 included the need to avoid questioning parents in front of their children. It also stated that UKBA staff must ensure that arrangements are in place so that parents are not required to give an account of personal victimisation or humiliation if their children are present. Such arrangements, it stated, might be provision of childcare.
So far, involvement in the campaign had included the Children’s Commissioners, Save the Children, Barnardos, Refugee Council, UNHCR, ILPA and many others.
In May 2009 the UKBA stated that they hoped to roll out the Wales pilot throughout all regions in the coming months.
It would be nearly a decade before this happened.
The Charter of Rights of Women Seeking Asylum
Despite the lack of a national strategy on the part of the Home Office, the growth of childcare provision was slowly building, region by region. In autumn 2009 following pressure by the Refugee Council and partners, childcare was set up in Leeds. This provided a welcome contrast to the Yorkshire UKBA’s initial reaction to a request for childcare two years earlier – which was to laugh! Solihull followed soon after. But London and Liverpool still had no provision.
In March 2011 UK Border Agency News included an article entitled Protecting Vulnerable Children which announced that there was a new facility set up by the North West region following a report by the Independent Chief Inspector. This was an interview room with a glass partition partially separating the applicant from the child/ren who were expected to watch videos on the other side of the partition. It was pleasing that the UKBA was promoting its childcare provision. However this was a new model of childcare and Denise McDowall, Director of the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, fed back:
One of our caseworkers was just talking to a woman who used the ‘childcare facility’ a few weeks ago. She has three children. She said the older one was happy to watch the cartoon in the corner of the room but the younger two kept coming over to her. One of them sat on her knee crying throughout. She said it was chaotic and they had to take lots of breaks.
In 2013 the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group in Glasgow researched childcare provision nationwide. They found that the model of a separate room onsite for children to play, supervised by trained staff, whilst their mother had her asylum interview was the commonest. Having a system where the UKBA automatically booked childcare for single parents’ substantive interviews worked well. The costs of this model could be offset against the costs of late disclosures of evidence, interviews adjourned, the results of wrong decisions being made without the full evidence and the costs of unnecessary appeals.
Using this evidence, Charter members continued to lobby the UKBA to implement childcare in Liverpool (using the preferred model) and London.
Intriguingly the system in Cardiff was deemed so beneficial that a member of UKBA staff recommended the childcare model to the French asylum authorities, OFPRA, in Paris during an official visit in 2013.
The Protection Gap campaign
In developing Asylum Aid’s Protection Gap campaign under the Charter in December 2014, we focused on the anomalies in measures provided to women in different situations. If you were a victim of sexual violence in conflict or in Europe you were expected to have an interview alone. I took this to mean an interview without your children and rolled the childcare campaign into the Protection Gap campaign.
At this stage, as well as the gaps in London and Liverpool, childcare provision in Glasgow and Leeds had been suspended for operational reasons. We seemed to be going backwards. With no overarching policy, there was nothing in place to make the Home Office ensure childcare provision.
As the Protection Gap campaign gained ground, its demands were incorporated into the Home Office plans. And by spring 2016 everything had changed. Instead of focusing on regions developing childcare in an ad hoc fashion, Sarah Rapson, Director General of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) and Gender Champion for the Home Office, wrote that they were putting in place child care facilities in all case work hubs (formerly regions) outside of London and planned to implement a national childcare contract. This work was initiated and undertaken with commitment and persistence by Preeta Ramachandran and Charlotte Petrie from the Home Office who worked on procurement and obtained EU funding for a national childcare project.
National childcare provision – success
The resulting Asylum Childcare Provision Project has been managed by Balwant Biln since October 2017. When we met early in 2018, Balwant told me how he developed a consistent service model including referrals and information provision. He also developed a model for contract procurement which childcare providers. The service is available to single parents with children under 5. By then there was childcare provision in Liverpool. When we met again 6 months later, I narrowly managed not to cheer when Balwant told me he had finally managed to set up childcare provision in London. The jigsaw was complete!
Balwant made this official by announcing to stakeholders at the Equality subgroup meeting in July 2018 that childcare was now available in the 8 hubs where substantive asylum interviews take place across the UK. These are Glasgow, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Solihull, Cardiff, Hounslow and Croydon. 6 hubs have childcare provision on site; 2 use nearby nurseries. Whilst the provision was set up everywhere, Balwant told us there would be delays in London and Leeds whilst childcare staff obtained security clearance.
Of the 156 applicants who had used the service at that time, only two were men and the remainder women.
The project costs £0.5 million of which ¾ is from EU AMIF funding which runs until the end of 2020. After this it is hoped that the Home Office will fund childcare provision as business as usual.
This is the first time that the Home Office has provided childcare nationally so that all single parents of young children have access to childcare during their asylum interviews.
Although provision is in place, average uptake is still low at 35%. It also varies between hubs. Balwant is keen to increase uptake of the childcare provision and has discussed with me how best to do this. At Asylum Aid, we are starting a new project with the refugee women’s groups supporting the Protection Gap campaign. They are planning to develop methods and materials for promoting childcare. Women seeking asylum are more likely to trust information coming from women with lived experience of claiming asylum, than that coming, however well-meaningly, from the Home Office. This should result in an increase in take up.
But the Protection Gap campaign demand about childcare is only half-fulfilled. Earlier this year the Home Office turned down our request for childcare at asylum screening. So there is still campaigning to be done.
According to research, only Belgium amongst the EU member states provided childcare during asylum interviews and this has since been suspended. The UK appears to be the only country that provides childcare nationally, particularly across several hubs.
It has taken over a decade but now there is a system in place so that no woman is faced with having her children present at her asylum interview and with choosing between telling her whole story and traumatising her children.
Looking back, this has been achieved through a strategy of cooperation between a vast number of stakeholders. It has involved the creative inclusion of the issue in a number of consecutive campaigns. It has required focus and persistence.
We extend our congratulations to the many people who have been instrumental in bringing childcare to asylum interviews in the UK, whether as stakeholders or as Home Office staff.
The impact on women asylum seekers is immeasurable.
Debora Singer MBE
Senior Policy Adviser