Special reception needs of vulnerable groups

United Kingdom

Country Report: Special reception needs of vulnerable groups Last updated: 30/05/23


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There is no mechanism laid down by law to identify vulnerable groups or persons with special reception needs, although there is policy that instructs caseworkers to assess whether the asylum seekers have any special medical needs that will affect dispersal.[1] This policy was revised in 2016, adding specific instructions to safeguard the continuity of care for pregnant women.

If the asylum seeker has e.g. a medical report, which already shows that they are vulnerable, or has some other individual assessment showing this, the accommodation provider is required to take their vulnerability into account in providing accommodation.[2] The arrangements for accommodation of children have been described above (see section on Types of Accommodation). Aside from this the law provides no specific measures to address the reception needs of vulnerable groups. A challenge to the provision of unsuitable accommodation to pregnant women and mothers of new-borns is ongoing.[3]

If an asylum seeker discloses a health need during screening (i.e. before dispersal) the Home Office must provide sufficient information to the accommodation provider to ensure that necessary arrangements for dispersal are put in place i.e. appropriate travel, accommodation and location. The accommodation provider is contractually obliged to take an asylum seeker to a General Practitioner within 5 days of dispersal if he or she has a pre-existing condition or is in need of an urgent General Practitioner review.[4]

Whether needs are addressed in fact is variable according to local practice. Initial accommodation centres are run by private companies under contract to the Home Office. The Initial Accommodation includes a healthcare team who offer a basic screening of the health needs of all residents. In practice, unless vulnerability is identified at one of the initial accommodation centres by a healthcare provider, it is unlikely to be identified until the asylum seeker discloses a problem to a voluntary, community or community advice organisation. The provision of suitable accommodation to people with disabilities, in particular the delays in providing such accommodation was found to be unlawful in a case in December 2020.[5]

The Home Office has a ‘protected period’ of eight weeks for women not to be moved for four weeks before and after giving birth.[6] However, the accommodation allocated during this time is in initial accommodation centres, in which conditions are often not conducive to the care of a new baby.[7] The particular difficulties for pregnant women and new mothers were highlighted in both the 2018 Home Affairs Committee report,[8] and the Independent Chief Inspector’s report on the same subject. The government issued an assurance action plan with its response to the latter report.[9] Research from the Asylum Support Appeals Project, Scottish Refugee Council and Refugee Council revealed the lack of attention to women’s safety in asylum support accommodation.[10] The government issued revised guidance to caseworkers in 2019 which included provision for refuge spaces to be funded in cases where that is deemed necessary.[11]

If it comes to light that an asylum seeker has been trafficked, they may be referred to special accommodation run by the Salvation Army where specific support is given and the trafficking case considered. In 2018 the amount of subsistence paid to these individuals was cut to bring it in line with others in the asylum support system. This change was challenged in court and was successful.[12] In January 2019 guidance was issued by the government advising affected victims how to claim backdated payments arising from the unlawful cut.[13]

Reception and care of unaccompanied children

Those who are given the benefit of the doubt and those who are accepted as being under the age of 18 are referred to a local authority social services department which becomes responsible for their care.[14] They should be looked after according to the same standards as other young people in the care of local authorities. There is little practical guidance for social workers on the specific needs of these children, although statutory guidance for England and Wales was reissued in 2017 and contains more practical guidance.[15] The joint safeguarding strategy published in November 2017 identified future work such as resources for professionals, guidance and training.[16] An update of this work in 2019 shows that much is still to be completed.[17] No update has been issued since then.

In practice the experience of these children varies; some make good relationships with their carer and feel fully supported. Some are very confused and frightened, are not treated well, and do not have a named social worker responsible for them. The named social worker is responsible for the implementation of the care plan which details how the child should be looked after through the process. This includes helping them to find a legal representative. Many discharge this function through referral to the Refugee Council’s Independent Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children Support Service (formerly named the Panel of Advisers); funded by the Home Office since 1994 to assist unaccompanied children through the asylum process including finding legal representatives for the children.[18]

Some local authorities, such as those with a port of entry and immigration control within their boundary, have become responsible for a disproportionate number of unaccompanied children, as the responsibility lies with the local authority where the child is first identified. When numbers started to rise in 2015-2016, particularly around the port of Dover, some local authorities, particularly Kent, reported that they were finding it difficult to look after them appropriately and asked other local authorities to offer placements for them. The Immigration Act 2016 included provision for the legal transfer of responsibility from the initial local authority to a second local authority that has volunteered to take over the care. Initially possible only in England; in 2018 the government extended it to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.[19] Funding is provided to local authorities for the care of unaccompanied children and those who have left care but are still the responsibility of the local authority.[20]

The Refugee Children’s Consortium produced a briefing note outlining some of its members’ concerns about the operation of the transfer scheme, particularly focusing on the difficulties children face when their transfer is uncertain or delayed.[21] There had been a drop in the overall numbers transferred since the scheme began; however, the numbers rose in 2020, largely due to the declaration in August that Kent County Council (responsible for children arriving at the port of Dover) had reached their capacity and would not be taking children into its care. Children were transferred directly from the port into local authorities around the country. A report by the Children’s Commissioner for England was critical of the time some children spent at the port awaiting transfer.[22]

The situation continued in 2021, during which time the Refugee Council and others wrote to the Children’s Minister expressing concerns and urging action to resolve the issue[23]. Kent once again announced that it was no longer prepared to take unaccompanied children into its care. The government announced changes to the way the scheme would be run, in July 2021[24] but children were housed in hotels, outside of the local authority care system[25] and the scheme was made mandatory at the end of the year.[26] Further changes were made to the National Transfer Scheme in 2022 relating to the allocation and timings of transfers.[27] However, the use of hotels continued and was the subject of scrutiny by NGOs,[28] parliamentarians[29] and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, whose inspection between March and May 2022 was assisted by Ofsted, which has responsibility for inspection and scrutiny of statutory services for children. The ICIBI report was damning of the principle of this arrangement and of the standard of care provided.[30] The Chief Inspector of Ofsted mentioned this issue in her annual speech to Children’s Services professionals.[31]

1,099 children were transferred in total in 2022. The total number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum children cared for by local authorities in England is published regularly. At the end of March 2022 this figure was 5,570 which is 7% of the total population of children cared for by local authorities in England.[32] An additional 110 are in the care of local authorities in Wales. The governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland do not publish statistics of this kind.

Once appeal rights have been exhausted the care of young people over 18 is often limited to those for whom a withdrawal of support would breach their human rights. This tends to be a more minimal provision than that provided to other young people. Provisions of the Immigration Act 2016 will restrict further the support that local authorities can provide to those over 18 who are appeal rights exhausted but this has not yet been enacted.




[1]  Home Office, Healthcare needs and pregnancy dispersal policy, available at: http://bit.ly/1Vgcw9H.

[2]  Asylum Seeker (Reception Conditions) Regulations SI 2005/7.

[3]  No.5 Barristers Chambers, Permission to apply for Judicial Review granted in systemic challenge to asylum accommodation for pregnant women and new-born mothers (Note on the case of r(DK) by the legal team), 12 January 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/30v95qi

[4]  Ibid, Home Office Asylum Process Guidance.

[5]  AA v Home Office, [2020] EWHC 3416 (Admin), 14 December 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3buURvU.

[6]  Home Office, Healthcare needs and pregnancy dispersal policy, available at: http://bit.ly/1Vgcw9H.

[7]  Home Affairs Select Committee, Asylum accommodation, January 2017.

[8]    Home Affairs Select Committee, Asylum accommodation, December 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2XBNvOh.

[9]  Home Office, Asylum support – Assurance Action Plan, available at: https://bit.ly/2NMOTJt.

[10] Helen Baillot and Elaine Connelly, Women seeking asylum: safe from violence in the UK?, 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2IWFbFi.

[11]  Home Office, Responding to reports of domestic abuse from asylum seekers, 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/36ggBpj.

[12]  High Court, R (K and AM) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2018] EWHC 2951 (Admin), 8 November 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2Fy4WJE.

[13] Home Office, Claim a subsistence rates back payment: victims of modern slavery, 17 January 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2TnE867.

[14]  Home Office, Asylum Policy Instruction: Processing an Asylum Application from a Child.

[15] Department of Education, Statutory guidance for unaccompanied migrant children and victims of modern slavery, November 2017, available at: http://bit.ly/1tZSXZv.

[16]  Government, Joint Safeguarding Strategy, November 2017, available at: http://bit.ly/2mXriMd.

[17] Letter to the Chair of the Education Select Committee, June 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/37Aj8wg.

[18] Refugee Council, ‘Independent Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children Support Service (IUSS), available at: https://bit.ly/3UhqmwL.

[19] The Transfer of Responsibility for Relevant Children (Extension to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) Regulations 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2Ry84vI.

[20]  Home Office, Unaccompanied asylum seeking children and leaving care: funding instructions, October 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2DfgsHn.

[21] Refugee Children’s Consortium 2017, available at: http://bit.ly/2DBT2Nv.

[22] Children’s Commissioner, Detention of unaccompanied children arriving in Kent during 2020, 5 February 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/2OQIPnS.

[23] Refugee Council and others to the Children’s Minister, January 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3FN3KNm.

[24]  Government announcement changes to the NTS, available at: https://bit.ly/3KwfFT3.

[25] Correspondence between the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Home Office on unaccompanied children in hotels, available at: https://bit.ly/3ItWJTn.

[26]  Revised protocol for the NTS, available at: https://bit.ly/33Bj2rn.

[27] Department for Education and Home Office, National Transfer Scheme Protocol for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children – Version 4.0, 5 September 2022, available at: https://bit.ly/3VDxK6K.

[28] ECPAT UK, Outside the frame: Unaccompanied children denied care and protection, available at: https://bit.ly/3N3SQcZ.

[29] Response to a parliamentary question, ‘Asylum: Children’, answered 21 June 2022, available at: https://bit.ly/3GRdH0p and length of stay October 2022.

[30] ICIBI, An inspection of the use of hotels for housing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) – March-May 2022, October 2022, available at: https://bit.ly/3XE9vHb.

[31] Transcript available at: https://bit.ly/3VCzCfK.

[32] Department for Education, Statistics, available at: https://bit.ly/3FakqkE.

Table of contents

  • Statistics
  • Overview of the legal framework
  • Overview of the main changes since the previous report update
  • Asylum Procedure
  • Reception Conditions
  • Detention of Asylum Seekers
  • Content of International Protection