She was a mature 16 and could be taken for an adult. Indeed it was with the words of an adult that she expressed the fears, anxiety, and stress she felt when she came to UK at the age of 11 as an asylum seeker from Pakistan. Fears, as she was not treated with consideration; anxiety, as she didn’t understand the language; and stress, as she had to be responsible for her physically disabled mother in running the household over the first years in the UK. Speaking in front of MPs and a peer in a committee room in the House of Commons earlier this month, she was nervous and hesitant, but as the gentle questioning and respectful comments continued she visibly grew in confidence.
The occasion was the Inquiry into Asylum Support for Children and Young People, an independent panel of MPs and peers (with the support of the Children’s Society) examining whether the current asylum support system meets the needs of children and young people. Much of her questioning covered health issues, since her mother had a disability and she as the only other family member became responsible for running the household and dealing with the slow bureaucracy of the UK Border Agency. Among the litany of difficulties she faced were the two medical reports which were lost by the BA; the three medical practices who turned down her and her mother as patients owing to their asylum seeker status; and the many times when she (now confident in English) was asked to interpret when her mother was questioned about intimate family and mental health history. As a paediatrician I do not consider this acceptable practice. There is also no justification for refusing treatment to asylum seekers.
The panel was shocked, and asked her what was the most important thing in the system she would like to change. She asserted—to be treated like the child that she was.
This expression of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was also the subject of my own testimony on poverty and child health. Currently poor children in the UK—and most asylum seeker children fall into this category—suffer from higher death rates from preventable conditions, from more disability, more infectious disease, poorer nutrition and more mental health problems than children who are not poor. Yet under the UNCRC children have a right to an adequate standard of living, to good health and healthcare,  and to special protection if seeking refugee status.
The committee took all these issues seriously and we can but hope that their report will be effective in improving the lives of children and their families seeking asylum in the UK.
1. States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child. (Article 6)
States Parties recognize the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health. States Parties shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health care services. (Article 24)
Tony Waterston is a paediatrician in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, working mainly in the community with long term conditions, disability, child abuse and social and mental health concerns. His interests are in child public health, children’s rights and global child health and he leads the RCPCH teaching programme in the occupied Palestinian territories.