“I’ve got many friends here, and everyone I talk to says they have no solicitor. It’s the biggest problem my friends are facing as well. It affects me. I feel like my heart is broken for them. I’ve heard a lot about how they struggle with the waiting. They told me, we lost our life. Some of them said we lost our life as soon as we arrive here.”

Faheem arrived in the UK in June 2022. He is 16. He never anticipated that after the long journey to the UK, he’d still be in limbo months later, waiting for a lawyer.

At Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit we represent hundreds of children in the North West with their asylum claims – listening to their experiences, helping them to understand the UK’s asylum system, supporting them to make the best asylum claim they can, and representing them with the Home Office and the courts.

Over the last few years we’ve been documenting the increasing Home Office asylum backlog and how it has affected the children we represent, many of whom are waiting extraordinarily long times to hear whether they have been granted refugee status in the UK.

But Home Office delays are not the only central government failing affecting our children once they arrive here in search of safety.

The immigration legal aid sector is in crisis.

We currently have nearly 350 children on our referrals list, waiting to be allocated to one of our legal representatives. The number of new referrals we receive for children is increasing month on month, and children are waiting on average 124 days between being referred to us and being allocated. Out of necessity, we have taken the decision to prioritise taking on the asylum claims of children who are 17.5 years old and above, because of the risks of turning 18 while still in the asylum system. But this means that children who are referred to us at a younger age – such as  15 or 16 year olds – wait far, far longer. Members of our All4One youth group – unaccompanied young people aged 13-21 who are seeking asylum in the North West – have had to wait ten or eleven months for legal representation. One member has waited two years.

In our history, this situation is utterly unprecedented. Put simply, it is happening because of the erosion of government funding for legal aid. Private firms are leaving legal aid work because it is not considered profitable – a situation that has increased significantly over the last few years – while many not-for-profit advice agencies have folded due to cuts to legal aid and local authority advice contracts. Research has shown that the North West is the region most badly affected by the gap between the need for legal advice and its availability. And the Home Office asylum backlog has combined with this legal aid deficit to create a perfect storm, clogging up capacity for remaining legal aid providers.  We are the largest not for profit provider of immigration advice and representation in the North West, and our caseworkers cannot represent new children while the children they already represent are stuck in the backlog without their asylum claims resolved.

Delays getting a legal representative to guide you through the asylum system, further delays in getting an asylum decision to start planning for your future, and all within the context of new government legislation that threatens you and your friends with detention and deportation – the impact on children has been acute.

Amara arrived in the UK in July 2021, and arrived in Manchester a few days later. But she wasn’t able to get a lawyer until nine months later, in April 2022, and then she waited a further ten months before she was finally granted status in February 2023. “I didn’t know why I had to wait such a long time. It has given me anxiety.” She describes how it felt to wait for so long: “When we wait long, without any response, we feel like we have been forgotten. That’s what I want to show, that’s the feeling that comes. Being forgotten.” It was particularly difficult during the months where she was waiting for a lawyer. “It was better when I got a solicitor because when I was waiting for a long time at least she was updating me.”

So what are we doing about it?

As well as documenting the scale of the problem and raising the impact on our children with local and national decision makers, we have been supporting young people at All4One to raise their voice. And they have – with local MPs and councillors, with national commissions, and with government ministers. We’re also working with local authorities in the North West who look after unaccompanied children seeking asylum as their ‘corporate parents’. Social workers we speak to are vociferous in their condemnation of what is happening. And in the North West our local authorities want to do something different to protect children’s access to legal representation and a fair asylum system.

To increase the capacity of quality legal representation, the North West Local Authorities through the North West Association of Directors of Children’s Services (NWADCS) is funding GMIAU for two years to try and change the legal landscape for unaccompanied children here. In effect, our local authorities have created a legal fighting fund to intentionally try and reduce the length of time children are having to wait to get legal representation for their asylum claims.

With this funding we are looking to recruit a number of Immigration Legal Caseworkers. Find out more about this role and how to apply here.

Like the legal aid crisis itself – this response is unprecedented.

It doesn’t take away from the government’s responsibility to fix the legal aid system through long term, sustainable funding. We must continue to pressure central government to do this. But in the meantime, this local authority funded response in an opportunity to test a new model based on doing what is urgently needed in order to live up to our region’s ambitions for our children.

This initiative cannot, and will not, fix the immigration legal aid crisis facing children in the North West. But for those it is able to support, we know it will be a lifeline, helping children feel held and heard at one of the most vulnerable and precarious times of their lives. And in the same month as the Illegal Migration Act becomes law, ripping up this country’s refugee system and our protections for children seeking asylum, doing something seems vital. This is part of our region’s response: cruelty to children is not in our name.