The Scottish Government has been keen to support the increasing numbers of children seeking asylum without parents or legal guardians. Frightened teenagers - as young as 14 and some the victims of trafficking - arrive from countries such as Afghanistan, Nigeria and Iran, not knowing who they can trust. Local authorities have a duty of care but sometimes have neither the expertise nor resources to meet the needs of these vulnerable newcomers.
Receptive to Scottish Refugee Council's (SRC) calls for action, politicians agreed to back the creation of the Scottish Guardianship Service after hearing of the issues first-hand.
"We organised a group of young people to talk directly to the Government about the problems they face not just around immigration but with all aspects of their integration," says SRC's Clare Tudor.
The pilot Scottish Guardianship Service - also supported by PHF and the Big Lottery Fund - was set up by SRC in September 2010 to run for 30 months. In partnership with the children's charity, Aberlour, the service allocates all unaccompanied asylum-seekers with a guardian who supports them through the immigration process and offers advice on welfare and wellbeing issues.
One child, quoted in the first annual assessment of the pilot, said: "I am shy and really scared. We don't know nobody because it is first time. She [the guardian] explained to me her job and after a couple of meetings I began to understand how she help me."
"We make this very complicated, legalistic process as smooth and as child-friendly as possible," says Clare. "If the agencies need to be challenged over their provision, then the guardians will do that. The young people actively partake, at their own pace, and always know what is happening."
A parallel PHF grant has been awarded to the Glasgow-based Legal Services Agency (LSA), which is supporting the Guardianship Service.
"We had already set up a women and children's section within the agency which primarily deals with issues around gender-based violence," says LSA solicitor, Kirsty Thomson. "But the Guardianship Service identified a gap in the provision of legal advice addressing the more complex needs of the children it was assisting, and some serious concerns that we couldn't ignore."
The LSA has taken on specific cases that test existing law and challenge statutory agencies dealing with unaccompanied children. "We took on a complicated case involving the age assessment of two boys as a piece of strategic litigation," says Kirsty. "It highlighted our need for external help and funding - we just didn't have the capacity to work in such depth on issues specifically affecting migrant young people within the existing department. Our PHF grant has now allowed us to set up a new project specifically giving legal advice to migrant young people, which dovetails perfectly with the Guardianship Service."
One issue that both Kirsty and Clare pick up on is the fact that the Guardianship Service identified several young people who were under the radar and outside of the major Scottish cities. Several of these cases involved young people who had been detained despite potentially being the victims of trafficking. Whilst the guardians could offer advocacy support, they were aware that the young people required high-quality specialist legal advice and were able to refer the young people on to the Legal Services Agency's dedicated project.
Now working more closely together, SRC and LSA both benefit from this joint approach. "We feel that together we are a formidable team, strongly advocating for the rights of separated children and for a greater understanding of their needs," says Clare.