The care of unaccompanied minors is the statutory responsibility of the health boards and my Department has no role whatsoever in this regard. In the Eastern Regional Health Authority Area, the East Coast Area Health Board, ECAHB, carries out this function for the three local area health boards.
The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2003, which was commenced on 27 May 2003, restricts the awarding of a rent supplement to asylum-seekers. Guidance issued to health boards by the Department of Social and Family Affairs — SWA Circular No. 02/03 — stipulates that, where unaccompanied minor asylum-seekers reach 18 years of age and are discharged from the care of a health board, they should be offered placement in adult direct provision accommodation.
Arising from this, when unaccompanied minors reach 18 years of age and are discharged by the health boards from their care, they are provided with direct provision accommodation by the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, which operates under the aegis of my Department.
It should be noted, however, that a health board, in line with the provisions of social welfare legislation, may exercise discretion and retain persons in its accommodation who have attained 18 years of age where there is a determination that the individual is vulnerable or does not have a sufficient level of maturity to be accommodated in an adult facility.
To date, the RIA has arranged placements for approximately 150 former unaccompanied minors in direct provision accommodation at the request of the ECAHB. In addition, the RIA has also arranged a small number of placements in such accommodation in the Cork city area at the request of the Southern Health Board.
The RIA, in consultation with the dedicated social work team of the ECAHB working with unaccompanied minors, has made a major effort to ensure that former unaccompanied minors who are second level students are facilitated in continuing to attend school by effecting placements close to their previous health board accommodation.
During the February mid-term break, a senior official from the RIA attended meetings with former unaccompanied minors who had been relocated to direct provision accommodation to discuss what further initiatives could be put in place to facilitate their continuance in education. Arising from this, the RIA has facilitated the establishment of a group comprising representatives of VECs, partnership groups, refugee support groups, health boards and my Department. This group has met on a number of occasions and has agreed on the provision of enhanced transitional supports for unaccompanied minors who are subsequently relocated to direct provision.
In addition, study facilities are being enhanced in direct provision centres. It is also intended to improve tutor supports for leaving certificate students where former unaccompanied minors are placed. In the context of transitional supports, the Northern Area Health Board which has responsibility for the administration of supplementary welfare allowance payments to all asylum-seekers in the eastern region, will ensure that all leaving certificate students in direct provision receive appropriate SWA payments. In addition, every full-time student is being advised to avail of their entitlement to child benefit until they reach 19 years of age.
Further referrals of former unaccompanied minors are due to take place over the coming months and I am informed by the RIA that they have agreed with the ECAHB to defer referrals of examination students until the State examinations have been completed in late June 2004.