Although there is currently considerable interest from service
providers, the media and academia about the plight of refugee
children in Britain, little attempt has been made to understand the
problem from the perspective of the children themselves.
While interviewing refugee children for a research project
concerning how they find a sense of identity, I concluded each
interview with the question “Is there anything you would like to
ask me?” I was astonished by the answers I received, several of
which were on the lines of “why don’t they teach us English?” and
“why don’t they help us understand?”. Most of the children in my
research sample had very clear ideas about why they had come to
live in the UK, clearly thought out ambitions for their new life
here and a sense of frustration about the difficulties they had
encountered. During my research, a pattern emerged of how the
children saw the stepping stones to their new life in Britain:
first a settled home, then English classes and an education.
Further exploration of the educational background of the African
children in my sample revealed that most of them came from a
Koranic educational tradition, where learning by rote is the norm.
Plunged into a busy London comprehensive school where, for many,
the sole language instruction was to have an interpreter sitting
behind them in some lessons simultaneously translating the
teacher’s words, left children frustrated.
What they told me they wanted was a traditional language class,
with rote learning of a basic English vocabulary, to enable them to
begin to communicate effectively in their daily lives.
As it has so far been left to individual schools to tackle the
teaching of English as a foreign language, the English tuition
offered is obviously geared to meeting the educational needs of
children. The need for refugee children to quickly grasp the
vocabulary necessary for socialising with peers and for negotiating
with officialdom are being ignored. Under the Nationality, Asylum
and Immigration Act 2000 children sent with their families to
large, rurally located accommodation centres will not be allowed to
attend local schools, so their capacity to teach themselves English
as they are now largely left to do will be greatly reduced and
there is little evidence to assume that their families have the
language skills or resources necessary to ensure the children are
able to learn the English they need.
The issue of meeting the needs of refugees of course is not
confined to children’s language needs. In Britain there are
refugees from many different ethnic groups and communities each
with their own cultural, social, educational and medical needs. It
will only be through the acquisition of specialist cultural
knowledge, with the involvement of refugees in the planning of
services, that local services will be able to effectively meet the
needs of this marginalised section of society.
Recently I watched a harassed duty officer come into a busy waiting
room, call out a name, and as a man stood up, followed hesitantly
by a woman with a baby, the duty officer said: “Yes, yes, bring
your family,” as he turned and walked into an interview room. About
thirty people all stood up and followed him, and I wondered quite
how aware he was of differing family structures.
Although much has been written about the vulnerability of refugee
children, all but the most traumatised appear to have clear
opinions on why they are in the UK and how they expected their life
here to be.
My sample group expressed frustration about the weather, racism and
how long it takes to find a permanent home “always moving, always
change”, but language skills, or the lack of them, was the biggest
frustration. The positives for them were: living in a peaceful
country, free schools, playing football and availability of
The lack of language skills contributes to the vulnerability of
refugee children. Without them they are at best completely
dependent on the adults in their family or household to interpret
for them. Through the acquisition of appropriate language skills,
refugee children can reduce the vulnerability of their situation,
by enabling them to communicate effectively with others and so to
form protective relationships.
If one compares the experiences of isolated refugee children such
as Victoria Climbi’ with that of two of the Somalian girls I
interviewed, the protective factor of language skills becomes
obvious. The Somalian girls were fortunate to live in a local
authority which offered a language service based at a tuition
centre. This service was sensitive to the girls’ parents
stipulation that, as strict Muslims, they should not be
unchaperoned in male company. The female language assistants were a
source of considerable advice, support and comfort to these
The cultural background of some of the Somalian refugee girls
included arranged marriage and female circumcision, and without
language skills their inability to form trusting relationships with
adults, such as form teachers, greatly increased their
vulnerability. The confiding relationships formed within their
language tuition set and the scope for extending those
relationships to include language interpretation and advocacy, were
exploited with relief by the girls’ school, which had a strong
tradition of pastoral care. By contrast Victoria Climbi’ had no one
in whom she could confide, her needs were neglected by many
professionals, and her lack of English language skills contributed
to the vulnerability of her position.
If language tuition were to take place in localised multi-agency
child refugee centres, where health, education, social service and
voluntary agencies were represented, then the refugee children
attending these centres would be able to have their needs addressed
in a consistent and culturally appropriate manner. If these
proposed centres were appropriately located, they could be a source
of information and referral for local agencies, avoiding the need
for the duplication of highly specialist knowledge.
The way in which refugee children are cared for in this country
exacerbates the difficulties of their situation. The lack of
English language competency militates against children being able
to form the confiding, trusting relationships that are an intrinsic
part of the child protection system in this country. Other factors,
such as an unsettled status, militate against refugee children
being able to contribute to a local community. The present ad hoc
system allows vulnerable children such as Victoria Climbi’, to be
exploited, neglected and abused.
Refugee children are a distinct social group who have, in the main,
clear ideas about how they wish to be treated. Refugee children
have the ability to become part of the solution to their problems,
and we as professionals working with children and young people
should be facilitating this.
Annabel Goodyer is course leader in social work at Brunel
University working with children and young people.
Summary of research
The research was a small-scale, qualitative project carried out in
south London. The research question was “How do refugee children
find a sense of identity?”
I interviewed seven children, from three different schools, and
obtained data on two others who were deemed by their teachers as
not suitable for interviewing directly. I asked a series of open
questions, with some prompting/clarifying questions. The children
were aged from nine years to 15 years, most came from Africa, with
one from Serbia.
Although I was interested primarily in how children made sense of a
sudden move to an alien culture, and the effects of this on their
development and identity, the data I collected through open
questioning reflected the strong sense of frustration experienced
by refugee children.