The huge influx of lone children arriving from Afghanistan and Iran poses new challenges for both immigration and social services.
One pressing issue is a near-total absence of Iranian and Afghani foster families, according to Steve Liddicott, one of the asylum leads at the Association of Directors of Social Services.
Over 1415 Afghan children have applied for asylum in Britain since 2003, latest Home Office figures reveal.
Arrivals from Iran have been even more dramatic – a total of 960 children have fled the regime in the same period, marking a six-fold increase.
The numbers of children from Iran have increased steeply since ultra-conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was voted in last June.
His regime is cracking down on young dissenters, according to Diana Nammi, chair of the London based Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Association.
Fleeing violent regime
“These are young women and men fleeing a violent regime. Some will have been imprisoned and beaten or abused because they have protested against the government.
“Other teenage girls will have been threatened with their lives for having sex outside marriage. They don’t see any future in Iran – they are in fear of their lives,” she said.
Providing a stable home and support network for unaccompanied asylum seeking children once they arrive in Britain is vital – but difficult without suitable foster families.
Authorities are more likely to be successful in placing a child with a family who share the same religion, said Liddicott, who is director of children’s services at Croydon Council.
Ensuring children are linked up with their contemporaries can help, said Mark Pomell, Westminster Council’s fostering services manager.
Dearth of foster families
He is addressing the dearth of foster families from countries the children are fleeing from by building up a pool of foster families with experience caring for unaccompanied asylum seeking children, to be launched next month.
Although the risk of isolation increases if a child is unable to speak their own language at home, making placements within their own communities can be problematic.
Like children from other countries riven by political divides, children from Afghanistan and Iran can be in fear of their compatriots, points out Shiela Melzak, psychotherapist at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.
“Though in theory links with their culture and community is desirable, they can be very frightened of the repercussions if they make themselves known.”
Children may well feel betrayed by adults in their own country for having failed to protect them, and be already suspicious of authority as they arrive here.
But when immigration officials contest a child’s age, that distrust is likely to shoot up.
For the first time, the Home Office has released the number of cases it is disputing, and applications from Iran and Afghanistan top the list.
Of the 2,425 applications disputed in last year alone, 590 were Iranian and 475 were from Afghanistan.
These numbers tally with an increase in overall arrivals from these countries.
But as Judith Dennis, policy adviser for unaccompanied children at the Refugee Council points out, ethnic differences and experience of trauma can mean children will appear physically and psychologically older than their age.
What the Home Office has not revealed is the number of times the immigration officials were subsequently proved wrong in their assessments.
Recognising the harm that disbelief can cause is vital if trust is to be rebuilt, according to Dennis.
“These children are required to say what’s happened to them right from the start. When they are not believed, they feel betrayed.
“A traumatised child is unlikely to open up and tell their story straight away. That is extremely well established in social care.
“But it not been translated into the asylum process. It is something that we need to see happen.”