The social care needs of refugee and asylum-seeking children

It is estimated that there are more than 120,000 refugee and asylum-seeking children in the UK including 80,000 in UK schools.

The experiences that refugee children and asylum seekers are exposed to increase their vulnerability. These often include horrific experiences in their home countries and during their journey to the UK a fall in living standards and status in society interrupted education, changing care arrangements through the loss of parents or usual carers living with families who do not know their legal and social rights in the UK including rights to basic services such as health and education and speaking little or no English on arrival.

Although refugee and asylum-seeking children have the same entitlements to assessment, protection and support from social services departments as any other child, recent legislation has have asylum-seeking children with less protection than their peers. For example, under the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc) Act 2004, families at the end of the asylum process can have their support withdrawn, leaving children at risk.

Likewise the duty to co-operate and safeguard children under the Children Act 2004 does not apply to immigration officers at ports of entry, immigration removal centres and other key agencies working with asylum-seeking children and families. In addition, there are no national statistics that monitor the assessment outcomes, take-up and support provided by social services departments for asylum-seeking children.


Concerns about social services provision are raised in the Social Care Institute for Excellence’s race equality discussion paper 02: The social care needs of refugees and asylum seekers. For example, councils refer children in families to asylum teams for assessment and support, despite clear assessment procedures for refugee children which identify this as an inappropriate course of action. Some local authorities tell asylum-seeking and refugee families that social services have no responsibility to provide care or support. Others fail to recognise that there is a high degree of mobility, especially in London, which prevents continuity of care.

Unaccompanied children face additional problems. Studies of the experiences of unaccompanied children have found that the quality of care they receive depends more on the council responsible than on individual needs. Separated children aged 16 and 17 are particularly disadvantaged since they are mostly not looked after (that is, placed in local authority care) and they are often categorised – statistically and in terms of needs – with adults. Many live in poor quality accommodation, with insufficient money, and are vulnerable to exploitation. In cases where social services have contracted out care and accommodation to private companies (often outside of their area) young people can be left without adequate support or care.

Generally there is a lack of policies, training and planning for working with unaccompanied children separated from their families in most local authorities. There is also, in some local authorities and among immigration officials, a growing culture of disbelief with respect to the age of unaccompanied minors that can result in under-18s being detained.

Further information
Department of Health White Paper, Our Health, our Care, Our Say: a new direction for community services. 
Refugee Council 
Joseph Rowntree Foundation 


● Monitoring the outcomes for children and families is essential if the social care needs of these groups are to be met. However, groups in need of social care services are likely to be the hardest to reach and so innovative methods will need to be explored.
● The social care needs of refugees and asylum seekers cannot and should not be met by generic teams. Instead, specialist teams and service providers should plan and deliver services that meet the needs of clients who are refugees or asylum seekers. Consulting with refugees and asylum seekers – using translation services where necessary – and receiving their feedback, would be a good first step towards this goal.
● Partnership between the statutory sector, refugee community groups and other voluntary organisations to increase awareness and access to social care, including scope for delivering social care services.
● An end to the system of using welfare, health and social care services as a tool to control immigration, coupled with a firm commitment to meeting the needs of this vulnerable and diverse group of people.
● Practice with unaccompanied children should be firmly based in high-quality children’s services and conducted by professionals experienced in direct work with children and young people: professionals current have a tendency to view them as adults.
● Good communication among all those involved in supporting the child as well as flexible policies to take account of the diverse circumstances of unaccompanied children. This can range from a 16-year-old to a sibling group spanning a wide age range entering local authority care.
● As with any child, a full needs-led assessment should be followed by appropriate support and care packages, which would mean an end to the use of hostel accommodation and vouchers.

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