Research: Good practice when working with refugee and asylum-seeking children

Community Care and Community Care Inform examine findings that can be used to support good practice in the field. By academic Dr Ala Sirriyeh

Community Care and Community Care Inform examine findings that can be used to support good practice in the field. By academic Dr Ala Sirriyeh

The United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) defines an unaccompanied refugee or asylum seeking young person as someone who is under the age of 18, is claiming asylum in their own right and who has no adult relative or guardian in the UK to provide care (Home Office 2002). In 2008-9 there were 3,700 unaccompanied minors who were looked after by local authorities in England (DCSF, 2009). Currently the majority of these young people are male (87% in 2008/9), although statistics for the first three quarters of 2010 statistics indicate this balance is changing slightly with an increase in the proportion of young women (Home Office, 2010). Of the 60,900 young people in public care in England, approximately 6% are unaccompanied minors. Most unaccompanied minors are looked after in London and the South East of England; they constitute 17% of looked after young people in London.

A key challenge for local authorities is to provide suitable placements for these young people. Social workers also need to facilitate their access to key services such as education and health services and to support them through the immigration process. Finally, as most unaccompanied minors are over the age of 14, and many are 16-17 year olds, a key task for social workers is also to prepare these young people for transitions to adulthood in the context of the uncertainty of their immigration status.

Studies on the placement of unaccompanied minors indicate that 16-and-17-year olds are most likely to be placed in independent or semi-independent accommodation. This encompasses a range of accommodation options including: supported residential care where key workers are on hand, emergency use of B & B accommodation and supported hostels. The most common form of accommodation provided however, is private rented housing with ‘floating support’ sourced through voluntary or private housing agencies (Wade et al 2005).

Foster care is usually used as a placement for children under the age of 16 (Wade 2005; Chase et al 2008). Hek (2005) writes that where unaccompanied young people have been asked for their views on foster placements they have identified various factors as helping them settle, including:

• A living space that provides safety and support

• A place where their experiences are recognised but they are not pressured to talk about them if they do not want to.

• Somewhere that is appropriate in terms of language, culture and religion.

Hek (2005) notes that unaccompanied minors have expressed mixed views on foster care, but it has been described positively by some young people when it was somewhere they felt ‘liked, valued and cared for’. However, others in foster care felt uncared for, isolated and that they were treated differently. Chase (2008) also found that children described positive experiences of foster care if they had felt a sense of belonging and inclusion in their foster family.

Young people said that they wanted their feelings to be considered, but some did not want to be asked too many questions about their background which made them feel uncomfortable and also highlighted them as being ‘different’. Wade (2005) notes the limited scope for cultural matching and prioritisation of this over other aspects of ‘matching’ such as personality, interests and lifestyle expectations. Overall, most unaccompanied children are placed trans-culturally so there are issues here for fostering teams and social workers to consider in terms of matching, preparation, planning, comfort and belonging.

Young people will have had a range of education experience prior to their arrival in the UK. Some may have regularly attended schools in their countries of origin and received a high standard of education. Others may have had limited education in their countries of origin or interrupted education due to conflict and journeys. Therefore, it is important that once they are in the UK, assessments are conducted that ensure they are placed in a suitable education placement with the appropriate form of support. Wade (2005) found that young people in foster or residential care or living with relatives or friends were more likely to be engaged with education and strong networks of social support. Only 6% of those placed in foster or residential care or with relatives were not engaged in education compared to 32% of those housed in semi-independent accommodation.

Several studies have found that unaccompanied minors have high levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms (around 50% in these samples). When controlling for age, this was lower for young people living with family and for unaccompanied young people living in foster care compared to those living in group homes or independently (Hodes 2008).

Qualitative studies have explored young people’s own accounts and perspectives on their experiences of emotional well-being (Chase 2008). These studies have also emphasised young people’s resilience in overcoming loss and hardship associated with forced migration.

The majority of unaccompanied minors are aged 14 and over when they arrive in the UK, with the largest numbers in the 16-17 year old age group. Therefore, transitions to adulthood and leaving care provisions are a key issue for these young people.

Wade (2005) notes that many young people reach the age of 18 without having received a final decision on their asylum case. Government guidance advises that social workers need to engage in multi-dimensional or parallel planning with young people to help them consider and prepare for different potential outcomes of the asylum process (DCSF 2010). These include:

• Long-term planning to prepare young people for life in the UK if they receive indefinite leave to remain

• Transitional planning to meet young people’s needs while they are in the UK without a longer-term immigration status

• Return planning to prepare young people for return to their country of origin if all appeals are exhausted or they return voluntarily.

Many young people have identified anxieties associated with their immigration cases as being the most difficult aspect of their lives and having negative effects on their mental health (Chase 2008; Hodes 2008). It is therefore also vital that young people receive high quality legal representation and support during this process. However, a number of studies have highlighted young people’s experiences of poor legal advice, poor levels of interpreting and lack of communication on the progress on their cases (Chase 2008).


Social workers and foster carers

• Education needs to be part of a wider comprehensive support package provided to young people. Where young people have strong networks of informal supports they tended to do better in education.

• Young people need support in accessing therapeutic support, although this is not necessarily needed by all young people. Consistent care and support can help promote young people’s resilience and capacity to cope in the context of forced migration.

• Social workers have an important role to play in preparing and supporting young people leaving care using multi-dimensional planning in the context of the uncertainty of young people’s immigration status.

• Young people need support in accessing good quality legal representation for their asylum applications.

Senior managers

• Young people’s feedback on foster care indicate that a broad view of matching is helpful, including the idea of matching according to cultural needs, but also balancing this with other aspects of young people’s identities and needs.

• Ensuring that foster carers and supervising social workers are provided with training on some of the particular issues in working with unaccompanied minors.

References and key texts

Chase, Knight and Statham (2008) The Emotional well-being of young people seeking asylum in the UK, London: BAAF.

Hek (2005) The Experiences and Needs of Refugee and Asylum-Seeking Children in the UK: A Literature Review, London: Department for Education and Skills.

Hodes, Jagdev, Chandra. and Cunniff (2008) ‘Risk and resilience for psychological distress amongst unaccompanied asylum seeking adolescents’, Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(7): 723-732.

Wade, Mitchell and Baylis (2005) Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children: The Response of Social Work Services, London: BAAF.

Brownlees and Smith (2011) Lives in the Balance: The quality of immigration legal advice given to separated children seeking asylum, London: Refugee Council.

Department for Children, Schools and Families (2010) Planning Transition to Adulthood for Looked After Children: Including Guidance on the Amended Children (Leaving Care) (England) Regulations 2001, London: Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Dorling (2009) Seeking Support: A Guide to the Rights and Entitlements of Separated Refugee and Asylum Seeking Children, The Children’s Legal Centre.

Kohli and Mitchell (2007) Working with Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children: Issues for policy and practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Dr Ala Sirriyeh is a research fellow at the Social Policy Research Unit, University of York

This article is published in the 21 April 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline: “Refugee and asylum-seeking children”

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Title Unaccompanied Refugee and Asylum-Seeking Minors in the UK
Author Dr Ala Sirriyeh, research fellow, social policy research unit, University of York

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