How research on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children should inform practice and placement type

Many young asylum-seekers from Afghanistan display symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder but this could be combated by more ongoing support, including through foster care placements, says Stephanie Dobrowolski, a PhD research student at the University of Oxford.

Picture credit: Sipa Press/Rex Features

Latest research findings
Children from Afghanistan represent the largest group of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the UK. They have experienced war-related trauma in their home country and various dangers in their journeys to the UK. Challenges continue upon arrival, as these children must cope with the stresses of living in a new country and with a new language, all without the support of their parents.

Because of their past experiences and ongoing difficulties, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are considered at high risk for psychological distress, including sleep disturbances, attention and concentration difficulties, and flashbacks of previously experienced trauma. Estimates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) vary across past studies, ranging from 19–54% across diverse groups of children seeking asylum in different countries.

Although children from Afghanistan comprise about half of all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the UK, very little is known about their mental health status or the type of placement in which they are most likely to do well.

A recently published study found that about one-third of asylum-seeking Afghan children who arrive in the UK without their parents are likely to experience symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Working closely with the UK Border Agency and a local authority in London, researchers from the University of Oxford collected information from 222 Afghan boys and young men, aged 13 to 18*. They completed validated questionnaires concerning symptoms of post-traumatic stress, including sleep disturbances, attention and concentration difficulties, and flashbacks of previously experienced trauma.

The proportion of Afghans in this group likely to experience post-traumatic stress is similar to that uncovered by other research on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children living in other countries. It is notably higher, however, than rates in the general population, highlighting that this is an especially vulnerable group of children accessing services in the UK.

The impact on practice
Of particular relevance to social work practice, the study found that children who were living in foster care placements were less likely to report symptoms of post-traumatic stress compared to those living in shared accommodation with other unaccompanied asylum-seekers or refugees. The suggestion is that children who were living in foster care received more ongoing support compared to those in more independent living arrangements.

The finding is relevant for both policy and practice, as policy implementation needs to be better aligned with the needs of practice delivery. Although placement patterns often correspond with age, it is important to be aware of the support required by these children given their past experiences and ongoing challenges. In situations when the desired placement is not possible, consideration should be given to the types of services and supports that can be put in place to try to minimise symptoms of post-traumatic stress and promote healthier long-term outcomes for these children.

Questions for practice

  • What aspects of foster care placements are most likely acting as protective supports for these children?
  • What can be done to better support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children living in semi-independent placements who do not benefit from the higher levels of support provided in foster care?
  • Although about a third of these children reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress, approximately two-thirds did not. What services and supports are likely playing a role in promoting resilience in this group of vulnerable children?

References and further reading

Inform subscribers: Research review – Unaccompanied refugee and asylum seeking children and young people in the UK by Dr Ala Sirriyeh, research fellow, Children and Young People’s Social Work Team, Social Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of York

Bronstein, I., Montgomery, P., & Dobrowolski, S. (2012), ‘PTSD in Asylum-Seeking Male Adolescents From Afghanistan’, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 25(5), p551-557

Bronstein, I., & Montgomery, P. (2011), ‘Psychological distress in refugee children: A systematic review’, Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 14, p44–56

Panter-Brick, C., Eggerman, M., Gonzalez, V., & Safdar, S. (2009), ‘Violence, suffering, and mental health in Afghanistan: A school-based survey’, The Lancet, 374, p807–816

Wade, J., Mitchell, F., & Baylis, G. (2005), Unaccompanied asylum seeking children: The response of social work services, London, England: BAAF

*Due to the cultural background, very few Afghan girls are sent by their families to seek asylum in the UK, which is why no female participants could be included in the study.

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