Children – cut adrift

“Legislation has created the impression that there are two
categories: native born and non-native born, and the latter have no
legal protection.” That’s the view of one asylum team leader in the
north of England. In a pilot study of local authorities to map the
issues in providing for unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people,
we talked to workers from around the country, and found wide
variations in how they provided for this group. Many social workers
were disturbed that large numbers of these vulnerable young people,
here without parents or family to care for them, did not receive
the services that are the right of UK-born children.

The study found deeply committed social workers struggling uphill
within a system not resourced to deal adequately with the needs of
these children. Three years ago the Audit Commission noted that
many unaccompanied children had “multiple needs because of their
experiences of separation, loss and social
dislocation”.1 Yet many of the 16-18 year old young
people who, under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of
the Child, have the right to “special protection and help”, do not
obtain a full needs assessment under section 17 of the Children Act
1989. Although section 20 of the act clearly places a duty on local
authorities to provide accommodation where there is no one with
parental responsibility, large numbers of 16-18 year olds are not
accommodated, leaving them unsupported with no one to advise,
assist or befriend them during the transition to independence.
About 20 per cent of councils still reported placing the majority
of their under-16s in hostel or B&B accommodation. One Midlands
team adds: “We have our own separate housing scheme which uses
private rented accommodation and people are in it for the money. We
pay pared to the bone and they give pared to the bone
accommodationÉ there’s no security of tenureÉ and they
keep the heating cut to the bone.”

Social workers told us of their concerns for children who come into
the country with an adult who tells immigration officials that he
or she is willing to accept responsibility for him. In this
scenario, the “family” then falls within the arrangements operated
by the National Asylum Support Service and is unlikely to receive
further services. The worry here echoes concerns stemming from the
Victoria Climbi’ Report into private fostering arrangements. In
these cases, one wonders whether it would be better for Nass to
notify local social services departments when such “family units”
have been dispersed to their areas to ensure that some assessment
is made of the responsible adult’s suitability or ability to

The vulnerable group of unaccompanied young people, many of whom
have witnessed or been party to traumatic events, is also perceived
by those in the field as being at greater risk of “significant
harm” than their UK-born counterparts.

Local authority service providers told us about the risks they felt
the children were exposed to.

  • 67 per cent of teams thought they were more at risk of poor
  • 65 per cent of teams thought they were more at risk of
  • 77 per cent of teams thought they were more at risk of sexual
  • 94 per cent of teams thought them more at risk from work

Despite the extraordinary vulnerability of these children and
their particular cultural, educational, language and parenting
support needs, the pilot study found that none of the teams working
with more than 100 unaccompanied children felt that they had
received adequate training.

Social workers also told us of their concerns for children they did
not know about. Worryingly, 26 per cent of councils thought that
there were “a lot of unidentified unaccompanied children” in their
areas. Some of these might be out-of-authority placements, but
isolated from local mainstream provision; others may be young
people aged 16-18 who have been given leave to remain, and who are
no longer seen as the responsibility of local authorities. At a
time when the average age for leaving home is 24, some workers were
concerned about whether it was acceptable to leave these young
people unsupported.

One Birmingham social worker noted that “many of these children are
highly motivated to get into education” and yet finding suitable
education was often hard to achieve.

  • 40 per cent of teams found children under 16 hard to place in
  • One-third found it hard to get English language support in the
    first three months.
  • 40 per cent of teams thought 16-18 year olds with special needs
    fared worse than their UK-born counterparts.
  • Those in the 15-18 age group were often not offered school
    places, and college and English tuition for them was patchy.

Social workers are alert to the special difficulties of the
unaccompanied young person. They know from their work with the
looked-after population that children and young people do better
within a framework of consistent care, community, school, and the
wider environment. It is from this structure that they gain their
sense of well-being and identity. Social workers were aware that,
for the unaccompanied child, all these supports are absent. The one
support that should be easiest to insert is education, yet even
here they were finding difficulties. When education is offered, it
is often in the “sink” school on the other side of a town that is
unknown to the young person. For those attending college, the
expectation is that they will purchase all their food, clothes, and
cover all other costs, from an allowance which varies from
authority to authority, with, for example, a London borough paying
£28 a week, and a university city, £35 a week.

The study also found that for the most part, shortfalls in
education provision were not compensated for by the strengthening
of wider community networks. For example, 55 per cent of
authorities did not put children in touch with youth groups or
community organisations and 78 per cent did not make any contact
with religious organisations.

Individual social workers often go well beyond their remit in
trying to meet the needs of these young people. The difficulties
may lie in the different policy agendas of the two lead government
departments: the Home Office and the Department of Health. The
interests of these two departments may not be coterminous; the Home
Office needing to balance the results of wars and international
strife against domestic political considerations, and the
Department of Health focusing on the delivery of services aimed at
improving the welfare of the nation. Yet it is to the latter that
local authorities have traditionally owed their allegiance.

Social workers and social services directors have in their hands
the expertise and knowledge to push coherently for policy changes
that will allow them to fulfil their obligations under the Children
Act and in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the
Rights of the Child. They have, in the DoH, a lead department that
may require the pressure of professional concern for its voice to
be heard in Cabinet.

Charlotte Ritchie is a researcher at the department of
social policy and social work, Oxford University.


1 Audit Commission, Another Country: Implementing
Dispersal under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
Stationery Office, 2000


Statistics from Home Office
and Refugee, Asylum and Migrant Project

The research

Thirty local authority teams replied to a questionnaire sent out
in March 2003. The questionnaires sought to assess the levels of
risk to children and their level of need, the perceived needs of
providers, to look at gaps in service provisions, and to identify
training needs.

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