How to help refugee children settle in the UK

Starting life in a new country can be an intimidating and anxious experience. However, a study carried out by refugee children has identified the factors that can help them settle in the UK

Akim is 17 years old. He is a young refugee making a new life for himself in the London Borough of Newham, east London. He believes that his settlement in the UK has been helped by his ability to shape the decisions that affect him.

For many young refugees being heard and able to influence is crucial if they are to feel at home again; as Mohamed, 16, says: “You need a voice of your own to settle.”

A study by the Children’s Society in Newham shows that there is more to be done nationally for the successful integration and settlement of young asylum seekers and refugees.

A group of five young refugees, trained to carry out interviews with other young refugees, led the study. “Through the interviews, young people identified language, education, housing and media perceptions that need to be part of a holistic approach to settlement,” says Bockari Stevens, information and communication officer for the charity’s refugee and homelessness team.

Many of the practical implications that professionals need to recognise, according to Stevens, begin as soon as young refugees arrive rather than when they are given status. He says: “Where decisions are made about young refugees’ lives it is important that they are consulted and are part of the decision-making process. The local authority, community groups and other agencies play a role in ensuring that young refugees have an input, and also in providing opportunities to encourage their empowerment by listening to their concerns and assisting them to take ownership of these.”

Young people suggested a forum where they could discuss and challenge their grievances with the relevant authorities. “Such a forum will provide an opportunity for young refugees to ensure that their needs are included in local strategic plans, that they are involved in the development and implementation of policies on settlement and integration, and also in countering negative and inaccurate representation of refugees by the media,” says Stevens.

Another factor to arise was the importance of stability. “If young people remain in one place they can build up a network of support, gain community assistance and maintain friendships,” explains Stevens. “Local authorities should understand the impact on mental health of repeated relocation, and should ensure that young people are placed in stable accommodation and not moved unnecessarily.”

Education and communication also emerged as critical themes. Learning the language is a long-term target but can be problematic in the short term, as Abdul, 15, says: “Getting used to speaking English takes time and lack of it makes it difficult to understand things and systems.” With this in mind, it is essential that relevant information should be available in different formats and languages. Mainstream schooling also had a positive impact upon the young refugees interviewed. Says Stevens: “Not only did it help them to make friends, interact with their peers, and gain support from teachers, it also helped to build their self-esteem and their understanding of life in the UK.”

These sentiments were certainly echoed by Lin, 16: “Mainstream school is the most important part of me growing up. It was the best way of escaping my problems, building my confidence and being able to know there is something I am doing with my life.” Councils are urged to make available mainstream school places to young refugees as soon as possible after their arrival; schools are urged to offer special schemes, such as peer mentoring, to help meet needs.

“Young refugees have the desire and the capacity to voice their opinions on the settlement process,” concludes Stevens. “They want to participate in ensuring the well-being of other new arrivals.”

By talking and listening to these children, councils and other agencies can ensure that their services help support settlement.

Lessons learned

  • With the right support young refugees are capable of conducting research into issues that affect their lives.
  • The research portrayed the resilience of young refugees who often after traumatic experiences of seeking protection, are prepared to face the arduous task of settling in their new environment
  • The enthusiasm of young refugees who feel more settled to pass on their experiences should be recognised. Forums should be set up to facilitate this.
  • Young refugees are willing and should be encouraged to undertake activities that will create, partly through the media, awareness about the positive contributions of refugees.
  • Professionals need to be aware of the negative impact that the immigration process has upon the mental health of young refugees.

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