Helping unaccompanied asylum-seeking children

Overview of other research and resources on unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people by the Social Care Institute for Excellence

The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) defines unaccompanied children as “those who are separated from both parents and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom has responsibility to do so”. In the UK, therefore, unaccompanied refugee children include:

Children who have become separated from their parents and have arrived in the UK by themselves

Children who are cared for by older siblings, distant relatives and family friends (that is, not their usual carers)

Children who arrive in the UK with family, or family friends, but whose care arrangements break down after arrival.

In England and Wales, unaccompanied children are supported under the Children Act 1989, and are covered by the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 and the Adoption and Children Act 2002. Studies into the experiences of unaccompanied children have found that the quality of care they receive depends more on the local authority 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.

What we learned

That CAMHS, education, and social services can work together to provide Tier 1 assessment and interventions for unaccompanied asylum seeking children.

These interventions can be effective in the improvement of these children’s emotional well-being and decreasing isolation.

These interventions can meet the public service agreement goals for black and minority ethnic groups as stated by current government targets.

That there is a poor evidence base in working with refugee and asylum seeking children and that more knowledge is urgently needed.

How we learned it

In order to develop the intervention we consulted the existing knowledge base from the most up to date research on needs, interventions, with asylum seeking and refugee children.

This helped in assessing the needs, developing interventions and selection of methods.

The project evaluation was conducted through qualitative and quantitative feedback from stakeholders and children who were involved in the project.

Why it’s important

The UK government recognises unaccompanied asylum seeking children as some of the children in greatest need. Previous research with refugee and asylum-seeking young people has found them to exhibit high levels of emotional and behavioural problems as a likely result of these compound stressors. UASC are likely to have experienced traumas not only in their country of origin, but also during their journey to the UK. The ordeal of asylum will have disrupted their family and social support systems, as well as interrupting their emotional development and education. UASC are cared for by the local authority with the involvement of education, health, and various voluntary organisations.

See references in the article on the web.

How it influences practice

Our work in Hillingdon demonstrates the possibilities of an early intervention for UASC across a number of agencies.

Manual based group and individual interventions can provide consistent, sustainable approaches which appear effective.

Greater access to mental health consultation for social care professionals can improve overall assessment and care for UASC.

Searching for more information

There is a significant amount of recent literature on the issue of unaccompanied asylum seeking children. A lot of the information available concentrates on the contrast between statutory care obligations towards unaccompanied children as opposed to adult asylum seekers, assessing the age of young people who appear to be around 16 or older, and transition issues – including “de-accommodation” when a child is no longer classed as “looked after”.

Useful terms to use when searching the internet for more information include “unaccompanied asylum seeking children” (or UASC) and “unaccompanied refugee children”.

To search the internet for more information on unaccompanied asylum seeking children


Kohli, R (2007), Social work with unaccompanied asylum seeking children, Palgrave Macmillan

Kohli R and Mitchell F (Eds), (2007), Working with unaccompanied asylum seeking children: issues for policy and practice, Palgrave Macmillan

‘O’Shea B, Down G (2000) “A School-based Mental Health Service for Refugee Children,” Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 5, 189-201

Thomas S et al (2004), “I was running away from death”- the pre-flight experiences of unaccompanied asylum seeking children in the UK,” Child: Care, Health and Development, 30, 113-22

Wade J, Mitchell, F, and Bayliss, G (2005) Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children: the Response of Social Work Services, BAAF

Relevant policy

Working Together to Safeguard Children: A guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children

Part III of the Children Act 1989

Immigration and Asylum Act 1999

Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002

UK Borders Bill

Useful websites

National Register for Unaccompanied Children 

Safeguarding children: Seeking asylum 

The Children’s Legal Centre (Click on section about Refugee and asylum seeking children)

Health for Asylum Seekers and Refugees Portal 

Refugee Council 

UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency 

Institute of Race Relations: Asylum seekers and refugees


Amanda Austen co-ordinator/systemic psychotherapist Well-Being Project, Hillingdon.

Raeli Bronstein and Paul Montgomery, Centre for Evidence Based Intervention, University of Oxford


We invite contributions to our Learning by Experience section. Articles must be based on research which is directly relevant to social care practice, reflecting the writer’s learning experiences.

More guidelines

Related SCIE Resources

Race equality discussion paper 02: The social care needs of refugees and asylum seekers 

Position paper 1: Effectiveness of childminding registration and its implications for private fostering 

Practice guide 3: Fostering

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Expert guide to Unaccompanied asylum seeking children

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