Well-being of asylum seeking children


Title: The Emotional Wellbeing of Unaccompanied Young People Seeking Asylum in the UK

Authors: Elaine Chase, Abigail Knight and June Statham

Institutions: Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education (University of London)

An examination of the factors that influence the emotional well-being of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children
and the role of social work staff. by Elaine Chase


Every year some 3,000 children and young people arrive on their own to seek asylum in the UK. The Thomas Coram Research Unit explored their emotional well-being and identified the factors that either helped or created difficulties for them. The findings have implications for professional practice with this group of young people.


Previous research concerned with the health and well-being of refugee and asylum-seeking children and young people has tended to consider these children and young people as a uniform group.

Little has been written about the needs of those children and young people who arrive on their own to seek asylum.

Even less research has attempted to understand, from the viewpoint of unaccompanied young people themselves, how their experiences of leaving their country of origin and seeking asylum in the UK have affected their emotional well-being, and how this might shape the help and support that they need.

This study aimed to address that gap. It involved in-depth discussions with 54 children and young people between the ages of 11 and 23, from a total of 18 different countries. Interviews were also conducted with more than 30 social care, health, education and voluntary sector professionals with specific knowledge and expertise of working with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people.


Although the researchers did not use terms such as mental health or emotional well-being, questions to the young people about what made them feel well and happy and what made them sad provided much information about their emotional well-being.

Key themes that emerged from the discussions included: young people’s journey and arrival in the UK the common ways in which they displayed good or poor emotional health their understanding of the concepts of mental health and emotional well-being their experiences of primary care, social care, education and legal services the other sources of support that they could call on and the strategies they described to help themselves adapt to their new lives.

One of the main difficulties described by young people was the mixed messages received from different agencies and professionals about the services they were eligible for and how to access these. For example, educational provision and financial support for education, housing and legal aid.

Professionals also identified the lack of communication between agencies as a factor that prevented the early identification of mental health difficulties and referral to specialist support services.

Lack of knowledge

Overall, staff in the different organisations likely to come into contact with unaccompanied young people seeking asylum appeared to lack knowledge about eligibility for housing, financial support for education, social benefits and other services. The young people themselves perceived a lack of consistency, fairness and equity in how financial, educational and social work support was provided to them.

A wide spectrum of difficulties in emotional well-being was described by young people in the study. These ranged from isolation, loneliness and missing family through to anxiety, disturbed sleep, eating problems and frequent headaches. Some young people experienced mental health problems including depression and illness requiring hospitalisation. “I’m just thinking about all the things my head is going to explode,” says Mahlet, from Ethiopia.

It was clear that for many young people the idea of treating their emotional response to trauma as a mental health problem was something they did not understand. Young people often situated their emotional responses to their traumas and experiences in their heart, and were at times worried by the suggestion that these responses should be addressed through the mind.


Those young people aged over 17 living in semi-independent or independent accommodation were more likely to experience difficulties in their emotional well-being. It was also evident that young men in the study were less likely than young women to access support services and were more likely to describe feelings of isolation. “It makes you sad. This type of environment is not good for anyone. Everyone keeps to themselves. No one talks to no one,” says Simeon, from Somalia.

For those children and young people who arrive at a younger age (under 16), foster placements or residential care are the most likely options. When they work well, foster placements can provide essential support to asylum-seeking young people. What mattered most to the young people interviewed was the quality of their relationship with the carer. Placements that can maintain a link with language and culture are important, but for young people this did not appear to be the most vital element of the support. “It’s comfortable here. It just feels nice here, like my own house. They treat me like I am one of them. I know that my foster mum cares about me. Once I got arrested and when she came to bail me out, she was crying like she was my own mum,” says Thierry, from Burundi.

For asylum-seeking young people not in foster placements, there was clear value in them having access to a one-to-one key worker or mentor who could provide personalised and comprehensive support – although where this was available, it was normally limited to just four hours support a week. Young people in independent living arrangements were unlikely to have any key worker support, normally had no allocated social worker and were required to contact duty social workers if and when they faced particular difficulties. “Since I moved it’s been hard though, in terms of being myself, living by myself and trying to manage the money,” says Chrisna, from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Social workers were often the mainstay of young people’s support and were well placed to build trusting and supportive relationships with them – particularly when they worked as allocated social workers: “She (the social worker) followed me through every little step. I didn’t have to tell her what was coming up, I didn’t have to tell her to do things for me. With her, she looked at me in the eyes and knew exactly what was up. She knew me very very well,” says Asif, from Afghanistan.

Social workers were, however, also frequently asked to conduct age assessments whenever there was a question raised over whether a young person may be older than they reported. This placed social workers in a difficult position, and affected the nature of the relationship with the young person. “We do them [age assessments] but we can be wrong five years either side – it matters a lot doesn’t it? They can end up with many dates of birth – social services, Home Office, their own – they get muddled up. They don’t always understand why we do it, we explain why, but the process is not always clear,” says one social worker.

Cultural differences

There were also indications from this research study that the behaviour of children and young people who have sought asylum on their own may not reflect that of other children and young people who have not shared these experiences. For many reasons – including what they have witnessed and experienced before leaving their countries or during their journeys and because of the different cultures in which they have grown up – many unaccompanied asylum seeking young people have had to mature more quickly. There was sometimes a mismatch therefore between how these young people behaved and how professionals and carers expected them to behave.

“The woman [foster carer] where I was staying was having a problem with me. She said I was not jumping around with those children and I was meant to be jumping around with them. I told her that it is not me, because I am actually a child but at the same time an adult,” says Joy, from Nigeria.

Elaine Chase is senior research officer at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, University of London

Links and resources

A copy of the full report from this study was published in July 2008 by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering : E Chase, A Knight and J Statham (2008) The Emotional Wellbeing of Young People Seeking Asylum in the UK, BAAF

Download a research briefing outlining the main findings from this study

J. Wade, F. Mitchell and G. Baylis (2005). Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children: The response of social work services. London, BAAF

Border and Immigration Agency (2008) Better outcomes: The way forward. Improving the care of unaccompanied asylum seeking children. London, BIA.

Immigration Law Practitioners Association Information Sheets

A copy of the full report from this study was published in July 2008 by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering : E. Chase, A. Knight and J. Statham (2008) The Emotional Wellbeing of Young People Seeking Asylum in the UK. London: BAAF

This article is published in the 31 July issue of Community Care magazine under the title Well-being of asylum seeking children

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