Research realities: Sexual exploitation of young asylum seekers

Ala Sirriyeh looks at a study into the sexual maltreatment faced by young asylum seekers after they arrive alone in the UK from the Horn of Africa

Ala Sirriyeh looks at a study into the sexual maltreatment faced by young asylum seekers after they arrive alone in the UK from the Horn of Africa


Title: Sexual maltreatment of unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors from the Horn of Africa: A mixed method study focusing on vulnerability and prevention

Authors: Margaret Lay, Irena Papadopoulos

Journal: Child Abuse & Neglect 33 (2009)



The article reports on findings from the National Lottery-funded Safer UK study undertaken by the authors in collaboration with the Ethiopian Community Centre.

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors are separated from the parents or customary care givers and are defined as children “in need” under the Children Act 1989. Local authorities have a statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children in need. Social workers have a responsibility to assess the needs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors using the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families, and to provide services for them.

The study aimed to identify how child protection measures could be strengthened for this group of young people. The article explores factors that contribute to their vulnerability to sexual maltreatment and how this might be prevented.

Sexual maltreatment is defined as “any sexual offence against a minorperpetrated by adults, adolescents or peers without their consent, or when aged under 13 years irrespective of consent”.


Unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors are defined as under 18, outside their country of origin and separated from their parents or legal/customary caregiver. In 2008 there were about 5,500 young people in this group being cared for by local authorities (Dorling, 2009). The majority have their main placement in supported or unsupervised housing (Wade and colleagues 2005).

Lay and Papadopoulos argue that research about sexual maltreatment of children has focused predominantly on familial contexts. They note that there is limited research in the UK that explores wider social contexts relating to child sexual maltreatment and the influence of culture, ethnicity and migration.


The research participants were 18 to 25, came from Ethiopia, Somalia or Eritrea, and identified themselves as having been sexually maltreated or had a “near miss” experience in the UK in the previous 10 years.

Questionnaires were completed with 53 people who arrived in the UK as minors. Of those who identified their ethnicity, 35 were Ethiopian, 10 were Eritrean, four were Somali and three were mixed Ethiopian and Eritrean. Only two were males.


Most incidents occurred in young people’s accommodation, but some took place in the perpetrator’s home or car, at work or at friends’ houses. Maltreatment included sexual harassment (29%), “hand to genital fondling” (13%), attempted rape (9%) and rape (7%). Overall, 72% of young people experienced more than one incident and 73% had their first experience of sexual maltreatment in their first year in the UK.

Most perpetrators were male, although two were female. Nearly a quarter were teenagers, 42% in their twenties, 24% in their thirties and 10% in their forties. Three of the four young women who were raped reported that the perpetrator was from their country of origin (Ethiopia). Perpetrators from ethnic minorities outnumbered white perpetrators by four to one.

The assailants were described as coming from Africa, Asia, Europe (including the UK), the Caribbean and the Middle East. It is suggested that some were of the same nationality as their victims and that others were asylum seeking or male refugees living nearby. However, figures to show this are not provided here. Most young people knew their perpetrators but only a few described having a close relationship with them.

The range of factors which young people perceived as increasing their vulnerability to sexual maltreatment are grouped into five categories. These include “personal factors, circumstantial factors, cultural factors, factors relating to the perpetrators, and factors related to professional policies, attitudes, beliefs, and practices”.

The most often mentioned personal vulnerability factor was the young people’s lack of knowledge about sexual maltreatment and their rights in the UK. Many felt isolated and lonely as a consequence of living without their family in a new country. This led them to seek contact with people with whom they could share culturally familiar experiences and who offered “family-like relationships”. It is argued that this made them a target for perpetrators who offered this form of contact.

The circumstances in which they were living increased their vulnerability in two ways. First, young people reported that they did not have adequate protection from foster parents or customary care givers.

Second, many lived in accommodation where toilets and common areas were shared, exposing them to the risk of maltreatment and sexual harassment by young men. In some cases this resulted in serious physical and sexual assaults. Young women facing financial hardship were sometimes “groomed” by perpetrators who offered them “rewards for sexual favours”, such as gifts and meals out.

One-third of the research participants had not disclosed the abuse. Only four had told the police and seven sought treatment from their GP after the incidents, but did not disclose the abuse. Reasons for non-disclosure included fear of retaliation and fear that they themselves would be blamed or disbelieved. Some young people said that, in their countries of origin, sexual maltreatment was not discussed.

They feared that if they disclosed abuse it would not be kept confidential and they would be stigmatised. Those who had been warned as children about sexual maltreatment were significantly more likely to disclose when it occurred and to seek help from professionals.

Some young people felt that perpetrators thought they were unlikely to report abuse. They also experienced communication ­barriers, made worse by a lack of interpreting services.

The authors argue that measures to prevent the sexual maltreatment of this group of young people should focus on the development of their “personal resources” and also their “outer resources”. Personal resources include: levels of self-esteem, self-confidence, assertiveness and awareness of the risk of sexual maltreatment and potential approaches that perpetrators may use.

Outer resources include levels of safety and protection in the environment they live, formal and informal social support networks, and the police and criminal justice system. It is argued that, although this group of young people shares similarities with other children in care, “they may be placed at greater risk of sexual maltreatment by their socio-cultural alienation and the challenges of acculturation, migration status, communication difficulties, absence of family in the UK, inappropriate accommodation and high levels of exposure to potential perpetrators”.

The article provides interesting qualit- ative material about unaccompanied asylum-seeking children’s experiences and understandings of vulnerabilities to sexual maltreatment. However, data showing the statistical distribution of young people’s experiences of these factors would have been useful. Although the study included interviews with practitioners, the article only explores data from adults who as minors were unaccompanied asylum seekers.

The inclusion of additional data from practitioners could have provided more insight into the role of social work in mediating and responding to the young people’s experiences. It would have been useful to hear more about the types of responses that the young people may have benefited from.

It should be noted that care and support for young unaccompanied asylum seekers may have changed since the incidents of maltreatment referred to in the article. Some of the young people may have been seeking asylum before the Department of Health’s Guidance on Accommodating Children in Need and their Families advised that the presumption should be to care for this group as looked-after children under section 20 of the Children Act 1989.

Ala Sirriyeh is a research fellow at the Social Policy Research Unit, University of York


Practice Implications


On arrival, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children should be given information about living in the UK, the potential risk of sexual maltreatment, their rights and entitlements, and services and support available to them. The Safer UK research team has produced an information booklet about sexual maltreatment in eight languages for those aged 11 and older.

Safe and secure living

Some young people felt that being placed in foster care or in shared ­housing with closer monitoring and supervision would have reduced their vulnerability.

Input from professionals

Health and other professionals need to be proactive in asking the young people about any history of sexual maltreatment because they seldom disclose it.

Police and criminal justice system

Improving the perceptions among unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors of the police and criminal justice system could increase the reporting of sexual maltreatment.


Further Reading

Lay and Papadopoulos (2009), “Sexual maltreatment of unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors from the Horn of Africa: A mixed method study focusing on vulnerability and prevention”, Child Abuse & Neglect, 33

Lay and Papadopoulos (2007), “Staying safer in the UK”, an information booklet on sexual abuse and sexual assault for unaccompanied asylum seeking children and young people, Middlesex University

Seeking Support: a guide to the rights and entitlements for separated refugee and asylum seeking children, The Children’s Legal Centre

Dorling (2009), Seeking Support: A guide to the Rights and Entitlements of Separated Refugee and Asylum Seeking Children, The Children’s Legal Centre

Home Office (2008), Better Outcomes: the way forward, improving the care of unaccompanied asylum seeking children, Home Office

Sinha, Uppal and Pryce (2008), ”I had to cry: exploring sexual health with young separated asylum seekers in east London”, Diversity in Health and Social Care. 5 (2)

Wade, Mitchell and Baylis (2005), Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children: The Response of Social Work Services, Baaf


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