Unicef UK research into the experiences of unaccompanied migrant children

Research fellow Ala Sirriyeh examines findings from a Unicef UK study of unaccompanied child migrants

Research fellow Ala Sirriyeh examines findings from a Unicef UK study of unaccompanied child migrants

Title: Levelling the Playing Field: A Unicef UK report into provision of services to unaccompanied or separated migrant children in three local authority areas in England

Authors: Laura Brownlees and Nadine Finch



In 2006 Bhabha and Finch published Seeking Asylum Alone which explored young people’s experiences of the asylum process. It featured young people speaking about services and support they received while their claims were being assessed.

Unicef UK commissioned the Levelling the Playing Field study to explore services provided to unaccompanied or separated migrant children. It aimed to assess the extent to which services met the needs of these children and how they comply with international and UK legislation and guidelines for the treatment of children. The study focused on the position of unaccompanied or separated migrant children seeking asylum. It aimed to:

● Analyse the factors that facilitated or constrained these children’s ability to access local authority accommodation, health and education services.

● Identify which children were most or least able to access these services.

● Explore examples of good practice and make policy recommendations.


No statistics are available for the overall number of unaccompanied or separated migrant children in the UK. Statistics are available only for a sub-set of this group who are unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. In 2008, 4,285 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arrived in the UK. A further 1,400 young people who applied for asylum had their age disputed.

The research took place in Kent, Solihull and Harrow. Interviews were conducted with 59 young people aged 13 to 23. The young people came from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Albania, Somalia, Guinea and Sri Lanka.

The researchers looked at the experience of local authorities in looking after victims of trafficking. Focus groups were conducted with young people, along with interviews with 75 service providers and local and national policymakers.


Some practitioners were concerned about potentially large numbers of migrant children with irregular status who may not be known to the authorities. Authorities varied in their approach in working with migrant children not claiming asylum. Some were offered support by asylum teams but, due to the Home Office grant-reclaim system, this was rare. Others were supported financially by children and families teams with some support work being carried out by the asylum team. Many young people with irregular status found that this was a barrier to accessing services which could only be accessed by those claiming asylum.

Categories of care

All the asylum-seeking children in the study were looked after under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 or under leaving care support. This indicates that significant changes have occurred since the Department of Health’s Guidance on Accommodating Children in Need and their Families in 2003 advised that the presumption should be to care for this group as looked-after children. Before this, many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were supported as children in need under section 17 of the Children Act which gave more limited support entitlements.

Age disputes

Age was a determining factor in assessing the needs of asylum-seeking children and the kinds of placements and support provided to them. Under-16s were predominantly placed in foster care, while those aged 16 and over were likely to be in semi-independent accommodation with floating support. According to Home Office statistics, 1,400 young people had their age disputed in 2008 and 11 young people interviewed in this study had experienced this. This affected their access to support from children’s services, the type of accommodation provided to them and their access to education.


The quality of placements provided to young people varied considerably. Practitioners thought foster care was the best placement option for many young people. As indicated in other research studies, unaccompanied children in foster care received more intensive support and were more likely to be accessing and succeeding in education than those in other placements. However, there were significant shortages of foster placements available and some concerns about how appropriate some of these were for the needs of some young people.

Key sources of support were social workers, foster carers, faith groups and friends and were very important in determining young people’s access to services and outcomes. Some practitioners thought that introducing legal guardians for unaccompanied minors would provide a means of monitoring the levels of support provided to young people and advocacy for them in accessing this support.

Mental health

Many young people in the study had experienced mental health difficulties. Nine of the young people had severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those in foster care appeared to fare better than those in semi-independent accommodation. Some practitioners thought that many unaccompanied or separated young people were very resilient. It was also thought, however, that some were reluctant to confide in others about their needs and sometimes their silences were mistaken as indicating they were coping well.


Education was a priority for most young people in this study. Some had been in full-time education while others had never attended school. Education played an important role in facilitating social inclusion and overcoming isolation. Friendships made in the first few weeks at school were often long-lasting. As noted, those in foster care had the most positive experiences in education and the differences between their performance and young people in semi-independent accommodation was commented on by education practitioners. Access to full-time education became more difficult once young people were over the age of 16 and many were on part-time courses and studying English as a second language.

Young people in foster care placements away from geographical areas with established ethnic and cultural diversity experienced greater levels of racism from adults and other young people. Young people in these placements often found the presence of another young person from a similar background in the placement to be a source of support. Service providers also spoke of a “culture of disbelief” existing in some services where young people’s lack of documentation meant they were challenged on their age and reasons for being in the UK.


The study provides some interesting insights into the structures of services and support available in each authority. The findings do generally confirm those from earlier research in this field. However, this study is helpful in providing an updated account of service provision and practice in this area. By focusing more broadly on the experiences of unaccompanied or separated children beyond those seeking asylum the study also highlights some of the particular difficulties faced by those young people not seeking asylum. It is useful in illustrating how immigration status is a determining factor in access to services. PRACTICE IMPLICATIONS

Children’s services

Young people in foster care often appeared to fare better when they were in placements where they had access to support from other children or adults from their ethnic or faith communities.

Accommodation Providers

Some young people struggled in semi-independent accommodation and required more preparation and support with cooking, healthy eating, health and safety and with access to education and other services.

Advocacy services

Having access to advocacy and sources of support was a key factor in determining young people’s access to services. The report recommends that an independent guardian should be appointed for every unaccompanied and separated minor.

Local authorities

The study recommends that local authorities develop safe houses and safe foster care placements to accommodate migrant children who they suspect have been trafficked.


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


Further reading

● Bhabha J and Finch N, (2006) Seeking Asylum Alone: Unaccompanied and Separated Children and Refugee Protection in the UK. Harvard University Committee on Human Rights Studies

● Chase E, Knight A and Statham J, (2008) The emotional well-being of unaccompanied young people seeking asylum in the UK, BAAF 

● Free E, (2005) Local Authority Support to Young People: changes since the Hillingdon Judgement, Save the Children

● Wade J, Mitchell F, and Baylis G, (2005) Unaccompanied asylum seeking children: The response of social work services, BAAF 

● Wirtz L, (2009) Hidden Children, The Children’s Society

Further information

Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association

This article is published in the 1 July 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Support for migrant children”

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