Placement making in social work with unaccompanied asylum seeking children

Key points from research on deciding between fostering, independent living arrangements and other forms of placement

A sign saying 'immigration' at an airport
Photo: fotolia/asiandelight

This article comprises of excerpts taken from a recently-updated research review on Community Care Inform Children about unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, updated by Kelly Devenney, lecturer at York St John University. The full review covers arrival in the UK, assessment and placement making, and leaving care. Subscribers can read the guide on Inform Children.


The number of refugees worldwide is at a record high, with over 65 million people fleeing their homes across the globe. Over half of these refugees are children (UNHCR, 2018). While the vast majority of refugees seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries, a much smaller number undertake dangerous journeys to reach Europe and the UK (UNHCR, 2018). Some of these refugees are children travelling alone without a parent or guardian. When they reach the UK these children will be classified as ‘unaccompanied asylum-seeking children’ (UASC), although other terms such as ‘separated children’ and ‘unaccompanied minors’ are used in other countries. The Home Office defines an unaccompanied asylum seeking child as someone who is under the age of 18, is claiming asylum in their own right and who has no adult relative or guardian in the UK to provide care (Home Office, 2002).

2,206 unaccompanied children sought asylum in the UK in 2017. This is a decrease from the previous two years, in which over 3,000 lone children arrived each year (Refugee Council, 2018).

Most unaccompanied young people will have undertaken perilous and protracted journeys. They may have experienced violence, exploitation, destitution and many other hardships on their journey to the UK (Reed et al, 2012). The journey to the UK may have taken months or years and could have included quite lengthy periods in other countries (Griffiths, 2013).

Placement making

The majority of unaccompanied children are now accommodated in foster care. Figures for 2016 show that over half were placed in foster care, 32% were placed in independent living and 12% were placed in residential care (ADCS, 2017). There is evidence that fostering is used primarily for children who arrive under the age of 16, and that the majority who are above this age will not be placed in foster care (Wade et al, 2012). Foster care is generally considered to be a positive placement choice which benefits integration, mental health and educational achievement, especially in cases where children are considered to be particularly vulnerable (Wade et al, 2012; Sirriyeh & Ní Raghallaigh, 2018). Foster care can provide a substitute family, individual attention, supportive relationships and advocacy (Oppedal & Idsoe, 2015). Wade et al’s (2012) detailed study of unaccompanied children in foster care highlighted its transformative potential, yet also raised concerns about the impact of funding cuts and increased competition for high-quality placements.

Guidelines issued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR 1994) state that efforts should be made to place refugee children in “context of the family and the community” as this supports their development and cultural needs. It also states that “every effort must be made to place children in foster families or groups of similar ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious background”. Evidence suggests that young people living with families of the same ethnic background have better mental health than those who don’t (O’Higgins et al, 2018).

However, it is not always possible to provide cultural or religious matches for children and most will be placed with families who do not share their background (Sirriyeh, 2013). Where non-culturally matched families are sensitive to the cultural needs of unaccompanied children, such as encouraging them to cook familiar foods and continue religious practices, trans-cultural placements can still be very successful (Chase et al, 2008; Wade et al, 2012). If foster carers are anxious about meeting the cultural needs of unaccompanied children and feel unprepared, it is crucial that they are supported with information and training (Rogers, Carr & Hickman 2018).

Sirriyeh (2010) has noted that some older unaccompanied children may not want to be placed with a foster family and prefer independent living arrangements which may provide a greater degree of freedom. Some evidence suggests that young people living in shared accommodation with other young people from similar backgrounds do better than their peers who are in non-culturally matched foster placements (O’Higgins et al, 2018). However, the more limited access to everyday support and guidance in independent and semi-independent accommodation has been shown by a number of studies to have an impact on young people’s access to, and progress in, education, emotional wellbeing and social integration (Chase et al, 2008; Hodes et al, 2008; Wade et al, 2005). Careful individual assessments are therefore needed in making placement decisions.


Association of Directors of Children’s Services (2017)
Safeguarding Pressures Thematic Report 5: Unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children

Chase, E; Knight, A and Statham, J (2008)
The Emotional well-being of young people seeking asylum in the UK
London: BAAF

Hodes, M; Jagdev, D; Chandra, N and Cunniff, A (2008)
Risk and resilience for psychological distress amongst unaccompanied asylum seeking adolescents’
Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Volume 49, Issue 7, pp723-732

Home Office (2002)
Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children: Information Note
London: Home Office

Griffiths, M (2013)
Frenzied, Decelerating and Suspended: The Temporal Uncertainties of Failed Asylum Seekers and Immigration Detainees
COMPAS Working Paper

O’Higgins, A; Ott, E M and Shea, M W (2018)
What is the impact of placement type on educational and health outcomes of unaccompanied refugee minors? A systematic review of the evidence’
Clinical child and family psychology review, epub ahead of print

Oppedal, B and Idsoe, T (2015)
‘The role of social support in the acculturation and mental health of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers
Scandinavian journal of psychology, Volume 56, Issue 2, pp203-211

Reed, R V; Fazel, M; Jones, L; Panter-Brick, C and Stein, A (2012)
‘Mental health of displaced and refugee children resettled in low-income countries: risk and protective factors
Lancet, Volume 379, pp250-265

Refugee Council (2018)
Children in the Asylum System

Rogers, J; Carr, S and Hickam, C (2018)
‘Mutual benefits: The lessons learned from a community based participatory research project with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and foster carers
Children and Youth Services Review, online

Sirriyeh, A (2010)
Home journeys: Im/mobilities in young refugee and asylum-seeking women’s negotiations of home
Childhood, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp213–227

Sirriyeh, A (2013)
Inhabiting Borders, Routes Home: Youth, Gender, Asylum
Ashgate Publishing Ltd

Sirriyeh, A and Raghallaigh, M N (2018)
‘Foster care, recognition and transitions to adulthood for unaccompanied asylum seeking young people in England and Ireland’
Children and Youth Services Review, online

UNHCR (1994)
Refugee Children: Guidelines for Protection and Care
Geneva: UNHCR

UNHCR (2018)
Refugee Statistics at a glance
Geneva: UNHCR

Wade, J; Mitchell, F and Baylis, G (2005)
Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children: The Response of Social Work Services
London: BAAF

Wade, J; Sirriyeh, A; Kohli, R and Simmonds, J (2012)
Fostering Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children: Creating a family life across ‘a world of difference’
London: BAAF

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