Unaccompanied asylum seeking children - the Refugee Council

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Judith Dennis is policy manager at the Refugee Council. In this blog she shares the Refugee Council's experience of working with unaccompanied asylum seeking children. Judith will be speaking at our West Midlands conference on 23 May.

Unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK are not a new phenomenon - there is a lot of experience in local authorities and among foster carers in caring for these children, here without parents or usual carers and seeking protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Recent events across Europe have highlighted the plight of these young people and the introduction of a transfer scheme among local authorities means that many social workers and carers are becoming involved with these children and young people for the first time.

Like other young people in the care system, unaccompanied children are likely to feel upset about their experiences, disorientated and anxious about living with a new family and uncertain about what their future holds. All children are individuals and of course we should avoid making generalisations about a particular cohort, but there are some additional needs for carers to consider; the group of children described as ‘unaccompanied’ are all separated from family members and may be very worried about their wellbeing. They may find it difficult to understand that getting to the UK is just part of the journey; navigating the asylum process can feel frightening and it can be difficult for them to talk about their experiences, particularly as they are required to relate the same information and feelings repeatedly, to different professionals.  Their age may be disputed by the Home Office or social workers, even when it is agreed that they are under 18. Processes such as these can undermine their trust in adults and potentially impede their recovery from trauma.

Foster carers in the middle

Foster carers sit at the middle of all this, often learning on the job; the child’s first visit to a solicitor may be the first time for the carer as well. Attending an immigration court hearing can be an alarming experience for an adult, as well as a child, let alone when that adult is supposed to be a reassuring presence and may be the only individual available to answer questions that they don’t know the answers to. We know that foster carers are anxious about the future for their children and that it can be too painful to think that at 18 the child might be sent back to the country they fled. We also know that day to day, many carers use their skills and experience to put on a brave face, stand by the child every step of the way and do their very best to make the child feel safe and loved.

We recently worked with the Department for Education and ECPAT UK to deliver training for foster carers and support workers and were overwhelmed with the interest and commitment of carers towards the unaccompanied children they look after. Despite the particular challenges of this area of work, not least in caring for a child without a shared language and about whom you have very little information, it was very clear to us that carers overwhelmingly displayed both empathy with the children and shock at what we put them though once in the UK. We were struck by the keenness to understand as much as possible and to draw on their experience of helping children in difficulty, for example finding creative responses to helping children who have difficulty sleeping.

It was heartwarming and reassuring to know that so many of the children we see so fleetingly, either at the beginning of their time in the UK, at a difficult asylum interview or a distressing therapy session, are living with people who want the best for them and will do everything in their power to make sure they get it.

The Refugee Council

At the Refugee Council we help the adults assisting children through the asylum process as well as the children and young people themselves. Our Children’s Section has a number of projects, including specific services for trafficked children and those whose claim to be under 18 is disputed. Our advice service, the Children’s Panel, has existed since 1994; we’ve seen lots of changes in that time although the core needs of the children remain much the same. Many social workers and carers call our advice line; we help them to support the young people through processes and  in appointments, understand the different outcomes a child might expect and encourage them to be knowledgeable advocates for the children in their care.

Judith has a long standing relationship with The Fostering Network and most recently helped us compile a Supporting Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children guide for foster carers which gives carers the necessary information to enable them to assist unaccompanied children through the asylum process. Judith will be speaking at our West Midlands conference on 23 May when her presentation will include factual information about the different groups of children in the UK, what help and support is available to children and their carers as well as a brief overview of the current global, European and UK situation.

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