UNHCR reports suggest means of improving prospects of child refugees in UK

Three new reports bring together first-hand accounts of young refugees and asylum-seekers and those who support them across the UK

UNHCR report examine how the care system can help refugee children recover from trauma
©  UNHCR/Jason Tanner

The UK could take a number of concrete steps to ensure unaccompanied or separated child refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the UK can more quickly recover from trauma and find lasting solutions to their plight, according to three studies released today by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

The three reports, funded by the European Commission, aim to help understand the motives and influencing factors behind children’s journeys to the UK, shore-up the asylum system for children and help improve their integration prospects.

Destination Anywhere examined the profile and protection situation of unaccompanied children and the circumstances pushing them to flee; A Refugee and Then looked at reception and early integration of unaccompanied children arriving in the UK; and Putting the Child at the Centre mapped the UK approach to determining the ‘best interests’ of asylum seeking children and young people with proposals for reform.

“Supporting vulnerable young refugees who arrive in the UK alone and disorientated, often after harrowing experiences, requires a high level of sensitivity and dedicated resources,” said Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR’s Representative in the UK.

“More can be done in the UK to ensure that the system is better attuned to these children’s needs so that they are given a better chance to adapt to their new society without adding to the trauma already suffered.”

Destination Anywhere interviewed 23 children plus 50 stakeholders and found that no child subjects were sent to the UK as ‘anchors’ to help their family migrate. Almost all sought protection from violence, detention, terrorism or the disappearance of family. Most did not know where they were going at departure, leaving with at least one other person: family, agents, smugglers, traffickers or other children. They traveled in groups for safety and companionship, often following peers.

Those trafficked, it found, were susceptible to re-trafficking even after entering state care, and some suffered mistreatment enroute, influencing decisions to move on. In terms of reception, A Refugee and Then showed UK authorities generally treated children in a kind, humane manner.

Yet for those arriving under the Dublin III framework, local authority support for receiving families was patchy, and families were often unprepared. Improving UK reception support for spontaneous arrivals and bolstering training and procedures on how to approach and identify cases would improve this. Destination Anywhere found children were often unable to effectively engage or communicate with authorities elsewhere in Europe, hindering access to support and contributing to onward movement.

At a shelter for unaccompanied minors run by UNHCR's partner organisation Praksis, 14-year-old Waris points to the UK on a map of Europe

At a shelter for unaccompanied minors run by UNHCR's partner organisation Praksis, 14-year-old Waris points to the UK on a map of Europe.  ©  UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

A Refugee and Then highlighted how cases of trauma and acute stress, linked to dangerous journeys undertaken, were compounded by a lack of family support and inadequate mental health provision. Independent guardians, where available, can play important roles in supporting children, they found. Foster care, which offers good integration prospects, was not always available or prioritized. While the so-called Dubs scheme, to relocate unaccompanied children to the UK, and the Vulnerable Children's Resettlement Scheme, were viewed positively by local authorities, the National Transfer Scheme (NTS, for spontaneous arrivals) was often judged as disruptive. The smooth functioning of Dublin, meanwhile, was hindered by delays and practical difficulties affecting family unity.

UNHCR’s Pagliuchi-Lor added: “Transfer decisions need to be accelerated in an expanded and improved Dublin or Dublin-like system. And post-transfer arrangements need to be monitored.” One theme emerging clearly from the studies was the crucial role family reunion can play helping child refugees find their feet. Lack of contact with family abroad and the inability to reunite in the UK were cited as major barriers to emotional wellbeing. That said, two reports found that many children were no longer in contact with or could not trace their families for a variety of complex reasons. The bar on access to family reunion for unaccompanied children should be lifted alongside the reintroduction of legal aid for eligible applicants. In short: children need their parents.

“I am OK but not happy, because my family they have bad life,” Jamal, 17, from Afghanistan, told interviewers for Destination Anywhere. “The war is very strong and getting bad. I want my family to be with me … that is something that is very important to me, to bring my family with me together.”

After four years of separation, Yemeni refugee Jamil was finally reunited with his wife and their four young children.

After four years of separation, Yemeni refugee Jamil was finally reunited with his wife and their four young children  ©  UNHCR/Radonja Srdanovic

The reports also urged the UK to continue to grow its resettlement programme, recognised globally, and complementary pathways to ensure children avoid dangerous journeys. All studies found that funding for local authorities was inadequate. While physical health needs were well provided for, there were gaps in mental health support and a lack of specialist support – compounded by the dissolution of local authority teams.

Likewise, few children were engaged in full-time mainstream education, despite the critical role it plays in any new start. And few had made British friends. Developing and funding broad reception and orientation programmes around sport and leisure would help. Protracted asylum procedures impacted negatively on all aspects of integration.

To improve this, the reports recommended the UK set up a child-friendly participatory mechanism to feed back on the asylum process,and improve training on approaching and identifying children. Those children who had had their age disputed and assessed reported harsher treatment, disrupting reception and acclimatisation. Such procedures should be impartial and used as a last resort.

Respondents said procedural delays on UK asylum claims fueled uncertainty and fears of removal among children. The reports recommended asylum claims for children be processed more efficiently, within a common, simplified approach for children and a limited timeframe. Putting the Child at the Centre found that considerations of the ‘best interests’ of young arrivals were not always adequately addressed and did not benefit from impartial, multi-disciplinary input, that asylum and care planning were not aligned, and that joint working between different agencies was limited.

To remedy this, it proposed revisions to the NTS to align with the established ‘best interests’ principle to strengthen procedural safeguards – including appointing independent legal guardians at the point of identification -- and ensuring coordinated and well sequenced interventions from first contact to final decision, including through the introduction of an independent best interests determination panel to inform final immigration decisions taken by the Home Office. It proposed establishing a cross-governmental working group, with input from independent experts, to implement reform.