Support for young asylum seekers

Posted on September 1, 2009 in Journalism

THE ISSUE of asylum seekers is surrounded by strong feelings, political controversy and emotive arguments.  For councils, who have a legal responsibility to support young asylum seekers, this can mean treading a fine line in a highly sensitive environment.

Robert Bullard finds out how two councils are rising to the challenge.

Local Government Chronicle –  July 2009

Young asylum seekers are those who are under the age of 18, although local authority responsibility can continue up to the age of 24.  They are often unaccompanied – having left or lost their families in their own countries – and thus present a special challenge.

“We work from first principles,” says Sheila Simpson, team manager of the Leaving Care service at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  “They are children and young people first, and in care second – although they may have additional needs as asylum seekers.”

When large numbers first started arriving the council created an unaccompanied minors team.  Then, worried that specialisation might bring a lesser service rather than creating additional value, it decided to mainstream their needs.

“Providing separate care can mean treating people differently, with add-on services, and result in people not seeing them as our children,” she explains.

Kent CC shares this inclusive approach, and provides a service for over 800 unaccompanied young asylum seekers.

Dover is one of the three main entry points for those entering the UK, along with Heathrow Airport, located in Hillingdon LBC, and Croydon, where the Home Office has an assessment and screening unit.

There are four main challenges to the work, says Karen Goodman, the county council’s head of service for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children and Young People.  Firstly, demand for the service is highly unpredictable.

“I cannot say how many new entrants I am going to have in two weeks or six months,” she says.  “This presents huge problems of oversupply and under supply, with huge impacts on personnel and accommodation.”

In addition, people are often presented to councils at the end of the day, with immediate accommodation needs.  “We have to be uniquely flexible, and that can be very challenging,” says Ms Goodman.

The second challenge is similar.  Although the children live in a world of uncertainty (while they wait for the outcome of their asylum applications, and can suddenly receive significant news from their home country.

However, Department for Children Schools and Families’ policies are measured by trying to achieve stability, taking into account factors such as the number of placement changes and their educational achievements.

“None of the performance indicators are geared to the lives of young asylum seekers before they arrived in the UK or while they are here,” says Ms Goodman.

Ms Simpson agrees, and highlights its impact on service provision.  “Care planning has to be realistic and cope with the different paths their lives may take.  You have to hold in mind different outcomes,” she says.

Some are granted asylum, some are refused, but mostly their stay is limited.  And though the latter have the right to apply for an extension, this continues their uncertainty.  “Asylum and immigration laws can totally cut through your planning,” she says.

She continues: “We try and keep their minds open to all the possibilities, including refusal and return.  It may be tempting not to go there – and as social workers we are used to fixing things – but our research shows that children and young people would rather have the truth, and have it out and talk about it.”

To describe the third issue, Ms Goodman chooses her words carefully.  “We are providing a service in a not always welcoming environment.  Most people do not want asylum seekers in this country.”

Even publishing asylum seekers’ achievements in the local press – for example when they get into a further education college, or university, as many do – can be met with the question ‘Why are we supporting them?’ as much as ‘Well done.’

And finally there are the challenges of service provision itself.

People might arrive with health problems and mental health issues, having been through trauma or loss.  And all the procedures, policies and guidance for working with looked after children are written for indigenous children.  They cover things such as pocket money and are not written for 16 or 17year old Afghans or Somalis with very different needs.

“The system does not allow any flexibility – it is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole,” says Ms Goodman.

Finding the right type of accommodation can also be difficult – and selecting the right co-habitants for where they stay.   But on top of these challenges is the difficulty of assessing the age of those who arrive – which affects their entitlements and legal status.

In 2003 the High Court ruled that young asylum seekers came under the same legislation as children leaving care, and should therefore, subject to immigration rules, continue to receive support until they are 21 years old, or 24 if still in education.

In order to make an accurate assessment as possible Kent has introduced a holistic assessment model – as favoured by the Home Office – that uses multidisciplinary skills and inputs from different agencies, and makes the assessment over a period of time rather than an isolated decision.  To do so it has two dedicated residential units where people are observed.

Kensington and Chelsea’s Ms Simpson explains the problem.  “We only have the information they give us, as opposed to any information from schools or GPs or families.  Trying to assess them starts with are they who – and the age – they say they are.”

She continues: “We don’t want to contribute to a culture of disbelief – we have seen that does not help in child abuse cases – but we have to acknowledge the reality that their only route to safety [the UK] may have been through telling lies – and it is in their interests to be accepted as a child.”

“We hope that by getting to know them we get the bigger picture,” says Ms Simpson.  “The key is to try and form trusting relationships and give opportunities to them, so that they can share more of themselves – so that we can support them and they do not remain as mysteries.”

To achieve this she cites the need to support the young people with staff who are going to be around for sometime – which is a challenge for social services in the current climate – and recruiting staff and foster carers from similar countries, so as to help with cultural understanding and language issues.  And there is the need for language-related educational support.

Councils should provide a range of support, and be more informal and creative, says Ms Simpson.  As examples, Kensington and Chelsea runs group sessions for the asylum seekers to share their experiences with others that have been through the same situations, and with indigenous young people, to challenge some of the myths held by both sides.

She adds: “Young men can appear very confident – they have had to be to get through their journey – but they can be very vulnerable, for example to terrorism, and making the wrong assessment can prove costly.”

Ms Simpson praises the support she has had from the council’s cabinet member for children and families, Cllr Shireen Ritchie (Con).  “People tend to say we [Kensington & Chelsea] are rich and therefore without problems, but it is not that simple.  Cllr Ritchie has provided very good solid support, and a strong lead…. it is easier to develop a service in a stable environment, with political support.”

And despite all the challenges, both mangers mention the rewards of their work.  Most of the young asylum seekers, they say, tend to be better behaved and are more driven to succeed than indigenous children in care – their countries may be in conflict but they can come from loving families – and they thrive on the educational opportunities they are given.

“We all felt disabled when they arrived,” says Ms Simpson.  “But we have gone back to first principles and think of them as children and young people first, with the same needs, but with multiple planning and other requirements.”

Find out more

Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Sheila Simpson, team leader, Leaving Care.  Tel: 0207 598 4650 e-mail:

Kent CC
Karen Goodman, head of service, Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children and Young People.  Tel: 01622 605286 e-mail:


Ø Approx. 6000 unaccompanied asylum seeking children supported by local authorities (2007)

Ø Approx 3000 new cases annually (2007)

Ø In 2005, 2425 young asylum seekers claimed to be under 18 years old, but were deemed over 18 by immigration officials
2002 2003 2004 2005
Total decisions 6990  3835  3440  2835
Grants of asylum 625 9% 165 4% 105 3% 170 6%
Refusal 1575 23% 890 23% 830 24% 870 31%
Limited leave 4790 68% 2780 73% 2505 73% 1795 63%

Source: ‘Planning better outcomes and support for unaccompanied asylum seeking children (Home Office, 2007)

© Robert Bullard.  Not for reproduction without prior permission

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