Posted: 23 December 2016

My week as a refugee and migrant service manager

Following her first week with us as Refugee and Migrant Service Manager, Elli Free reflects on her experiences working with child refugees and the shocking hardships facing these vulnerable young people in the UK today.

A lack of support for refugee children

I worked with unaccompanied asylum seeking children 10 years ago and am shocked to see that young people coming to the UK today are facing even more hardship than they were back then.

The really important, immediate support that many young people need is a good immigration solicitor, a safe place to live and a supportive Social Worker. These critical services have not been available to virtually any of the unaccompanied young people I’ve had contact with this week. 

The young people I’ve met are isolated, living in unsuitable and unsafe adult accommodation with no Social Services support.  Many have been given poor immigration advice and are confused as to their rights and entitlements here in the UK.  It’s heart breaking to see young people who have witnessed horrific events in their home country falling through the cracks here with barely any support. 

Far reaching consequences of the age barrier on child refugees

I’ve been shocked by the change in language used by some professionals working with these vulnerable young people, having adopted the culture of disbelief pervasive in the Home Office.  It’s a serious problem that children’s services are turning young people away for support because they look over 18.  All of the young people that I’ve met this week, who have been assessed by social services as over 18, look young and are in desperate need of a child-centred and trauma informed approach. 

The challenging reality is that these young people are 16 years old but cannot prove it. It may be that they don’t have birth certificates with them because they fled the dangers of their country in a hurry. It may be that they had to use documents with different details on them in order to travel to the UK. It may simply be that in their country of origin it is uncommon to register births or document age in the same way it is here.

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Find out more about our work with child refugees and what you can do to help

For many cases, our vulnerable young males have grown facial hair at an earlier age to those from other parts of the world and are mistakenly determined to be older, when that is not the case. Sadly, many professionals are also now using language that seems to have transcended from the Home Office - the phrase ‘he claims to be’ comes up far too often. 

Where has our benefit of the doubt gone? Incorrectly assessing a child as over 18 has such far reaching consequences for the range of support offered to them - including therapeutic support to address previous trauma in their home countries and during their journeys.  Shouldn’t our immediate concern be to support scared, traumatised and isolated young people, whether they are 14 or 18?

The cumulating damage of a lack of support

Services are struggling, cuts are seriously hitting local authority support and everyone is finding it hard to get what they are entitled to. Social Workers are stretched and other professionals are too. But not providing good services to young refugees who are alone, who speak very little English and have no idea what they are entitled to, isn’t the answer. 

The costs only mount in the end – both for young people and the tax payer. Our work has, over recent months, involved support for a young person who had an emergency admission to hospital, another who is homeless and a third who is traumatised by having found his roommate in adult accommodation having attempted suicide. 

Many young people I met this week have told our practitioners that they have recently thought of suicide and have mental health issues - and yet there are only limited specialist therapeutic and counselling services for victims of torture and refugee and migrant young people, who experienced other forms of trauma before and during their journeys to the UK.  None of the young people I met in my first week are accessing therapeutic support - despite the attempts of practitioners.

One way or another, money we pay in taxes will be spent to support these young people. But at the moment it’s often when it’s too late and they end up in a mental health hospital not able to cope anymore, or in A&E following a suicide attempt.  Providing these emergency services is much more expensive than front loading the support we give to young people - and giving them a chance of a future.

Our work with those who need it most

I have been so impressed with what practitioners at The Children’s Society are doing to help unaccompanied young people in these circumstances. We provide a life line for these young people, who have no one else to turn to. The determination and professionalism of practitioners, who strive to make sure they are as safe as they can be in these dire times, is inspirational.

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