For young asylum seekers who are separated from their families, the first few months after arriving in the UK are crucial to their mental health. Many will have gone through traumatic experiences before arriving in Britain.
From our ongoing research interviewing young asylum seekers living in independent accommodation in the UK, we’ve found that if children and young people are placed in a safe and supportive environment when they arrive, it can act as a buffer against the challenges of resettling in a new community. If they are placed in unsuitable accommodation and left to fend for themselves, however, they are at greater risk of developing mental health issues.
In the UK, the placement of unaccompanied minors or separated children and young people is the responsibility of the social services department of the local authority in which they are seeking assistance. The number of these children and young people is increasing, according to recent immigration data from the Home Office. It was reported that 1,986 asylum applications were made by unaccompanied minors or separated children in the year ending March 2015. With the continuing refugee crisis in Europe, this number now is expected to rise.
A frightening lottery
There are different types of placement for separated children and young people, ranging from foster and residential care, to semi-independent and independent accommodation. Which placement a child gets is guided by the Children Act of 1989. It depends on their age and the initial assessment they get from social services when they arrive.
Younger children tend to be placed in foster care or residential care, whereas young people between the ages of 16 and 18 are placed either in semi-independent or independent accommodation. These could be bed and breakfast, a supported hostel, shared accommodation or a self-contained flat.
Initial assessments by social services can be challenging and often controversial. A 2006 report noted that separated children and young people often arrive to seek asylum with limited information or evidence which immigration or social services can rely on to conduct assessments.
When attending an interview, some young people are often silent or reticent about their past. Some may be suspicious about how their information may be used to determine their asylum claim. Others will divulge information about their past but their recollections may be limited by fragmented understanding of what has happened to them. These challenges make it difficult to make sound and objective initial assessments, bringing profound implications for the type of placement that is offered to separated children and young people.
For young people who face a dispute about whether they are over 16 or not, a lot hinges on these initial assessments. It can be a profoundly stressful experience and result in them sharing accommodation with much older adults.
Impact on mental health
As part of my research, I have conducted interviews with 12 separated young people living in semi-independent or independent accommodation in Cardiff, Newport and the surrounding areas to find out about their health and well-being. They described their experiences since arriving in the UK to seek asylum as unsupportive and distressing.
I observed that they suffered from social isolation, loneliness, emotional neglect, bullying, panic attacks and disturbed sleep patterns. Some had also suffered sexual harassment and abuse. They were at risk of despondency, generalised anxiety and depression.
One 16-year-old Pakistani girl who has been subjected to an age dispute, and is now living in Cardiff in a shared accommodation with adults, told me:
I have no one to talk with since I was moved to live here. I feel alone all the time and hate going outside my room. I am just thinking of my friends I left behind. I wish they were here.
Like her, most separated young people I’ve spoken to reported that they had a limited social support network – which has been shown to be a risk factor for physical and mental health difficulties. A 2011 report by the Welsh Refugee Council, Young Lives in Limbo, noted that separated young people whose ages were disputed and who lived in shared accommodation had often been subjected to bullying, abuse and isolation – causing problems for their mental health and well being.
The need for stability
These children and young people may have experienced trauma, loss and displacement on their journey to seek asylum in the UK. Most of them arrive as teenagers and will live in an atmosphere of uncertainty for a protracted period of time while their asylum claims are being processed. In these circumstances, they require a secure and safe placement where they can establish and maintain useful social support networks. Frequent accommodation changes and unsupportive living arrangements can hinder any therapeutic work with children and young people separated from their families.
Mentorship programmes, such as those initiated by the charity Serving Others through Voluntary Action for refugees and asylum-seekers in Wales, can help. This is an opportunity to build new attachments and construct a network of social support that can bridge the gap between the past and the present and create a sense of stability.
Initial assessments of asylum seekers who have been separated from their families should also focus on the need for stability in their placements. Once this is established, young people may be empowered to make sense of what has happened to them and participate meaningfully in resettlement and integration in their host community.