Safeguarding Unaccompanied Children

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In the past three months we have experienced a sharp increase in the number of Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) coming to us for help. Often they are homeless and alone or living in Home Office accommodation in a chaotic setting, being treated as adults. This pattern is the same nationally.

UASCs are young people who are seeking asylum in the UK but who have been separated from their parents or carers. In January, we met over 20 people in this situation – more than we would have expected to meet in a whole year pre-pandemic. The vast majority of these are from Afghanistan but others are also from Sudan, Iraq and Syria, and they almost all identify as male.

While a child’s asylum claim is processed, they are cared for by a local authority, but often experience inadequate support due to systemic underfunding by national government. But the biggest problem we are dealing with is children who keep saying they are children but are not being believed.

Home Office officials often assign an age, essentially a guess, that defines them as an adult. Age is notoriously hard to assess accurately and it is rare for people to arrive with documents to prove it. Birth certificates are rare in Afghanistan for example. It is very common for people who have fled not to have these papers. A child trapped in adult accommodation, sleeping in parks or living with random people is at risk and until their age is accepted, a social worker will not (and cannot) take it on.

Our Young People’s Immigration Project works with Bristol City Council to create change and improve how asylum seeking children and young people are supported through the asylum and immigration systems. Due to the sharp increase of arrivals recently, we have had to redeploy some of this funding so our workers can take on supporting age disputed young people through this key moment in their lives.

The partnership with Bristol City Council since 2018 has already delivered results, as social workers are now tending to give the benefit of the doubt and take the child’s word for it where they can. This is good practice and saves time, money and trauma. There is still a desperate need for advocacy though as young people continue to fall through the cracks.

In the last few weeks alone, 6 young people have been accepted as children and taken out of danger and into support because of our work.

Challenging an age assessment can take months. At BRR, we will always advocate for the birth date that the young person claims, and try to support them with referrals to solicitors, using interpreters, providing hardship payments, phones and top up, as well as referring them to English classes. We work closely with Welcome Wednesdays from Creative Youth Network and Refugee Council’s Children’s Adviser, to help them develop social and community connections and provide holistic advice support. We have also been collecting therapeutic sensory items for ARC Clinic at Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) – a group that supports young people recovering from trauma. While such support does not achieve a quick fix, we hope that our interventions make a positive difference to these young peoples’ present and future lives.

For a personal account, please read Ali’s story here.