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On the home front

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Dealing with young asylum seekers involves the double sensitivities of children’s needs and cultural integration. Robert Bullard finds out how two councils are rising to the challenge.

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 sensitive environment.

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.

Young asylum seekers: the facts

  • About 6,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are supported by local authorities (2007)
  • There are about 3,000 new cases a year (2007)
  • In 2005, 2,425 young asylum seekers claimed to be under 18 years old but were deemed over 18 by immigration officials
 2002 2003 2004 2005 
Total decisions6,990 3,835 3,440 2,835 
Grants of asylum6259%1654%1053%1706%
Refusals1,57523%89023%83024%87031%
Limited leave to remain4,79068%2,78073%2,50573%1,795 

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

First principles

“We work from first principles,” says Sheila Simpson, team manager of the leaving care service at Kensington & Chelsea Royal Borough Council. “They are children and young people first, and in care second — although they may have additionalneeds as asylum seekers.”

When large numbers of refugee children started arriving, the council created an unaccompanied minors team. Then, worried that specialisation might create a lesser service, it decided to mainstream their needs.

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

Kent County Council shares this inclusive approach and provides a service for more than 800 unaccompanied young asylumseekers.

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 for asylum seekers.

Challenges

There are four main challenges to the work, says Karen Goodman, Kent CC’s head of services for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people. First, 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 undersupply, with huge impacts on personnel and accommodation.”

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

The second challenge is similar. The children live in a world of uncertainty — they have to wait for the outcome of their asylum application and can suddenly receive significant news from their home country.

However, Department for Children, Schools and Families policies are based on 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, highlighting the 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 although they have the right to apply for an extension, this continues their uncertainty. “Asylum and immigration laws can totally cut through yourplanning,” she says.

She continues: “We try and keep their minds open to all 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, 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?’ asmuch 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. Yet 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 17-year-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 and suitable cohabitants can be difficult. But on top of these challenges is the difficulty of assessing the age of those who arrive, which also affects their entitlements and legal status.

Support

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

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

Kensington & 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 the question: ‘Arethey 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 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 some time — which is a challenge for social services in the current climate. It also involves recruiting staff and foster carersfrom similar countries, so as to help with cultural understanding and language issues. And there is the need for language-related educational support.

Challenging myths

Councils should provide a range of support, and be more informal and creative, says Ms Simpson. As examples, Kensington & 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 been given from the council’s cabinet member for children and families, Cllr Shireen Ritchie (Con) - pictured above..

“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 managers highlight 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 might be in conflict but they can come from loving families, and they thrive on the educational opportunities they are given in this country.

“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 needing multiple planning and other requirements.”

Find out more

Kensington & Chelsea Royal Borough Council

Sheila Simpson, team leader, leaving care.

Tel: 0207 598 4650 or e-mail: sheila.simpson@rbkc.gov.uk

Kent County Council

Karen Goodman, head of services for unaccompanied asylum seeking children and young people.

Tel: 01622 605258 or e-mail: karen.goodman@kent.gov.uk

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