The government’s decision to grant refuge to 20,000 Syrians over the next five years is a welcome move, particularly because children will be a priority.
The government plans to use existing resettlement schemes and networks to accommodate Syrian refugees. This includes the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Scheme, which provides support to families for the first 12 months after arrival including accommodation, integration support and English tuition. Families will also be able to work and claim benefits.
But local authorities and other agencies will need additional resources to support families’ needs. It is vital they have the school places, translation services, access to GPs and therapeutic support that children and parents need to recover from their experiences.
Beyond this programme, there have been significant increases in the numbers of children fleeing war and persecution arriving alone this year. The needs of unaccompanied refugee children for immediate safety and specialist support are crucial but it is vital their long-term needs are considered from the outset.
The Children’s Society’s recent research ‘Not Just A Temporary Fix’, which interviewed a number of professionals as well as unaccompanied young people, found that too often consideration of these children’s long-term needs is forgotten or avoided due to priorities to control immigration. When they reach adulthood many face a process which can leave them in a legal limbo and destitute.
Many former separated children who have been granted leave in the UK for limited periods of time are expected to return to their country of origin at 18 but statistics show few are being removed from the UK or return voluntarily. There are often barriers to their return, such as the country not providing them with travel documents, as well as a fear of what awaits them. This drives some young people to disengage from their local authority and remain in the UK without documentation.
It is vital that government at every level takes steps to keep these children safe.
Local authorities have an important role in providing these children with a voice as well as understanding and responding to their needs. They should make sure social workers can work with children from different cultures and understand the immigration system. Also, there must be a multi-agency process that includes social services, foster carers, health professionals, voluntary organisations and international protection experts, to determine these children’s best interests. Local authorities should be central to this.
As with any child in care, these children need an outcome that addresses all of their needs, considers their views and leads to them developing the independence, responsibility and resilience necessary to become an active member of society.
Ilona Pinter, policy adviser at The Children’s Society