SNAP Cymru aims to support children and young people who encounter barriers to their education – all children deserve to reach their full potential! Our SNAP team can offer free and independent information and advice, as well as advocacy and training. Our services are open to any child/young person experiencing barriers to their learning (and any adult supporting them), and can be accessed via our helpline (0808 801 0608), or online enquiry form (Contact – SNAP Cymru).
We are proud to be working in partnership with the Immigration Advice Service – the following article is a guest piece written by Aileen Bowe (Writer and Correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service).
Much more is needed : Educational Opportunities for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children
Overview of the situation
When an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child (UASC) arrives in the UK, they enter a system that ostensibly has been designed to provide quality care and treat them in the same way as UK-born children. However, this is not always the case. Reports frequently show poorer outcomes for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
One of the ways that this is visible is in the educational journey for children with these backgrounds. As we outline in more detail in this article, while motivation can be very high for asylum-seeking children at primary and secondary level, this can then fall dramatically when it comes to moving to third level education as a result of systemic obstacles placed in the way of further progression.
What happens when UASC arrive in the UK?
Worldwide, there are 13 million child refugees. Since 2016, over 9,000 unaccompanied children have requested asylum in the UK. In the year ending March 2020, there were 2,205 grants of leave made in the UK to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (including grants of asylum, humanitarian protection, discretionary leave, UASC leave and other grants).
When a UASC arrives in the UK, they will either submit an asylum claim at their port of entry or at the national intake unit in Croydon. Local authorities are responsible for the welfare of children who are not accompanied by parents or guardians. The child may be transferred out of the care of the first council in which they are placed in if there is insufficient capacity to provide care.
Key considerations for unaccompanied child asylum seekers
It is widely accepted that unaccompanied refugee or asylum-seeking children have higher risks of developing mental health problems. As well as this, they are more likely to have experienced a number of adverse childhood events or traumatic experiences, including the death of parents or close family members, exposure to violence, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, and severe deprivation of basic needs.
“Significant” numbers of vulnerable young people have regularly been reported missing by authorities, and in some cases, even end up being trafficked or subject to further abuse. In 2020, following the onset of the pandemic, some forms of legislation designed to protect vulnerable children were removed. The Guardian reported that a 17-year-old unaccompanied child asylum seeker went missing from care after his in-person support was cancelled due to the legislation. Authorities stated he had not been accessing his support payments and there were serious concerns about his welfare.
This problem is not limited to the UK, as a recent report found that at least 18,000 unaccompanied child migrants have gone missing since 2018 after their arrival in European countries. The Lost in Europe project undertook research that found many European countries had child asylum systems that were not fit for purpose.
Accessing education as an unaccompanied child asylum seeker
Even the promise of an education and the hope that this brings with it is not a guarantee to unaccompanied asylum-seeking or migrant children. A Unicef report in 2018 found that no region in the UK was meeting its requirements to enrol asylum-seeking children into schools within their 20-day target.
Children with asylum seeker or refugee status under the age of 18 years have the same entitlements as British-born children, however, they may face additional obstacles, including language challenges, adapting to a new educational system, gaps in education history, social isolation, discrimination, or racism.
Unicef report into educational opportunities for UAS children
Unicef commissioned a report into the educational journey for refugee and asylum-seeking children which was published in 2020 and aimed to identify the barriers faced by these children transitioning to further or higher education.
The report found some of the primary factors preventing young people with these immigrant backgrounds from progressing with their education included lack of support and encouragement, poor mental health or emotional wellbeing, and poverty and disadvantage.
Some of its findings make for difficult reading. Despite facing significant disadvantages, the issues involved in accessing further or higher education are often prohibitive. One person quoted in the report stated, “even if [young people] are ready and willing to go to college, literally a £1.50 bus fare is what stops them.”
Another major challenge cited by respondents found that stakeholders frequently gave inaccurate or incorrect information about accessing opportunities for further study at higher level. The report noted, “Half of key informants described how young people are often given wrong information about their eligibility to study at FE level, including from teachers, social workers and other professionals supporting them.” It was reported that there was a widespread lack of awareness of the rights of young people in accessing further education.
Another area that represents significant disadvantages for young people with asylum seeker backgrounds relates to how young people access courses. Young people cite the challenges of gathering documents required by admissions officers and institutions. For unaccompanied child asylum seekers, it is not unusual for them to be unable to gather the required documents from their home countries to prove their levels of educational attainment.
Supporting young people with asylum seeker backgrounds
The report lays out its findings on the different stakeholders and what is needed to improve the life outcomes of these children. These include interventions or policy changes from the Department for Education, the Home Office, higher and further education institutions, schools, voluntary organisations and private sector organisations. Some of the recommendations include:
- The Home Office should provide clear guidance to educational institutes in relation to the Student Visa immigration permission and the rules around people with asylum seeker or refugee status
- Further education institutes should exercise appropriate discretion and flexibility when dealing with students applying for courses or funding
- Schools should establish effective pastoral and mental health systems to provide encouragement and tailored support for young people who wish to continue within education
Organisations working to support asylum seeking young people
In Wales, there are several organisations working to provide support and care to refugee and asylum-seeking families and children. Many of these have an understanding of adverse childhood events and the impact these have on life outcomes.
Displaced People in Action (Wales) has been supporting refugees and asylum seekers in Wales since 2001. They provide a range of much-needed supports, with the ultimate mission of empowering these individuals to become more confident, more integrated, and self-sufficient.
Similarly, SNAP Cymru provides support to individuals who have faced discrimination in education. The work of these organisations in ensuring equal educational opportunities for all children in the UK, no matter their background, is vitally important.
Another recent and comprehensive report jointly published by the WHO, Wales Public Health, and the Cymru Well Wales Adverse Childhood Events Support Hub. The report highlights the potential for adverse childhood events (ACE) to occur throughout the migration journey. This can include pre-migration, on the migration journey, and post-migration. The report notes that, “By the time a displaced child arrives in a host country, he or she is likely to have experienced a multitude of ACEs due to their reasons for migrating and on their journeys to host countries.”
Despite the significant difficulties and often traumatic experiences of children with asylum seeker backgrounds, the report found that many children have a strong commitment to education and have ambitions to enter higher education. However, it is important to point out that not there is not always a negative relationship between war trauma and lower educational outcomes – in some instances, there can be insignificant or even positive effects on educational attainment.
It can be difficult to think about the struggles and challenges faced by asylum-seeking children, and it is impossible not to empathise with the hardships they have seen. Despite this, numerous studies[i] have shown that these groups of children are incredibly resilient, and if given opportunities, they show the capacity to embrace opportunities for growth and development.
Even for adults, there are extensive difficulties involved in getting immigration permissions to stay in the UK after arriving as an asylum seeker. The route towards citizenship is a complex path, and this is especially the case for children. Becoming a UK citizen brings with it many freedoms and can offer second chance at life for many children.
The value of education for improving life outcomes and improving mental health and wellbeing cannot be overstated. One 2005 study[ii] found that access to school and the opportunity to integrate well into a new educational system can actually mitigate the effects of trauma on young people with refugee backgrounds.
Aileen Bowe is a writer and correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that provides legal aid to forcibly displaced persons.