Katie Willis, Sue Clayton & Anna Gupta, authors of Unaccompanied Young Migrants: Identity, Care and Justice, look at the reality of immigration for unaccompanied and separated children.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) highlights the desperation felt by the thousands of people who risked their lives travelling to Europe across the Mediterranean or overland in 2018. The report Desperate Journeys: Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe and at Europe’s Borders states that in 2018, while nearly 140,000 people arrived in Greece, Italy and Spain in search of safety and security, an average of 6 people died every day on the Mediterranean crossing. Many more will have died on journeys through North Africa on their way to the coast.
Almost 11,000 of the new arrivals were unaccompanied and separated children (1,922 Greece; 3,536 Italy; 5,500 Spain). While the UNHCR does not state the number of children who died during sea crossings, it is very likely that many children were among those who perished.
If unaccompanied young people make it safely to Europe, their exposure to danger and uncertainty remains. UNHCR highlights significant failings in safeguarding unaccompanied children, which leaves them vulnerable to violence and trafficking. In some countries they are kept in poor conditions in reception (and sometimes detention) centres, and there are delays in processing asylum claims or providing young people with information about their rights.
Children who have the right to travel to the UK for family reunification under the European Dublin III regulation frequently face obstacles in having their move to the UK approved. This came to the fore during the demolition of the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp in 2016, but obstacles continue, not least through delays in Home Office decisions, or procedural errors. Similar problems have arisen during the implementation of the ‘Dubs Amendment’ (Section 67c ‘Unaccompanied refugee children relocation and support’ of the 2016 Immigration Act) which aims to resettle 480 unaccompanied children from elsewhere in Europe, in the UK.
Children who arrive in the UK seeking asylum qualify for protection under international conventions and law because of their status as children, but in reality many are not offered or given that security and care. The “best interests” principle stresses the importance of making decisions which are in the best interests of the child, but this is frequently ignored. In a context of increased nationalism and suspicion of migrants, UK government policy has been creating a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. For unaccompanied young people, their status as a migrant is often prioritised over their status as a child, going against international conventions to which the UK is a signatory.
If children’s asylum claims are denied, they will still be able to stay in the UK because of their age until legal adulthood. Once they reach 18, their legal status will change, and if their asylum appeal is refused, this could result in forcible removal from the UK, being sent to potentially dangerous locations where they have no family or other social networks. This would involve uprooting them from communities in the UK where they may have developed significant attachments over a number of years.
The uncertainty of what will happen once they are 18, combined with the trauma of past experiences, can have significant impacts on their health. This requires appropriate support from appropriately-trained and resourced social workers and health professionals. Unfortunately, Local Authority budget cuts have dismantled social work teams with specialist knowledge of working with unaccompanied young migrants and foster families.
Understanding the challenges that young migrants face, and supporting them in their often difficult physical and psychological journeys, requires a multi-disciplinary approach, and the involvement of a range of professional expertise. We would argue that this also demands a social justice and human rights perspective. The experiences of many young unaccompanied people include examples of material inequality, particularly once 18 and support services are severely reduced or on occasions withdrawn completely. Young people’s lives are framed by intersecting power relationships and complex, multiple identities. Young people highlight stigmatisation because of their immigration status, and a ‘culture of disbelief’ from professionals; while some also identify racism and discrimination on the basis of their religion.
Whilst it is important to recognise structural inequalities and the damaging impact these have on individuals and communities, it is also crucial to harness the power and agency of young people, despite these constraints. For social workers and other practitioners working with individual young people, there are possibilities for practice that promotes the individual young person’s rights and well-being. Positive relationships, a sense of belonging and been cared about can make a significant difference to young people’s lives, and practitioners have a role in developing these relationships with young people themselves; facilitating the young person’s development of these with other professionals and community organisations (e.g. good legal representation); and within their peer networks. Working alongside young people and other like-minded practitioners to challenge unequal power relationships and the underlying framework of the social order can be transformative.
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