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Unaccompanied Refugee Children

Who are unaccompanied refugee children?

An unaccompanied asylum-seeking child (UASC) is outside his or her country of origin, under 18 years of age, and has not been accompanied by a close relative when travelling to the UK. Children may be fleeing persecution from any part of the world. In recent years significant numbers of unaccompanied asylum seeking children have come from Afghanistan, Iran and Eritrea. International law and guidance is clear that children can be refugees in their own right and should receive special protection in the process.

Children who arrive in the UK on their own should be supported by the local authority’s children’s services. Many of the pressures on asylum seekers are magnified for young people who arrive in the United Kingdom alone. Indeed they are a very vulnerable group. Many may come from unstable social situations and have high levels of anxiety or emotional distress as a result of the trauma of leaving their home country and their initial experiences of the host country. Being separated from their main carer, many will receive inadequate support in their new environment. This can compound feelings of isolation. They can face many difficulties accessing mainstream services. They may be more vulnerable to emotional or mental health problems, discrimination and racism.

How are 'looked after' children supported?
Local authorities have a duty to provide additional support for asylum seeking and refugee children who are ‘looked after’ under section 20 of the Children
Act 1989. Each child should have a personal education plan and it is the responsibility of schools to designate a named person to co-ordinate their educational provision. If ‘looked after’ children are moved, for example to a new foster placement, education must be in place before the move, unless it occurs in an emergency. ‘Looked after’ children should not spend more than 20 days out of education, including UASC once they have arrived in the UK and applied for asylum.

Teachers can find themselves having to play a significant supporting role in the life of unaccompanied refugee children. Indeed school provides them with one of the most important settings for their recovery and progress.

Verifying date of birth
One issue facing UASC on arrival in the UK is that they may be unable to verify their date of birth with official documents. Many countries UASC come from do not register births in the same way as in the UK. Refugees may have to travel on documents that do not belong to them or have been obtained fraudulently; this is accepted in international law in recognition that people may not be able to obtain passports or travel documents from a government from which they are escaping. These documents may have an adult’s date of birth so the child can more easily travel alone. During their journeys, children may also state that they are an adult, to avoid being separated from a group, or to protect themselves from adults who may want to exploit them. Young people can also easily thought to be an adult on their appearance alone. Appearance is an unreliable indicator of age, especially when children are going through puberty.

There is no single method of assessing a person’s age and it is widely accepted that it is a difficult task and that benefit of the doubt must be applied. Extreme caution should be exercised when deciding that someone should not be believed, and further guidance and expertise should always be sought. Further advice and guidance is available from Corum Children’s Legal Centre migrant children website.

Good practice

Teachers need to be sensitive to the experiences of all pupils when planning their teaching. They need to be especially welcoming to newly arrived unaccompanied refugee children. They need to avoid using language that excludes them, for example when referring to ‘parents’ or when setting up curriculum projects that involve or refer to ‘family’ at home.

Building social networks

Unaccompanied refugee children may have few contacts with others from their culture. Teachers will want to increase the child’s opportunities to meet other children who speak the same language and belong to their community. Teachers can also recognise the diverse cultures and languages of the pupils when curriculum planning, promoting self-esteem and interest in pupils’ own cultural backgrounds. Providing information on the local culture is also important so the child understands their new environment better.

Teachers can provide unaccompanied refugee children with additional opportunities to catch up with studies and access local community networks. For example they can put them in touch with, and if necessary initially accompany them to, local befriending and summer holiday schemes.

Monitoring progress and wellbeing

To ensure each child has appropriate support, teachers can identify any gaps in provision. Teachers can be the first to know when care arrangements are inadequate. One way of monitoring each child’s wellbeing is by tracking and reviewing their progress and achievement. It is recommended that looked after children have an individual education plan (IEP) that can ensure their progress is monitored and needs are met.

Practical help and support
Teachers need to give practical help to unaccompanied refugee children. They may not have the advice and support that parents usually provide. For example they may have little supervision managing their attendance and organising their time. It is important that schools give them extra support, guidance and encouragement. Unaccompanied refugee children may need help getting appropriate legal advice to ensure their long-term safety.

Student teachers who are working with unaccompanied refugee children may need to liaise closely with their form tutor, the teacher responsible for child protection and liaison with the local authority's children's service department, and, if different, the senior teacher who has overall responsibility for the education of all looked-after children. In the absence of parents or guardians, schools will need to maintain close links with foster carers and service providers, such as the Refugee Council’s children's services team. There are other agencies and services that provide help and support to unaccompanied refugee children; these include the Red Cross International Tracing and Message services if the child wants to try and contact relatives. Developing joint working between schools and other professionals can ensure that unaccompanied refugee children receive appropriate support and access their entitlements.

When working with unaccompanied refugee children it is important to ensure they have access to appropriate one-to-one support from an adult, for example from a mentor or a personal post-16 pathways adviser.

Listening and participation

Strategies that consult and encourage the participation of unaccompanied refugee children can be very helpful. This way, teachers can support the child’s ability to manage their situation themselves. By consulting refugee children, their needs can be better understood. Their participation in decisions that affect them helps them to be resilient, and supports their coping and adaptation to their new environment.

Frequently asked questions

Several unaccompanied refugee children arrive late in the curriculum, at key stage 4. How can I support their needs at such a late stage?

A significant proportion of unaccompanied refugee children arrive in school in the 14-16 age group. Teachers can find it especially challenging to include pupils from overseas who arrive late in the curriculum because they may be beginners of English, they are unlikely to have studied the same examination syllabus as their peers in the UK and they may have gaps in their learning resulting from interrupted schooling.

Some children may have had little or no previous school experience. However, new arrivals aged 14-16 can experience significant success. Teachers can provide effective support by consulting the pupil and providing comprehensive and accessible information so the young person is aware of the English education system and how to access additional advice and support.

A range of curriculum pathways at Key Stage 4 need to be explored so that assessment information accurately matches courses on offer and where there is a constrained choice of subjects, additional opportunities for extra study or EAL support need to be built in.

Some unaccompanied refugee children may benefit from access to vocational routes and work-related programmes. Teachers will want to work closely with post-16 pathways advisers to develop suitable support for each pupil. Some schools may run alternative programmes that respond flexibly to late arrivals’ needs, addressing gaps in learning resulting from interrupted schooling.

What can I do if I think an unaccompanied refugee child is being bullied?

If teachers become aware that a refugee child is being bullied or experiencing racial discrimination or abuse, he or she must acknowledge this with the child and seek ways of supporting them. The school should have procedures for dealing with such incidents. It is a statutory requirement for schools to have an anti-bullying policy and student teachers should make themselves aware of it.

All staff need to be vigilant in tackling bullying. Ofsted inspection takes into account types, rates and patterns of bullying and the effectiveness of the school’s actions to prevent and tackle all forms of bullying and harassment, which includes prejudice-based bullying related to special educational need, sexual orientation, sex, race, religion and belief, gender reassignment or disability. Inspectors judge the effectiveness of the school’s actions to prevent and tackle discriminatory and derogatory language, including homophobic and racist language, and language that is derogatory about disabled people.


Bill Bolloten
Tim Spafford

Key Readings and Resources