Article: A Humane Rite of Passage: Supporting young unaccompanied asylum seekers transitioning into adulthood
Onaiwu Omorogbe and Tina Salter explore the experiences of Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children in the UK and the barriers they face. This rapid evidence review draws on existing research to propose implications for policy and practice.
The transition from childhood to adulthood as Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) can be precarious, as key help and support can end abruptly. Although a lot has been written over the recent decades on the rights and well-being of UASC who arrive in the United Kingdom (UK), it is worrying that little information is available about what happens after these ‘children’ attain institutional ‘adulthood’ at the age of 18. As a young person, this phase might mean attaining legal status, suffering unending times of uncertainty, or being “illegal” and then re-migrating. Without a solid legal status, young people lose many rights and safeguards and face substantial risks. Adults may leave schooling, social services, financial security, housing, and legal help. Secure indefinite permission to remain can provide a strong foundation for recovery and the opportunity to realise future ambitions for self and family (Chase, 2020).
According to the Home Office (2021), in 2021 there were 3,762 applications to the UK from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. A person must be under the age of 18 and be separated from both parents to qualify as Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) and not be in the custody of an adult who is legally or customarily responsible for their care (Home Office, 2021). Furthermore, the term “asylum seeker” is used to describe forced migrants who seek refugee status but have not yet received it (Sigona, et al, 2017). To qualify for refugee status, an individual must show that they have been persecuted or are fearful of being persecuted. Asylum-seeking and refugee children, according to the law, have the right to access school and healthcare. Still, there are substantial gaps in understanding about how quickly they may do so and their journey through care and adulthood, as well as the systems meant to aid them. These laws protect children while they are still minors and, although Local authorities (LA) have a duty to prepare all youth in their care for adulthood, there is still a vacuum between national and local legislation, with minimal enforcement of needed services and protections. Research back from Who Cares? Trust (1993) and others have been describing the injustice UASC continues to face in England’s system but very little has been done about it; more recently, the same findings have been reported in Stein (2004) as well as Stevens and Uthayakumar-Cumarasamy (2022).
This study analyses findings which highlight issues that UASC’s might face, with a particular focus on those emerging for teenagers as they transition into adulthood. In so doing, this article will recommend changes which are needed to better support that transition. Specifically, the following three areas emerge as key aspects to consider when improving support for UASC: Barriers to education progression; Adverse effects on mental health and wellbeing; and UASCs’ need to feel they belong.
This research used a rapid evidence review approach drawing on secondary research sources, to help gain a better understanding of the experiences of young unaccompanied asylum seekers as they leave the care system. A search was carried out of research papers using the key terms: “refugee,” “asylum seeker/er,” “separated migrants”, “adulthood”, “transition”, and “unaccompanied minors”. This was done using the University of Bedfordshire Library database (Discover) and Google Scholar. Young people’s migratory experiences were documented long-term and retrospective in the qualitative research. All the participants arrived in England as “unaccompanied asylum-seeking children” (UASC). An emphasis was placed on looking at data which described their experiences as they reached “adulthood” (as defined by institutions) when they turned eighteen. The research excluded papers which explored the experience of pre-migration or focused on participants under the age of sixteen. Lastly, while it is not the aim to minimise or disregard the relevance of trauma and loss, or the levels of physical health suffered by UASC during or before their journey, this review was not directly concerned with these issues. Twenty-seven research papers met the criteria and were included in the research. Information gleaned from this literature review was handled ethically, ensuring existing research was not misrepresented or taken out of context.
The rapid evidence review highlighted three key themes which will be further explored. These included: 1). Barriers to education progression; 2). Adverse effects on mental health and wellbeing; and 3). UASC need to feel they belong.
1. Barriers to Education Progression
One of the common themes to repeatedly come up was regarding educational disruption. Brownlees and Finch (2010) found that education was essential to “nearly all” (p. 94) of the UASC they interviewed and that many participants connected education to their long-term goals. Similarly, educational and learning journeys in England were hailed by UASC as transformative. For the first time in their lives, some had the opportunity to pursue higher education degrees or nationally recognised certificates in their chosen fields of work. They suggested that increased knowledge had helped them see a more expansive future than they previously anticipated. In addition to the potential for better life outcomes, education also helped provide UASC the opportunity to socialise and build networks. However, as soon as the appeals rights of 18-year-olds were exhausted, educational pathways and aspirations might be suddenly halted. As a result of the stress and anxiety caused by lengthy legal proceedings, some young people decided to drop out of education altogether (Fuller and Hayes, 2020).
Gladwell (2021) also reported that more than seventy per cent of UASC expressed an interest in furthering their education. However, most UASC were skeptical about their academic abilities. Firstly, ineligibility for in-state tuition and student loans was often cited as a critical barrier to furthering one’s education beyond school. Although many scholarships have been established recently, the competition is fierce, and only a small number of UASC students have benefitted (Elwyn et al., 2012). Secondly, legal status was identified as a barrier. UASC described how anxieties about their immigration status made them unable to focus on their studies (Fuller and Hayes, 2020; Gladwell, 2021). When asked, students stated that their inability to focus on their education was primarily due to concerns about their immigration status (Gladwell, 2021). Where young people were marginally more optimistic about their possibilities of progress, this was explained by them being more familiar about scholarships or tuition exemptions, because they knew someone who had been successful having accessed these opportunities. This could be due to a number of factors such as: a) having a committed teacher go above and beyond to help them; b) having access to an English as an Additional Language course; c) having personal support. These additional support structures were seen as enabling factors (Gladwell, 2021).
Whilst it is generally accepted that having a degree improves employability options, this was not always the case for UASC (Gladwell, 2021). Because of their immigration status, even those with advanced degrees often ended up doing unskilled jobs requiring physical labour. According to one professional, the young people he worked with got no sick pay, no paid time off, and no choice over their work hours. “When you ask for a study break, your employer tells you, ‘Don’t bother coming back’, and that is only the beginning of the threats” (KIIEastMidlands4, cited in Gladwell, 2021, p.4929). Furthermore, wage inequality was also identified. Gladwell’s (2021) research also highlighted how some UASC ended up in jobs where they were not being paid the minimum wage, some as low as £2 per hour.
2. Adverse effects on mental health and wellbeing
Government policy and UASC experiences often had debilitating effects on young people’s subjective health, particularly as they approached the age of eighteen and had exacerbated their worry about legal difficulties (Chase, 2020; Humphris and Sigona, 2019). UASC spoke about suicidal thoughts and attempts (Sigona et al., 2017). Young UASC were also found to be reluctant to access health services in case it brought into question their legal status. Chase’s (2017) study found evidence of unhealthy coping behaviours, such as excessive drinking, drug use, and gambling. This was the case for Ghulam, a young boy from Afghanistan, who described how he finally sought care for his bad health via an NGO; he was discovered to have severe tuberculosis (Sigona et al., 2017). Strasser and Tibet’s (2020) research showed similar findings, stating a blurring of boundaries between health services that provided ‘care’ while also providing ‘surveillance’. Non-governmental organisations facilitated ‘safe places’ where specific individuals could only get medical and dental care. Prior to an appointment, there were typically extensive administrative processes that required form filling. One UASC described weeks of persistent dental discomfort while awaiting a dentist appointment (Chase, 2020).
When it comes to young people staying in England legally when they reach maturity, a lot is dependent on where they were born and whether they have access to high-quality legal assistance (Meloni and Chase, 2017). Having a recognised legal status is necessary for various statutory services, including housing, social security, health care (including dental care), and education. Discrimination, alienation, and isolation are common responses to a legal position that is tenuous at best. In one study, young individuals, notably from Afghanistan and Albania, moved from being ineligible for public money access to being legally recognised young people needing protection and assistance. There is also evidence (Bajaj and Stanford, 2022; Chen, 2022; White, 2022) that young individuals from various countries are managed differently in the immigration and asylum processes. It is important to note that many young people reported that they received inadequate or inconsistent legal advice, which grew more burdensome as they lost public funding for legal services (Chase, 2017). Forcible deportation is the most probable outcomes for young Albanians who attempt to seek refuge (Sigona et al, 2007). Young Afghans were also repatriated to their homeland or “disappeared” from public services to avoid being deported. If existing policy discourses around the fundamental causes for children going missing (such as being trafficked) are oversimplified, the results imply that the problem is likely to be more complicated. Destitution, homelessness, poor physical and mental health, and increased susceptibility to exploitation were common among the young individuals encountering this situation (Chase, 2017; Chase, 2020; Humphris and Sigona, 2019).
3. UASC need to feel they belong
UASC need to be able to build and sustain relationships with other individuals, but these bonds are dependent on more significant political and legal factors. There was a sense of ‘family’ among many young people in England in foster care (Sirriyeh and Ní Raghallaigh, 2018); while others expressed feeling that they were just ’numbers’, even though social workers were aware that many young people needed more attention than they could provide (Chase, 2020)
In Chase’s studies (2017 and 2020) very few UASC expressed how they maintained contact with foster caregivers after relocating to alternative housing and how critical foster caregivers provided continuity of support even when they were physically separated. In comparison, most young people aged 16 to 17 were placed in shared housing until they reached the age of eighteen; they expressed anxiety, loneliness, and social isolation because of the frequent and sudden adjustments (Meloni and Chase, 2017). Several UASC wanted to achieve independence sooner than suggested by a social worker. This revealed the differences amongst local authorities in the care processes (Allsopp and Chase, 2019; Butler 2019). Different local governments, resource distributions, and a young person’s country of origin influenced these processes. Even when they turned twenty-one, some young people received excellent care from social workers and other sections of the state’s social services. Some UASC described their local social worker as a ’father figure’ who they ’trust’ and who gave comfort and financial help (Groark et al, 2011). Social workers who went above and beyond to provide emotional support and practical assistance were lauded by these students for their support and resourcefulness in pursuing their educational goals (Wade et al., 2012). These studies highlighted how UASC had to rely on the community to fulfil a range of needs such as friendship, jobs and legal advice.
Another notable change seen during the transition to maturity was the shift in support; when they reached the age of eighteen, many teenagers switched from collaborating with a social worker to a personal adviser (Chase 2020). A social worker’s highly personalised and concentrated support was frequent compared to the more limited and intermittent support provided by personal advisors, who may meet with them as little as once a month. Some UASC, especially those who had previously had a strong and effective relationship with their social worker, interpreted this transition as abandonment or betrayal by social care organisations (Stein and Dixon, 2006; Wade, 2011). When relationships with foster caregivers were successful, they frequently extended beyond the age of eighteen and were critical sources of support for young people regardless of their legal status (Wade et al., 2012).
The transition from care to adulthood was challenging for many unaccompanied migrant youths (Chase, 2020; Meloni and Chase, 2017). Although this transition is typically completed by the age of eighteen, for some young people – particularly those with indefinite leave to remain – independence may occur at the age of twenty-one or even later. Most participating young people felt they were unprepared for the transition. If the local authorities concluded that they were no longer eligible for assistance, young people who had become ’adults’ but retained a precarious legal status frequently faced significant changes in social care support.
Local governments are accountable for promoting smoother transitions for looking after children by combining services and adapting assistance to fit individual needs (Children Act, 1989). Some UACS are eligible for support up to the age of 25. Uncertainty regarding their immigration status or a lack of clarity regarding their access to care and support following the age of eighteen exacerbates the difficulties faced by unaccompanied migrant children moving to independence (Humphris and Sigona, 2019). UASC frequently aspire to find employment and economic security, form their own homes, establish friendships, further their education, and reach many other goals (Chase, 2020; Wade, 2011). Systems and institutions that oversee their lives can stifle personal growth and individuality, often obstructing the road to maturity, such as creating institutional reliance and a shortage of freedom and control. Forced illegal labour and ongoing hiding from police and immigration officials deprive young people of any possibility of building ‘futures’, especially when they are unable to access public funding (Sigona et al., 2017).
Implications for Practice
All young people should be protected and secure, able to flourish and be suitably supported to transition well into adulthood. This study has shown that UASC frequently lack the support they need to do this, especially whilst they are reorientating their lives into a different culture from the one they were born into (Meloni et al., 2017). As long as youth workers have grasped some of the issues that UASC often face, they are well-positioned to offer informal support as well as guidance and advice. With the right knowledge and training, youth workers can signpost UASC to other service providers and help support them to navigate a complex set of systems. In addition, they can open up dialogue about personal interests, imagined futures, what they want to do in life, which could in turn help build confidence for them to start realising their aspirations. This will assist them in maintaining their self-esteem while in care, transitioning to independence, and achieving identity (Harkensee and Andrew, 2021; Stein and Dixon, 2006). More specifically, they may need assistance in obtaining legal recognition, particularly by advocating for their rights and ensuring that they could participate in decision-making that affected them. According to Honneth (2014), children who have received care and affection from significant adults in their life, who have been respected and advocated for their rights, and who have felt valued for their abilities and contributions are more likely to have increased self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem than those who have not. Overall, these attributes will assist young people in overcoming barriers associated with transitioning into adulthood.
Implications for policy
The temporary status of UASC has been shown to lead to school disruptions, social isolation, and health issues (Chase 2017; Chase 2020; Humphris and Sigona, 2019). A more secure and permanent status would provide unaccompanied minors with the security and stability needed to make sense of their often-tragic pasts and in order to build healthy futures. In addition, the 2015–2016 Immigration Bill amendment has effectively limited UASC access to higher education funding and other benefits. Individuals are required to adhere to immigration control procedures to continue receiving assistance (including accommodation). If young people do not adhere to these criteria, the transition to adulthood may entail living as an illegal migrant (Meloni et al., 2017). Additionally, care and support practices for unaccompanied migrant youth leaving care should be evaluated considering the Children and Social Work Act 2017. Mechanisms are required to facilitate young people’s participation in decision-making during the transition process to safeguard their best interests more effectively.
This article has suggested there are significant gaps and incompatibilities between UASC having positive futures and aspirations with the current hegemonic policies and discourses attempting to govern their lives. Research has identified several barriers to UASC and their future socioeconomic well-being, despite having aspirations. A key barrier was the lack of significant adults who can assist and support them with reorienting their lives (Brownless and Finch, 2010; Peterson et al.; 2017). Immigration status and mental health were also cited as barriers to educational advancement, but a lack of financial resources and social capital was also noted (Chase, 2020; Meloni and Chase, 2017). As a result of the lack of legal rights and benefits, systems and structures frequently stifled their personal development, resulting in institutional dependency and a lack of autonomy and control over their lives (Sigona et al., 2017; Wade, 2011). This rapid evidence review drew on secondary materials. To delve further into this important topic, more research is needed. It would be particularly helpful to capture the experiences and understanding of professionals such as youth workers who have had first experience in helping support UASC to expand the knowledge of best practice in this area.
These children and young people lack a supportive framework with the right kinds of professionals such as youth workers being able to step in and help, due to the ways in which these issues are concealed by the structures and systems which go against them. Even though local governments are required by law to prepare ’looked after’ children and young people for adulthood, research has revealed significant disparities in the assistance provided to this vulnerable population.
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Last Updated: 18 April 2023
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Onaiwu Omorogbe is an Airplay Worker at YMCA in RAF Halton and a recent graduate at the University of Bedfordshire with a BA in Childhood and Youth Studies.
Tina Salter is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire and teaches on the MA in Childhood, Youth and Family Studies course.