According to UNHCR statistics, at the end of 2020, there were 132,349 refugees, 77,245 pending asylum cases and 4662 stateless persons in the UK [1].

A large proportion of these asylum seekers are children and many of them arrive in the UK without parents or guardians caring for them. An unaccompanied asylum-seeking child (UASC) is a person who, at the time of making their asylum application is under 18 and is applying for asylum without an adult family to support them.

Sarah Coles is an Ethnic Minority and Traveller Achievement Consultant at Hampshire County Council. Sarah discussed the ways that the council are supporting UASC to settle into their new community.

Hampshire has relatively few asylum seekers and refugees, although the numbers have risen significantly since 2016. This has meant that many of them are isolated and vulnerable, without a support system of people from their home country around them.

When these children arrive in Hampshire, there is a team of people involved in the integration process, including:

  • Home Office/immigration officers
  • Solicitors for legal advice
  • Social Workers
  • Foster Carers
  • Designated teacher in whichever school the UASC is placed
  • Ethnic Minority and Traveller Achievement Service (EMTAS)

The Role of Hampshire EMTAS

Hampshire’s Ethnic Minority and Traveller Achievement Service have produced several open access resources which act as guidance documents for schools and foster carers. They have published a wealth of general advice, defining key terms such as refugee, asylum seeker and UASC. The advice is both UASC and English as an Additional Language (EAL) specific, as EAL is also a challenge that many UASC face.

The EMTAS team have developed a resource library that contains books suitable for older asylum-seeking children with low reading ages. Additionally, an E-learning module is available for school staff, which uses a case study of a Hampshire school that effectively integrated Iranian UASC into their school.

The E-Learning module illustrated the value of:

  • Students being set according to underlying cognitive ability, not level of English language. English language abilities will come eventually, and should not be compared to cognitive intelligence.
  • Advising students to shadow others if they don’t know what certain subjects are like, to get a taster before making option choices.
  • Students being placed in the correct chronological year group and not held back, unless they have good English language and would do well at GCSE’s if they had an extra year at school.
  • Students staying in lessons all the time and not given lots of free periods on their timetables.
  • Students taking GCSE’s in their first language, when the resources are available.
  • The use of buddies, especially where there is shared language so that the young person has someone to lean on.
  • Schools encouraging young people to join clubs and extra-curricular activities with others, to try a new activity or to continue with one they might have enjoyed back home.
  • Setting alternative homework tasks such as pre-learning of key words before upcoming lessons so that some anxiety is removed before challenging lessons.

The EMTAS department at Hampshire Council is mindful of the varying needs of UASC. They use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a guide in ensuring that young people are settled into their new homes.

The council have stated that although physiological and safety needs are basic requirements, psychological needs must be met as well. All needs must to met for the UASC to be in the right headspace to access the things that they need to live a safe and happy life in the UK.

The EMTAS ensure that they share key/known information on the UASC with other involved professionals such as social workers so that both physiological and psychological needs can be met.

A Journey from Afghanistan

Many of Hampshire’s UASC are from Afghanistan. Numerous young people have travelled overland, sometimes on foot and sometimes on the back of lorries. They usually end up at Fleet Services in Hampshire. This is a journey of around 7806km.

When the council work with schools, they try to help them understand where these young people have come from and the kind of experiences they might have had on their journey. Schools can then make the appropriate allowances for them when they join.

Common experiences of children travelling from Afghanistan include:

  • Crossing deserts, mountains or stretches of water
  • The journey can take months – or in some cases years
  • Travelling on foot, backs of lorries, horseback, inflatable dingies
  • Physical and sexual assault
  • Theft of possessions
  • Earning money for the next leg of their journey by washing cars or being street vendors
  • Some experience arrest and being taken into police custody
  • Limited/no contact with families for long periods
  • Rough sleeping, begging, stealing

Below is a piece of artwork by an UASC from Afghanistan. On the right of the picture, the child has drawn the graves of his family members. He travelled through Iran and many other countries to arrive in the UK.

The impacts of trauma can be long-lasting:

  • Sleep problems and nightmares
  • Headaches and abdominal pain
  • Grief reactions – withdrawn, depression, not forming relationships with other students
  • Mood swings
  • Lacking concentration, restlessness, irritability
  • Distrust of adults
  • Difficulty adjusting to new environments
  • Threats of harm to self/others

Proactive Factors

It can be challenging for schools and foster carers to know how to accommodate children with such trauma. It is useful for foster carers to speak the language of the children or to come from a similar cultural background so that the child feels safe and welcome.

It also helps to encourage the children to continue reading, watching, and listening to things that are in their first language. The child should be given the space to continue practising their religion if they would like to.

The council suggest that the children have someone to confide in at schools such as an emotional literacy support assistant (ELSA) or a tutor.

Teachers should work hard to encourage and praise these students as they make progress in their schoolwork and with their spoken English. Bullying and racism should be monitored and dealt with effectively.

Teachers should be vigilant through ongoing monitoring of how the young persons peer-group integration is going. This should be demonstrated through regular and ongoing progress monitoring.

A strategy of Hampshire EMTAS is to produce profiles of the UASC that are more detailed than the regular referrals for learners of English as an additional language.

They have tailored their paperwork to make sure they capture what the UASC has experienced prior to them entering a school. The profile includes details of their cultural identity and possible impacts of trauma.

It also includes an assessment of first language skills, literacy skills, prior experience of education and of work, how they would like to observe their faith and aspirations for the future. The profiling gives schools an individual picture of how to best accommodate the children.

Teaching pedagogy varies from country to country, so some issues that teachers should consider that may challenge the UASC are:

  • Boys and girls being taught together
  • Gender roles
  • Curriculum content – taboo subjects; gaps; new subjects; culturally unfamiliar
  • Expectations – students may have assumed adult roles before
  • Religious differences
  • Managing freedoms
  • Knowing what’s acceptable and what’s not in terms of behaviours

Teachers should strive to check on children to make sure that they are not feeling uncomfortable. Often, a simple conversation and allowing the children to express their anxieties can help the child feel safer and happier in their school environment.

Overall, Hampshire County Council is striving to ensure that children that are arriving in the UK unaccompanied are supported thoroughly, through cultural and trauma awareness.

[1] UNHCR

[2] Hampshire County Council. Ethnic Minority and Traveler Achievement Consultant, Hampshire County Council

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Local authorities are continuously working to understand how best to integrate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children into UK schools and foster homes. We heard from Sarah Coles, Ethnic Minority and Traveller Achievement Consultant at Hampshire County Council on their recommendations for how schools and carers can best support these children.

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