In advocates’ shoes – Autumn 2023

In this issue we hear from the Youth Casework team at South London Refugee Association.

The team undertakes advocacy type work with and on behalf of children in care and care leavers as part of their wider casework and support for children and young people under the age of 25 who are seeking asylum or have an insecure immigration status.

Can you start by telling us a bit about the work of the team?

Most of our work is with unaccompanied children and young people – i.e., those who have come to the UK without their parents or families. We help them with their asylum and immigration matters, and with housing, health, education and general welfare, as well as making sure that they are receiving any support they are entitled to from local authority children’s services. We refer the young people we support to their locally commissioned advocacy service where they need it and agree to it. It is important for these children and young people to know what rights they are entitled to and for the local authority to always remember that they have the same duties towards them as other children in care.

There are some contexts in which we need to undertake advocacy on their behalf too; for example, we may need to do some initial advocacy work before they can access the local authority support, or the advocacy they need might be specifically related to their immigration status and our knowledge of this area could be important to help them achieve the outcomes they are looking for.

It goes without saying that each child and young person is a unique individual. If, for a few minutes, you were to think about unaccompanied children and young people as a group, what would you say are the common threads in terms of their wishes and feelings when they arrive in the UK? Are there any?

The one universal issue for these young people is wanting to resolve their immigration status.

The experience of going through the UK asylum system is extremely challenging and stressful. Children and young people who are seeking asylum in the UK often find it understandably very difficult to engage with other aspects of their lives while their immigration cases are ongoing. Unfortunately, in some situations, this can continue for an extremely long time.

At the same time, in many ways, the wishes and feelings of this group are very similar to those of other children and young people – they want to feel a sense of security and belonging. Other wishes that often come up are young people wanting their social workers to be more responsive, wanting support to resolve insecure housing, and help with accessing education.

A key element of independent advocacy is making sure children and young people are heard, respected and included when decisions are made about them. How do you make this happen for unaccompanied children and young people? How do you help them overcome barriers such as language or other people’s attitudes and assumptions?

It can be very hard for young people to make their voices heard for many reasons, including language barriers. Young people are probably most often offered the support of interpreters in meetings that have been arranged by the local authority, rather than at dates or times of their choosing, which can have the effect of making them feel that they cannot communicate on their own terms.

While we do not have unlimited access to interpreters, we try to make the best use of our resources and use calls with interpreters as an opportunity for young people to tell us what they want to say to their social worker, and to clarify where they feel they may have been misunderstood.

We often have the sense that children and young people’s feelings – for example, feeling afraid or worried – are lost in the language barrier. It’s our impression that social workers sometimes perceive young people as much more confident and less distressed than they actually are because of how they come across in conversations with an interpreter present.

There is also the issue of prejudice from professionals. We often hear professionals justify a decision or response to a young person based on the assumption that the young person is lying or being misleading.

There is a culture of disbelief that exists around asylum seeking children that greatly limits their voices being heard of taken seriously. We see our role as believing the children and young people we work with and challenging other professionals when necessary.

Often enough, advocacy is about pushing back against the system with and alongside an individual child or young person. What, if any, are the recurring systemic issues that you come across in your work?  

One of the most frequent situations in which we act as advocates are when a child’s age has been disputed by children’s services. Very often, children who are seeking asylum will not have any identity documents which show their age, either because they never had these, because they left them in their country of origin, or because they lost them during their journey to the UK. Sometimes, when children do have these documents, children’s services do not accept on initial appraisal that they are genuine.

In such situations, we advocate for these children to make sure they are taken into care while we’re waiting for the local authority’s decision about the child’s age. We often have to enlist the help of lawyers to make sure these children get the care and support they are entitled to.

Can you share some of your happiest and proudest moments as advocates?

We always feel very proud when children’s services accept the age of a child whose age was disputed, because we know what important rights and entitlements they gain as looked after children and later as care leavers.

Recently, the local authority accepted the age of a very vulnerable child we had been advocating on behalf of without making him undergo an ‘age assessment’ – a lengthy interview process that young people generally have to undergo before children’s services make their decision about their age. We were really happy that the child was saved having to go through this potentially very stressful experience to get the care and support he deserved and was entitled to.

Given your expertise in working with and for unaccompanied children and young people, are there any tips you’d give other advocates who may not have as much insight into their experiences and needs? 

The immigration system is extremely complex and the consequences of a young person not understanding their immigration status can be devastating. A young person losing their permission to stay in the UK can mean them losing access to support from public services and not being entitled to any ‘mainstream’ benefits. Making sure that the child or the young person is given accurate information about their immigration status and what needs to happen to guarantee, as much as possible, their right to stay in the country is very important – they have the right to be given this information. Having a good understanding of their own immigration status gives children and young people a lot more power over their situation.

It’s important never to assume anything about the immigration status of a child in care, even if they are not seeking asylum and even if they may have been born in the UK.

If a child does not have British citizenship, it is vital to ensure they get legal advice and representation, and any other support necessary, including from children’s services, to ensure their immigration status is settled and secure, and that they can stay in the country and access health, education and other services.  

Social workers and other staff working with children and young people who are seeking asylum in the UK very often project a lot more maturity onto these young people than they actually possess and fail to recognise and respond to all of their vulnerabilities.

This is obviously particularly harmful in the case of young people whose age is disputed because it can lead to children and young people missing out on virtually all of local authority support. II can be also damaging when assumptions about maturity and levels of independence steer decisions about the type of accommodation the child is placed in, i.e., semi-independent placements where many children are struggling. It is important for advocates to be aware of this tendency and to question whether a social worker’s assessment of a young person’s maturity could be related to certain biases or aspects of the young person’s appearance and demeanour which can be connected to their experiences. For example, young people who are seeking asylum may have had a difficult journey to the UK which has caused them to appear physically older than other children their age.  Some children may be withdrawn as a way of avoiding thinking about traumatic past experiences.

Our final thought would be that even while specialist services like ours exist, local authority commissioned advocates have a really important role to play in supporting these children. It is not necessary for advocates to have a lot of experience working with children who have immigration experiences to be able to help; they only need to remember that these children have the same needs and rights as any young people in care.

A huge thank you to the entire team for speaking with us!