Asylum-seeking young people are being dispersed to foster carers around the country – but is there enough support in place?
When Dawn Heyes finally arranged a school interview for the three Afghani boys she fosters in a sleepy seaside town in Essex, a panel of teachers filed in with a rulebook. “We have a no-knives policy,” one said. She then proceeded to read aloud the school’s policy on weapons.
“I was horrified,” says Heyes, who has been fostering for 20 years and recently started caring for asylum-seeking youths. “They might as well have been saying, ‘If you have a bomb strapped on you, get out.’”
On Friday, the government will begin sending unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum to cities and towns across England, raising concerns about integration in parts of the country where anti-migrant attitudes have been stoked by the EU referendum debate and where they may be isolated from support services.
Last year, more than 3,000 refugee children came alone to British ports and airports, and the councils where they first arrived were legally required to care for them. Now councils across England will share responsibility more equally, easing the burden on gateway councils mainly in the south. The 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from camps in North Africa and the Middle East, and those alone in Europe, who the government agreed to take over the course of this parliament following a revolt by MPs and Lords, will be dispersed through this national scheme.
At least initially, much of this work will fall to the 55,000-strong cadre of foster carers in the UK. Many councils are actively recruiting new carers, too, but some experts say that skilled carers can often better meet the complex needs of asylum-seeking children. Heyes, who asked that her name be changed and for the seaside town not to be identified for the boys’ safety, knows first-hand the potential problems in a town without resources for young asylum seekers.
Heyes lives in a largely white British community, where support for Ukip has increased in recent years. She began fostering the three asylum-seeking boys from Afghanistan, who are aged between 12 to 15, in February last year, after police found them at a nearby truck stop. She knew to expect an initial period of bewilderment. After all, they didn’t share a language, a faith, or a diet, so Heyes bought a Pashto-English dictionary and they pointed when words failed.
Then came some of the harder realisations. The council struggled to hire local interpreters for doctor’s appointments and education meetings. It took more than three months to arrange that uncomfortable first interview with local school administrators, who were wholly unprepared for non-English speaking students. Though some of Heyes’ friends offered help when they could, others said the boys weren’t welcome at their houses. “I have too many Ukip friends,” they’d explain, before hanging up the phone, says Heyes
As part of the dispersal scheme, funding for asylum-seeking children nationally will rise by more than 20%, to a maximum level of £41,614 a year per child – still short of the £50,000 that the Local Government Association calculates as the average yearly cost per child. The programme will begin in England, and Welsh and Scottish local authorities may join in down the line.
The boost in government support could help councils expand access to interpreters and cover training costs for foster carers and support staff. But children’s advocates and refugee groups say that the trickier task of helping these children feel at home is equally essential.
“What we’ve found is an issue around integration,” says Frances Trevena, acting head of policy and programmes for Coram Children’s Legal Centre. “This group of children requires specialist care that local authorities may not be able to provide.” She adds that councils can engage with local support groups and national refugee organisations to ensure that youths in more remote areas find the social and legal support they often need. Preparing local doctors, teachers, and other public servants will also be crucial.
One of Heyes’ boys, Bashir Khan (not his real name) doesn’t read the news, but he senses that his peers judge him on his background. “It was difficult at first to make friends,” says Khan, who fled the threat of violence in Afghanistan at the age of 12. “Some make comments about Afghanistan, or think that every Muslim is Isis, and I’d rather stay away than argue.” Khan, 15, has been in school for the past year, learning English with his two foster brothers. He recently won a district achievement award after his new friends nominated him for the prize.
But even with friends, Khan says he can’t speak openly about life in Afghanistan, or what it took to get here. “It’s hard that I can’t tell them what’s in my head,” says Khan. “But I think it’s the right thing not to tell them.” Khan can’t contact his parents or friends back home for safety reasons, so having a foster family who try to learn his culture has been key to feeling more settled.
The new dispersal programme for unaccompanied youths differs considerably from the scheme for adults, which the 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act introduced in 2001. It has come under fire for relocating asylum seekers largely to deprived cities with some of the cheapest housing. “This programme could be seen as being more equitable,” says Ala Sirriyeh, a lecturer in sociology at Keele University, and author of a book on fostering unaccompanied asylum-seeker children in the UK. “But it would be ideal if young people were dispersed to areas where there was already expertise around refugees and asylum rather than trying to start that from scratch.” She adds that typically children learn English quicker in an English-speaking home, but some say that being in a home from a shared cultural background provides comfort. In both cases, connecting the children with some kind of ongoing link to their cultural background, like a friendship network, for example, is helpful.
Dave Hill, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), recognises that the infrastructural challenges will be significant. “The further afield you go from major cities, the harder it gets – with translators, accessing education, and schools that are used to coping,” he says. “It’s going to be a bit messy, but if we’re going to make this work, everyone has to make it work together.”
As Khan sits with me in his sun-drenched living room, Heyes is preparing halal meat for Iftar – the meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan. “On the one hand, they’re just teenage boys, but on the other, they’ve walked halfway across the world just to get here,” Heyes says. “I hope it’s worth it for them.”
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