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The Image Of Asylum Seekers Social Work Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 3546 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) are amongst the discriminated and oppressed social groups in the UK .They are vulnerable but this is not always well matched with their access to services (Kohli and Mitchell, 2007) and they are just children in need (Howarth 2001).This essay shall explore some aspects of discrimination that affect them, the legislative and policy context in which discrimination is located and how organised systems in policy and law attempt to address this reality. Reference shall be made to direct experiences from unaccompanied asylum seeking children and also link their experiences to those of the broader asylum seekers category in order to establish the prospects of equality in the context of social services support.

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One of the core elements in the effective support of vulnerable people is to treat every person /child/adult as an individual. In this case, each child has their own narrative which must be looked at holistically in order to create necessary support structures which would trigger the necessary welfare provisions for the individual to be safeguarded and supported through their crisis. Hynes (2011) argues that asylum seekers are far removed from the perception of being ordinary people.

‘Instead, they continue to experience extraordinary circumstances in the UK, with the common experience of being socially excluded and with little opportunity for these experiences to be understood’ (Hynes 2011:p.42).

Kohli (2007) reiterates that in guidance for working with this vulnerable group, the dominant theme must be one of seeing them as ‘children in need first’ and as asylum claimants later. UASC’s extraordinary experiences cut across all facets of life, across time, across continents, access to services, through detention, lack of adequate supportive information, language barriers, tough procedures and negative social labels.

The term ‘unaccompanied asylum-seeking children’ is used to describe individuals who arrive in the UK under the age of 18, without a parent or other adult relative or guardian who is prepared to take responsibility for them, and who make an application for asylum in their own right (United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR,1994)

Home Office (2012) figures issued show that ‘In 2011, 6% (1,277) of main applicants were UASC. Almost a third (30%) of UASC applications were made by male nationals of Afghanistan; and overall 82% (1,049) of applications were from male applicants. UASC annual applications continue to fall and fell by 26% between 2010 (1,717 applications) and 2011. This decreasing trend has been influenced by falling applications from nationals of Afghanistan’. There are direct drivers of the migration of unaccompanied minors like war and civil unrest, rape and torture which rise beyond the economic argument that is often painted by the media.

Where UK born children are treated and understood as innocent, UASC are defined by their immigration status and suspicion (Kvittingen, 2012, Sales, 2007). It’s extremely difficult for UASC to navigate through the system of immigration to welfare. In the same environment there are two forces at work, social work practice versus political and economic environment. The initial hurdle is the immigration process which is restrictive and controlling. An example would be that of the age assessment process. Cemlyn & Briskman (2003) argue that there are limited resources for social work teams which inevitably shrink the resources with which the social workers have at their disposal. The unfair outcome includes high % of age disputes that often exclude UASC from the welfare provision under the Children Act 1989, Section 20 for looked after children. From such processes, difference in treatment emerges and discrimination and oppression are experienced.

Discrimination and oppression

Thompson (2012) characterises discrimination as a process where difference is identified and the difference becomes the basis ‘of unfair treatment’ (Thompson 2012:7) Experiences resulting from such treatment locate the individual in a disadvantaged position. Thompson adds that this ‘discrimination then becomes a source of oppression. The process of identifying some people as ‘different’ and when they receive inhuman or degrading treatment’ is that key moment which social work practice must stand and challenge (Thompson 2012). Discrimination is therefore understood in its sociological, political and psychological contexts (Thompson 2012) by centrally considering inherent power dynamics between the vulnerable asylum seeking child and the service provider located at the centre of welfare distribution and care.

From arrival, UASC must be understood as children in search of safety, as individuals with positive ambitions and as individuals in need of support (Kohli 2007). The social work intervention process has been implicated for being oppressive by Humphries (2004);

Social work has been drawn into implementing racist policy initiatives whilst maintaining its unreflective, self deceiving ‘anti-oppressive ‘belief systems (p95)

It is always important to realise that whilst there is great emphasis on good practice as anti-discriminatory practice, ‘The relationship is a double edged one, consisting of elements of care and control. It is double edged in the sense that it can lead to either empowerment or potential oppression. The state through its machinery can control people to the extent that they become discriminated and oppressed. ‘Social work interventions can help or hinder, empower or oppress’ (Thompson 2012:8). There are inherent power dynamics in operation, with the UASC occupying the weak needy position versus the state and its range of oppressive machinery. Moral obligations rather than differences must take precedence in the provision of services. There are numerous levels at which the difference of UASC are treated differently. Khohli (2007) argues that there have been numerous concerns raised regarding shortfalls in the areas of education, health provision and immigration practices and how social work policies reinforce these disparities.

There are socially constructed perceptions and structural determinants in the discrimination and oppression of UASC worth looking at .Thompson’s model of understanding how inequalities and discrimination feature in people’s lives within their interactions by way of a PCS model (Thompson 2012) which emphasises on the Personal, Cultural and Structural determinants and levels at which discrimination operates. From the moment that the children arrive in UK they are bombarded with administrative processes that are complex, processes that include age assessment, and face a restrictive immigration system which stands as an enormous wall potentially blocking their access to welfare. Crawley (2007) argues that all these processes are more focussed on border control than on welfare provision.

Part of the key procedure on entry for welfare provision is the age assessment, this is carried out by social workers and the determination on the assessment can determine the UASC’s life. Age assessments are not always accurate and there are medical error margins of up to 5 years either side (Lenvenson& Sharma 2004). Suspicion, doubt, lack of trust and general prejudice about asylum seekers is a reality that the media has successfully propelled. Thomas, (Guardian, 2012) British Red Cross head of external relations proved that the public perception of asylum seekers is primarily painted as ‘scroungers’. Professionals must support UASC without such prejudices and the social constructions which hinder the diversity agenda and structural tools which are designed to fail these children must be abandoned and these children must be seen as children first.Collett (2004) argues that ‘social workers are increasingly drawn into the dirty work of social policy, where we reinforce the oppressions that we should be challenging’ (2004;88).Humphries (2004)adds that the role of social work has shifted towards control, restriction, surveillance and ultimately exclusion. There has been a gravitational shift of social workers into pseudo immigration officials. The cost of which has been the loss of the humanistic, companionship and welfare element which are core in cultural tolerance and diversity in social work practice.

Besides the systems’ restrictive nature, the asylum process is stressful for children who have just escaped a traumatic past in the hope of finding help and support (Kohli, 2007). There is sufficient evidence examined regarding the ever shifting ‘goal posts’ system for asylum seekers intended to squeeze them out and deter application influxes. An example is UASC’s housing needs processing which reinforces the differences between UK born children where some UASC are being housed in hostels where there is evidence of low level support and detachment. UASC are often sacrificed through fast track housing provisions as demonstrated in Solihull where Wellman (2011) argues that teenage asylum seekers were to be treated ‘less favourably’ than local children under plans by Solihull Council to fast-track them from foster care into supported housing.

Watters (2008) examines the position of unaccompanied asylum seeking children in the UK tracing their experiences from ports of entry and highlights that safety and security are key aspirations for these children in an environment that is not hostile, a place to call home and enjoy life as a child. There is a ‘…pervasive culture of disbelief among immigration and welfare institutions in receiving countries’ (Watters 2008:71) of UASC. It is important to understand their pre-departure experiences. Against this background of aspirations reality is often different, the welcoming description at pre-departure often vanished as children faced a stark reality of having no food, no money and oftentimes unable to speak the language. More so, there is often lack of support during the early parts of the asylum screening interview, yet this later forms the basis of whether the application is successful or not (Watters 2008).

Being a foreigner in the UK must be understood as a package that has a host of attachments to it, some often face multiple discriminations e.g. black asylum seeking children could lead to being racially maltreated in communities/context of where they are accommodated after care. This perpetuates the cycle of social exclusion and discrimination. Thompson’s PCS model would here be referred to in the context of how community’s social construction and media perceive UASC and resultant repulsive treatment.

According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC 2012), UASC often find the situations exacerbating their social category of oppression and discrimination in that the conditions in immigration screening centres are not child-friendly. Oftentimes there is very little or no knowledge and a lack of understanding about the specific issues relating to child-specific forms of persecution because of the remoteness of where they are coming from. An Independent Guardian in this case would help in establishing support bases for the young people and to be a disclosure point. It is difficult for young people to share their innermost life story to strangers, communication depends highly on relationship and having this support relationship helps the young people’s presentation of their case (NSPCC).

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UASC’s transition into adulthood has another host of challenges in which they need support to be ready enough for life on their own .The NSPCC argues that ‘the National Asylum Support System (NASS) prevents vulnerable children from falling through the net (NSPCC). If there is lack of support, then the outcome can either be their disappearance or exploitation. This means that it is of paramount importance to extend the support so that the system cushions the young people rather than leaving them to fall into uncertainty where poverty, social exclusion, discrimination and oppression can take over. Any failing by the state through its range of support machinery for young people would perpetuate the cycle of poverty and the oppression of UASC.

In cases where age assessment determines the UASC as over 18, this leads to detention where their treatment transforms to that of an adult and welfare support deficit is experienced. NSPCC has an example in the stories of two boys in contact with one Young People’s Centres. ‘The boys had their age disputed for more than a year. One of these boys was placed in National Asylum Support Service (NASS) accommodation. He was a vulnerable child, yet he was placed in unsupported accommodation with adults. Neither of the boys was able to receive support from the local authority and as such their safeguarding and emotional wellbeing needs were not met’ (NSPCC). Such an experience affects the child, and as this essay has argued, it’s because of structural reasons, tools and processes that not always accurately capture the reality of children and their lives, this affects service provision. Fast tracking this contested age category for housing can be counterproductive and oppressive as it fails to account for the individual child’s needs.

The dispersal model applied in the UK for asylum seekers extends the idea of what Carter and El-Hassan (2003:10-11) term ‘institutionalised seclusion’. Hynes (2011) describes the dispersal situation as ‘betwixt and between’, in a country but outside mainstream society. The incremental exclusion of asylum seekers through this method has been patterned through the service allocation system saliently eroding the individual rights of asylum seekers who receive support as a homogenous group in chosen isolated locations.Overall, the system is a deterrent immigration strategy. Hynes (2011) adds that ,’The exclusion of asylum seekers from ordinary living patterns through exclusionary practices and the inability to restore normal routines during the dispersal process meant that they occupied luminal spaces’ (p.178). The same can be applied to children who are allocated accommodation in areas where there are few or no support services for them. Dispersal without considering the welfare and interests of the child is administratively and structurally discriminatory; safeguarding the children should still remain a core element in the child’s service provision considerations as part of aftercare support.

Part of the systemic discrimination is a result of limited training for social workers which makes it appear as if UASC are difficult to reach, when in actual fact it is a group that is easy to ignore! At community level UASC are viewed with disgust, racist abuse and educational underperformance. At school, Rutter argues that ‘central government needs to acknowledge school children’s under-achievement also has causes that lie outside the school’ (Rutter 2006:208)

Legal Framework for UASC

In order to protect the rights of the UASC and be professionally consistent, they must be treated as children first and foremost and the Children’s Act 1989 becomes relevant. Of importance from The Children Act 1989 are clauses stating that the welfare of children must be the paramount consideration when the courts are making decisions about them and local authorities are charged with duties to identify children in need and to safeguard and promote their welfare. Also importantly stated is the fact that delays in deciding questions concerning children are likely to prejudice their welfare. Local authority must provide welfare by seeing UASC as children first. This law provides a safety net for all children within the UK borders. The conflict emerges where Immigration law meets children’s rights legislation and a radical shift emerges emphasising more on controlling borders than welfare provision (Fell, Hayes, 2007).

UASC must be assessed by the Framework for the assessment of children in need and their families and accommodated under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 (NSPCC). As a result of lack of clarity on children’s available support, some children have been placed in bed and breakfast accommodation without support, mixing with adults whose criminal history is often not held. This exposes the vulnerable children to abuse and exploitation. Such a system again demonstrates how structural procedures discriminate and oppress UASC. The semi-independent living option is also not a better option for those just over 16. Their vulnerability levels are high and support is highly needed to safeguard them in their development and transition into adulthood.

The Human Rights Act is a guiding legal framework applied in the UK and is core to how UASC in particular and refugees in general are supported. Asylum seekers are to be treated as individuals with rights namely the Right to life, Freedom from torture, Freedom from slavery, Right to a fair trial, Freedom of speech and Freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

The Human Rights law is a universal safeguard and UASC can be protected from discrimination by its application. In a study carried out by the Independent Asylum Commission, Sir Waite said,

“The overuse of detention, the scale of destitution and the severity of removals are all areas which need attention before the system can be described as fit for purpose. The detention of asylum seekers is overused, oppressive and an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer, and the detention of children wholly unjustified”. Dawar (2008) [The guardian]

Its only by appealing to law that such progressive challenges can be made.

The NSPCC (2012) campaigns and supports these children on the basis of equality arguing that the protection and welfare of asylum-seeking and refugee children is the same as that afforded to other children. The Children’s rights must be considered as core elements in the planning, assessment and service provision for this vulnerable group considering the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child particularly instruments for the right to maximum survival and development ,the right to identity ,the right to family unity and the right to participate .The right to protection from all forms of violence, injury, abuse, neglect or exploitation as well as the right to special assistance if the child is deprived of their family .The right to be protected from economic exploitation and the right to protection from violence, abuse, exploitation, trafficking is only realisable where the UASC are supported fully without falling through the safety net. Issues around the limitation of detention as a measure of last resort are important in working with UASC. The duty of the government to take measures to ensure that child victims of armed conflict, torture, neglect or exploitation receive treatment for recovery and social integration is important as part of the therapeutic support necessary for their wellbeing.

Policy and Practice guidance’s on working with UASC

By use of legislation and practice guidance’s, UASC can be safeguarded and supported. Instead of describing them as UASC’s these young people view themselves as (and rightly so) ‘footballers’ ‘doctors’ ‘teachers’ ‘president’. They are ambitious and determined to live outside this discriminatory environment and label. Payne (2005) argues that, ‘Some people dislike being called minority or oppressed groups, or being associated with any groups at all. Sometime because it might imply being seen as a victim of categorisation, which the person does not accept’ (2005:289).


Practical, political and procedural realities are scattered on the social worker’s professional pathway. Kohli (2007) rightly paints the complexity of being an UASC and being a social worker in the UK. The needs of vulnerable UASC remain a stark reality, leaves the social worker on the margins by either not being good enough or being too harsh (Kohli 2007). A young person from Glasgow said “Home is home – if it was better there I would have stayed”. Understanding UASC past, building relationships with them in humane ways and safeguarding them by use of law can enhance anti-oppressive practice. This can be the basis for challenging discrimination of this vulnerable child group. Social workers cannot achieve this alone, voluntary sector agencies like the Refugee Council and NSPCC can work in partnership with the UKBA to set intervention strategies for this vulnerable group with the care and sensitivity due for any child in need in UK.


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