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Our refugee children need more support

Scotland has an enlightened approach to welcoming refugees but it can go further in helping unaccompanied children to find a new family life, writes Carolyn Housman

For a country such as the United States, the so-called leader of the free world, to generate images of frightened children huddled together behind wire fences not knowing when, or even if, they would see their parents again, is shocking.

The immediate outrage across the world was so widespread it forced President Trump to sign an Executive Order to stop the policy, which saw more than 2,000 children as young as four months old being separated from their families. However, there is little sign of it having had any impact. For some of the families caught up in this travesty there is a real danger that the brutal actions of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will mean they are split apart for good.

In Scotland, the problems of unaccompanied refugee children are not the result of deliberate and unnecessary political mismanagement. For the children concerned, however, it matters little how they came to be here; the fact they may never see their parents and siblings again is all-consuming.

Scotland has made enormous strides in creating a joined-up, compassionate approach to welcoming refugees and engaging with partners at all levels to create a common policy and approach.

The forward-thinking “New Scots” strategy for theintegration of refugees, launched in January, was described as a “roadmap for how Scotland can best support people seeking refugee protection to build meaningful and sustainable lives here.”

Angela Constance, then Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, said at the launch: “For refugees, leaving home is not a choice. It is a necessity and they need understanding, support and hope for their future when they settle in a new country.”

But where Scotland has been more receptive to offering support for refugees, it appears to have a lower incidence of family reunification. For the increasing numbers of children who find themselves separated from their families across international borders, the News Scots’ Integration Strategy may not be the best answer.

Most children in such circumstances find themselves in care systems, usually run by local councils, which are not suitable for their long-term needs. Local authorities, in turn, find themselves having to pick up bills for providing such care which can often top £40,000 per child per year.

For children whose parents have been trafficked or exploited or are travelling as unaccompanied refugees, being reunited with their families must surely be a better option.

It’s a principle which SNP MPAngus MacNeil has been trying to support with his Private Members’ Bill on Refugees (Family Reunion). The Bill, which has had its second reading and is awaiting its committee stage date, sets out to grant provision for leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom to the family members of refugees and those granted humanitarian protection; and to ensure legal aid be made available for family reunion cases.

The Bill builds on the European Union Regulation, known as Dublin III, which establishes a method for deciding which country should process a claim for asylum.

In the case of unaccompanied children, the priority is to place them in the same member state as a family member or relative, provided it can be shown to be in the best interests of the child.

However it is vital that we ensure unaccompanied minors are placed with family members with strong support plans in place to ensure a long-term, sustainable home.

Recent research by Safe Passage, a project of the charity Citizens UK, has shown that some 30-40 per cent of reunifications progressed under the Dublin III regulations have led to family breakdown. However, it is worth noting that this is a particularly high figure. Family breakdown rates for families brought together by the charity I lead, Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB), sits at around 10 per cent.

Operating for more than 60 years, we are the only UK charity with a children’s international social work team and the UK’s only member of the International Social Service (ISS) network. We have decades of experience working with social services abroad and professionally assessing long-term care options for children in both the UK and more than 120 other countries.

Kinship care – when a child is placed with a close relative such as a step-parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or sibling – is often the best option for many vulnerable children. They feel more secure, settled and safe and their health, well-being and educational outcomes are as good as, or better, than in unrelated foster care.

Children in kinship care also benefit from increased placement stability compared to children in local authority care and are better able to maintain family relationships. Get a placement right and the effects on a child can be nothing short of miraculous.

But kinship in itself does not guarantee that a placement will go well. If things go wrong the results can easily increase the likelihood of a placement breaking down, exacerbating any emotional, behavioural and relationship problems that a child may have and increasing the chances of the child being taken into care.

This is of particular concern for children arriving in the UK from abroad. Typically, these children:

  • Are living in care abroad because their parents have died or because they are at risk of neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse;
  • Have been trafficked across international borders for exploitation, benefit fraud, forced marriage, modern slavery and criminal activity or;
  • Have fled war, disaster or extreme poverty in their own country.

As a result, they are often coming to terms with latent trauma from their journey and early life experience. This can often make it difficult for them to understand and cope with their new family situation, particularly if they are placed with relatives with whom they have no prior relationship or connection (it is common for children to live with relatives who are effectively strangers to them).

The strong commitment of kinship carers is key to children settling and making good progress but is often achieved at the expense of carers’ own well-being and sometimes emotional health.

Kinship carers report high rates of isolation, stress and long-term physical and mental illness. On top of this, they can be in precarious situations themselves – they may be asylum seekers or refugees, living on minimum salaries or benefits in cramped accommodation with other family members, not well integrated into society or with little or no access to information about support or entitlements.

Research shows that many kinship families live in extreme financial hardship - almost a quarter could not afford heating whenever they needed it, and seven per cent could not afford a daily hot meal for themselves. Consequently, 71 per cent of children in kinship care experience multiple deprivations compared with 29 per cent of children in the general population.

Despite the clear need for support for these children, and the enormous potential for effecting savings in hard-pressed children’s services budgets,we have a low presence in Scotland, where only three of the country’s 32 local authorities have used our services in the last three years.

Scotland has achieved a great deal in its support for refugees, but now it is surely ready to take the next step from well-integrated “New Scots” to “Settled, Safe and Happy Scots.”

Carolyn Housman is CEO of Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB)

For professionals: CFAB offer free advice and support on a range of complex international child protection issues.

For families: CFAB can help if you are concerned about or have been separated from a child in your family.

Call the Advice Line: 020 7735 8941


This article first appeared in Issue 187 (Aug-Sept 2018) of Children in Scotland Magazine

Children and Families Across Borders

CFAB is a UK charity working to reunite families separated by international borders

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Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill

The Bill will shortly be considered at Committee Stage (Westminster)

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New Scots Integration Strategy

The New Scots Strategy was published by the Scottish Government in January

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