Reflections on caring for an unaccompanied asylum seeker

A guest blog post by Maura Daly & Mark Smith

We are both experienced social workers, now social work academics. For almost thirty years, we have been respite carers for disabled children. Following from Alf Dubbs’ brokering the deal to bring unaccompanied asylum seeking children [UASC] to the UK from the Calais Camps in 2016, our local authority took five boys. They were initially housed together in a residential care unit before the local authority put out a call to respite carers asking if they might extend their remit to take one of the boys. Our personal circumstances at that point were such that we could do so, so we agreed and within a few weeks Bona*, a sixteen-year-old African boy, had moved in with us. Four and a half years later, he has just completed his second year at university in a different city but, like our own kids, is back and forward and is very much part of our family.

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The Scottish Guardianship Service perspective on the project

a guest blog post by Stefan Smith from our study partner the Scottish Guardianship Service

The Scottish Guardianship Service has been running for ten years and currently supports over 380 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people. Each young person is allocated a Guardian who understands the asylum process and is there to support them to attend and understand legal and home office appointments, plus assisting with all the various things that can come up in their lives. The Scottish Guardianship Service also offers mental health support and a befriending service with specialised staff in these areas. In my role, I help to organise participation activities for young people such as extra English language support, art, music and sport. Another key feature of the participation work is giving young people a platform to have their voices heard.

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‘Dwelling in Positivity’: Telling Covid Stories through Art

In the previous post we discussed conducting interviews with separated children and the professionals supporting them. On the 24th February we started another part of the study, art- based intervention workshops, and we have been busy since. As we near the end of these workshops, we are collecting young people’s artwork and preparing to share study outcomes during our 17th June Conference. In this post, we offer a peek behind the stage, and a preview of what these sessions were like for the young people, and us.

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Working with separated children as a legal representative

A Guest Post by Farida Elfallah, an Associate Solicitor at JustRight Scotland, a legal human rights organisation.

At JustRight Scotland, through our Scottish Refugee and Migrant Centre, we provide a child-centred legal service for refugee and migrant children.  We have a collaboration with the Scottish Guardianship Service (SGS) to provide legal advice, support and advocacy for separated children seeking protection in Scotland. 

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Making and Breaking Connections

Our project started in November, and we have since made good headway. We have conducted most of the interviews with separated children, professionals from the Scottish Guardianship Service, social workers, legal representatives and ESOL teachers and their residential care workers and foster carers. As we are now preparing for the arts-based intervention workshops – which start on the 24th February – we would like to share some notes from our work so far. 

Some of the connectivity obstacles and limitations that we set out to research are the same ones that we encounter in our daily project work. These are the key ones we came across: 

Locked in Disconnection 

This project is carried out under strict Covid restrictions. All Research Team members, the University of Stirling administration, organisations involved in the project and young people themselves are currently under lockdown. Although communicating online can facilitate speedy exchanges, coordinating these require addressing many logistic, technological, ethical and safeguarding challenges. One example was ordering and distributing tablets and arts materials amongst children – some of them in remote areas of Scotland – in a way that would keep their names and addresses confidential. 

Even before the pandemic, separated migrant children faced difficulties with access to vital services and resources, which was affecting their legal status and protections, health, and overall well-being. During the pandemic, some of the services children relied on were either stopped, or temporarily delayed. One year on, most of them have resumed online, but often in changed form: for example, providing fewer teaching hours, or smaller learning or support groups. As one of our interviewees admitted, a lot of warmth can be lost on Zoom, especially when the conversation is carried via an interpreter. It can be especially difficult for children who come from collectivistic cultures and prefer to do things in groups. It can also complicate sensitive and potentially traumatic conversations with authorities, which now take place in children’s private spaces and bedrooms.

Technological Glitches 

One thing that affects many people during the pandemic is growing digital poverty and exclusion. Across the UK young people miss out on education and belonging due to the lack of access to digital technology. We have been told by our interviewees that connectivity issues amongst children are sometimes significant, with either no access to equipment or/and wi-fi, or not knowing how to use them. Although there are schemes and funders that provide children with laptops and other equipment they need for their school and college work, this – as one ESOL teacher told us – can sometimes take months. To help overcome that at least a little, we sent our respondents tablets which they will use for their creative workshop work. We will also provide a training session on how to use them. 

Security in Cyberspaces 

Even when everyone has working equipment, organising interviews and interactive workshops online demands specific safeguarding solutions. It is not easy to propose such communications channels that not only provide maximum convenience without compromising the security of our respondents, but also abide by the University of Stirling’s regulations. We are committed to creating a safe space in which young people can interact with the artists and each other, share their experiences through the creative process, and have some fun while doing so. We take many precautions to guarantee this safety. One such precaution is making sure their personal details are not visible during online calls. We also ensure that the researchers and interpreters present during online sessions have PVG disclosure that allows them to work with vulnerable minors. Additionally, we created safety instructions for young people. These instructions, translated into Arabic, Kurdish Sorani, Swahili and Vietnamese, have been distributed to our respondents ahead of the workshops. We are in constant contact with the Scottish Guardianship Service, making sure that children’s interactions online for the project are monitored, but not too heavily affected, by our presence.

Just as the Guardians and other service providers, we cannot currently share a warm cup of tea with our young respondents. Still, we hope to create a space that provides some sense of togetherness through sharing their experience of the pandemic with us, and each other. 

What’s next? 

In the coming weeks we will start supporting children to engage in arts-based intervention workshops and we will be sharing news on this work soon. 

Kinga Goodwin