Refugee and asylum seeker children

Children and families migrate for many different reasons. For some it is a choice, for some it may be for economic reasons, and others may have been forced from their home countries as a result of abuse, war, famine, political or religious persecution, torture or other reasons.

This page focuses largely on children and young people who have been forced to leave their home countries – those who are refugees and asylum seekers.

Children and young people who are refugees and asylum seekers will rarely have had a choice about leaving their homes, and this may lead to mixed feelings and broken attachments with friends and family left behind and to the place they knew as home.

These children and young people may have had very different life experiences and standards of living before they left their homeland – particularly their exposure to traumatic events or to traumatic transit from one country to another.

Their experiences after arrival will also be different depending on the stability of their circumstances, which can include their socio-economic status, their exposure to bullying or victimisation, the extent to which family members are experiencing trauma related symptoms, their support network and acceptance within their new community. It’s also important to note that some refugee children will have arrived in the UK alone with no family ties or support.

Stresses associated with being a refugee or asylum seeker

Stresses associated with being a refugee or asylum seeker can include:

  • A loss of broader family networks, friends, customs and surroundings. This can also include the loss of primary care givers
  • Bereavement, either before or during the migration process

Identifying the signs

Due to the wide-ranging reasons leading to someone seeking asylum, schools and further education settings will need to have effective, sensitive induction processes which do not make assumptions about needs and that fully appreciate and respect differences.

Schools and colleges will also need to be alert to some of the following signs, especially if they persist over time, that a child or young person may be struggling:

  • Ongoing physical health problems with no apparent cause
  • Excessive nervousness or crying
  • Mistrust or fear of others
  • Prolonged sadness or grumpiness
  • Fear and anxietyand hopelessness
  • Thoughts about traumatic events that won’t go away
  • Avoidance of talking/thinking about particular subjects which may be linked to trauma
  • Talking about a traumatic event in the present, as if it is happening now
  • Problems managing behaviour, attention or emotions
  • Constantly tired or falling asleep in class which might indicate that the child or young person is not sleeping well
  • Lack of desire to play with others
  • Withdrawal or retreating into own world
  • Social isolation, bullying, lack of belonging to a peer group

Some children and young people who have been victims of war, violence, torture or other trauma may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They may experience an increase in fear and anxiety or re-live the trauma, perhaps through bad dreams and nightmares. Some children and young people may also experience some of the symptoms connected to trauma, but without an official diagnosis.

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What schools and further education settings can do

If you are at all concerned about a child or young person, you should always speak to your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority. They will be able to advise on suitable next steps, and speaking to them about any concerns should always be the first action you take, ahead of any of the suggestions on this page.

Children with disrupted or different experiences of education may find joining a new education system extremely challenging. It’s important to be welcoming to children/young people and their parents, and engage in developing a trusting and consistent relationship with them.

To understand a child or young person’s experience, it is important to gather basic information without delving too deep. It is important to avoid asking probing or direct questions or to make assumptions about how a pupil is feeling or what they need.

How you gather information will depend on the age and developmental stage of the pupil. School staff should build up more of a profile over time. Children and families may have been interviewed in other circumstances which are not so benevolent, so it might be better to build trust, be welcoming and give opportunities for them to tell you more in their own time.

Language barriers can greatly undermine a child’s confidence and make it harder for them to participate in school life and form relationships. Schools should ensure that children and young people have encouraging and empowering opportunities to receive additional help to develop their language skills.

Schools should also:

  • Be alert and monitor children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing – taking a proactive approach to building their resilience, giving them the support and encouragement they need, and the right tools so that they can confront their problems. Be hypervigilant to any trauma symptomsor behaviours that may communicate stress.
  • Focus on supporting inclusion, acceptance and tolerance using school-wide teaching activities and the school ethosto celebrate a diverse community.
  • Set, communicate and reinforce clear expectations of acceptable conduct for all.
  • Assign a buddy to each refugee and asylum seeker pupil.
  • Explain basic school/college rules and customs (timetable, breaks, uniform, ‘kit’, registers etc.).
  • Provide a tour of the setting to the family.
  • Minimise the number of moves from one class to another and reduce the number of teacher changes.
  • Make sure refugee and asylum seeker pupils know about upcoming events so they feel included.
  • Help pupils and their families access appropriate services and support to reduce family and environmental risk factors undermining children and young people’s mental health.
  • Provide school newsletters and other material in appropriate languages where possible.

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