World Refugee Day: the challenges facing unaccompanied minors

Claudia Roehlen

Claudia Roehlen


The 20th of June is the UN World’s Refugee Day. On this occasion, I would like to share a few insights and experiences I gained from supporting our young people with experience of foster and/or residential care in London. 

Every day I learn something new from working with these wonderful talented young people.

If you know DFF, you also know that our mission is to support young care-experienced people into sustainable employment and to help them realize their full potential. And you might also know that each young person has a different story, different challenges and different strengths. Every day I learn something new from working with these wonderful talented young people and I am often amazed by how resilient and strong many of them are. What inspires me in particular, is to see the ambition and the drive of those young people that came to the UK as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UCAS). These are young people who are seeking asylum in the UK but who have been separated from their parents or carers. While their claim is processed, they are cared for by a local authority. 

Many of these young people live in the same London borough, because the first borough they arrive in is responsible for their care. They are looked after by the local authority, their ‘corporate parent’. If you google UCAS or take a look at the link above, the very bureaucratic and descriptive language used to explain the situation our young people are in gives you a flavor of what their actual experience can be like. 

While I understand that those local authorities close to points of entry struggle to offer the best possible support and hence need other local authorities to look after some of the young people, reading about “equal distribution support” or “transferring people” elicits a feeling of sadness and frustration.

Living out of their suitcase

Just the other day I had a chat with three of the young women that are part of a prorgamme I deliver for care-experienced young people aged 15-18. I was surprised to hear that Sina* moved house again, although she had just moved a few months ago. This is her third move within less than a year. Albeit I was surprised, none of the young women were. Instead, they made a witty comment about how they just live from their suitcases. Perhaps using humor is the most important character strength in such a difficult situation. Another comment that really stuck with me was when Antar* told me that she feels like a guest in the UK. She is very grateful for all the support she receives, yet she never settles and there is always an underlying feeling of mismatch, not fitting in and ultimately not belonging anywhere. 

This situation is amplified by the fact that for most UCAS young people it takes a very long time to get an interview with the Home Office and to apply for the right to remain or refugee status. This means that they have ‘no status’ at the moment and hence, no right to work. Whilst being entitled to education, there is a limited number of opportunities available for our young people with no status.

Difficulties accessing adequate health services and support

That same day I was speaking to my young people about their experiences, I also witnessed how these structural grievances translate into practice. After a nice day trip to the beach Maya* fell ill and we had to go to the hospital to get a check-up. The paramedics in the ambulance struggled to find her NHS record, as upon Maya’s arrival in the UK someone had made a mistake and recorded the wrong date of birth. Every time Maya has an official appointment it is a challenge to find her records. She also got asked three times by different nurses and doctors if “Mommy and Daddy knew where she was” or “if her parents are informed”, and she also had to explain several times that she is looked after by the local authority and that her social worker would support with the paperwork. I would like to add here that the paramedics, nurses and doctors were absolutely fantastic and did a great job. Their questions were not ill-intended at all. But it made me realize how complex Maya’s experiences must be. Her key worker was on annual leave and her social worker was not on duty, there was no carer who would come to pick her up. So, I drove her all the way back “home”, to her current semi-independent accommodation where she lives with other UCAS young people. When I dropped her off at the door step, I felt torn. On the one hand I was happy that she felt much better, and on the other hand I was disturbed that there was no one to take care of her like you’d want to be taken care of after a long night in A&E.

Giving up is not an option

I am wondering how one keeps hopeful, active, motivated and has the strengths to focus on a positive future while there are so many structures around that are likely to hold you back and interfere with those things that a typical sixteen- or seventeen-year-old young person would like to focus on.  

I do not know. But what I do know is that our young people have that special drive. They have passion, motivation and they have hope. It is a great pleasure to see these young people thrive and to be part of their journey to a more stable and positive life. If only the circumstances and the structural procedures that are in place to support them were more straight forward and would cause less worry and instability, we would come a long way.  

In the meantime, I want to express my respect and admiration I have for people who are in this or a similar position. I hope that you have people around you, who care and support you and who make you feel seen and acknowledged as part of a community.  


*To protect individual’s privacy their names have been changed. 


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