Fostering Refugee Children

What should carers know when it comes to fostering refugee children?

When it comes to fostering refugee children, carers must learn to navigate a whole new world. Let’s start with semantics. The language people use when discussing the needs, provision and challenges associated with fostering refugee children is specific and fluid. In the UK we tend to brand all migrant children as refugee children or vice versa.

In fact, whether someone is a refugee or not is specified in law. Moreover, it often directly relates to that child’s legal status at the time. It is highly likely that if you are fostering a refugee child, you are actually caring for an Unaccompanied Migrant Child. But you could equally be looking after an Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Child (UASC) whose status has yet to be decided by the Home Office. How we love to label these children!

Yet for the purposes of this article, I will be using the publicly recognisable but perhaps technically inaccurate term: refugee.

A teenager in a hooded fleece, standing against a dark wall, looking down so that his face can't be seen. This illustrates the identity issues faced when fostering refugee children
Young people are frequently labelled at a time where their identity is in crisis.

What’s the difference?

The definition of a Refugee is someone who has been forced to leave their country of nationality and cannot return due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of:

  • race
  • religion
  • nationality
  • membership of a particular social group (including gender and sexuality)
  • holding a particular opinion

1951 Refugee Convention

The definition of an Asylum Seeker is someone who applies to be given refugee status in a country other than his or her own under the 1951 Refugee Convention. This person will be waiting for a decision on the application.

An Unaccompanied Migrant Child is one who has moved across an international border or within a state away from his or her habitual place of residence, regardless of their legal status. These children are separated from parents and are not being cared for by an adult.

IOM (International Organization for Migration)

What misconceptions might you face when fostering refugee children?

We live in a time where there are widely differing views on migrants generally. Confusion and misunderstanding mingle with political and economic strategy (often built on fear) to create a melting pot of misinformation and division. So what do we know?

  • Women and under 18s together make up 70% of the world’s displaced people
  • In 2017 650,000 asylum claims were made in Europe.
  • 31,800 unaccompanied or separated children arrived in the EU in 2017.
  • 89% of these children were male.
  • 77% were 16 years old.
  • Of those children just 7% made asylum claims in the UK.
  • Germany continues to be the top European destination for refugee children accounting for over 40% of all EU asylum claims in 2017.
  • 84% of refugees and asylum seekers are hosted by low and middle-income countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Uganda (amongst others).

Carers fostering refugee children often come up against the strength of feeling that exists in our society. It is one of those issues that divides people right down to the nucleus of family. Foster carers must ensure they are educated as to the real facts surrounding migration and displacement. This will equip them for the task they will undoubtedly have in educating others.

Confusion and misunderstanding mingle with political and economic strategy to create a melting pot of misinformation and division.

Whatever our views on the issue of displacement, migration and the ensuing refugee situation, we have to agree that it is not going away. We face increasing displacement not just from war, ideology or a shifting political landscape but also due to climate change and its associated repercussions. Therefore, we need to learn how to care for the most vulnerable amongst the 68.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide.

Fostering refugee children: just like fostering any other child?

There was a school of thought not so long ago that fostering refugee children was an easy option for carers. Anecdotally, this group of children did not tend to present with many of the behavioural difficulties that might be found in children born and raised in the UK.

Many professionals recounted that these children often had a good grounding within a loving family before they had had to make their journey to the UK. In short, they were and are often subject to generalisation, lumped into a faceless group and as a result children feel misunderstood or inadequately supported.

The reality is that refugee children come from a variety of countries, religions, cultures and families. They will have differing life views. Many will have different experiences. And of course, they will have a range of beliefs and expectations. These children are individuals. There are, however, some things that unite them.

Children will need some specific support from foster carers.

All children who arrive in the UK seeking asylum will need to go through the Asylum Process. This is the process by which children apply for asylum through the Home Office. Carers report it to be complex, fraught with deadlines and responsibilities and often a total unknown. Children are often stressed, frightened and re-traumatised by it. Undoubtedly foster carers face a steep learning curve.

Many carers report that the process is one that is founded on suspicion and in which the onus is on the child to justify the reasons for their claim, to answer questions consistently with little allowance given for confusion, fear and trauma.

Children who are going through the asylum process will need a good deal of practical and emotional support. They will need to know what the process involves, who the key players are and what the system expects of them. And very frequently, children are expected to grapple with this strange new world in a completely foreign and unmastered language.

They may struggle to communicate the impact that the uncertainty of the process is having on them emotionally.

Trauma will be a thread running through the lives of refugee children.

Foster carers widely report psychological distress, sometimes leading to mental health disorders in unaccompanied migrant children. As children try to get to grips with the loss of their families and the cultural leap they are having to make, they often feel isolated and displaced.

Children are frequently worried about the family they have left behind or lost on their journey. Many children have experienced trauma in their home countries as well as during their journey. They are grieving and in many cases do not have the tools to express or process this grief. Often this loss, separation and trauma is happening at a key developmental stage and as such can take a significant toll on a child’s well-being.

Foster carers can often recognise the signs of trauma or mental anguish. Therefore, they will be in a position to advocate for the appropriate support for them.

In the children, foster carers might notice and flag up:

  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Headaches
  • Sleep disorders including insomnia and nightmares
  • Detachment
  • Depression
  • Self-harm
  • Hypervigilance
  • Flashbacks
  • Explosive anger
  • Eating disorders
Teenager seen in silhouette against the sun, walking on cracked earth. When fostering refugee children there are many challenges but with support there is hope.

Children who are going through the asylum process will need a good deal of practical and emotional support.

As a foster carer you will need support too.

Foster carers are the primary carers for refugee children. Indeed they deal with the impact of loss, separation, abuse and trauma every day. This has an effect on the carer that isn’t to be minimised.

Foster carers can experience Secondary Traumatic Stress to varying degrees as a result of caring for children. Therefore it is really important that foster carers are well supported by their fostering provider, their support network and other professionals.

One of our carers who has been fostering a refugee child for 3 years recently said,

“Caring for our child has presented untold challenges as fostering often does. Bearing witness to his Post Traumatic Stress and supporting him in it has had an impact on us as a family who foster. It is hard to describe how you feel when you are faced with such pain and stress and when you are living with it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Without the support of my social worker, friends and family it would have been impossible at times to maintain.

I am pleased to say that because of the excellent support and the quality of the professionals involved in his care, our child has thrived and now faces a bright and hopeful future, despite all that he has been through.”

More information

Fostering any child requires carers to learn, grow and develop. With each child, whatever their background, new challenges await and new lessons are learned. Carers have to understand the systems they work within. This is the case regardless of the child they are caring for.

The subjects I have touched on in this article are complex and as such I have given just a broad overview. There are lots of fantastic sources of information available.

As a first port of call, I would recommend The UNHCR and The Refugee Council. Further valuable information can be found in Children on the Move – Data Brief UNICEF 2018 and Harrowing Journeys Report IOM-UNICEF 2017.

Refugee Week begins on 17th June 2019. This is a good opportunity to listen to stories and find out more about the problems facing displaced people across the world.

At Eastern Fostering Services, we have built up a lot of expertise and knowledge around fostering refugee children so if you have questions, get in touch or visit us on Facebook.