Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the UK

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

What are UASC?

Many people hear the phrase “asylum seeker” and they might think that it’s a negative word. This is partly because many newspapers use the phrase in a negative way.

An asylum seeker is a person who has left their home country and is seeking safety in another country because of serious threats of harm or violence. International law allows people to claim asylum in another country. It is then up to that country to examine the claim and they can decide to allow the person to stay (sometimes this means the person will be given “refugee status”) or they will decide that the person should be returned to their home country or another country. 

The laws around unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) are a little different. Naturally, children have additional needs, and children without parents or guardians are in greater need of protection. Children under the age of 18 who arrive in the UK alone have often been exposed to violence, abuse, or other forms of harm before and during their migration. 

Why do they come to the UK?

“You have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet.

It can be hard to imagine why anyone would want to leave their homes and take a dangerous journey to a new country. Children who grow up in the UK are lucky enough to not have to grow up with the threat of war or internal conflict in the country.

However, because many countries have high levels of conflict and violence, children are exposed to things that impact on their health and safety. Some children may have experienced violence, witnessed the death of family members, or been imprisoned.

In many cases, there may be no options for them in their home country. For example, if it is not possible for them to safely attend school, or there is a constant danger to them, the child or their family members might make the decision to travel to a safe country where they might be able to live a happier life.    

The top eight countries of origin of unaccompanied child asylum seekers arriving in the UK in 2018 were:

  • Eritrea

  • Afghanistan

  • Iraq

  • Sudan

  • Iran

  • Vietnam

  • Ethiopia

  • Albania

What happens when a UASC comes to the UK?

Photo by Bess Hamiti from Pexels

When an asylum seeker comes to the UK, the path towards settling in the UK is not always easy. In fact, achieving British citizenship is a highly complex and difficult process. 

To claim asylum, an individual must present their case to the UK’s Home Office (which deals with visa and immigration-related matters). While they are waiting for this interview, they will usually then be placed into the care system which is managed by local authorities around the UK.

During the asylum interview, a UASC will have the opportunity to present their case to a caseworker. They will be asked to provide details on why they have come to the UK and give an account of how they were persecuted in their home country.

Even though they are entitled to be represented by an immigration lawyer and an interpreter (if needed), this interview can be extremely stressful. It can be several hours long, and usually the caseworker will ask many questions about the events that made the child leave their country.

They will wait for a decision to be made on their asylum case, and if they are successful, they will be granted some form of leave (or permission to stay in the UK) for a limited time. They can then reapply in the future, and eventually may be eligible to apply to apply for indefinite leave to remain, and then later on, British citizenship, when they would be eligible to apply for a British passport.

What are some of the challenges they face?

Sadly, even though they have to endure very difficult events at a young age, it’s not unusual for unaccompanied child migrants to continue to face hardships in the UK.

There is a shortage of foster care places so children may not be placed with a family that can look after them while in care. 

They may not speak English, which presents many difficulties when it comes to communicating with others and in school. This can also be difficult when it comes to making new friends.

Child asylum seekers and refugees have said that they have faced bullying and unfair treatment by other children in school, which can have a devastating impact on a person’s mental health.

In addition, they can also be subject to racist abuse and harassment, often by adults, when they are out in public. This can significantly impact how a person settles into the country and can make them feel unsafe and unhappy. 

Many child migrants are very motivated to study hard in school because of the opportunities that come from studying. However, despite this, young people may find it difficult to access opportunities to attend university. Once they turn 18, they have fewer welfare opportunities available to them. 


Photo by Victoria Borodinova from Pexels

It is normal to feel empathy for children in these situations. If you are lucky enough to never have to have these experiences, it can be difficult to understand their struggles.

After reading, you might wonder if there is anything we can do to support people who are in these situations. There are lots of actions that can be done. Some ideas include:

By working together, we can show kindness and compassion to all people, and ensure that nobody is left disadvantaged simply because of where they were born.

Aileen Bowe is a writer and correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that provides legal aid to forcibly displaced persons.