Whenever immigration is discussed, whether by the Government or in the media, there is too often a focus on numbers. Statistics detailing how many people have come to settle in the UK, how many should, where they are from, and how much support they should receive, are all heavily scrutinised. Yet we very rarely shine a light on the experiences of the people behind the numbers.
Last year, when I visited the refugee camps in Calais with the French Children’s Commissioner, I met some of the hundreds of children living there and they told me their stories. Many of them had been through the most horrific experiences imaginable and were desperate for the things that most children take for granted – to sleep somewhere warm and safe, to be part of a secure and welcoming community, and to go to school.
While some of these children have been resettled in England, their fears and uncertainty have travelled with them, sometimes exacerbated by the uncertainty, confusion, and isolation they have faced while here.
In a new report published today, and commissioned as part of my ‘Voices of Children’ series, the views, perspectives and experiences of children subject to immigration control are brought together. This category includes all children who may be in the country with a parent or caretaker as well as those that may be here unaccompanied and alone.
The report lays bare their views about being part of the immigration system, their experiences within social care, and their understanding of society around them. Their unmediated stories not only highlight the adversities they continue to face when here but also the security they often find with caring and dedicated foster carers.
More often than not, children found the immigration system adversarial, confusing and scary. Many referred to the fact that no one took the time to explain what different terms meant, what would happen to their application, or what steps – if any – they needed to take. One child spoke of their confusion: “I didn’t know what was going on around me. I didn’t know what ‘discretionary leave to remain was. What does it mean? What does the visa mean? What is it for and why do I need it?”
Another child in the report explains their feeling of being constantly assessed in a way they felt they could not influence: “the worst thing I can remember – they made me sit there and, like a slave market, other immigration officers were told to look at me and guess my age. It was like I was going to be sold”.
While similar experiences underpin some child immigrants’ view of the social care system, others speak about the positive and trusting relationships they enjoy with their foster parents: “I feel secure and protected here. I feel like when I am there I am at my father’s home and she (the foster carer) gives me love the way that my mother used to give me love”. Many also speak positively about the diversity of their communities and the place that they have found within them.
While the DfE have announced further provisions for foster carers and guidance for local authorities to support children when they are here, it is important that everyone involved in a child’s journey through the immigration system recognises the particular needs and circumstances of every child. Simple steps like ensuring that children completely understand the process, the terminology and any next steps can make a significant difference to a child’s wellbeing as this report clearly shows.
Despite adversity, the majority of the children in the studies featured in today’s report voiced their hopes for the future along with clear aspirations and goals. Recognising this and supporting social workers and foster carers to help children plan for the future can provide an effective strategy for coping with any uncertainty, moving beyond their experiences of trauma, and strengthening resilience.
Whether accompanied by family, or completely alone, any child who is looking to resettle in this country has often been through experiences few of us could imagine. It is vital that we take their views seriously in order that the immigration and social care systems reflect their needs and support them to settle and thrive.