Roles and challenges of social worker in promoting the rights of children seeking asylum

It is certainly not easy when a person or a family has to leave their belongings, home and country to migrate and seek asylum in a search for a better and safe life. In this courageous attempt, children unfortunately, suffer the most as they have the potential risks of being neglected. Asylum seeking children especially those who are unaccompanied may experience extreme psychological trauma as a result of both pre- and post-migratory experiences (Fanning, 2004:211).

These children are vulnerable as they need much support in the process of applying for a refuges status and most importantly where they will be placed after a decision has been made. Rutter (2006:93) suggests that “much of the legislative and policy change on asylum and immigration process has had a detrimental affect on the welfare of asylum seeking children”. This requires the much needed assistance from social workers who have the training and facilities to provide aid to these children. As McLaughlin (2008:54) writes: Social work involvement with immigrants and asylum seekers should come as no surprise.

Given its role in working with those at the margins of society, the disadvantaged oppressed, and given that immigrants and asylum seekers are among the most disadvantaged groups in society, social work (support) would seem entirely appropriate and reasonable. This essay attempts to analyze the roles of social workers in providing a good professional service and practice to asylum seeking children. Hence, the focus of this essay will also concentrate on discussing the challenges involved in promoting the rights of asylum seeking children as a social worker.

Under paragraph 349 in the UK immigration rules, a child is defined as “a person who is under 18 years of age or who, in the absence of documentary evidence establishing age, appears to be under that age” (The Children’s Legal Centre, 2008:3). Unaccompanied asylum seeking children is also defined in the Border and Immigration Agency Asylum Process Guidance as: “a child who is applying for asylum in his or her own right and (or) is a child who is separated from both parents and not being cared for by an adult who by law or custom has responsibility to do so” (ibid, p. ).

Therefore, unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children in England have the same equal legal entitlements as citizen children. This includes the right for education, healthcare, and the rights that enshrined in the Children Act (1989) and the Human Rights Act (1998) (Humphries, 2004:45). It has been estimated that since 2002, there are more than 40,000 children have arrived or been born in the UK in asylum seeking families (Reacroft, 2008:2).

These figures may also reflect the concerns on the ability of the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) to provide a better support for the asylum seeking children. Certainly, this leads to the key discussion of this essay – the role of a social worker in promoting the rights of the asylum seeking children. In 1980s, social workers were mainly described as the gate keepers to resources. Later, when there were increased flows of asylum seekers and delays in processing cases during the 1990s, asylum teams were established in a number of boroughs in response to this new situation.

Most were based in social work departments but, they also involved other services (Sales and Hek, 2004:61-64). In 2000, in order to establish the new asylum support, the specific role carried out by the asylum team has been re-arranged with the development of the National Asylum Support System (NASS). As such, social workers are still involved with the asylum team, but this time with the partnership with NASS. Local authorities too have the responsibilities to provide care and support for all asylum seeking and refugee children whom they perceive as in need.

Humphries (2004:45) highlights that under the Children Act, the local authorities have an obligation to provide a range and level of services appropriate to each unaccompanied asylum seeking children’s need. However, accompanied children seeking asylum will have lesser right than citizen children, as they are supported through the NASS, although they still have the right for education and healthcare. The asylum determination process is managed by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) of the Home Office.

Throughout the process, a child seeking asylum will be placed within a care of a social worker, to provide assistance, discuss available options and ensure the best interests for the child – in line with the proposed code of practice ‘Keeping Children Safe From Harm’ which has been introduced by the UK Borders Act (Reacroft, 2008:3). The first important task of a social worker is to determine the children age especially if they appear younger than 18 years old when they apply for an asylum.

This age assessment process needs to be done when these children cannot produce any documentary evidence establishing their age. Throughout the procedure of seeking asylum, an unaccompanied child will be placed in an emergency suitable accommodation, and if the child is with a family, they will all be placed together. The social worker will then need to assist the children in attending interviews and providing them with vouchers for foods and cash. According to NASS (2000:3-4), the accommodation and vouchers support are under these circumstances:

If an asylum seeker receives a positive decision on the application, they will be assisted by social worker to the main benefit system; * In the event of a negative decision, the support will continue for the children under the age of 18 until that family is removed from the country or until the children are over the age of 18. Social workers need to identify whether the unaccompanied the asylum seeking children are vulnerable and at risk for exploitation or not. The children’s immediate need for protection and to recover physically or psychologically from any trauma must be assess thoroughly by social workers.

Based from the UN Convention that has been accepted by the UK Government in December 1991, there are more than 40 articles covering a broad rage of concerns affecting children. Generically, the issues of rights fall into four broad categories: rights to care or protection, participation, anti discrimination, and the rights to the possible development (Hammarberg 1995 cited in Brandon et. al, 1998:23). Children have every right to receive support and help. This is clearly stated in Article 3 of the UN Convention that sets out children’s rights to welfare and protection.

Hence, government needs to offer appropriate assistance wherever possible and to develop services for the care of the children. These rights must be protected and upheld by social workers when working with asylum seeking children. Working face-to-face with children especially if they come from different race, religion and culture requires great skills from social workers as they can instigate hindrance when it is perceived differently from the child’s perspectives. These issues are more evident among members of minority ethnic groups, where English is not their first language and no mutual understanding can be assumed (Brandon et. l, 1998:86). Whenever possible, it is important for a social worker to get the social history and family composition of the children seeking asylum as they will later provide a clear understanding and better relationship between the social workers and the children themselves.

To achieve this, the “social workers need to be ethically sensitive and aware of the commonalities across minority groups, such as oppression, discrimination and relative powerlessness” (Thompson, 1993:59). In addition, Brandon et. l, (1998) emphasize that in order for face-to-face interaction with children, to work effectively, the social workers need to reflect traditional core skills and values such as genuineness warmth and empathy and the ability to treat the children with respect. This is especially important when the social workers need to build a good rapport with them. When a child is able to trust the worker, the child is more likely to express her feelings and ideas (Brandon et. al, 1998:146-154).

The life of children seeking asylum in the UK, may be viewed as difficult because they need continuous support. Often, a major source of aid comes from refugee support groups, some of which have been set up to offer services to particular communities. (Humphries, 2004:47). Hence, the social worker should work hand-in-hand with the support groups in order to address this issue. As professionals, they should view these children as clients, and be aware that their roles are not merely as gatekeepers to social services or even informants on behalf of the immigration services.

McLaughlin (2008:55) suggests that social work plays a key role in the internal regulation of immigration policy, being obliged to report to the Home Office if a failed asylum seeker, or anyone they consider unlawfully to be in the country, tries to claim community care services. However, the dilemma arises when accompanied children seeking asylum with a family fail in their application for asylum. Their life may depend on the allowances that they receive from the local authorities.

This can be considered a crucial role for social worker as they should not confuse themselves with their role as a social workers and the role as so-called immigration officials (Collett, 2004:85). This issue leads to the second part of this essay, the challenges face by social workers in promoting the rights of asylum seeking children. In the initial contact with children seeking asylum, the first anticipated challenge for a social worker is the language barrier. Most of the time, the need of a translator is necessary especially when dealing with children who are reserved, shy and quiet.

Brandon et. al (1998:46) claim that children who grow up in relatively chaotic households, where language is rarely directed specifically at children, apart from instruction, are more likely to experience difficulties. Social workers need to possess the aptitude to build a good relationship and communicate effectively with the children. Some of them may have been highly traumatized, experiencing torture or fear of being imprisoned or sent back to their home country (Khan 2000 cited from Collett, 2004:82). These factors can attribute to communication barrier between social workers and the children.

Another challenge that need to be highlighted is the social workers’ ability to recognize the constraints of current policy and guidance which deem asylum seekers as not worthy of welfare owing to their status. As Grady (2004:145) argue that: Social work agencies are charged with the duty to protect and promote the welfare of vulnerable members of the communities, and to recognize and act upon the circumstances that may lead to the reduction in welfare for children in particular, and to take account of structural inequalities that produce disadvantages within society.

The struggle to recognize the historical impact to race and culture on children’s lives, and of the need for effective services to remedy this, can be seen as struggle that was led by social work agencies and is held within the continuing commitment to anti-discriminatory practice within social work. Theoretically, social workers need to update their knowledge with the constantly changing regulations and legislations in relation to asylum seekers. Much of the legislative and policy change has had a detrimental affect on the welfare of asylum seeking children (Rutter, 2006:93).

For example, The Framework for Assessment of Children In Need and their Families (DOH/DEE 2000) may offer a blueprint as to what should be addressed when accounting for and evaluating the needs of vulnerable children. Nonetheless, Brown (2004:108) claims that it fails to address and present the position of children who are seeking asylum. Further, he argues that immigration legislation is prescriptive and not open to interpretation in perhaps the similar way as child law.

This statement surely challenges social workers to extend their roles and produce more comprehensive assessments. Social workers should also be aware that asylum legislation and policy will continue to change in future. Therefore, they need to evolve, be aware, and foresee the future of the policies, wisely. There is also a concern about the impact of social conditions on the children seeking asylum. Poverty, education, housing and development are among the issues that have been raised (Rutter, 2006:49).

As outlined in the ‘Looking after Children’ plan, the welfare of children is considered based on seven dimensions: health, education, identity, family and social relationship, social presentation, emotional and behavioral development and self care skills (Brandon et. al, 1998:144). Another main challenge for social workers is to promote these children’s development and welfare after obtaining the refugee status. Parrott (2002:129) argues that social workers have been diligent in providing practical help for the children but given little attention to their development needs.

Parrott is referring particularly to the ‘Messages from Research’ from Dartington Social Research Unit. This research focuses on cases for children who are placed in care and face considerable emotional and material disadvantages as a result. These cases not only apply for the children that manage to obtain the refugee status, but also those who are granted with an ‘Exceptional Leave to Remain’ (ELR) status. These children who fulfill the criteria for asylum are granted full refugee status.

In addition, there is a grant allocated by the UK government for applicants who do not fully meet the requirements for the refugee status. They will then be given the status of ELR for an appropriate period of time. Dobson et. al (2001:23) state that when it is unreasonable or impracticable in all the circumstances to seek to enforce return for the asylum seekers to their country of origin, they have the opportunity to be granted an ELR status which enable them to apply for an indefinite leave to remain after seven years. This also applies for the children as well.

This certainly raises further challenges for social workers in managing care and development for these asylum seeking children, especially in situations where they have to be provided with education, counseling and health services. Humphries (2004:48) raises the question that if the refugee status is granted to the children or together with their families – do they really want to settle here in the UK, or return to their country of origin when it is possible to do so? Undoubtly, this will have to be put into consideration for a social worker when making arrangement or plan for the children.

Another obstacle that social work may experience in promoting the rights of asylum seeking children is the possible resistance or threat from them. Goldson (2004:82) asserts that there is dualistic conception which means that particular constituencies of children are commonly perceived either as vulnerable victims in need of care and protection, or as precious threats who require control and correction. This means that such dualism not only raises issues of child protection, but also the question of protection from the child.

Nevertheless, when safety becomes a concern, it is always important for a social worker to ensure a secure environment for both parties. Collett (2004:79) suggests that asylum seeking children are “people who are in the state of very unsettled situations”. The trauma of leaving home, the trials and tribulations of escape and the treatment received via immigration processes operate in conjunction with the same social divisions experienced by the most marginalized groups in British society.

The role of social workers in this particular of situation is to advocate and negotiate. The asylum seeking children who arrive in the UK without any means of support are forced to negotiate with social workers. They are often unfamiliar with the social worker’s role which does not exist in many refugee-producing countries (Sales and Hek, 2004:62). “Social workers are seen as representatives of the state, interrogators from whom asylum seeking children especially, will become suspicious rather than people to be trusted” (ibid, p. 8) To a certain extent, the threat can also may be in the form of attempting suicide. This is true when people are under enormous stress and where suicide and attempted suicide are not uncommon after, for example, the receipt of refusal letters from the Home Office (Humphries, 2004:52-53) To conclude, children seeking asylum are often being marginalized when discussing the issues of migration and refugee. Refugee populations are very heterogeneous and those working with refugee children need to acknowledge this (Rutter, 2006:33).

The roles of social workers prove to be vital in giving much essential support towards asylum seeking children. Contrary to a popular belief that asylum seekers including small groups of children and their families have ‘flooded’ the UK to seek refugee, the reality is that fewer of them are in fact applying to remain in the UK than at any time in the past 15 years (Reacroft, 2008:8). A study of ‘International Migration and the United Kingdom’ views the recent patterns and trends seconded that the proportion of applicants recognized as refugee and has been granted asylum has decreased.

The proportions granted ELR and outright refusal have also fluctuated recently (Dobson et. al, 2001:23). This in return can prompt a better service and case processing can be provided since more attention can be given to the asylum seeking children. Undeniably, these children should be treated as children first and asylum seekers or refugees second (Reacroft, 2008:2). Most importantly, social workers should maintain their highest ethical practice when handling cases with children seeking asylum.

In order to achieve this, Alexander and Charles (2009:19) suggest that social work should develop a greater sophistication in assessing beneficial and detrimental relationship with clients. Although, it is easy to say that every child in the world deserves the same right to be treated equally, it is harder to justify the equal treatment towards the children themselves. No matter how the world changes, children are always perceived as vulnerable, they have always been and will always be.

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