Of an estimated 12 million Syrians displaced by war, more than half are children, tens of thousands of whom will be fleeing alone. Their parents may have been killed or been separated from them. They may have lost their brothers and sisters or other family members. They have no one to turn to.
To put that into perspective, the number of shellshocked teenagers and young children is roughly equivalent to the population of London or greater than the number of people living in the whole of Scotland.
The UK’s decision to offer sanctuary to hundreds if not thousands of these children is right; it would be morally indefensible not to. We will then have a solemn responsibility to protect the fragile lives of these traumatised children while they are in our country’s care.
Therefore, our Government should urgently prioritise specialist, tailored care required by the unique circumstances of refugee children. These children need, and deserve, a decent place to live with the right people and support in place for as long as they need it.
Firstly the Government needs specialist staff to immediately identify the type of support these children need; some will need help for trauma or mental health. They then need to ensure that children stay in sensitive, loving foster homes whilst they live in the country, and that each foster carer has been specially trained to nurture them and meet their needs.
That will mean they stay in appropriate accommodation too. Shockingly, many unaccompanied and potentially trafficked children end up staying in bed and breakfasts without much support. As a result, two-thirds go missing from care, putting them in danger from traffickers or predatory adults.
Secondly, we must ensure that every child is treated as child – not an adult. Most of these children will be travelling undocumented so officials must judge if they are under 18. Official guidelines state that young people should be given the benefit of the doubt. We know from our work that some children are unfairly assumed to be over 18 – denying them access to local authority care. Whether these decisions are made in camps abroad or when young people arrive into the UK, the Government must insist that guidelines are followed.
Finally, we need to make sure these children are supported in their transition to adulthood. We are worried that the period after the age of 18 is a particularly vulnerable time for unaccompanied young people as they lose support from children’s services.
We know that many young people struggle to live on their own when they turn 18 and that leaving care support can often be lacking. Some young people subsequently go underground or are exploited. These vulnerable young people should be supported to apply for the right to remain in the UK when they turn 18 and should be given additional support so that they can begin to live independently as an adult.
Learning to cope with the horrors these young people have witnessed is an obvious need. A more subtle need will be learning to cope with life in the UK, perhaps alone without the support of their family. They will face officials, bureaucracy and a strange home, all in a foreign language.
We have no control over the suffering that these children have already faced. We can, however, anticipate what they need now and for their future.
At Barnardo’s we have specialist staff that could provide the critical ‘triage’ that newly arrived children and young people will need. We also have trained foster carers to look after unaccompanied children seeking asylum. These specialist carers have learned how to help children who’ve experienced acute trauma and loss, as well as how to help them settle into school, get counselling, and support from social workers.
As Syrian children are coming to the UK direct from refugee camps they may have been picked up by traffickers in the camps or as they move across Europe.
Trafficked children and young people are supported by our independent advocates in 23 local authorities in England. Advocates walk with children every step of the way through what can be frightening time– navigating the care system to have a secure home and immigration processes to have the right to stay. Our team help them to get the services and legal representation they need and are entitled to.
The government and local authorities should draw on such experience and expertise in putting together the package of support to help refugee children. Once children escape from horrendous circumstances, they may have problems adjusting to ‘normal’ life in the UK as well as heal the horrific damage wrought on them by conflict.
As a father of four, I find it difficult to think about the ordeal that these vulnerable children have, and will, live through. We owe it to them, their parents, and to ourselves to treat them as we would want our own children to be treated. Our hope at Barnardo’s is that the people of the UK can support these children in a meaningful way, helping them to overcome their experiences escaping from war so they can imagine a safe future.