1st Edition April 9th, 2020 Deborah Hadwin

“We are human too”- Local authority responses to unaccompanied young people leaving care and the Covid 19 pandemic


 “We are human too” was overwhelmingly the key message from a group of young people who took part in my PhD research looking at local authority practice with unaccompanied young people leaving care.  Emerging from a period when government policies towards migrants have seen the enactment of the “hostile environment”(Jolly, 2018), contemporary negative attitudes toward asylum seeking young people have been not simply an expression of callousness or xenophobia but have become much more entrenched.  They became part of a ‘common sense’ discourse of competitive individualism, where people who require state support were often described as people ‘wanting something for nothing’.  People seeking asylum viewed through this lens are presented as a drain on British society and rarely as people with whom we should identify or sympathise, let alone to whom we owe an obligation (Hadwin, Singh and Cowden, 2020).

The young people I am specifically referring to are those who arrived in the UK under the age of 18, without a parent or guardian and made a claim for asylum in their own right, often known within local authorities and by central government as unaccompanied asylum seeking children (Department for Education November, 2017).  My motivation for the research stemmed first and foremost from the exclusionary policies these young people faced, particularly as they approached and during their early adulthood; but also, from my practice experience in navigating at times conflicting legislation, Immigration vs Children’s, (Gupta 2019) and what appeared to be wide variation in terms of practice within and across different local authorities.  

Covid-19 is teaching us that we are inter-connected like never-before.   Political ideology which has pushed people to the margins, and sometimes beyond, now seems futile.  In order to counter the pandemic, it has become absolutely, crucial that no-one is left out regardless of ethnicity, nationality or immigration status or anything else.  Whilst there is now some government guidance about how Children’s Social Care should respond to the pandemic (Department for Education, 3rd April 2020), this still requires interpretation and navigation.  As Lipsky noted in the early 80s, the intentions of government policy do not always translate into practice due to the demands of workload pressures and resources which street-level bureaucrats, including social workers, navigate.  How workers respond to these pressures means that they, “effectively become the public policies they carry out” (Lipsky, 2010: pxiii).The choices local authority practitioners (managers, social workers and personal advisors) make, in working with unaccompanied young people will determine whether young people feel valued and a sense of belonging.  The young people who took part in the research identified that a lack of support and compassion was one of the reasons young people took increased risks, including going ‘missing’ and they all knew either directly or indirectly young people who had done this.  As one young person put it,

if there’s somebody there and I know I can get help, there’s no harm for me.  Nobody can harm me, nobody could try to hurt me, nobody give me mistrust, why would I disappear? I know the fear ’cause, I tried the same myself.  So that’s why people disappear. He only people disappear when they fear, when they’re scared. When they say my life is at risk, my life is in danger” (Afghan male, care experienced).

It is therefore essential that local authorities do everything they can to maintain positive, supportive relationships which reduce the ‘fear’. By doing so they will be ensuring that young people can access help and support; are less tempted to disappear and as a result will not be putting their own lives, and in these times, the lives of others at risk from their increased chances of contracting and spreading the Covid 19 virus, because their sense of security and wellbeing are compromised (Chase, 2013).

Practical steps to be considered by local authorities supporting unaccompanied young people.

  1. As soon as a child who is unaccompanied and likely to be seeking asylum, comes to the attention of a local authority, they must be recorded as a looked after child straight away, as opposed to the 24 hour period of assessment afforded to other children who may then become looked after children (Department for Education, 2018). 
  • During the period of the pandemic, local authorities should consider suspending the undertaking of age assessments.  Where age assessments are viewed as essential and if the young person is assessed as an adult, any transition to adult asylum support should be planned and coordinated. This would allow the young person time (at least two weeks) to seek initial legal advice on whether they have grounds to challenge the age assessment, but also enabling them to properly prepare for the next steps and reducing the risk of them going missing (which is good practice at any time). 

Assessing age without authenticated documentation to prove otherwise, is highly subjective, and any age assessment however thoroughly conducted, is at best an approximation of a young person’s age.  At the same time, age is at the heart of a person’s identity and when a young person has lost everything else, holding on to what they can and who they are, is crucial.  Dorling (Dorling, May 2013)states that a pervading “culture of disbelief” exists with young people often being assumed to be older than they are presenting; and there is also evidence to suggest that many children end up in adult detention (BBC, 2019).

Whilst there is often the worry amongst practitioners that adults will end up being in foster placements with children, it is not the issue of age in itself, which is the risk factor.  A 14 or 15year old, may pose more of a risk than an 18 or 19 year, because they are motivated to offend.  It is essential that therefore that foster carers and support staff in other settings, adhere closely to safe caring policies.  

  • Local authority workers need to be particularly mindful of the young person’s mental wellbeing, which may mean delaying some conversations about possible future trajectories until a later date. Research (Wade et al., 2012) found that it is a mixed blessing for unaccompanied young people who come to the UK. Whilst they might carry the hopes and dreams of their families, including a potential return on any investment; they are chosen to travel far way, while others in their family may not be.  The worry that many of the young people will be experiencing, at the moment, is likely to be heightened.  Many come from countries already experiencing poverty or war, and so how their relatives will manage during the pandemic, is likely to be at the forefront of their minds.  Whilst pathway planning with unaccompanied young people should include planning for all eventualities, including a possible return to country of origin (Department for Education, November 2017), I would argue that these conversations should not take place at this time.  In my research sample, a very small minority of young people (less than 1%) were known by their worker to have returned to their country of origin.  The most likely outcome for those without settled immigration was a protracted period of limbo (Chase, 2013). In addition, planning for the future of young people with unsettled status, was almost impossible (Devenney, 2017). 
  • Local authorities could continue to support all care leavers regardless of their immigration status.  My research identified that different local authorities take different approaches to who they support, dependent on their immigration status. This is an area of practice where Children’s Legislation and the Immigration legislation conflict, in that leaving care legislation suggests that local authorities should support care leavers up to the age of 25 (Children and Social Work Act, 2017) whereas immigration legislation prohibits continued support for those who are Appeal Rights Exhausted (Schedule 3, Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, 2002), unless local authorities undertake Human Rights Assessments to determine whether there are grounds for continued support (Department for Education, November 2017).  There is an argument that local authority support should not be withdrawn at any time to these young people whilst they are care leavers.  During this pandemic, local authority practitioners should argue for continued support as a minimum, and as argued by Prabhat and others, there should be a special ‘youth’ category to bring provision for these young people in line with their British counterparts (Prabhat, Singleton and Eyles, 2019). 

Whilst the pandemic poses real day to day challenges for the workers and young people, it also allows scope for some flexibility in continuing to support some young people previously marginalised, and potentially changing the shape of future practice. 

Deborah Hadwin, 04.04.20.


BBC (2019) Newsnight. Asylum Seekers: They didn’t believe I was a child.  (Jake Morris and James Clayton)  [Accessed 05/08/19]

Chase, E. (2013) ‘Security and Subjective Wellbeing: The Experiences of Unaccompanied Young People Seeking Asylum in the UK’. Sociology of Health & Illness 35 (6), 858-872 

Department for Education (November 2017) Care of Unaccompanied Migration Children and Child Victims of Modern Slavery: Crown Copyrights 

Department for Education (3rd April 2020) Coronavirus (Covid-19): Guidance for Local Authorities on Children’s Social Care. London: Crown Copyrights 

Department for Education (2018) Applying Corporate Parenting Responsibilities to Looked After Children and Care Leavers. London: Crown Copyright 

Devenney, K. (2017) ‘Pathway Planning with Unaccompanied Young People Leaving Care: Biographical Narratives of Past, Present, and Future’. Child & Family Social Work 22 (3), 1313-1321 

Dorling, K. (May 2013) Happy Birthday? Disputing the Age of Children in the Immigration System. London: Coram Children’s Legal Centre 

Gupta, A. (2019) ‘Asylum Seeking Children in and Leaving Care’. in Social Work with Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants. ed. by Wroe, L., Larkin, R., and Maglajlic, R. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 143–162 

Hadwin, D., Singh, G., and Cowden, S. (2020) ‘Working with Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Young People Seeking Asylum’. in Human Growth and Development in Children and Young People. Theoretical and Practical Perspectives. ed. by Parker, J. and Ashencaen-Crabtree, S. Bristol: Policy Press, 309 –329 

Jolly, A. (2018) ‘No Recourse to Social Work? Statutory Neglect, Social Exclusion and Undocumented Migrant Families in the UK. ‘. Social Inclusion, 6(3), 190-200

Lipsky, M. (2010) Street Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. 30th Anniversary edn. New York: Russell Sage Foundation 

Prabhat, D., Singleton, A., and Eyles, R. (2019) ‘Age is just a Number? Supporting Migrant Young People with Precarious Legal Status in the UK’. The International Journal of Children’s Rights 27 (2), 228-250 

Wade, J., Sirriyeh, A., Kohli, R., and Simmonds, J. (2012) ‘Fostering Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Young People’. Creating a Family Life Across a ‘World of Difference’. London: BAAF Adoption & Fostering