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Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Young People: Some Reflections from Research

Imagine arriving in the UK having travelled two or three thousand miles without your family. Imagine arriving in Birmingham in the back of a lorry, the doors being flung open and told to run as fast as you could and ‘don’t dare say anything about how you got here’. Imagine being separated from your brother on arrival in the United Kingdom and not knowing where he is. Finally, imagine undergoing an intimate medical examination with ‘people asking questions and recording your voice, and some doctor checking my body and saying this time you are fifteen… A social worker said I was lying about my age and I was eighteen’ (Tucker et al, 2011:132).

I have recently been involved in a research project, funded through the European Commission Daphne III programme, exploring the perspectives of children, young people and women who have been the victims of violence, exploitation and human trafficking. As part of that work a member of the research team interviewed a group of Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking young people in Birmingham. Putting on one side here, the harrowing experiences recounted through the interviews (the story featured above is common), the young people involved all commented on the importance of receiving pastorally-focused mentoring support, both inside and outside of school, that is supportive, culturally sensitive and non-judgemental. The words of one young man graphically capture both the immediate and longer term challenges faced by many unaccompanied children:

I needed someone to support me. Someone to help me work out the problems of being here. They are asking problems in English, you know, they say words and they try to explain to me. I don’t know these words. I don’t know how to ask questions. I was asked did I want a mentor. I asked, what is a mentor? And they said someone to talk to… I want to achieve at school but I need this kind of support [mentoring]. Talking over problems and difficulties is so important.

The interview data provided by the young people offers a revealing insight into their complex social and indidividual needs. All face huge challenges that are the direct product of experiences of isolation, dislocation from country of birth, loss of contact with parents and siblings, and abandonment. Public care arrangements seem to generate a sense of bewilderment and loss. Education is valued at one level in terms of it offering hope for the future, and yet at the same time is frequently experienced through a tirade of racial insults, bullying and ostracism. Pastoral support offered via the provision of both community and school-based mentoring seems to provide a vital source of encouragement and hope for the future. Effective mentoring appears to involve a high degree of befriending that is culturally sensitive, individually responsive and genuinely caring. The idea that the young person and their mentor must work together on personal, social and educational needs comes through strongly. One is also struck by the tremendous strength that the young people appear to draw from each another as well as their mentor. To close, I would like to share the words of another young person:

Meeting with other young people [in the same situation] is important. Having something to eat together is good. Someone is cooking food we can all eat. Not like in the home. Someone to listen to like Frank. You can get good advice and you can ask questions like. Read books and tell stories. Would like to volunteer to help other young people.


Tucker, S., Martyn, M., Bejenaru, A,. Brotherton, G., Gahleitner., Gunderson, C. and Rusu, H. Violence, Exploitation and Trafficking: Service User Perspectives, funded by Fundamental Rights and Justice Daphne III Programme 2007 – 2013. Birmingham: Children, Young People and Family Research Centre, Newman University College. ISBN 978-0-9568268-0-0

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Stan Tucker
Pastoral Care in Education
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