Asylum seeking children

Asylum seeking children are a very diverse group and are likely to present with a wide range of needs.  Professionals must have a sound knowledge base and understanding to enable them to deliver a quality service to asylum seeking families with children or UASC.

Unaccompanied asylum seeker child – UASC

Someone who at the time of making the asylum application:

  • is, or (if there is no proof) appears to be, under eighteen
  • is applying for asylum in their own right and
  • has no adult relative or guardian to provide or assist with care in this country.

The United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) does not consider a child to be unaccompanied if he or she is being cared for by an adult prepared to take responsibility for them. They are deemed to be ‘accompanied’ and not eligible for asylum support though will be entitled to an assessment of need through Children and Families Services.

Trafficked child

There is clear evidence that many children who have been trafficked claim asylum (sometimes at the behest of their traffickers) and enter the local authority support system.

A report commissioned by The Home Office and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) identified 330 suspected or confirmed cases, most of whom were, or had been, looked after by local authorities.

Many of these children will have suffered physical abuse on their way to the United Kingdom. Others will have been duped into believing that they are coming to the United Kingdom for a better life and not be aware of the exploitation that awaits them. In other cases, the children may have escaped exploitation but be in need of protection to make sure that they do not fall back into the hands of traffickers. The process of identifying these children and keeping them safe presents difficult challenges, especially as many of them will have complex needs.

These children must be dealt with under the safeguarding procedures. See the guidance on 'Safeguarding Children who may have been trafficked', DCSF, 2008.

Practice guidance

Asylum seeking children are a very diverse group and are likely to present with a wide range of needs. Many will have some of the following in common that hold implications for their health, welfare, educational attainment, and social inclusion:

  • traumatic experiences of war, social or political persecution
  • an interrupted education
  • limited knowledge of the English language
  • change in living standards/conditions
  • loss of usual carer (separation issues)
  • cultural/linguistic isolation
  • experience of racism
  • difficulties in accessing health care and specialist services 

Professionals working with asylum seeking children

  • must have a sound knowledge base and understanding to enable them to deliver a quality service to asylum seeking families with children, or UASC
  • must work effectively across the agencies in ensuring these families receive an equitable service, and in so doing reduce the risk of harm to children
  • must ensure that, where concerns are raised, they are clear as to what actions should be taken
  • must work to improve the life chances for those children living away from home who may be seen as vulnerable

Agency responsibilities

Role of the local authority


All children and young people who have entered and currently live in the UK are covered by the provisions of the Children Act 1989 and through the duties and responsibilities of the statutory agencies: health, education, children and young people’s service and police.

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children become the responsibility of children and young people’s service.

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) have no parent or guardian to turn to in this country, as they arrive in the UK, alone, seeking asylum. The presumption is, therefore, that they will fall within the scope of The Children Act 1989, S.20, and become ‘looked after’ - unless the ‘needs assessment’ reveals particular factors that suggest an alternative response would be more appropriate. (The child should be cared for under The Children Act 1989, S.20 while the assessment is carried out.)

DOH circular to local authorities - LAC (2003)13 and the findings of a judicial review R (Berhe and others) v the London Borough of Hillingdon (2003) EWHC 2075(Admin) clarified responsibilities for providing support.

The need to use the framework of assessment was re-stated and the judgement reinforced the expectation that local authorities responsibilities to UASC should, with few exceptions, be under the provisions of S.20 Children Act 1989. Clarifying this secured entitlement to ‘leaving care’ services under the provisions of The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000.

The Section 20 (1) criteria that would normally have to be satisfied are:

  • there being no person who has parental responsibility for the children
  • children being lost or abandoned
  • the person who has been caring for the children being prevented from providing them with suitable accommodation and/or care.

Initial assessment


All UASC, on arrival, undergo an initial assessment by a social worker. They often arrive with little, or no, documentation to substantiate their identity or age. Some may speak a limited amount of English though not to an extent of being able to comprehend the process of assessment. An interpreter, often through Language Line, is used. Part of the assessment process involves a specific assessment of age. If there is no or little doubt as to their 'stated' age then the age, given by them, is accepted.

Estimated age


Where this is not the case then we may dispute their age, subject to the information gained through the assessment process. This may result in the young person still being accepted as being under 18 years of age though assessed as being older than their claimed age. Where this occurs, the Home Office accepts the 'estimated' age.

There are occasions where we firmly conclude that young person is over 18 years of age and in these circumstances they will be treated by the Home Office as adults. They are still entitled to apply for asylum - simply as an adult.

In both of the above scenarios the decision can be challenged through judicial review. A full copy of the 'age assessment' pro forma is forwarded to the Home Office. One has to recognise that age assessment can be an 'imprecise' process. This issue is being addressed by the Home Office currently.

Interpreter services


All attempts must be made to ensure that the child understands the process and, wherever possible, an interpreter service should be used to support both the professional and the child in the exchange of information.

Placement of unaccompanied asylum seeking children under 16 years

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children, under 16 years of age, will generally be placed in foster care. At times such placements may be secured through fostering agencies ‘out of county’. 'Kinship' placements - eg with a family/carer from a similar culture/language/origin background may also be used. These placements are assessed and police clearance checks undertaken similarly to foster placements under the private fostering regulations.

These children and young people will then receive the same service as that  provided to a 'looked after child’.

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children 16 and over

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children aged 16 - 17 continue to be supported by the local authority. These young people will need to be supported to make links with welfare rights and other immigration legal advisers to, importantly, ensure their asylum claim is positively monitored and pursued. All UASC must be supported to encourage them to register with a GP and dentist to ensure health needs are assessed and monitored.

Assistance must be provided to ensure that asylum-seeking children, of statutory school age, are integrated into local schools.

Turning 18

On reaching 18 years UASC need to be considered in terms of their eligibility to leaving care services as ‘former relevant’ young people. Provision of support to 'care leavers' can continue up to their 21st birthday and, in certain specified circumstances, up to 24.

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children, reaching 18 years have normally been granted some form of ‘discretionary leave to remain’ and need to apply for an extension to this ‘ leave to remain’ prior to reaching 18 years of age. Ensuring this takes place is important as they will retain their 'leave to remain' status until their asylum application is finally determined and continue to remain eligible for housing, housing benefit and other associated benefits.

UASC, who turned 18 years of age prior to June 2003, are not being actively followed-up at this point in time and many will have chosen, as young adults, to become self-supporting. A number will have chosen to move out of the county. However, should any of these young people subsequently approach the local authority for support an assessment of their needs will be undertaken to establish their entitlement to a leaving care service.  These cases are known as 'Legacy cases' and are part of a review by the UKBA which is expected to reach a decision on all these cases by summer 2011.

Providing support to asylum seeking families

The local authority (normally through an asylum support team where one exists), continues to provide support to families under the 'interim provisions' until there is a 'final outcome' to their asylum claim. Once indefinite leave to remain (ILR) is granted to families the support provided by a local authority ceases. Asylum seekers, once granted ILR, become eligible to claim benefits, apply for housing and housing benefit and are entitled to take up employment.

Families supported by the local authority, under the interim provisions, who receive a negative decision and have exhausted all their appeal rights will continue to be supported by the local authority (through its asylum support team where such a team exists) until they become subject to ‘removal’ from the UK. Families who applied for asylum after August 14th 2000 are supported by NASS and may, at times, present to agencies for advice and support.

More information