This essay explores how unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) are oppressed in the UK. An unaccompanied asylum seeking child is a person under the age of eighteen who has left their country of origin in order to seek refuge and is ‘separated from both parents and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom has responsibility to do so’ (UNHCR, 1994:121). They are therefore applying for asylum in their own right.
Discrimination is the process of identifying that someone is different and, due to this difference, treating them unfairly (Thompson, 2006). Xenoracism is discrimination that is aimed at people specifically because they are from a different country, and are therefore ‘strangers’ (Sivanandan, 2001:2). Oppression is the hardship faced by a group due to the dominance of another group and their discriminatory actions. There is often an imbalance of power between the groups, and the dominant group may ‘disregard the rights’ of the non-dominant group (Thompson, 2006:40). Refugees can be seen to face oppression in many aspects of society. This essay will first look at the role children’s services plays in the lives of UASC. The ways in which oppression of UASC in society can be caused by power relationships will then be covered, followed by specifically link this to the oppression faced by UASC in health, giving the perspectives of UASC. The essay will finally look how social work can attempt to reduce these oppressions.
UASC in Children’s Services
Unaccompanied asylum seeking children are the responsibility of the local authority (LA) to which they first present under the Children Act (1989) (Rutter, 2003). The Act states that local authorities must promote the wellbeing of all the children within their boundaries, and keep them safe. It reiterates the importance of assessing the child, and considering their wishes. The legal rights of UASC in regards to LA support are therefore identical to those of British children. The Audit Commission (2000), however, found that the standards of care given to UASCs were not to an equal level as those given to indigenous children. They found that many unaccompanied minors over the age of fifteen were not given full needs assessments. This led to many UASCs being supported under section 17 of the Act, rather than section 20. If a child is supported under section 20, the child is ‘looked after’, and is entitled to the full support of a social worker.
They can be involved in choosing placements, and there is a duty to protect their welfare. Their designated social worker must create a care plan and visit regularly. If a child is supported under section 17, they may not get any services other than an allowance for food and accommodation. Section 17 is designed to support children where an adult is already looking after them (Dorling, 2009). The majority of unaccompanied children seeking asylum that are supported under section 17 of the Children Act are aged between 16 and 18. The Hillingdon judgement (2003) recommended that all unaccompanied asylum seekers were placed under section 20. In spite of this, as many as 10% of UASC are living independently. This is in comparison to 2% of indigenous children supported by the local authority (Hek, 2005). As well as being an oppression in itself this can also be seen to exacerbate the extent to which the child is oppressed in other areas of society.
Power and Discourse
Chase (2009) argues that Foucault’s (1975) theory of the panoptic mechanism can be used to explain why unaccompanied asylum seeking children do not disclose all information relevant both for their asylum claim and for an assessment of their needs under the Children Act 1989. The theory shows how structural and cultural systems are developed in ways that give power to the privileged over a less dominant group (Chase, 2009). This is done by scrutinising the asylum seekers’ lives, and therefore increasing knowledge. Chase argues that unaccompanied asylum seeking children choose not to disclose information to immigration officials or social workers, not due to language difficulties, but to attempt to ‘retain a degree of agency’ (Chase, 2009:2052). Power is ‘the capacity to act in such a way as to control others’ (Harris, 1997:28). He argues that everyone has at least some power, and that this power, for the relatively powerless, can be used to influence the decisions of the dominant group. Unaccompanied asylum seeking children not disclosing information can be seen as them exercising the little power they have.
This can however have a negative impact on their lives in the UK, for example, being placed under section 17 of the Children Act instead of under section 20, which would offer the child more support. Foucault (1977) uses discourse to relate to how language can be used to construct ideas and thoughts about groups. Discourses and language can therefore help construct or reduce oppression (Thompson, 2006). If a group has power, they have the ‘ability and opportunity to fulfil or obstruct personal, relational, or collective needs’ (Prilleltensky, 2008). If the dominant discourse of a less powerful group is positive, the group with power may help that group fulfil their needs. If the dominant discourse of a less powerful group is negative, such as with UASC, the powerful group may obstruct them in fulfilling their needs, and therefore will cause oppression. Innes (2010) argues that the negative discourse of asylum seekers as a threat to British society is portrayed in government literature and restrictive policies relating to asylum seekers.
The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act (1996) constructed a discourse that asylum seekers were criminals. For example, finger-printing of asylum seekers became standard practice, which is widely acknowledged to happen when an individual is suspected of a crime. The White Paper Fairer, Faster, Firmer (The Stationary Office, 1998) implied that many asylum seekers were fraudulently claiming asylum for economic reasons. The Immigration and Asylum Act 2004 gave immigration officers the power to arrest immigrants travelling without legal documentation. Travelling with passports and visas is rare for asylum seekers, due to the way they have to leave their country. Therefore, the act of seeking asylum can in itself make the individual a criminal. The discourse that the public have of asylum seekers, and the collective power they have, causes government to rewrite laws to criminalize asylum seekers (Innes, 2010).
This negative discourse therefore causes oppression on a structural level. Oppressions that happen on the structural level are due to power imbalances between different groups in society causing discrimination to be ‘sewn in’ to society (Thompson, 2006:28). In relation to UASC, this can be due to policy and legislation, language differences and their age. An asylum seeking child’s age however, can be seen to lead to a positive structure, as they will receive more support than an adult under the Children Act 1989. Thompson (2006) argues that oppressions on the personal, cultural and structural (PCS) level are all interlinked in his PCS analysis. Oppression on the cultural level happens when differences in culture or ethnicity are viewed as deficits. Stereotypes and assumptions of UASC can be found on this level. Oppression on the personal level is caused by thoughts and actions of an individual, for example xenoracist bullying in schools.
Profiles in the media, promoting a negative discourse of asylum seekers, can therefore be a reflection of the structural discourses in government literature, or vice versa. Newspaper articles about asylum seekers can be seen as society scrutinising them. Due to the ‘knowledge’ gained from articles, the society’s perception of power over asylum seekers is increased, causing xenoracism and oppression. This causes oppression on the cultural and personal levels. An example of the discourses the media portray of asylum seekers, as stated in Innes (2010), can be seen below: ‘In a vile act of desecration, a bogus asylum seeker unzips his trousers and casually urinates on the gravestone of a British war hero… the grasping refugee and his cronies show breathtaking contempt for the brave British troops… the immaculate lines of white stones are now under threat from the invasion of asylum seekers’. (The People, 26 February 2006).
This quote portrays the asylum seeker as a threat to British memories. The use of ‘invasion’ implies a threat to security. The labels of ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are used a lot to reinforce the idea that they threaten British life (Innes, 2010). Young asylum seekers know how the media portrays them. Miguel, an eighteen year old asylum seeker from Angola, came to the UK when he was twelve. Chase (2009) quoted him as saying: ‘It seems like they paint a picture of us as in people who just arrive randomly to leave their country and move to England for no reason . . . and that we are here just to get benefits or something, or get an education.
All that is not helping really, I don’t think they paint a good picture of asylum-seekers.’ These discourses of asylum seekers can create a stigma that leads to xenoracism on the personal level. Chase (2009) quoted Chrisna, aged eighteen, from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), on how people reacted when they found out she was an asylum seeker: ‘Sometimes they give you this look, like, ‘what are you doing in this country?’ They don’t want to say it but they are showing you with the look.’
It can be seen that the dominant discourse of asylum seekers and the power differentials between them and the British majority can cause oppression. This section will look at some of the oppression unaccompanied asylum seeking children face in relation to their health. Legally, all asylum seekers and refugees, apart from those whose asylum claim has failed, have the same rights to healthcare as the rest of the UK population (Joels, 2008). However, the specific healthcare and cultural needs of refugees, and the barriers faced in accessing healthcare can mean that the health of UASC is at a poorer level than others in the UK. Although little research has been done specifically for UASC, the Dennis (2002) found that 34% of refugee children were not registered to a GP.
Approximately a third of UASC said that they had problems actually getting to see a GP (Marriott 2001in Hek, 2005). This was particularly the case when young people had no adult to help them through the process. Wade et al (2005) found that accessing healthcare when needed and support with their health was better for UASC who were looked after under section 20 of the Children Act than for those that received little support under section 17. This is a structural oppression of UASC under section 17, and is due to statutory requirements for health assessments of looked after children.
A fouteen year old boy, who had been in the UK for 6 months was quoted as saying: ‘What is a GP?’ (Kidane, 2001 in Hek, 2005) Language difficulties also prevent UASC from accessing primary healthcare, and also prolong the time before a diagnosis is made (Rutter, 2003). This can be seen as a structural oppression. Interpreters can be employed to overcome this, however, outside London or big cities interpreters with the appropriate language may not be available (Rutter, 2003). One unaccompanied minor was quoted as saying: ‘The doctor never arranges for interpreters. There is never anyone there.’ (Gosling, 2000 in Hek, 2005)
Female UASC can be doubly oppressed by language difficulties in healthcare due to the dominance of male interpreters (Joels, 2008). When health problems occur due to, for example, rape or female genital mutilation (FGM), many women will not feel comfortable talking to men about the trauma they experienced. The young women are oppressed not just due to the power British people have, but also by the power men have. Williams (2004) states that xenophobia exists within the NHS, which can restrict the access to healthcare that unaccompanied minors receive.
NHS staff, knowingly or unknowingly, treat UASC differently to others. This can be seen as a reflection of the structural and cultural discrimination discussed above. Williams (2004) also argues that the law introduced to stop failed asylum seekers from accessing some secondary healthcare will confuse practitioners about the level of healthcare they can offer to those waiting for a decision on their asylum claim. This is oppression on the structural level. The legislation constructs a discourse about failed asylum seekers that society misinterprets to include all asylum seekers.
In terms of the physical health of UASC, the affects of malnutrition due to poverty have a significant impact. This is particularly prevalent amongst UASC living independently (Hek, 2005). One 17 year old boy said: ‘sometimes when I am short of money, I just eat mayonnaise’. (Stanley, 2001 in Hek, 2005)
The poverty experienced by unaccompanied asylum seeking children can be seen as a structural oppression. The level of support they receive under the Children Act will have an impact on the amount of money they have. They are also unable to work, which can be due to their age and legislation that prohibits asylum seekers from working until they have been in the UK for twelve months (Bloch, 2008).
Social Work with unaccompanied asylum seeking children
Anti-oppressive practice (AOP) ‘seeks to understand and deal with the structural causes of social problems and address their consequences’ (Dominelli, 2009; 53). Thompson (2006) states points to move towards a more anti-racist, and therefore anti-oppressive, practice in social work. I will apply and analyse these steps with regards to working with UASC. Social workers should acknowledge the impact that structural and cultural influences have on their personal behaviour. As stated earlier, structural, cultural and personal levels of oppression are all interlinked. Xenoracist thoughts can ‘filter through’ (Thompson, 2006:31) from the cultural level and impact on a social worker’s practice with UASC. If social workers can acknowledge that this happens, actively work against that mechanism, and challenge the negative discourse portrayed of asylum seekers, oppressive behaviour within social work will be reduced. This can also go some way to challenging aspects of xenoracism on the cultural level. When individuals collectively challenge xenoracist culture, they can attenuate structures that support it (Thompson, 2006).
Social workers must ‘operate on the basis of cultural difference not deficit’ (Thompson, 2006:93). Assessment and intervention must not be based on negative assumptions. The traumas UASC go through before leaving their country of origin and while travelling to the UK can lead to both physical and mental distress (Dorling, 2009). It is wrong, however, to assume that all UASC will require intervention to improve their mental wellbeing. This can ‘lead to stereotyping and a misconception of the actual needs of individual refugees’ (Hek, 2005:15). Many UASC will be incredibly resilient, and consequently will be able to manage their situation well (Hek, 2005). As discussed earlier, UASC have very little relative power due to the surveillance of them by the public and statutory organisations. Social workers can try to empower UASC to support them to overcome xenoracism. Empowerment gives people the power to be in control of their lives, and to organise their own futures (Shardlow, 2009).
Unfortunately, this can be very difficult for unaccompanied minors due to the uncertainty they have about their asylum claim. Social workers can try to empower UASC by reflecting on how their position in society can affect their relationships with UASC (Burke and Dalrymple, 2009). As stated above, UASC can attempt to retain some power by not disclosing issues to social workers (Chase, 2009). Social workers should encourage UASC to tell them their stories in a way that they can determine the meaning and gain control. This will only be empowering if social workers are aware of the role language plays in showing power differentials. Social workers must use words that the children understand and relate to, so that UASC can use them to describe their situations (Burke and Dalrymple, 2009).
Interpreters may be an effective way of communicating with UASC in an empowering way. However, this can also have the opposite effect as many social workers believe using interpreters makes it difficult to build a positive relationship with the child, and results in a lack of information (Kriz & Skivenes, 2010). It should be noted here that social workers have a statutory duty in relation to UASC that may conflict with ideas of AOP. Social workers are involved in immigration and age assessment. In many cases, the decisions social workers make in these areas will not be in the best interest of the child, and may even lead to deportation.
For example, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act (2002) made it a requirement that LAs, and therefore social workers, report any failed asylum seeker or someone they suspect is in Britain illegally to the Home Office (Humphries, 2004). This can be seen as social workers actively bringing the attention of the Home Office to an individual’s difference, causing them to be discriminated against. In addition to anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice, social workers should be culturally competent (Parker, 2008). This will lead to effective responses to diversity factors such as religion, class and ethnicity, whilst valuing service users as individuals (Ben-Ari & Strier, 2010). This can lead to UASC feeling included and respected for their differences (Harrison and Turner, 2011).
Asylum seeking children can be seen to be oppressed in society due to the power of dominant groups and the negative discourses of asylum seekers portrayed by the government and the media. This essay looked into these discourses, and how power differentials can materialise through surveillance of asylum seekers. Social workers, although sometimes having a statutory duty that exacerbates oppression, can use anti oppressive practice with UASC to help reduce the extent to which they are oppressed by challenging discourses and attempting to empower the young people. Cultural competence is also valuable to social work practice with UASC, as it can contribute to the inclusion of unaccompanied asylum seeking children.