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Health Series: Research Spotlight

Social support for young unaccompanied refugees will help positive integration, says study

Refugees interviewed emphasised the importance of social support as a means for hope and escape from distress

by George Wigmore (Senior Communications Officer)

A new study has shown that social support and opportunities to build family-like relationships and meaningful friendships could help unaccompanied and refugee youth to positively integrate upon their arrival in England.

The paper, which is from researchers at City, University of London, found that the refugees interviewed emphasised the importance of social support as a means for hope and escape from distress, as many felt isolated and lonely having arrived in England.

As a result, the participants’ voices illustrate areas where gaps remain to be filled in terms of providing sufficient support to these most vulnerable groups, unaccompanied minors and refugee youth, in England. The authors highlight the need for care and support programmes that focus on providing opportunities for social relationships as well as initiatives that seek to prevent discrimination.

Despite the hardship experienced at an early stage of life by the participants, the findings also illustrate remarkable strength and the aspiration to move forward and achieve individual goals. In particular, participants expressed a desire to contribute to society, to complete an education and to establish a new family. The study is published in the Children and Youth Services Review.

The number of forcibly displaced individuals has increased in recent years, rising from 51.2 million in 2013 to 65.6 million in 2016 due to continuing conflicts, violence, persecution and human rights violations according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees(UNHCR).

The sharpest rise was seen between 2012 and 2015, due to conflicts in regions and countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Sub-Saharan Africa, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Sudan and Burundi. In addition, other conflicts and insecurity worldwide continue to contribute to the number of individuals seeking safety. In the UK, the UNHCR estimated the number of refugees and asylum seekers in 2015 to be around 153,560.

In order to determine ways in which the positive post-migration development and integration could be achieved, the study conducted interviews with six asylum-seeking and refugee individuals from sub-Saharan Africa, who had arrived in England as unaccompanied minors and included five males and one female, aged between eighteen and 28 years. The interviews aimed to find out more about young asylum-seeking and refugee individuals' experiences of their social situation in England.

In particular they found that:

  • Unaccompanied refugee minors can suffer distress pre-migration, during their journey and after arrival in asylum-countries;
  • Building new social relationships provides hope by reducing distress, social vulnerability and fear of rejection;
  • Relationships that resemble family bonds and friendship can provide opportunities for rebuilding trust, optimism and reducing despair;
  • Unaccompanied refugee youth benefit from provision of meaningful activities which reduce feelings of discrimination; and
  • Initiatives that seek to prevent discrimination, stigmatisation and isolation, and that aim to facilitate social relationships to develop, should be supported, for instance in professional care systems and school contexts. This includes the offer of therapeutic care, the need for stable adults, mentors for legal advice and guidance, community groups and also the opportunity for work and education.

Around these themes, participants highlighted the difficulties of arriving in England, with one discussing the issues of feeling labelled and stigmatised, saying how it “doesn’t matter how much you explain yourself, it will always be there. Like the Somali runner Mo Farah. You’re different when you’re a refugee. Even when you win a medal in the Olympics. They’ll say he came when he was 2 or 3.”

Another participant also mentioned fears around discussing refugee status. “I even feel scared when I go for a job interview and I take my refugee passport to present. And I’m just thinking; the manager will already put me in another group,” they said.

Participants also focused on education, highlighting that “I want to be able to look after my family and look after myself and achieve my goals.”

In addition, the authors call for a change around negative discourse about ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum-seekers’ which is often dehumanising and generalising – and which does not consider the individual stories and backgrounds. The study also suggests that there may be implications for housing and living situations, as participants expressed distress about feeling isolated and lonely.

Speaking about the research, co-author Dr Sara Amalie O’Toole Thommessen, said:

“Based on the participants’ expressed need for social support in our study it is evident that there is an important gap for asylum-countries to fill, particularly for young individuals who find themselves in a foreign country without their families.

“Unaccompanied refugee minors are particularly vulnerable to stress and risk pre-migration, during the journey to asylum-countries and in the asylum-country, and as a result, they can benefit from care and support programmes that focus on offering opportunities for social relationships to develop as soon after their arrival to the asylum-country as possible.

“Providing activities in which young refugees can engage and build meaningful relationships with peers, and trusting relationships with stable adults, seems important for the recovery of losses, reduction of distress, fear of rejection, as well as for facilitating well-being and positive development and integration.“

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