Of an estimated 12 million Syrians displaced by war, more than half are children, tens of thousands of whom will be fleeing alone. Their parents may have been killed or been separated from them.
They may have lost their brothers and sisters or other family members. They have no one to turn to.
The UK’s decision to offer sanctuary to hundreds if not thousands of these children is right; it would be morally indefensible not to. We will then have a solemn responsibility to protect the fragile lives of these traumatised children while they are in our country’s care.
Our Government should urgently prioritise specialist, tailored care required by the unique circumstances of refugee children. These children need, and deserve, a decent place to live with the right people and support in place for as long as they need it.
Firstly the Government needs specialist staff to immediately identify the type of support these children need; some will need help for trauma or mental health. They need to ensure that children stay in sensitive, loving foster homes whilst they live in the country, and that each foster carer has been specially trained to nurture them and meet their needs.
That will mean they stay in appropriate accommodation too. Shockingly, many unaccompanied and potentially trafficked children end up staying in bed and breakfasts without much support. As a result, two-thirds go missing from care, putting them in danger from traffickers or predatory adults.
Secondly, we must ensure that every child is treated as a child – not an adult. Most of these children will be travelling undocumented so officials must judge if they are under 18.
Finally, we need to make sure these children are supported in their transition to adulthood. We are worried that the period after the age of 18 is a particularly vulnerable time for unaccompanied young people as they lose support from children’s services.
At Barnardo’s we have specialist staff that could provide the critical ‘triage’ that newly arrived children and young people will need. We also have trained foster carers to look after unaccompanied children seeking asylum.
As Syrian children are coming to the UK direct from refugee camps they may have been picked up by traffickers in the camps, or as they move across Europe.
Trafficked children and young people are supported by our independent advocates in 23 local authorities in England. Advocates walk with children every step of the way through what can be a frightening time – navigating the care system to have a secure home and immigration processes to have the right to stay.
The government and local authorities should draw on such experience and expertise in putting together the package of support to help refugee children.
Our hope at Barnardo’s is that the people of the UK can support these children in a meaningful way, helping them to overcome their experiences escaping from war so they can imagine a safe future.
Javed Khan, CEO, Barnardo’s
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