Meeting the needs of refugee children

Meeting the needs of refugee children


Written by: Tim Cleary

A new book explores the diverse situations of refugee and asylum-seeking children in the UK – and the hostile reception that very often creates barriers to their educational success.

Mahmut is a 12-year-old Kurdish boy. He leads a complicated life. Since arriving in London four years ago, he has lived in five different houses and has attended six different schools. Teased at school because he didn’t speak English, Mahmut struggled to be accepted in a society that lacks even a very basic understanding of his situation.

His personal struggle to be accepted has been of considerable importance to his family: he interprets for them at the doctor’s, solicitor’s and job centre. As a result of his experience, he has decided that when he is older he would like to put his skills to use as an interpreter, teacher or computer operator.

However, the fact that people do not understand his family’s history and reason for claiming asylum in the UK appears to raise in him a profound sense of injustice: ‘We came to London because of the political situation in Turkey. People were always harassing and terrorising Kurdish people. I wish people understood more about refugees and had more respect for people’s different backgrounds.’

Although Mahmut’s story is indicative of a general hostility towards asylum seekers and refugees, and a lack of understanding of their personal histories, Jill Rutter, in Refugee Children in the UK, contends that such children should not all be placed in the same basket. She suggests that we need a more nuanced understanding of children and families who have been displaced by many different conflicts and whose often hostile reception and dispersal in the UK have resulted in myriad barriers to their advancement.

So as not to ‘pathologise’ or label refugee children as eternal victims and therefore play into the hands of those who would like them to be one homogeneous group, Rutter believes that a wide-ranging approach to refugee children is more beneficial. While taking into account children’s varied backgrounds, there are ample other post-migration experiences such as poverty, isolation, racism and an uncertain immigration status that need to be considered as affecting the educational progress of refugee children.

Thus, for the Congolese, ‘warm words about integration and achievement are a façade’, hiding the inadequate steps taken to include Congolese children in British society. Somali children have often been the victims of bullying, racial harassment and teacher stereotyping at school, obstructing their strong desire to succeed. Yet southern Sudanese children have shown comparative educational success, possibly due to a combination of better levels of reception in schools and the maintenance of a pre-migration emphasis on education.

Refugee Children in the UK contains a large amount of information which will be useful reading for professionals, academics, students and people whose work involves meeting the needs of refugee children. The following themes are included in the book:

  • A background to refugee populations in the UK;
  • A critique of labelling and the concept of the ‘traumatised’ child refugee;
  • The UK’s past and present policies in relation to refugees;
  • Views of young British people on asylum and migration;
  • The effects of educational policy and practice on the success of refugee children;
  • Case studies of Congolese, Somali and Sudanese communities;
  • New visions for the long-term educational success of refugee children.

Although Refugee Children in the UK is an academic study, the author hopes that its scope will not end there and that ‘readers of this book may join with others to work for justice and equality, a world without violent conflict and poverty, and a world where education liberates the minds of children’.

Related links

Refugee Children in the UK by Jill Rutter

Refugee Children in the UK, Jill Rutter, Open University Press, 2006, £19.99

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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