Lone asylum seeking children are more likely to have experienced high levels of war trauma, combat and torture than those who arrive in a country with adult carers, according to a new study looking at the mental health of asylum seeking children in the UK.
The authors of the research, which is published online this week in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, are calling on governments to ensure that children who arrive in a country on their own are offered appropriate support.
The study reveals that lone asylum seeking children are at much greater risk of mental health problems, such as post traumatic stress symptoms, than their accompanied peers. Such children are sent away from their families, or flee their communities, because of persecution, organised violence or war.
There are an estimated 5,500 unaccompanied asylum seeking children in the UK. According to the new research, placing such children in foster care greatly helps their mental health. In the UK, unaccompanied asylum seekers aged between 16 and 18 are often placed in bed and breakfast accommodation, receiving a lower level of support than children who come into the care system at an earlier age. Foster care and high support living arrangements can prove costly for local authorities.
The study showed that unaccompanied asylum seekers living independently had higher levels of post traumatic symptoms, such as preoccupation with the war events, flashbacks and nightmares, than those living in foster care.
Overall, more than half of the male (61%) and nearly three quarters of the female unaccompanied asylum seekers (73%) were assessed as having a high risk of post traumatic stress disorder, far more than the accompanied male and female refugee children (14% and 35% respectively).
Those who were unaccompanied had much greater personal experience of war, including combat, torture and detention, than those who were accompanied. Many more of the lone asylum seeking children in the new study (45%) had been involved in combat, compared with the accompanied children (12%). Nearly half had experienced torture of some kind (38%), whereas very few had been subjected to torture in the accompanied group (3%). In the lone group nearly one in five reported that they had been imprisoned or in detention of some kind (18%), compared with only one in twenty in the accompanied group (6%).
Dr Matthew Hodes, lead author of the new study from the Division of Neurosciences and Mental Health at Imperial College London, said: "Ours is the first study from the UK to directly investigate the war trauma that unaccompanied asylum seeking children have experienced and see how this relates to their psychological state. It shows that there is a close relationship between the levels of distress that these children experience and their living arrangements.
"These children often arrive in the UK after experiencing terrible things in their home country, and we would like to see foster care or special children's homes offered to them in order to reduce their suffering. Living with a foster family reduces a child's sense of isolation, provides them with someone who can care for them, and helps them to integrate with other children and adults. All of these factors can help lower their post traumatic stress symptoms and other studies show that many of the children much prefer this kind of care," added Dr Hodes.
The study compared the experiences of 78 unaccompanied asylum seeking children aged 18 and under, predominantly from the Balkans and Horn of Africa, who were supported by the City of Westminster local authority in London, with 35 accompanied refugee children living with family members. The children were interviewed about their experiences prior to reaching the UK and their current living arrangements, and completed questionnaires designed to reveal the state of their mental health, including post traumatic and depression symptoms.
The study was supported by the Department of Social Services, City of Westminster; the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund; and Action for Children in Conflict.