World Refugee Day

In recognition of World Refugee Day today (20th June), our Safeguarding Consultant Jon Trew discusses some of the safeguarding issues and cultural considerations that can impact on the well-being of refugee children.

Refugees: A Background

A few years ago, while staying at the home of my wife’s parents I noticed an elderly lady standing next to a very large suitcase, staring intently at the house. Not really knowing what to say I asked her if I could help? She replied rather absent mindedly “No.” After another rather long silence she said, “I used to live here you know.” I told her that I thought she better come in and meet the current owners.

She told us that she had lived in the house during the war, after coming to Britain as a child refugee from Czechoslovakia on the ‘Kindertransport’. Just before the outbreak of World War II, the British government allowed 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children into Britain. Often these children were the only members of their family that survived the Holocaust.

Sadly, children and families still have to flee from their home countries because of wars and oppressive regimes. For a child, having to leave your home and live somewhere completely new, where everything is different, must be very disturbing.

Britain: A Confusing and Baffling Place

A young Persian woman I once met told me how she and her family escaped to Britain from Iran when she was an eight-year-old child. Unable to speak a single word of English when she arrived, she remembers just standing in the middle of her new school’s playground desperate to play with the other children, but not knowing how to join in. She found her new British school a confusing and baffling place.

It was not just not knowing the language, everything was different; from the food you eat, to the way you use the toilet.

Impacts on children:

While language problems may be the most obvious barrier The Joseph Roundtree Foundation suggests that teachers should be alert to the following issues affecting refugee children[1];

  • these children are likely to have had an interrupted education in their country of origin
  • they may well have had horrific experiences in their home countries and while fleeing to the UK, which can affect their ability to settle and rebuild their lives
  • they may experience a drop in living standards and status – they do not all come from poor or impoverished backgrounds
  • their parents may be emotionally absent as a result of their trauma
  • families may not know their rights to access basic services such as education and healthcare, and encounter problems securing education, healthcare or benefits.

How can teachers and school staff help support children who are refugees?

Perhaps the most import thing is to allow extra time. Check first that you know what language and dialect the parents speak. It is really easy to get this wrong. We often presume if a child comes from a particular country they must speak a particular language but that may not always be the case. So prepare and do your homework. It is also tempting to use the child as an interpreter. Please don’t, this can put the child in a very difficult position, so have a speaker phone available for telephone interpreting. There are a number of translation services such as Language Line that allow an interpreter to translate using a speaker phone and this can be very effective.

Safeguarding concerns:

Other cultures may have different attitudes to the treatment of children and their education, and we should respect these cultural differences. However we must also remember that children have rights and these ‘rights’ are enshrined in UK law and based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This convention was ratified by the British government in 1991. Article 22 says:

Children have the right to special protection and help if they are refugees (if they have been forced to leave their home and live in another country.

The article goes on to say that refugee children also have all the other rights contained in the convention as well[2].

As long as you maintain a baseline of what is acceptable parenting and what is harmful to children, you will not be lost in the debate about culture or religion, nor allow these powerful subjects to supersede the safety of children.

– Perdeep Gill, Independent Child Protection Consultant

In the past there has been some confusion amongst professionals about the safeguarding reaction to religious and cultural differences. However, it is essential to understand that the welfare of children is paramount and we should never overlook or fail to report suspected neglect or abuse because of perceived fears about cultural differences[3].

Written by: Jon Trew

[1] Working with refugee children, Jill Rutter, Joseph Roundtree foundation 2003

[2] United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

[3] Child safeguarding, Family support, Fostering and adoption, Legal, Workforce Avoiding cultural and racial traps in child protection, Gordon Carson, 2011