A crisis ignored: new report highlights the need for trauma-informed care for asylum-seeking youth

By Fae Mira Gerlach, Youth Welfare Project Manager

In advocating for young people seeking protection in the UK, RRE has continuously worked to raise awareness about the urgent need for a vast expansion of support provisions across key areas of life, including mental health, legal support, secure shelter, etc.

The high rate of psychological vulnerability and trauma among young displaced people is well-established, commonly caused by compounded traumas from their home countries and migration journeys characterised by painful separations and physical danger.

Young people who experience symptoms or run the high risk of developing mental and emotional ill-health, often suffer a further exacerbation of their ill-health once they arrive in the European county where they seek asylum, due to discrimination, isolation, and uncertainty.

A research report released by RRE in March 2021 offers a situational analysis of mental health and wellbeing among unaccompanied minors and 18–25-year-olds, drawing on an in-depth desk review, alongside first-hand interviews with young people seeking asylum in the UK and their support workers.

It concludes that the much-overlooked crisis relating to young asylum seekers’ mental health and wellbeing needs must be urgently addressed. In the UK, for 18 to 25-year-olds, the lack of adequate care and support upon arrival in the UK and throughout the asylum process has a detrimental impact on individual wellbeing. No longer minors, they are completely left to their own devices.

Simultaneously, asylum-seeking unaccompanied minors who end up living in accommodation with adults due to age disputes are vulnerable and at heightened risk of psychological ill-health and self-harm, in addition to serious risks of abuse, exploitation, disappearance, and homelessness.

Data shows that the UK Home Office method of determining age frequently leads to minors wrongfully being categorised as adults. To prevent the risk of further harm to these young people and to strengthen their resilience, urgent support and care should be provided in line with the findings presented in this report.

In Europe, refugee mental health services furthermore remain underutilised due to social barriers such as lacking language proficiency, fear of stigmatisation, asymmetrical power dynamics, confusion over the services available, a distrust of the healthcare system, and a fear of deportation.

Our research shows that mental ill-health among refugees and asylum seekers is highly complex and multi-layered and that these individuals experience multidimensional stressors (during and after migration), including social isolation and substandard accommodation solutions.

Hence, any mental health response needs to be designed in a culturally and contextually sensitive manner that also considers the aforementioned social barriers. Responses furthermore must focus on ensuring that adolescent refugees and asylum seekers are empowered psychologically and socially to survive and thrive in their new environment.

In particular, the report highlights that the available evidence of effective interventions provides impactful and readily implementable solutions for European governments, and for the UK Government specifically in relation to 18 to 25-year-olds.

These include both specialised treatments, such as the NET/KIDNET, PM+, e-MH models, as well as non-specialised approaches, including Art and Community Theory models and interventions which address contextual factors.  These have proven to be effective, complementary, and outperforming both alternative therapies and the absence of treatment altogether.

In light of the availability and strong evidence-base of existing effective interventions, along with learnings drawn from the expertise and valuable experiences of service providers and young people themselves, it is evident that this crisis can be effectively addressed and should no longer be ignored.

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