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1.4.13 Children from Abroad (including Migrant Children and Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children)


For children who may have been trafficked, please see the separate chapter Trafficking and Modern Slavery Procedure.


Care of Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Child Victims of Modern Slavery (Statutory guidance for local authorities, DfE, 2017)


  1. Introduction
  2. Purpose 
  3. Principles
  4. The Status of Children who Arrive from Abroad and Legal Duties Towards Them
  5. Identification and Initial Action
  6. Assessment
  7. Establishing the Child’s Identity and Age
  8. How to Seek Information from Abroad
  9. Parental Responsibility
  10. Child’s Developmental Needs
  11. Parenting Capacity
  12. Family and Environmental Factors
  13. Children in Need of Safeguarding
  14. Independent Family Returns Panel
  15. National Referral Mechanism

1. Introduction

Every day children arrive in this country from overseas. Most of these children do so legally in the care of their parents and do not raise any concerns for statutory agencies. However, evidence indicates that a number of children are arriving into the UK:

  • In the care of adults who, whilst they may be their carers, have no Parental Responsibility for them;
  • In the care of adults who have no documents to demonstrate a relationship with the child;
  • Alone; or
  • In the care of agents.

Evidence shows that unaccompanied children or those accompanied by someone, who is not their parent, are particularly vulnerable. These children (and their carers) will need assistance to ensure that the child receives appropriate care and accesses health and education services.

A small number of children who arrive from abroad may be exposed to the additional risk of commercial, sexual or domestic exploitation. For further information please see Trafficking and Modern Slavery Procedure and Safeguarding Children and Young People from Child Sexual Exploitation: Policy, Procedures and Guidance.

2. Purpose

The purpose of this guidance is to assist staff in all agencies to:

  • Understand the issues which can make children from abroad particularly vulnerable;
  • Be able to identify children from abroad who may be In Need, including those who may be in need of protection;
  • Be confident of the action they should take in accordance with their responsibilities.

3. Principles

There are some key principles underpinning practice within all agencies in relation to unaccompanied children from abroad or those accompanied by someone who does not hold Parental Responsibility. These are:

  • Never lose sight of the fact that children from abroad are children first - this can often be forgotten in the face of legal and cultural complexities;
  • Children arriving from abroad who are unaccompanied or accompanied by someone who is not their parent, should be assumed to be a Child in Need unless assessment indicates that this is not the case. The assessment of need should include a separate discussion with the child in a setting where, as far as possible, they feel able to talk freely;
  • Assessing the needs of these children is only possible if their legal status, background experiences and culture are understood, including the culture shock of arrival in this country;
  • Workers must be prepared to actively seek out information from other sources;
  • When completing assessments, take care not to "interrogate" the child; and
  • Where interpreters are required, it is important that they are screened and trained.

4. The Status of Children Who Arrive from Abroad and Legal Duties towards Them

Children who arrive in the UK alone or who are left at a port of entry by an agent invariably have no right of entry and are unlawfully present.

They are likely to be in a position to claim asylum and this should be arranged as soon as possible if appropriate. Such children are the responsibility of Children's Social Care to support until they are 18 years of age, (under section 17 or section 20 of the Children Act 1989) and if they have been looked after for a minimum of 13 weeks see Section 23(6) of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000.

If their asylum claim is not resolved before they reach 18 years old, support after the age of 18 years is generally provided by the UK Visas and Immigration, jointly with Adult Social Care Services where appropriate.

Children who arrive in the UK with or to be with carers without Parental Responsibility may have leave to enter the country or a visa, or they may be in the UK unlawfully. Children's Social Care Services will have responsibilities towards them if they are assessed to be In Need. In this case, support and accommodation can be provided by Children's Social Care for the child, and may also be provided for the family, if otherwise the family would be destitute. In addition, Children's Social Care will have responsibilities towards the child if he or she is Privately Fostered. However, if close relatives care for the child, Private Fostering Regulations may not apply.

5. Identification and Initial Action

Whenever any professional comes across a child who they believe has recently moved into this country the following basic information should be sought:

  • Confirmation of the child's identity and immigration status;
  • Confirmation of the carer's relationship with the child and their immigration status;
  • Confirmation of the child's health and education arrangements in this country;
  • Confirmation of the child's health and education arrangements in their country of origin and any other country that the child has travelled through.

This should be done in a way which is as unthreatening as possible to the child and carer.

If information indicates that the child has come from overseas and is being cared for by an unrelated adult or one whose relationship is uncertain, Children's Social Care should be notified in order that an assessment can be undertaken.

The immigration status of a child and his/her family has implications for the statutory responsibilities towards the family. It governs what help, if any, can be provided to the family and how help can be offered to the child.

Where families are subject to immigration legislation which precludes support to the family, many often disappear into the community and wait until benefits can be awarded to them. During this interim period the children can suffer particular hardship - e.g. live in overcrowded and unsuitable conditions with no access to health or educational services. They are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because of their circumstances.

Whenever children disappear and there are concerns about the child's welfare the Children and Families Who Go Missing Procedure should be followed.

6. Assessment

A Single Assessment should be undertaken with any unaccompanied child or child accompanied by someone who does not have Parental Responsibility, in order to determine whether they are a Child in Need of services, including the need for protection.

Such children should be assessed as a matter of urgency as they may be very geographically mobile and their vulnerabilities may be greater. All agencies should enable the child to be quickly linked into universal services, which can begin to address educational and health needs.

The assessment of children from abroad can be challenging. It is helpful to use the guidance contained in Working Together to Safeguard Children, including the Assessment Framework Diagram, provided that it is recognised that the assessment has to address not only the barriers which arise from cultural, linguistic and religious differences, but also the particular sensitivities which come from the experiences of many such children and families.

The needs of the child have to be considered, based on an account given by the child or family about a situation, which the professional has neither witnessed nor experienced. In addition, it is often presented in a language, and about a culture and way of life with which the professional is totally unfamiliar or has only basic knowledge about.

It is vital that the services of an interpreter are employed in the child's first language and that care is taken to ensure that the interpreter knows the correct dialect. Agencies should ensure that the interpreter shares more than a common language, and is professionally trained. They can sometimes be a rich source of information about traditions, politics and history of the area from which the child has arrived. They may be able to advice on issues like the interpretation of body language and emotional expression.

The first contact with the child and carers is crucial to the engagement with the family and the promotion of trust which underpins the future support, advice and services. Particular sensitivities which may be present include:

  • Concerns around immigration status;
  • Fear of repatriation;
  • Anxiety raised by yet another professional asking similar question to ones previously asked;
  • Lack of understanding of the separate role of Children's Social Care, and that it is not an extension of the police;
  • Lack of understanding of why an assessment needs to be carried out;
  • Previous experience of being asked questions under threat or torture, or seeing that happen to someone else;
  • Past Trauma - Past Regime/experiences can impact upon the child's mental and physical health. This experience can make concerns from the Authorities about minor injury or poor living conditions seem trivial and this mismatch may add to the fear and uncertainty;
  • The journey itself as well as the previous living situation may have been the source of trauma;
  • The shock of Arrival - The alien culture, system and language can cause shock and uncertainty, and can affect the mood, behaviour and presentation.

In such circumstances, reluctance to divulge information, fear, confusion or memory loss can easily be mistaken for lack of cooperation, deliberate withholding of information or untruthfulness. The Assessment should take account of any particular psychological or emotional impact of experiences as an unaccompanied or trafficked child, and any consequent need for psychological or mental health support to help the child deal with them.

The first task of the initial contact is therefore engagement. Open questions are most helpful, with a clear emphasis on reassurance and simple explanations of the role and reasons for assessment. If the "engagement" with the family is good, there are more likely to be opportunities to expand on the initial contact, as trust is established.

Within the first contact with the child and carer(s), it is however also vital not to presume that the child's views are the same as their carer's, or that the views and needs of each child are the same. Seeing each child alone is crucial, particularly to check out the stated relationships with the person accompanying them. (Someone allegedly from the same place of origin should have a similar knowledge of the place, for example). Clearly the professional is going to be seen as in "power" and as such a child may believe that they must "get it right" when they may not wholly understand the system or even the question.

Professionals should ensure that the engagement with the family is planned and thought through. This will provide opportunities to expand on the initial contact. The ethnicity, culture, customs and identity of this child must be a focus whilst keeping this child central to the assessment. The pace of the interviewing of a child should aim to be at the pace appropriate to the child, although the need to ensure that the child is safe may become paramount in some circumstances.

The child should be offered an Independent Visitor and, if they decline, their reasons should be recorded. Any Independent Visitor appointed should have appropriate training and demonstrate an understanding of the needs faced by unaccompanied or trafficked children.

In addition, unaccompanied children should be informed of the availability of the Assisted Voluntary Return Scheme.

7. Establishing the Child's Identity and Age

Age is central to the assessment and affects the child's rights to services and the response by agencies. In addition it is important to establish age so that services are age and developmentally appropriate.

Citizens of EU countries will have passport or ID card (usually both). Unaccompanied children very rarely have possession of any documents to confirm their identity or even to substantiate that they are a child. Their physical appearance may not necessarily reflect his/her age. Care of Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Child Victims of Modern Slavery (Statutory guidance for local authorities, DfE, 2017) provides that where the age of a person is uncertain and there are reasons to believe that they are a child, they are presumed to be a child in order to receive immediate access to assistance, support and protection in accordance with Section 51 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Age assessments should therefore only be carried out where there is significant reason to doubt that the claimant is a child. Age assessments should not be a routine part of a local authority’s assessment of unaccompanied or trafficked children.

Where an assessment of age is conducted, it must be Merton Compliant.

The assessment of age is a complex task, which often relies on professional judgement and discretion. Such assessment may be compounded by issues of disability. Moreover, many societies do not place a high level of importance upon age and it may also be calculated in different ways. Some young people may genuinely not know their age and this can be misread as lack of co-operation. Levels of competence in some areas or tasks may exceed or fall short of our expectations of a child of the same age in this country.

The ADCS Asylum Task Force has worked with the Home Office to develop practice guidance aimed at assisting frontline social workers in conducting age assessments of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK. See ADCS. The use of these documents is voluntary and not intended to be binding on local authorities. It is simply a recommended approach.

The advice of a paediatrician with experience in considering age may be needed to assist with an age assessment in the context of a holistic assessment. However, the High Court has ruled that, unless a paediatrician's report can add something specific to an assessment of age undertaken by an experienced social worker, it will not be necessary.

8. How to Seek Information from Abroad

Seeking information from abroad should be a routine part of assessing the situation of an unaccompanied child. Professionals from all key agencies - Health, Education, Children's Social Care and the Police - should all be prepared to request information from their equivalent agencies in the country or countries in which a child has lived, in order to gain as full as possible a picture of the child's preceding circumstances.

It is worth noting that agencies abroad tend to respond quicker to requests sent by email or fax than by letter. Similarly, the Internet may provide a quick source of information to locate appropriate services abroad.

See National Contact Details for contact numbers and addresses which are possible sources of information.

9. Parental Responsibility

The Children Act 1989 is built around the concept of Parental Responsibility. This legal framework provides the starting point for considering who has established rights, responsibility and duties towards a child.

In some cultures child rearing is a shared responsibility between relatives and members of the community. Adults may bring to this country children for whom they have cared for most of their lives, but to whom may be unrelated or only "distantly" related.

An adult whose own immigration status is unresolved cannot apply for a Child Arrangements Order to secure a child for whom he/she is caring.

Children whose parents' whereabouts are not known have no access to their parents for consent when making important choices about their life. Children who do not have someone with parental responsibility caring for them can still attend school, and schools should be pragmatic in allowing the carer to make most decisions normally made by the parent.

Such children are entitled to health care and have a right to be registered with a GP. If there are difficulties in accessing a GP, the local Patient's Services should be contacted to assist.

Emergency life-saving treatment should be given if required. However, should the child need medical treatment such as surgery or invasive treatment in a non life-threatening situation, the need for consent will become an issue and legal advice will be required.

Carers/parents are not eligible to claim benefits for their child unless they have both been granted some form of "leave to remain" in this country by the Home Office.

10. Child's Developmental Needs

Things to bear in mind include:

  • Health, behaviour and social presentation can be affected by trauma and loss. Famine and poverty can have an impact upon development;
  • Wider health needs may need to be considered, including HIV, Hepatitis B and C and TB. (This applies to the parent/carer also);
  • Education. What has school meant to this child?
  • Self care skills. It is important not to judge competence by comparing with a child of the same age in this country. This child may have had to be very competent in looking after themselves on the journey but unable to do other basic tasks. In some countries, some children will have been working or have been involved in armed conflict. Loss of a parent can enhance or deprive a child of certain skills. Having had to overcome extreme adversity can result in a child who is either deeply troubled or both resourceful and resilient;
  • Identity. Who is this child? What it their sense of themselves, their family, community, tribe, race, history?
  • Physical appearance. Life experience and trauma can affect this. Lack of nourishment may make the child present as younger or older;
  • Perceptions of what constitutes disability are relative and attitudes towards disabled children may be very different;
  • The impact of racism on the child's self image and the particular issues currently faced by asylum seeking children and their families.

11. Parenting Capacity

Things to bear in mind include:

  • War, famine and persecution can make a family mobile. The family may have moved frequently in order to keep safe. The stability of the family unit might be more important to the child than stability of place. Judgements that mobility may equate with inability to provide secure parenting may be entirely wrong. In some countries regular migration to deal with exhaustion of the land is part of the culture;
  • The fact that a child seems to have been given up by a parent may not imply rejection, as the motive may have been to keep the child safe or seek better life chances for him/her;
  • Talking about parents/family can be stressful and painful - but not being given the chance to do so regularly can also be damaging;
  • Importance of the extended family/community rather than a Eurocentric view of family;
  • Do not presume that you cannot contact a parent who is living abroad unless you have established that this is the case by actively seeking to do so;
  • Lack of toys for a child may indicate poverty or different cultural norms rather than poor parenting capacity to provide stimulation;
  • The corrosive impact on parenting capacity of racism against asylum seekers;
  • The additional issues of parenting a child conceived through rape - either dealing with the negative response of the partner or with the stress of keeping it secret from him.

12. Family and Environmental Factors

The importance of economic and social hardship is apparent. In addition there may be issues such as:

  • Family history and functioning may include the loss of previous high status as well as periods of destitution;
  • Different concepts of who are/have been important family members and what responsibility is normally assumed by the whole community, e.g. who a child should reasonably be left with.

13. Children in Need of Safeguarding

Where the Single Assessment indicates that a child may be suffering or likely to suffer Significant Harm, the child's welfare must be promoted and these procedures apply.

During the assessment, additional factors need to be taken into account. These dilemmas include such things as:

  • Perceptions of authority, the role of the Police in particular, and the level of fear which may be generated;
  • The additional implications for a family where deportation is a real threat of deciding to prosecute;
  • Balancing the impact of separation on a child with the likely history of separation/disruption;
  • Judgements about child care practices in the context of such different cultural backgrounds and experiences.

14. Independent Family Returns Panel

Under s. 54A Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 (inserted by s.3 Immigration Act 2014), the Secretary of State must consult the Independent Family Returns Panel in each family returns case, on how best to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children of the family. Further in each case where the Secretary of State proposes to detain a family in pre-departure accommodation, the Panel must be consulted on the suitability of so doing, having particular regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children of the family.

A family returns case is a case where a child who is living in the United Kingdom is to be removed from or required to leave the United Kingdom, together with their parent/carer.

Pre-departure accommodation is a secure facility designed to be used as a last resort where families fail to co-operate with other options to leave the UK, such as the offer of assisted voluntary return. The Panel may request information for other agencies to ensure that any return plan for a particular family has taken into account issues relating to safeguarding, welfare or child protection. In particular a social worker or manager from Children’s Social Work Services may be invited to contribute to the Panel.

15. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM)

If there are concerns that a child is a victim of trafficking, practitioners will need to inform the National Referral Mechanism, which is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support. It is also the mechanism through which the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) collect data about victims. This information contributes to building a clearer picture about the scope of human trafficking and modern slavery in the UK

For more information on the National Referral Mechanism, and to download the referral form, please click here.