After lengthy resistance, Britain agreed this month to take in several hundred unaccompanied child migrants who came to Europe amid the refugee crisis. It is likely to be the largest intake of such minors since the Kindertransport that brought Jewish children from Central Europe to Britain during World War II.
Unlike in Germany and Sweden, which have received the lion's share of unaccompanied minors so far, the children will not be placed into special social-worker-led residences. Rather, they will be accommodated in an already well-established British enterprise: the foster-care system.
“As a parent, I think it’s definitely the right thing to do,” says Katherine, a mother and foster parent in the central English town of Lincoln.
But the hosting of several hundred – possibly several thousand – children from restive regions like Syria and Afghanistan brings a host of special issues: new languages, stress from conflict zones, and cultural isolation. Those needs could stretch foster care thin.
Yet experts also say that the refugee children may also prove more resilient than their peers in the British system, as they have advantages that many British children from broken homes do not.
“The bombs in their life have gone off outside the family,” explains Ravi KS Kohli, a professor of child welfare at the University of Bedfordshire who focuses on child migrants. “With British children, the bombs have gone off inside the family.”
'We always need foster carers'
The number of unaccompanied child migrants reaching Europe has skyrocketed over the past two years.
After remaining steady around 11,000 minors per year for several years, in 2014 the figure climbed to 23,000, then quadrupled again to almost 90,000 last year, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical body. More than 90 percent of the child migrants last year were male, and 57 percent were between 16 and 17, Eurostat reports. About half of the children were from Afghanistan.
To date, Germany and Sweden have been the undisputed top destinations of unaccompanied child migrants: some 40 percent made their way to Sweden, while 16 percent registered in Germany. Last year, Britain received only 3,045 unaccompanied minors, less than one-tenth of the number who arrived in Sweden.
But earlier this month Prime Minister David Cameron announced that Britain will accept a larger number of unaccompanied minors from EU camps.
The new arrivals will give Britain’s foster care providers a starring role.
Britain's foster care system is largely considered adequate, though its charges lag behind British children in general. A 2012 report by the think tank Policy Exchange notes that only a third of foster children reach the expected educational standards, compared to three-quarters of children in general. This may also be a result of their troubled family background and mental or physical illnesses.
But foster care providers are already a precious commodity in Britain, with the pool constantly turning over. Some 12 percent of foster parents leave every year.
“We always need foster carers, though right now there’s a surplus,” explains Dominic Stevenson, a spokesman for The Fostering Network, a charity that supports foster parents and provides foster parent training. “The challenge is the location."
While the foster care system has enough parents by the overall numbers, not all those parents are in the places where they're needed: near the biological homes of the British children in the system. "Even if we had a million foster carers and they all lived in Newcastle, we’d still need more,” Mr. Stevenson says.
Currently, The Fostering Network estimates that Britain needs another 9,000 foster parents to make sure every child can be placed with a suitable family near his home.
Combined with the expected influx of unaccompanied refugee children, that means finding many more foster parents. But despite the need, warns Stevenson, Britain doesn’t need good Samaritans who simply want to help the unaccompanied minors. “People may come forward out of compassion for the refugees, but what we need are experienced foster carers.”
Special needs – and resilience
Katherine, who can’t be identified by her last name due to foster parenting privacy regulations, fits the bill. And she has thought about coming forward.
“I said no to an unaccompanied minor a couple of years ago because I was new to foster parenting,” she recalls. “But the reason I said no was mostly that they offered me a teenage boy, and I knew there are some cultural differences regarding how they’re allowed to interact with women.”
Now Katherine says she would be happy to take an unaccompanied minor, though preferably a girl. But her cultural concerns are only one of the new issues that Britain has to consider.
Foster parents will have to be sensitive to the children's religious and cultural needs, and authorities will also try to place siblings together. In addition to finding suitable families, local authorities will train foster parents in skills such as communicating with children who don’t speak their language and dealing with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.
Perhaps counterintuitively, unaccompanied child refugees could prove more adaptable to foster care than Britain’s own children.
“Yes, they’re lonely and bewildered,” says Professor Kohli. “But they also haven’t been damaged by their parents. Many of them come from stable and relatively well-off families who can afford the around $15,000 smuggler fee.”
As Kohli notes, some have experienced trauma on their journey and during armed conflicts at home. “But that’s physical and material hardship, not psychological hardship.”
According to Kohli, unaccompanied child refugees are initially often silent — but they adapt quickly.
"The majority are tough cookies," he says.