Between protection and exclusion: Separated child migrants' care relationships and caring practices

Lead Research Organisation: Open University
Department Name: Faculty of Arts and Social Sci (FASS)


The promise of this project lies in generating knowledge that both analyses and provides ways to address one of the greatest global challenges of our time: the care and well-being of children affected by transnational displacement and migration. It will offer insights into the care of separated migrant children in England, starting from the premise that care is not necessarily limited to that provided by an adult or the state. Our pilot studies demonstrate that a crucial way separated migrant children survive the challenges of migration and settlement is through the care they provide and receive from other migrant children. Using creative research methods designed to involve separated migrant children and adult stakeholders in reflecting on their understandings and experiences of care, this project will not only point to 'cracks in the system' (Rosen et al., 2017) but offer insights into what constitutes good practice and how to develop it.

This project sits against the backdrop of the displacement of over 65.6 million people globally, many of whom are children. Whilst some have moved with adult family members, the number who have been separated from primary carers at some point during their migration journeys has risen dramatically (Unicef, 2016). Often referred to as 'unaccompanied minors' in legal and policy contexts, we use the term 'separated child migrants' to highlight that many children maintain transnational relationships or reunite with parents at various points in the migration process, and are often accompanied by other kin and non-kin adults and children (Rosen, forthcoming).

When separated migrant children arrive in the UK, they face conflicting treatment. They are protected as 'children' and entitled to the same rights to care as all other children. But, they are often treated as 'suspect' and excluded from welfare provision because of their status as 'migrants' (Crafter, forthcoming). Previous research has highlighted that the tension between immigration control and protection has led to significant differences in the quality of care provided for separated migrant children. New policy and guidance about separated migrant children is both responding to and changing the way these tensions are handled in the UK with, as yet, unknown consequences. In any case, they do not take children's care for each other into account.

Little is known about separated children's care for each other as they navigate contradictory, complex, and changeable immigration and welfare systems. Nor do we know how separated children's care for each other is understood and treated by relevant adult stakeholders, including social workers, foster carers, educators, youth workers, religious leaders, legal professionals, and policy makers. Our pilot studies indicate this neglect means that policies and practices designed to support separated child migrants can end up harming, excluding or discriminating against them. For instance, children who care for each other may be forcibly separated in foster care placements, go 'missing' trying to reunite, or have their 'child' status questioned.

In response, this project makes a needed and timely intervention. Placing separated children at its heart, this study asks: What are separated child migrants' experiences of care and caring for others? How do various economic, social and political factors shape the care priorities of relevant stakeholders? What are the theoretical, policy, and practice implications of varying understandings and practices of care?

This project has been designed by a multidisciplinary research team in collaboration with a range of local and national charities including Refugee Youth and MEENA (for migrant children and women in Birmingham), and involves the Refugee Council, Coram Children's Legal Project, and Barnardo's in an Advisory Group. This broad-based team ensures that the project will have meaningful impact on the lives of separated migrant children.

Planned Impact

By providing new data and knowledge about separated child migrants' experiences of care, and caring for others, as they navigate the complexities of the immigration-welfare nexus in England, the Separated Child Migrants and Care (SCM-C) project will respond to two ESRC strategic priorities: 'Supporting innovative health and social care delivery' (ESRC 1) through the care of vulnerable young people, and addressing the protection-control tension that lies at the heart of 'liberal governance' (ESRC 2) in relation to migrant children. Our key message is that care plays a critical role in the wellbeing of separated child migrants, but that care is not limited to that which is supplied by an adult or the state. Accessing the how and the why of care through first-hand accounts and broader social fields (cultural political economy, media and policy) can improve approaches to separated child migrants' care.

Who will benefit from this research?

This research has the potential to benefit vulnerable communities and a range of interdisciplinary stakeholders, including:
-Separated child migrants
-Young migrants
-NGOs / charities
-Professional and non-professional stakeholders
-Policy makers
-General public
In our pilot studies, stakeholders across multiple sectors indicated that they struggle to provide adequate care for separated children as a result of significant 'cracks in the system' (Rosen et al., 2017). Migrant children's care for each other was considered important in principle but stakeholders had not thought about how to incorporate this in the care they provide to separated children.

How will they benefit from our research?

There will be a range of practical benefits from delivering the aims and objectives of this project. The study makes a concrete commitment to the lives of young migrants through training Young Researchers (YRs) in research and writing skills, arts-based activities and dissemination (with payment). It involves bringing together a diverse range of adult stakeholders to identify and develop good practice in the care of separated migrant children. Materials will uniquely reflect the limitations under which practitioners operate but be based on the needs of separated child migrants, rather than assumptions about their needs. More broadly, the research will generate important and significant insights to inform regional and national law, policy and practice, ensuring that it takes account of care relationships valued by separated child migrants. Our analysis will tackle the impact of Brexit on migration and care entitlements, linking with the new coalition of children's experts (including Stalford and Dorling). Our project has the potential to make an important contribution to public understandings of separated child migrants' care, which often reflects tensions between protection and control apparent in media coverage and state policy.

How will we provide opportunities to engage with the research?

The research team and Advisory Group have well-established connections to representatives and stakeholders in the communities involved in this research. This will assist us to reach beyond disciplinary pockets, thereby enabling the sharing of good practice more widely. YRs, who are migrants themselves, provide a crucial bridge with separated child migrants. The team have secured the support from key agencies working with young migrants, including Refugee Youth, MEENA, Refugee Council, Barnardo's and CORAM (who also sit on our AG). This support of both regional and national organisations is critical for ensuring local needs are addressed whilst enabling a wider impact.

Other means for delivering a significant package of public engagement and generating impact are:
-Project website
-Project events: community-based and academic/professional
-Briefing papers: law, policy and practice
-Working papers
-Online interactive materials aimed at stakeholders
-Talks at schools and professional events


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Description Charity/NGO collaboration 
Organisation British Red Cross
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The Red Cross is a partner organisation involved with Work Package 1. Our team members are working with young separated child migrants attending the Red Cross organisation. This facilitate opportunities for separated children to shape understandings of their care experiences and improve their treatment, as well as develop relationships with other young migrants and research, policy, and practitioner communities
Collaborator Contribution The Red Cross has facilitated access to a small group of separated child migrants who are being trained as Young Researchers to use participatory approaches in design, data collection, and analysis.
Impact This collaboration is in the early stages of relationship building
Start Year 2019