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In the recent years, the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in the UK has doubled, with six unaccompanied child migrants arriving in the UK every day. Unfortunately, this number is expected to increase considerably primarily due to the current humanitarian crisis in Syria. Last year, the UK pledged to accommodate 20,000 Syrian refugees under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, with the majority of them being children, which is a move that will also result in the number of unaccompanied children increase. The arrival of these unaccompanied minors in the UK is an idyllic immigration crisis as it entails a mass movement of people, with the majority of them fleeing from the current humanitarian crisis in their home countries. Others are seeking to reunite with their families who had arrived in the UK earlier or simply escaping from extreme poverty in their country and hence seeking for gainful economic opportunities while others are victims of human and drug trafficking.
According to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the term “unaccompanied minors” refers to children who have been separated from their parents or other relatives and they are not under the legal custody of an adult. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with other terms such as unaccompanied alien children, juvenile immigrants, unaccompanied migrant children, and child migrants. The problem of unaccompanied minors has attracted much attention from the media and politicians while some believe thar it has been triggered by experts in fields such as political science and international relations. Although psychologists are not commonly consulted on this issue, they have much to contribute to the debates relating to unaccompanied minors arriving in the UK since, given the psychological impacts, the immigration process has started from the minors. In addition, psychologists can contribute much, which is relevant to both social and political policies in relation to unaccompanied minors. Consequently, this paper seeks to explain how psychological theories are relevant in application to social work practice in matters pertaining to unaccompanied minors.
Fundamentally, there are several psychology theories that are applicable in social work. However, this paper will use the Systems theory according to Bronfenbrenner and Person. In general, the systems theory describes human behavior in relation to complex systems. The systems theory is based on the idea that an effective system is based on personal needs, incentives, prospects, and traits of the individuals residing in the system. This theory argues that families, couples, and organization members are collectively and directly responsible for solving a problem even if it is an individual issue. Acccording to Bronfenbrenner’s, children encounter different environments in the course of their growth and development. These different environments influence the child’s behavior and vary in the extent, to which they affect the child. These systems include the micro system, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macro system, and the chronosystem.
The Micro System
According to Bronfenbrenner, the micro system’s setting is the direct environment where the child lives. It comprises of the immediate family, friends, age groups, teachers, neighbors and any other people who the child has direct contact with. Consequently, the micro system consists of any direct social interactions with these socialization agents. According to the theory, children are not just recipients of experiences they have when interacting with the people in the micro system environment. They also contribute to the creation of such environment. In this case, the micro system mainly comprises of the foster parents who have legal custody of the kids while the age-mates form a large proportion of those in the semi independent accommodation. Fundamentally, the two groups lack the care of the immediate family members and friends, which affects their behavior and temperament. In most cases, these minors are unceremoniously separated from their family and friends in addition to losing their identity as well as a sense of belonging.
The second level in the system is the mesosytem that involves the relationship between the microsystems and the child’ personal life. This means that a child’s family life experience may be related to their school experience. For instance, since the children are separated from their parents, they might have a high chance of developing negative attitudes towards their teachers. In addition, the child may feel uncomfortable when among peers and they may resort to withdrawal from a group of classmates. Essentially, lack of parental support makes unaccompanied minors vulnerable both internally and externally. Internally, they are likely to be overpowered by insecurity and loss, which affects their ability to cope with the new environment. Externally, their emotions and thoughts are affected, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and negative influence as they try to fit in the society (Sudbery 2010, p.124). However, the greatest obstacle for the unaccompanied children is culture shock, and it poses a great problem to the unaccompanied minors. As they try to blend in the new environment, they might get depressed and disoriented owing to the new and unfamiliar environment. They might also develop a sense of loss and deprivation, exclusion and rejection and overall loss of identity (Gross 2010, p.87)
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The exosystem level is made up of all the other people and places that a child may not interact with often and do not have an active role but still affect the child. For instance, children in foster care want their foster parents to have good jobs so that they can be able to take care of them. As a result, if a foster parent was to lose their job, it would have adverse effect on the child. Similarly, those in semi independent accommodation want to be in a good neighborhood. Despite the environment of the semi-independent accommodation, settling them in good neighborhoods gives the sense that they are wanted. On the other hand, if settled in informal settlements, they will develop a feeling that they are unwanted, which will affect them negatively. They want to have a feeling that the system can cater for their physical and basic needs.
Bronfenbrenner’s fourth level is the macrosystem. It is the widest and most remote one, but it still has great influence over the child’s growth and development. The macrosystem comprises of elements such as cultural values and the current state of the surroundings. For example, by being assigned the status of an immigrant, put on foster care or semi-independent settlement will make the minors work hard in order to improve their sense of self through personal accomplishment and be admitted in groups, which express their standards, identity, and ideas (Berk 2013, p.312). It entails identifying oneself with a particular social cluster based on their in-group customs, cultural expectations and belongingness. The majority of the unaccompanied minors arriving in the UK belong to different ethnic groups with different customs and cultures. Upon entering the country, they automatically become members of a minority group among the majority.
According to Bee (2013, p.127), whenever a minority ethnic or cultural group joins the mainstream or majority group, the majority’s identity becomes the dominant identity. On the other hand, the minority’s identity becomes indistinguishable as it diffuses for most of the members and people typically think very little about issues relating to ethnicity and its significance. On the contrary, when an individual belonging to an ethnic group, which is deemed to be a minority group, joins the mainstream society, their ethnic identity attracts more attention and they become topics of discussion. This is the case for the minors who arrive in the UK and live as members of a minority ethnic group in a larger entity, in this case, the English society. Therefore, it is logical to assume that the formation of their identity will become part of natural development, and it will entail a discovery process in search of the meaning and implication of their ethnic connection.
Last in the systems theory is the chronosystem, which takes into account the move and change in the child’s lifespan. Some children experience post-migratory stress as a result of exposure to a new language, different ways of life and customs. Additionally, these unaccompanied minors occasionally face racism and hostility since they are individuals of a minority group. Sometimes, this hatred and racism is accompanied with marginalization along with anxiety and insecurity during the asylum process (Sanchez-Cao, Kramer and Hodes 2012, p.653).
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Nevertheless, it is evident that the number of unaccompanied children has increased drastically over the years. They immigrate for different reasons. Some seek asylum due to wars and persecution while some are victims of sex trafficking or slavery. On the other hand, others are seeking to reunite with their parents or are in search of economic opportunities. Some may arrive in the country secretly hidden by child traffickers or paid smugglers. Out of desperation, some may try to get into the country through normal immigration checkpoints and present forged documents to border officials while others simply show up without any documents at all. However, regardless of the motivation for immigrating or the means they enter the country, the approach, according to which these unaccompanied minors are received, processed, detained, deported, or integrated, depends on the host country. This makes it necessarily to examine the way, in which they are handled, using a person-centered approach.
When determining how to receive, process, detain, deport or integrate these unaccompanied minors, it is important to note that there is a major difference between unaccompanied immigrant children and adult migrants. Compared to the adults, unaccompanied minors are more helpless and they are not, at least in the long term, viewed as potentially productive members of society by the receiving countries. Consequently, their status as minors demands for the creation of new laws for minors or simply an exception to the current immigration law and procedures (Parrish 2009, p.123).
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According to Bronstein (2008, p.325), it is necessary for immigration and asylum laws to make a clear distinction between minors and adults. The approach should by large follow the principle of best interests of a child as opposed the best interests of the country. The best interest of the child means ensuring that the welfare of the minors supersedes any laws or policy. Failure to distinguish between the receiving, processing, detention and deportation of adults and minors could be detrimental to the growth and development of children with long term psychological effects, which might in turn affect their integration with the rest of the society.
Among the most notable contributions by Freud in relation to child development, there are different levels consciousness. Freud was of the idea that all babies have an unconscious, instinctual and self-centered urges for instant gratification, which he referred to as the Id. However, when the baby tries and is unable to achieve all their wishes, they develop a more rational positive reception of what is reasonable and doable, which is the Ego. With time, the baby learns the parent’s values and rules, which they are further able to internalize and embody. Freud referred to these internalized rules as Super-Ego, which forms the basic foundation of the child’s development as the child’s conscience struggles with the realities of right and wrong. It is at this point that the Super-Ego works with the Ego to control the demand for immediate gratification pressures of the Id. It was based on the Id, ego and super-ego that the Freudian therapeutic technique was developed. The main objective of Freudian therapy was to awaken the consciousness reserved thoughts and feelings to enable a person to develop a stronger ego. Characteristically, the awakening of unconscious thoughts and feelings to consciousness is done by encouraging the child to talk about their thoughts and dreams. It is also through this model that Freud developed the concept of transference. Transference is important in the child’s development as it enables the child to recreate and resolve any self-conscious conflicts, particularly childhood conflicts with their children. In most cases, the unaccompanied minors are aware that they cannot always get what they want, and for this reason, some become angry with their parents. However, it is through transference that they are able to resolve these internalized conflicts.
On the other hand, proposals to institute exceptions to protect the status of unaccompanied migrant minors have generated a significant controversy given that some believe that granting special treatment for unaccompanied minors will act as an incentive for similar repetitive cases, which will result in the UK flood with immigrants. As a result, the majority of laws and policies seem to contradict with each other as countries are indifferent to whether to protect immigrant minors given their status as minors or to punish them for crossing the borders illegally (Wernesjo 2012, p.495). For instance, even though the European Union advocates for the protection of children as acknowledged in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the UK withdrew from the UNCRC in 2008 meaning that it has no obligation under the law to protect the rights of the children. In addition, it is not until the Syrian crisis that some countries have embarked on resettlement schemes owing to Europe’s modest approach to refugee resettlement programs. Even though children under the age of 16 are under foster care, they should be well taken care of in order to give them a sense of belonging. On the other hand, those in the semi-independent settlements should be observed constantly. As adolescents who are far away from home, they want to integrate with people of their age. In their self-discovery journey, they might end up joining teenage delinquency groups and follow their behavior because they want to belong to a group.
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While the numbers of unaccompanied minors continue to grow, more demanding and challenging are issues related to the migration of unaccompanied minors. Consequently, the development of reliable and suitable policy responses will call for the constant reassessment of basic values as well as legal measures and programs in order to create a conducive and safe environment for the growth and development of unaccompanied minors. Some of the suggested activities for helping those in the country to successfully integrate with the rest of the society and develop a sense of belonging and identity include attending religious functions, attending school and engaging in sports. Additionally, this could help in developing social support networks, which would help deal with some of the major stressors affecting minors. Measures must also be taken to ensure that these unaccompanied minors live a normal life and that their psychosocial needs are taken care of without over-emphasizing their vulnerability.