Last year, 3,463 children arrived in the UK alone and claimed asylum here. I am an outreach immigration adviser with Coram Children’s Legal Centre, and before the lockdown in the UK, I ran legal advice sessions in youth groups across London for some of those thousands of refugee children.
These children hold traumatic histories, many having fled their home country in fear of their life. Once here, the British government (through the arm of the Home Office) requires those experiences to be explained in great detail by children as part of a bureaucratic process through which their application for asylum is considered. The UK asylum system requires that children explore and recount difficult memories and experiences, often expressed in a language which is not their mother tongue.
To build trust and most importantly to avoid re-traumatizing children, a holistic and sensitive approach is necessary in these sessions. Where there is a language barrier, where a child is particularly vulnerable, or where their experiences or feelings are particularly hard for a child to express, unspoken communication – eye contact, body language – becomes my most important tool. These signals allow me to understand the meaning of a child’s silence: do they not wish to answer my question? Or do they simply not understand the words I have chosen? Unspoken communication allows me to modify complicated legal issues in a child-specific way; adapting my advice to the child’s age, maturity, language, gender and culture.
In lockdown, gone is the supportive and friendly youth group setting – the promise of a hot meal with friends after a traumatic conversation. In lockdown, advice must be given over the phone, and sometimes to a child who is living alone. I must give advice to a child I have never met, and who I cannot see. A head turned down, a distant look, a lack of eye contact, a long silence, skin picking, sweaty palms, tapping feet, nail biting, and lip chewing now go totally unseen. These cues which indicate so much about the children I work with and which guide our time together, are now invisible. What remain are the long silences – these are now more frequent than ever.
We have adapted. Advice can be given over video calls; a grainy picture of a child’s face giving some indication of their feelings. Support workers for isolated and vulnerable children find that touching base is more critical than ever, and have found innovative ways of doing this. However, although the public health crisis has shown us flexible and innovative new ways of working, it has also shown us what we cannot do. For those children who cannot speak confidently over the phone, they face yet another barrier to being heard and understood, and so reaching safety. These innovative solutions are sometimes cost effective, and if they are allowed to become the norm beyond lockdown, support systems will overlook those who already struggle to find their voices in the legal process.
The shift to remote-working has confirmed what we already know: that whilst digitalization can tide us over as an emergency response in the COVOD-19 era it cannot become the norm and replace the texture of face-to-face interaction, especially with children.