You can watch our video Experiences of displaced young people living in England which covers the main findings. Subtitles for the video are available in English, Arabic, Pashto, Spanish and Ukrainian.
Displaced young people and their parents and carers who were not proficient in English upon arrival said language was one of the most difficult problems they faced in terms of making friends and settling into life in the UK.
Participants described experiencing long waiting periods for decisions to be made about their futures in the UK, which caused stress and worry.
Among those in this study, people receiving accommodation in hotels, such as those receiving asylum support, described poorer living conditions and limited or no access to basic facilities.
Participants expressed feeling a lack of choice over their accommodation, describing staying in temporary hotel accommodation for much longer periods than expected and having to move to new accommodation or cities across the UK at short notice.
Young people experienced stress and anxiety about lessons and exams because of the challenge of adapting to new systems and language barriers and suggested schools could show increased flexibility by letting them use their phones for translations, providing translated copies of the curriculum and allowing extra time in exams.
Participants found that language barriers and a lack of clarity on how to navigate health systems affected their access to health services, with booking systems perceived as complex and a lack of available translation services for appointments.
Current and past experiences, including war, conflict and leaving family behind, were said to affect young people's mental health; participants described self-reliance to manage their emotions, working hard to remain positive but felt more support is needed for displaced young people's mental health.
In 2021, the Inclusive Data Taskforce (IDTF) published a report which included recommendations on how to improve the inclusivity of data and evidence in the UK. The IDTF identified the need for more data and evidence on the experiences of children, naming migrant children as a priority group that are "missing" from statistics or "largely invisible" in existing data. The report highlighted how children's voices may not be heard, as their data is often collected from people other than children themselves. It recommends collecting information directly from children as the default approach where appropriate. The IDTF encouraged innovative and flexible approaches to data collection to enhance our understanding of the experiences of groups and populations which are currently under-represented or missing from existing data sources.
In the year ending September 2023, over 90,000 people applied for asylum in the UK, with accompanied children accounting for over 13,000 of these, according to the Home Office article: How many people do we grant protection to?. The most common nationalities of child asylum applicants in the UK in the year ending September 2023 were Iraqi, Afghan and Iranian, according to the Home Office's asylum applications dataset (XLSX, 9.7MB). Until the schemes closed in 2021, over 11,000 children were resettled under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) since 2014 and Vulnerable Children's Resettlement Scheme (VCRS) since 2016, according to the Home Office's immigration data tables. These children were primarily from countries bordering Syria and the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as described in GOV.UK's VPRS and VCRS factsheet.
Since 2021, over 11,000 children have been resettled through the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), Afghan Relocations Assistance Policy (ARAP) and Afghan routes not recorded, and over 1,000 through the UK Resettlement Scheme. This information can be found in the Home Office's asylum applications dataset (XLSX, 9.7MB). Additionally, there have been 197,500 arrivals of Ukraine Scheme visa-holders in the UK as of 8 January 2024, according to the Home Office's Ukraine scheme visa data publication. Moreover, over 135,000 people have arrived through the Hong Kong British National Overseas (HKBN(O)) route since January 2021, recorded by the Home Office's Safe and legal routes to the UK article.
The rights and entitlements of young people arriving in the UK differ depending on their immigration statuses, which are generally determined by their route of entry and whether they are accompanied or not. The circumstances of the participants in this research are complex and variable and they have, therefore, been attributed by either their route of entry or current immigration status. This approach ensures participant experiences can be situated and contextualised while avoiding any potential disclosure concerns. Participant quotes have also been attributed by whether they are a young person or a parent or carer; for young people, they are attributed by their gender and banded length of time since they arrived in the UK. Explanations of the specific rights and entitlements of families with the following immigration statuses and routes of entry are provided in Section 9: Glossary and details of the sample can be found in our accompanying dataset.
For this research, the categories used to describe participants' immigration status or route of entry are:
Ukraine humanitarian schemes – includes participants who arrived in the UK through the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (Homes for Ukraine), Ukraine Family Scheme or were granted leave to remain through the Ukraine Extension Scheme
other bespoke resettlement schemes – includes participants who have arrived in the UK through schemes including the ACRS, VPRS, UK Resettlement Scheme and Hong Kong BN(O) route
refugee status – includes participants who have been granted refugee status either as dependents or main applicants within their family's successful asylum claims or other young people who have arrived through an undisclosed resettlement route
seeking asylum – includes participants who are dependents or main applicants of an asylum claim and receive asylum support
other or unknown status – includes participants who did not disclose or were not aware of their immigration status or route of entry to the UK or whose immigration status falls into a category which, if identified, would pose a disclosure risk
Despite the differing entitlements and experiences of young people arriving through different routes, Marcos and others' systematic review suggests that there is increasing concern for the well-being and outcomes of refugee and asylum-seeking children more generally. Vizard and others' report (PDF, 467KB) states that children in recent migrant families have been found to be at higher risk of poverty compared with children from UK-born or long-term resident families. Asylum-seeking or resettled refugee children are also estimated by the Education Policy Institute to be nearly a year and a half (17.3 months) behind non-migrant children across all GCSE subjects. Furthermore, according to our own statistics, approximately 60% of refugees resettled between 2015 and 2020 under the VPRS and VCRS aged 0-to-24 years rated their health as very good, compared with 75% in the non-migrant England and Wales population.
Research from the Children's Commissioner for England (PDF, 630KB) identified a need for research to draw out the impact of important differences in children's circumstances and experiences on their well-being. Therefore, this work aims to explore the lived experiences of a diverse sample of displaced young people who have arrived in the UK through various routes of entry, including their perspectives of, and experiences with UK immigration systems, housing, education and healthcare. The Home Office's Indicators of Integration framework 2019 (PDF, 4.2MB) identified these services as important markers which represent the context in which integration can take place. Therefore, effective engagement with these services is deemed essential to the integration process for displaced young people and their families.
The young people in this research:
described having been displaced from their home countries for reasons including, but not limited to, conflict, poverty and experiences of perceived discrimination
are aged between 14 and 19 years, as scoping research identified 14- to 16-year-olds as often missing in data collection activities, and young people aged between 17 and 18 years better capture young people's aspirations for the future and engagement with services while they begin accessing support services for themselves, and 19-year-olds include those who had been held back a year and were still in school or further education
were all accompanied by at least one parent or family member upon arrival in the UK, as scoping research suggested that more recent research had been conducted with unaccompanied young asylum-seekers and a particular gap in evidence existed around accompanied young people and their circumstances
were living in England at the time the interview took place, though we have reported on their experiences "in the UK", as some participants lived in other UK nations before arriving in England.
In this research, we use the terms "displaced young people" or "young people" to refer to the 57 14-to-19-year-olds who have been displaced from their home countries and took part in this research. When we use the term "parents and carers", we refer to the 33 research participants who are parents or carers of the displaced young people who took part in the research. When we use the term "participants" we are referring to both young people and their parents or carers.
In preparation for this work and throughout the duration of the project, we have engaged with colleagues from across government, civil society organisations and academia, and consulted those with lived experiences of displacement. This ensured that the research was shaped by feedback from these experts, covering important areas relevant for policy and practice. For further information on methods and sample, please see Section 10: Methodology.Back to table of contents
Pre-arrival and arrival context
Although participants were not asked directly about their experiences prior to arriving in the UK, those who did comment on this referred to war, violence and perceived discrimination in their home countries, resulting in them leaving to seek safety elsewhere.
Complicated displacement journeys sometimes involved living in various other countries prior to coming to the UK. This tended to be associated with a sense of optimism about their future in the UK, particularly when compared with conditions experienced elsewhere. Participants highlighted particular opportunities afforded to them in the UK in comparison with the countries they had been displaced from, such as better education and access to health care.
However, displacement also carried a sense of loss for those who may have had more resources in their home country compared with the UK. Nonetheless, participants were grateful for the safety provided to them here.
Initial reactions to arriving in the UK were often positive. Participants welcomed the opportunity to come to a place of safety where they could think about their futures.
Those who arrived through resettlement schemes particularly noted feeling initially welcomed by government or charity support workers, the local community, or local hosts (such as Homes for Ukraine hosts). Young people reported that kindness was offered to them and their families which they especially appreciated after experiencing displacement.
Despite these positive experiences of arrival in the UK, participants noted how differences in language, culture and community between the UK and their home countries meant a period of adjustment was needed and it could be difficult to process these significant changes. Increased length of time in the UK and improved English language proficiency were described as helping young people to adjust.
For those who arrived during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, lockdowns and associated restrictions made it even more difficult to settle and adjust to life in the UK. This was particularly true for participants who were placed in hotel accommodation with limited access to facilities and resources.
Experiences of settling in the UK differed depending upon the route of entry. However, participants generally shared frustrations over lengthy waiting periods for official processes in the UK to conclude. For those who arrived through the Ukraine Humanitarian Schemes, differences in the amount of time taken to complete visa processes between families were described as particularly frustrating by both those who had been displaced and the receiving host families.
Participants who were supported by the Home Office while moving through the asylum process described waiting a long and uncertain amount of time for decisions to be made regarding refugee status, as well as a perceived lack of communication and clarity about their situations. The insecurity of their status and uncertainty about what the future held was described by people in these circumstances as making it very difficult to feel settled. This was said to cause stress, fear and worry for young people and their families.
Waiting for the outcome of asylum applications was also said to have a knock-on effect for services, such as housing, where participants reported remaining in hotels without being able to access suitable accommodation. Additionally, those receiving asylum support who were not permitted to work and had no recourse to public funds discussed both challenging financial and mental health implications. Enabling people seeking asylum to work and improving the mechanisms through which refugees can find and apply for employment opportunities were cited as being crucial for displaced families to feel as though they had agency and were contributing members of UK society.
The support received in navigating immigration processes, such as asylum or visa applications, also appeared to differ between participants, depending upon their route of entry to the UK. Generally, those who had arrived through official routes, including the Ukraine Humanitarian Schemes or other bespoke resettlement schemes, described receiving support to navigate complex processes from host families, charities and other organisations, while those seeking asylum described receiving less support. Although they described the processes as slow and uncertain, in the wider context of displacement, participants expressed gratitude for the efforts to provide families with safety in the UK.
Participants discussed requiring more flexibility from official processes, including an increase to the amount of time that services provide financial support. A need for increased sensitivity and support from migration officials was also mentioned.
Existing family ties in the UK could be important in shaping experiences of arrival, potentially providing a sense of “unity” and “home” in a new country. Those with family members already living here described this as easing the transition.
For those displaced because of war, reuniting with family fostered a sense of gratitude for having a safe family unit and being able to reconnect again.
Participants also described missing aspects of their home, such as being surrounded by family and friends, and felt sad for those they had to leave behind. In some instances, young people described the difficulties of being separated from one, or both, parents.
Those who arrived under the Ukraine Humanitarian Schemes discussed forming close relationships with their hosts, with some describing them as feeling like family or best friends. Specific types of practical support received from hosts upon arrival included completing applications for higher education, finding employment, sorting out benefits and learning English, all of which were appreciated.
Language was recurrently described by participants as one of the most challenging aspects of their experience of settling and adjusting to life in the UK. Young people arrived with varying levels of English proficiency, some with no understanding at all and others having studied it extensively in their home country. For those with lower proficiency, learning English was a strong priority.
Having little or no comprehension of English was said to affect young people's ability to understand what others expect of them, express emotions and thoughts, and feel connection with others. Young people noted that making friends was very difficult without being able to speak some English and that being unable to make connections and build relationships because of language barriers had a considerable negative impact on their well-being and sense of belonging. Further discussion on young people's relationships can be found in Section 5: School and education.
Interviewer: “How did you feel about not being able to communicate here in English?”
Additionally, lower English proficiency also led to practical problems explaining their needs to others.
Those who had been in the UK for a shorter period sometimes described avoiding talking to others because of frustration at being unable to express their own or interpret others’ feelings and thoughts. After becoming more comfortable in their surroundings and overcoming the initial discomfort of language barriers, communicating with others was described as easier. This in turn helped them develop their understanding of English and general confidence.
Several specific barriers were said to make young people’s experiences of learning English more difficult. Linguistic challenges, including regional accents and the use of slang and abbreviations by others, were identified as hindering comprehension and undermining confidence in learning English.
Participants described approaches they used to help overcome language barriers and improve English proficiency, such as:
using mobile phones to translate basic phrases
pointing and gesturing to communicate without words
watching videos on YouTube or social media
watching British television
Those making good progress with English described how interpreters who were initially provided by migration officials, schools, or health services to aid comprehension and improve access, were no longer required.
Other ways young people could be supported to overcome language barriers included opportunities to practice and have lessons with people of a similar age and with others whose first language was not English. They felt that this enabled them to practice speaking without fear of judgement. Attending English classes for speakers of other languages (ESOL) was given as an example.
Additional barriers to learning English and examples of where young people have benefitted from increased support provision are discussed further in Section 5: School and education.
Although participants described their interactions with people in the UK as broadly positive, this varied somewhat. For example, while some reported surprise at having not experienced prejudiced behaviour towards them, there were also accounts of isolated incidents of perceived discriminatory treatment or repeated negative encounters with specific individuals or groups. The latter included perceived discrimination in relation to their race or religion in a range of different scenarios, for example by neighbours, when seeking healthcare, in shops and by strangers in the street.
Incidents of discrimination between ethnic groups or people from different regions of the same home country were also mentioned, with instances of bullying or racism reported by young people within school settings. Further discussion of these experiences can be found in Section 5: School and education.
Participants discussed a need for people in the UK to have greater empathy for displaced people and demonstrate increased compassion for them. Young people wanted others to help displaced young people feel comfortable and safe and be as supportive as possible. Particularly in relation to language barriers, young people described the need for others to be patient and supportive with those who are less confident speaking English.
Participants living in the UK for comparatively shorter periods and those living in smaller towns often described feeling more isolated and alone. Generally, school was an important context for young people to form social connections and friendships, and forming friendships outside of school was potentially more challenging. This is also discussed in Section 5: School and education.
Young people felt there was a need for more opportunities for meeting up and forming connections with others, such as through organised activities and places to meet. This was raised particularly by those living in smaller towns.
Young people emphasised the importance of having friends nearby to provide a sense of “home”, as well as using public spaces such as parks and shopping malls to make and strengthen connections with others.
Participants living in larger cities generally described a better sense of sociocultural connectedness in comparison to those in more rural areas, which was sometimes linked with ethnic and cultural diversity. Living among people who they identified as being culturally similar, or who spoke the same language as them, was identified as important in feeling comfortable interacting.
Interacting with people from the same home country or with a shared cultural background was also described as important in maintaining a sense of connection to young people’s heritage. Participating in activities together, such as dancing, cooking and eating traditional foods, wearing traditional clothing and celebrating religious events was cited as helping to maintain cultural connections. Participating in traditional and religious activities was also said to facilitate conversation around topics of mutual interest and keep alive culturally significant practices, which was felt to be important.
Attending places of worship was described as important for making connections and establishing relationships, both with those from the same country and with others.
Young people described sharing traditional elements of their cultures as a way of connecting with others, especially other displaced young people, and expressed interest in learning about other customs and ways of life. In turn, participation in and celebration of cultural activities and traditions held by people of other ethnicities and backgrounds contributed to a feeling of mutual respect.
Alongside learning about other cultures, interacting with other displaced young people was described as a way of overcoming isolation.Back to table of contents
Choice and control
Participants discussed having limited housing options, which could be experienced as a lack of choice or control over where they lived. Those housed in temporary accommodation, such as hotels, particularly described being moved between accommodation and sometimes between towns and cities at short notice. A perceived lack of choice or agency over when and where these moves took place meant uprooting their lives with little notice.
Within the private rented sector, participants described various barriers to finding appropriate accommodation, including prohibitively high costs and a lack of suitable properties given their physical needs.
The lack of availability of suitable accommodation, particularly in popular locations, was said to make securing rental property more difficult, resulting in spending a long time searching.
One parent described how they found a suitable private rental property that was over the housing benefit limit, and despite offering to pay the difference in advance, their application was refused. They said that this led to them feeling like they had no options or control over where they could live. Others mirrored this sentiment, stating they had little opportunity to have a say about their accommodation type or location.
Participants in council accommodation with refugee status or who arrived through bespoke resettlement schemes described housing that did not always accommodate the size of their families well and were waiting for larger properties to become available.
In hosted accommodation under the Ukraine Humanitarian Schemes, some participants described losing their accommodation unexpectedly. Participants cited instances where hosts changed their minds about providing housing, forcing them to look elsewhere, or where host arrangements cancelled at the last minute, leaving them without accommodation.
Parents and carers with sufficient financial resources and those permitted to work expressed having more housing options to appropriately accommodate their needs. For example, some were able to purchase a property in the UK and be selective about the specific location.
Quality and impacts
Participants described mixed experiences and perceptions relating to quality of their accommodation in the UK. Housing described as of poor quality was said to have a profound emotional and physical impact on displaced young people and their families, with some describing living in unsafe and unclean conditions, which they had to resolve at their own expense.
Those housed in hotels and council properties also described a range of health and safety concerns, such as faulty home appliances, intermittent access to gas or electricity and having no hot water or heating. Some young people described having no internet and relying on public Wi-Fi outside of their accommodation to complete their homework.
There were positive accounts of housing quality among those who received support from the government, city councils or social workers to find suitable accommodation, with some describing fully furnished accommodation, and in some cases, fully stocked fridges and cupboards when they arrived.
Issues identified with hotel accommodation provided to asylum-seekers also included antisocial behaviour from other residents, such as drug dealing and noise.
Additionally, there were examples of entire families having to share a single hotel room, which was said to affect young people’s school or college studies, as well as their quality of life. It was suggested that hotels should have a quiet area where young people could study more easily, as they felt hotel rooms were not a conducive study environment.
There were examples of flexibility in the accommodation provided which were appreciated by participants, such as making further rooms available to families where it was needed.
Location of accommodation was also felt to be important in determining its perceived suitability. Some young people reported living a long distance from their schools or colleges and had to endure long or multiple costly bus journeys to attend. This happened, for example, when they had been rehoused after being enrolled at a school local to their previous accommodation. They were reluctant to relocate to a school or college nearer to their new home as they were concerned about disrupting their studies or connections they had formed.
Those who lived within walking distance of important amenities, such as schools, GP surgeries and places of worship noted the convenience of their housing location. By contrast, those housed in rural locations found it more difficult to be far from amenities, such as places to buy food, and relied on public transport to access everything they required.
Limited access to food and appropriate food storage and cooking facilities for young people and families living in hotels was also described as challenging. Participants often described having no access to kitchen amenities to prepare food themselves, so all their food was prepared by hotel staff. This was particularly difficult for those who were living at hotels on a longer-term basis.
Participants described varying experiences of the food provided by hotels. Those describing it as being of poor quality felt compelled to purchase unhealthy, but affordable food from fast food chains. One participant described how they had taken part in a hunger strike, refusing to eat the hotel food until it was changed.
In other cases, participants felt the food provided by their hotels was good quality and culturally appropriate.
Those living in hotels who had access to cooking facilities noted the benefits. One young person reported having access to the hotel kitchen to cook their own meals after their sibling lost a lot of weight at a previous hotel. Another young person described how their family attended a community centre where asylum-seekers from different countries took it in turn to cook for one another on a weekly basis.
Neighbourhood and community
Participants described experiences of support and kind gestures demonstrated by individual neighbours, with examples including looking after parcels for each other and offering to help with food shopping.
Having neighbours nearby who shared a similar background was important for some participants. Despite experiencing poor conditions and limited access to facilities, some young people who had been initially housed in hotels discussed feeling a sense of loss at no longer being surrounded by people who had come from the same country as them or who had shared experiences.
Others discussed forming positive relationships with neighbours from different backgrounds and having shared important cultural celebrations with them or exchanging gifts or food.
However, not all experiences with neighbours were described positively. Some participants reported a lack of connection or closeness, which was sometimes attributed to cultural or language barriers.
Others described specific negative events, for example, being frequent witnesses to domestic violence occurring on their road and the ongoing impact this had on their family.
Participants reported mixed perspectives and experiences relating to safety in their local areas, with safe neighbourhoods being described as peaceful and quiet. Feeling safe was also linked to feeling a sense of freedom living in the UK, which for some contrasted to their experiences in their home country.
Some young people living in cities and towns perceived their neighbourhoods as unsafe, reporting incidents such as thefts, knife crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and damage to property, as well as too much traffic or rubbish in the streets.
There were reports of feeling scared to be outside at night in their neighbourhoods, either enlisting others to watch out for them or taking longer routes home to feel safe.
Young people made various suggestions for making their communities safer and felt that displaced young people should be housed in areas, alongside neighbours, where they would feel safe.Back to table of contents
School, learning and attainment
Young people discussed significant barriers they experienced in school which were attributed to lower English language proficiency. Understanding teachers in lessons was described as difficult and being able to articulate a need for support was often challenging. Progression in any subject was said to be more arduous because of language difficulties, with exams and revision potentially provoking further stress and anxiety.
Some young people felt they had received inadequate language support and were being rushed into taking exams they did not feel ready for. Some mentioned achieving low GCSE exam results and consequently having to undertake English language college courses to be accepted into sixth form. Parents and carers also discussed concerns over the lack of flexibility in providing additional time during tests to young people who are learning English.
Focusing on improving English proficiency was said to better enable young people to study other subjects moving forward. Some schools were reported to excel at providing tailored support and flexibility to young people who were struggling with general English language and grammar. This included partnering young people with English-speaking students to improve communication, allowing them to attend fewer subject lessons to focus on improving their language proficiency and the provision of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes, which were reported to be available in some schools but lacking in others.
Additional suggestions for addressing language barriers faced by displaced young people included:
having the opportunity to receive class materials in advance of lessons to improve familiarity with the language and translate these materials where necessary
making a translated version of the curriculum available
permitting the use of phones in school for translation purposes
Young people’s needs and preferences varied for how they were grouped in schools and allocated to classes, including year groups and sets. For some young people, having to repeat studies they had already passed in their home country was described as an additional source of frustration. Being placed in lower sets than they were used to because of lower language proficiency could have a negative impact on well-being, grades and ultimately their ability to apply for preferred higher education institutions.
However, other participants spoke about the negative impact of joining an age-consistent year group and trying to keep up with the curriculum while learning English. Some young people who had the option to enrol in a lower year group or attend an intensive English course rather than follow the mainstream curriculum, described this positively.
Some young people reported having to take time away from school to provide translation support to their families for health or asylum-related appointments. Consequently, they needed to catch up with missed schoolwork, which could aggravate an already pressured and stressful experience. The intensity of their studies often meant having limited time for relaxation and leisure activities, which were described as important for young people’s mental health and well-being, as outlined in Section 6: Health and healthcare.
Peers and friendships
Making friends initially was often described as easier with other young people who were also new to school or had recently arrived in the UK. These early friendships were said to help young people begin integrating into wider social groups. Some young people spoke about feeling shy and nervous at first, but as they began to make friends and their language improved, meeting people of different nationalities became an enjoyable experience. In some schools, buddy systems facilitated friendship building.
While forming friendships in school could be difficult, often because of lower language proficiency limiting their communications, there were also examples of kindness demonstrated by other young people. Group projects in school were also cited as helpful in establishing and building connections with peers.
Strained relationships were also described, relating to perceived discrimination and racism, making school an isolating experience. Incidents of being bullied at school were reported for reasons including a lack of subject comprehension, lower language proficiency and cultural differences, such as their choice to wear, or not to wear, a hijab.
Navigating systems and provision of support
Accounts of the process of accessing school in the UK varied, with those receiving support from charities, social workers, or host families particularly describing a quick and smooth process after their arrival. By contrast, those who experienced long waiting periods of up to eight months before being able to enrol in education noted the adverse impacts of confusion over required documentation, or the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Parents and carers reported not receiving enough information to make informed decisions around schooling and experiencing a lack of choice over the school their child attends. This led to perceptions of being treated disadvantageously compared with young people from the UK, who were said to have increased flexibility and options to select and change schools.
Parents and carers noted that additional support and guidance was needed to support them in navigating school access.
Participants highlighted challenges of adapting to an education system described as very different to that of their home country. Some parents and carers held concerns around teachers not having enough authority in the classroom in contrast to their home countries, where teachers were sometimes considered a second parent.
Despite many young people initially struggling to adapt to new education systems, some felt they had benefitted from attending school in the UK, citing the advantage of learning life skills alongside academic subject knowledge.
Participants discussed the provision of support within education, with some praising the individual approach demonstrated by their schools and school staff in their endeavour to support displaced young people. Some young people also noted the positive influence of individual teachers helping them to adjust to attending school in the UK. Increased support and less formal relationships with teachers compared with their home countries were said by some to contribute to a high-quality education.
However, others felt the relatively more relaxed approach taken by teachers in the UK may hinder academic achievement.
Schools were also said to offer financial or material support, including the provision of supermarket vouchers, free school meals, laptops, uniforms and bus cards enabling free transport to school. These were described as particularly useful considering young people’s personal circumstances. One parent or carer explained how the school had discreetly covered costs for their daughter to attend a school trip, which ensured they would not miss out on experiences and opportunities with their peers.
Access to a range of types of mental health support in school was also reported by young people, with some describing their school as very focussed on providing well-being support for students. One participant discussed benefitting from drama therapy within school, which provided opportunities to talk about their family circumstances or other worries.
However, others described a lack of mental health support in school or described feeling hesitant or uncomfortable sharing their feelings with staff. Further discussion around young people's mental health and mental health support can be found in Section 6: Health and healthcare.
Young people discussed wide ranging goals and aspirations for their futures. They generally expressed ambition and dedication to working hard to achieve their goals and often had firm career plans in mind. A desire to enter a profession where they could help people, for example, as a doctor, nurse, dentist or psychiatrist, was often discussed, with some explaining how witnessing traumatic events in their home countries had inspired this. For some, these ambitions were linked to motivation to return to their home country to provide support for people there.
However, other young people described a disconnect between their personal future aspirations and what they believed was expected of them by their family, which was sometimes related to cultural ideals.
Those describing a sense of optimism about their future prospects here highlighted opportunities available to young people as being greater in the UK compared with their home country and felt a sense of personal responsibility to make the most of this. For example, one young person described how they had become more focussed on further and higher education since arriving in the UK, with their parent or carer suggesting a greater equality of opportunity here.
However, displacement could also place additional challenges on young people’s ability to achieve their goals. Displacement was said to cause significant disruption to young people’s lives and studies. Having to learn a new language alongside mainstream subjects could limit aspirations to enter higher education and significantly delay progress towards achieving future goals. Some young people described the frustration of seeing peers in their home country moving forward with their lives, while they felt they were falling behind.
Young people under asylum support described the additional impact of their immigration status on the availability of student finance, which was cited as a significant barrier to accessing higher education.
Many young people reported receiving insufficient guidance from teachers or other school staff to make informed decisions about their school subject options, or more generally around what steps they needed to take to reach their future goals. It was noted that young people would benefit from being made aware of potential occupations and internship opportunities related to their area of interest. Those applying for higher education highlighted the significant differences in systems compared with their home countries and said more guidance on funding streams and support writing personal statements and other applications was needed.
However, others described receiving extensive support from their teachers in choosing subject options relevant to their desired career paths and guidance on how to navigate complex application processes. Schools facilitating direct engagement with universities was described as beneficial and a different approach to their home country.Back to table of contents
Approaches to health promotion
Participants described approaches they used to keep mentally and physically well. Spending time with friends and participating in hobbies, such as reading, art, sports teams and dancing were said to help promote young people’s health and well-being, helping them to relax, feel less lonely, stay positive and focus on the present. However, a recurrent theme was that they lacked time to engage in such activities because of the difficulties and pressures of schoolwork, as outlined in Section 5: School and education.
Some participants living in hotel accommodation had free access to gyms and some local leisure centres were said to provide free access to those who had arrived through the Ukraine Humanitarian Schemes. Access to gym facilities was said to help promote physical health and well-being, but young people said it was important for female-only access to also be available.
For some, staying healthy was more difficult in the UK. New health issues were experienced since participants' arrival, which included catching viruses they had not previously been exposed to, such as chicken pox, suffering illnesses or allergies attributed to the change in climate, or iron deficiency from a change in diet. Accommodation conditions were said to affect participants' health, including the presence of damp and mould or lacking cooking facilities, making it difficult to eat healthily, as previously discussed in Section 4: Housing and neighbourhood. This was said to exacerbate pre-existing health conditions, which needed to be managed by a controlled diet.
Overall, participants expressed gratitude for the healthcare they received in the UK, appreciating perceived egalitarian access and it being free of charge. However, there were mixed experiences and perceptions around accessibility and quality. Participants who arrived via the Ukraine Humanitarian Schemes reported being offered blood tests and investigations upon arrival in the UK, which was described positively. Registering with a GP initially seemed relatively straightforward for many participants, although one parent or carer stated it took them a year and a half to gain access to a GP because of documentation issues.
Waiting times to see health professionals were described as much longer than in participants’ home countries, with accounts of appointments being cancelled or no longer needing care by the time appointments were arranged. This was particularly impactful for those needing to arrange transport, sometimes with support from the Home Office, or to organise for others to accompany them to appointments to help with translation. This meant that some participants did not seek help when needed as it was too complicated and instead relied on online information to resolve health issues.
Additionally, one young person receiving asylum support explained how they had understood from a medical professional that their parent or carer would have to wait to gain refugee status before receiving a kidney transplant that they needed.
When seeking treatment, participants described being recommended rest and paracetamol with little information or explanation which was said to be uncommon in their home countries. This led to perceptions that their pain or symptoms were not taken seriously and was said to dissuade participants from accessing healthcare when needed.
Another noted difference in the healthcare system in the UK was not being able to get prescription medication directly from pharmacies without seeing a GP. This was a source of frustration for some, while others acknowledged that self-prescribing could be dangerous when not monitored by health professionals.
Vaccines offered in schools to those in a specific school year were said to be complicated to access for young people arriving after that year. For example, one young person attending college and their parent or carer explained how they needed a permission letter from the school for them to be given the HPV vaccine by their GP surgery, but the school was unable provide this.
It was suggested that health professionals should take more time to explain things like vaccines, health systems, treatment plans and medications to displaced young people and their families and not assume prior knowledge.
Language and translation
Language was said to be a substantial barrier to accessing healthcare and communicating with professionals for participants with lower English proficiency. Navigating different appointment booking systems was described by participants as complex, with procedures not always well communicated.
Communicating over the telephone was described as particularly challenging, which was sometimes said to be the only way to book appointments or speak to health professionals. Language barriers appeared less problematic for those who spoke certain common languages, such as Arabic, where there were often Arabic speaking staff or interpreters available to support. Although others, such as Spanish speakers, reported finding it more difficult to make appointments or receive care.
Charity organisations, case workers, host families and friends were said to provide support with translation and navigating appointment bookings. However, this support was not always available, particularly in urgent circumstances, and having to rely on others could lead to feeling overly dependent and lacking autonomy.
Some young people described attending appointments with their parents or carers to provide language support as a last resort, which could entail learning in-depth detail of parents’ health conditions that might otherwise be kept private. This could also lead to missing school, as outlined in Section 5: School and education.
Where young people relied on their parents or carers to translate for them, they did not always feel comfortable discussing certain health concerns. One participant described how they were able to get support from a teacher to find an interpreter to translate.
One strategy to overcome the need for interpreters was to use mobile phone translation applications to communicate. However, despite these efforts, one parent or carer described being denied necessary care completely when they were unable to communicate in English, which was perceived to stem from prejudice.
Aside from having access to adequate interpretation during consultations with healthcare professionals, participants highlighted the importance of having written translations of health information. This was noted particularly where information was important or signatures were required.
Mental health and support
Participants discussed mental health challenges often in the context of the adversities faced in their home countries, as well as difficulties with current living situations and adapting to life in the UK. Participants described the worry and anxiety arising from ongoing conflict in their home countries and family members left behind.
Young people discussed traumatic experiences prior to arriving in the UK, struggles with language, a lack of community, missing family, poor living conditions and parents being unable to work as contributing to loneliness, mental health challenges and low well-being. This combination of factors was linked to some young people missing school, self-harming, contemplating suicide or behaving aggressively.
Additionally, young people described being acutely aware of their family’s suffering, sometimes worrying more about their parent or carer’s mental well-being above their own.
While young people often understood the necessity to move to the UK for their safety, some parents or carers described shielding their children from events in their home country, making it difficult for young people to comprehend the reason for their displacement.
Additionally, parents and carers expressed concern that their young person’s focus on wanting to return to their home country was causing them distress, hindering them from adapting to life in the UK.
Young people sometimes described relying primarily on themselves to cope with the trauma they had experienced and manage difficult feelings and emotions, such as sadness and loneliness. They found ways of distracting themselves and shifting their focus away from what was upsetting them.
Differences in attitudes towards mental health between the UK and their home country were identified. While some appreciated the recognition of, and open dialogue around mental health, others were sceptical, stating they would not feel comfortable with, or see any benefits to, discussing their experiences and difficulties with others.
Despite perceptions of greater visibility and understanding of mental health issues in the UK, those who said they needed support identified a lack of availability, long waiting times and a lack of translation facilities as barriers. Many who had been referred to a counsellor or psychologist because of experienced trauma discussed not receiving any indication as to when they would be seen. There was a general sense that more could be done to support mental health, especially considering the trauma many young people and their families have faced. For example, a parent or carer highlighted the need for support to help their daughter to better understand why they had to leave their home country which had affected their relationship as well as their daughter’s mental health.
Even some participants who were more comfortable speaking English felt it would be too difficult to express themselves in a counselling setting, which could prevent them from seeking support. One family said they had to access support privately online with a professional living in their home country but were unsure if they would be able to sustain the expense.
Friends, community groups and schools were described as important sources of support for helping young people with their mental health and well-being, with some schools offering meditation and therapy sessions. It was also suggested that further support could be provided to help young people with socialising at school, which was said to directly affect their mental health and well-being.Back to table of contents
Displaced young people and their families described the challenges they faced since arriving in the UK, as well as beforehand, with navigating complex processes and services alongside language difficulties, the emotional and mental health impacts of displacement, missing their families and lack of clarity about their futures. Participants noted the frustration of ”waiting” for immigration processes to progress and the knock-on effect this had for receiving support and engaging with other services. This was said to make participants feel stuck and added to their sense of uncertainty, which affected all areas of their lives and well-being.
Language was almost always cited as one of the most challenging aspects of adjusting to life in the UK. The ability to communicate with others was said to affect all areas of participants’ lives, including their access and engagement with services. It also influenced their ability to integrate into society and form relationships, which consequently affected their well-being. Participants who began to feel more confident with speaking and understanding English from their time in the UK felt their studies, relationships and general confidence improve.
Despite the difficulties reported, young people often appeared to maintain a positive outlook, highlighting the importance of optimism and determination, and advising other young people to remain positive as well.
Although some young people wished to return to their home countries, others, particularly those who had lived in the UK for longer, saw their futures in England and began to see it as their home.
There was a strong narrative of gratitude running through participants’ accounts of their experiences in the UK, with many discussing how thankful they were for the services and support they had received, even though these were not always described as adequate. When asked how services in the UK could be improved for displaced young people, participants often did not provide any suggestions. For example, when asked what their school could be doing better, a young person replied that:
Participants did, however, share several examples of what had and had not worked well for them. While the extent and type of language support received differed between participants, the benefit of schools and colleges providing increased flexibility to aid language learning was described as substantial. The provision of extra classes, permission to use phones for translation purposes and ability of teachers to act as translators were said to aid learning and inclusion. Participants described the importance of the kindness and support shown by new friends and acquaintances in helping them to learn English and adapt to life in the UK.
Having the necessary emotional and practical support in place from charitable organisations, government case workers, host families or family members was said to help participants to adjust to life in the UK, to navigate school admission processes and to access higher quality, more suitable accommodation. Young people seeking asylum generally described receiving less support and reported a perceived lack of autonomy and freedom of choice, particularly around housing and their future prospects, which affected their general quality of life and well-being.Back to table of contents
Experiences of displaced young people living in England: Sample information
Dataset | Released 23 January 2024
Sample information for qualitative research on the experiences of displaced young people living in England.
Asylum is protection given by a host country to someone fleeing persecution in their home country. Someone who is seeking asylum has applied for asylum and is awaiting a decision on whether they will be granted refugee status. Children living with families are often dependents on their parents' claim, though they may be main applicants in some cases.
Asylum-seekers have no recourse to public funds (NRPF) which means they will not be able to claim most benefits, which include child benefit, tax credits, disability benefits, social housing or homelessness assistance and are generally not permitted to work. Many asylum-seekers access Section 95 asylum support through the Home Office, giving them access to somewhere to live and a cash allowance.
Asylum-seekers may be able to apply for a work permit if they have been waiting over 12 months for their decision. In this case, they can work in occupations listed on the Shortage Occupations List. However, young people aged under 18 years and adult dependents are not able to apply for this permission in any case. Asylum-seekers may access temporary Section 98 support while awaiting Section 95 support, and families with children aged under 18 years can continue to receive Section 95 support even if they have been refused and have exhausted their appeal rights. However, where a child is born into a family after an asylum refusal, the family will only be able to access cashless Section 4 support for refused asylum-seeking adults.
Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict, or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. Those with refugee status will have full access to the labour market and rights to social security benefits and will often have limited leave to remain granted for five years, after which they are eligible to apply for settlement.
Leave to remain
Limited leave to remain provides permission to remain in the UK for a restricted period of time. The rights and entitlements for those with limited leave to remain depend upon their route of entry to the UK.
Indefinite leave to remain provides permission to live, work and study in the UK permanently and apply for benefits if eligible. Those with indefinite leave to remain are able to apply for British citizenship.
UK Resettlement Scheme
The UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS) is open to vulnerable refugees from around the world. Individuals coming through this scheme are assessed and referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) according to their criteria, which is based on people's needs and vulnerabilities.
People arriving via this route only move to the UK once suitable accommodation is in place for them. Since its launch in 2021, the UK has accepted refugees through this route from a range of countries, including Ethiopia, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen.
Those arriving through the UKRS are granted indefinite leave to remain and refugee status on arrival in the UK and have an immediate right to work and access welfare benefits, depending on their circumstances.
Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme
The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) provides a safe and legal route to the UK, prioritising those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women's rights, freedom of speech or rule of law. This includes judges, women's rights activists, academics and journalists, as well as vulnerable people, including women and girls and members of minority groups at risk. Those arriving through the ACRS will generally be granted indefinite leave to remain with an option to apply for British citizenship after five years and have full access to the labour market, benefits, and services.
Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme
The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) ran from 2014 to 2021 and was aimed at those requiring urgent medical treatment, survivors of violence and torture, and women and children at risk. The VPRS provided a safe and legal route for vulnerable refugees fleeing Syria and the surrounding region until the introduction of the UKRS in 2021. Those arriving through the VPRS were generally permitted refugee status and five years limited leave to remain.
Hong Kong British Nationals (Overseas)
On 31 January 2021, the UK government launched the Hong Kong British Nationals Overseas (HKBN(O)) immigration route in response to China's passing of the National Security Law, which significantly affects the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. The BN(O) route is not a refugee resettlement route but is a safe and legal route to the UK for those eligible. Those arriving through this route have the right to work but no automatic right to have recourse to public funds. They are normally granted five years limited leave to remain with an option to apply for settlement after.
Ukraine Humanitarian schemes
The UK government devised three bespoke visa routes for the people of Ukraine, working in close communication with the Ukrainian Government:
Ukraine Family Scheme
Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (Homes for Ukraine)
Ukraine Extension Scheme visa
Those arriving through these schemes are granted limited leave to remain for up to three years and have the right to work and study, access to public services and recourse to public funds.Back to table of contents
We commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and Refugee Education UK (REUK) to support on this research. NIESR conducts policy-relevant research to improve understanding around economic and social issues. REUK is a charitable organisation that helps refugees to access and thrive in education, supports education providers with training and good practice guidance, and carries out relevant research.
Between January and March 2023, a team of seven peer researchers worked alongside REUK and NIESR researchers to conduct in-depth interviews with displaced young people and their parents or carers living across England. Interviews took place in person, through telephone or online, depending on participants' preference, and lasted approximately 60 minutes with young people and 30 minutes with parents and carers. There were 10 young people who opted to participate jointly with their parent or carer. Ethical approval for this project was obtained from the National Statistician's Data Ethics Advisory Committee.
Peer researchers were recruited through REUK's network of young people. Peer researchers involved in this research were aged between 19 and 28 years and had been displaced from the following countries:
The peer researcher approach was adopted to address potential power imbalances between participants and researchers, ensuring a comfortable environment for participants and a greater contextual and cultural understanding among interviewers. It also enabled interviews to be conducted in a range of languages, ensuring young people and their parents or carers were not excluded because of language barriers.
Peer researchers received training on research methods, interviewing techniques, research ethics and qualitative data analysis in preparation for undertaking fieldwork. This training was adapted from REUK's existing training for refugee youth researchers as part of the Global Evidence for Refugee Education initiative to meet the specific requirements and context of this research. The training covered the main research ethics principles, including informed consent, confidentiality, researcher positionality, safeguarding and mitigating distress. This included specialist training from REUK's Educational Well-being Team on how to recognise "green, amber and red" signs of distress and possible techniques for mitigating escalation of distress.
Ongoing supervision and support were provided to peer researchers throughout the project. Regular check ins (both one-to-one and as a group) were established to reflect on emerging ethical concerns and to adopt a reflexive approach, while also ensuring support needs were met. Weekly meetings were also held with all researchers to discuss observations and reflections on the interview process, amending interview topic guide questions where needed.
While the peer researchers did not have Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) clearance, they were always joined by a member of the NIESR or REUK research teams, who all had enhanced DBS clearances.
Sampling and recruitment
The sample comprised 57 young people aged 14 to 19 years living in England and 33 of their parents or carers. Participants had arrived in the UK between four months and seven years prior to their interviews taking place, coming from 16 different countries of origin. Participants were recruited through gatekeepers, which included education institutions (schools and colleges), voluntary sector organisations and local authorities.
A maximum variation purposive sampling approach was used to gather a wide range of perspectives and experiences. This approach enabled the exploration of how different characteristics and circumstances may shape the experiences of living in the UK for displaced young people and their families. The sampling frame for this research focussed on achieving a spread of personal characteristics which included:
region in England where they were living at the time of the interview
country of origin
length of time in the UK
current immigration status and route of entry
Further details of the achieved sample can be found in our accompanying dataset.
Design and materials
In developing this research, we consulted three expert advisory groups:
experts by experience – this included a group of 14- to 17-year-olds with experience of displacement from several different countries and regions; for convenience purposes, experts by experience were recruited from a single school in London
experts by profession – this included academic and third sector professionals with expertise in this topic area
cross-government – included representatives from government departments
The expert groups helped to shape the research focus so that it reflected the priorities of displaced young people and those who work with them, as well as being relevant to policy priorities.
Development of the in-depth interview topic guides was informed by our proposed Children's well-being indicator framework and the Home Office's Indicators of Integration framework 2019 (PDF, 4.2MB). Questions were tested and further developed with peer researchers and the experts by experience.
Participant materials were translated into twelve different languages and interviews were conducted in participants' language of choice, with a professional interpreter offered for any languages not covered by the research team. There were 28 participants who opted to take part in English and none of the participants chose to use an interpreter, although some young people provided translation support for their parent or carer.
Participants provided recorded verbal or written informed consent or assent. Consent for participants aged under 16 years was also sought from parents or carers. An ongoing assent process was followed which included reaffirming participants were happy to continue, taking breaks when needed and, on some occasions, stopping the recording or interview.
The participant materials used in the in-depth interviews are available on request from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Approach to analysis
Interviews were audio recorded with participant consent and transcribed verbatim. Where participants did not want to be recorded, detailed notes were taken. Interviews which took place in a language other than English were first transcribed into the original language, then translated into English and quality assured by a member of the research team. Transcripts were analysed thematically using coding to identify themes, patterns and concepts within participants' accounts. Initial interview transcripts were coded using open, descriptive coding, with initial codes being organised into a coding framework. This formed the basis of continued analysis in NVivo 12 qualitative data analysis software, with codes being further developed and adapted as analysis progressed. Findings were constantly compared within and between cases to test and explore initial themes and differences were actively sought. Early themes were reviewed and refined with the peer researchers, experts by experience and experts by profession, informing the development of the final themes.
Strengths and limitations
The main strengths of this research are:
the qualitative research design enabled better understanding of displaced young people's lived experiences, what is important to them and what could be improved for them in the future
interviews with parents and carers provided contextual information to situate young people's experiences and views
flexible interview approaches were offered to maximise accessibility and participation, including the option for joint interviews and interviews taking place in preferred locations; peer researchers sharing some lived experiences and cultural understanding contributed to participant comfort
peer researcher involvement in the research design, participant recruitment, interviews, iterative reflections and improvements of the interviewing process, preliminary analysis and peer review ensured that the research was relevant, relatable, meaningful and sensitive
the sample achieved a diverse spread of participants from a range of countries who had differing routes of entry to the UK and lived across different regions in England, which enabled a breadth of experiences and accounts
support from an advisory group comprising of young people aged 14 to 17 years with lived experience of displacement helped to refine the research focus and priorities and understand needs and preferences for producing accessible outputs
professional advisory groups comprising subject matter and policy experts from academia, civil society and government departments ensured that the research reflected the priorities of displaced young people and those who work with them, as well as being policy relevant
The main limitations of this research are:
generalisability of the research findings are limited to the concepts presented by participants, which may be specific to contexts or settings and may change over time
project timelines meant sample recruitment was restricted to gatekeeping organisations who felt that they had sufficient time and resources to support the young people taking part in the research; there was greater representation in the sample of participants located in London and the South of England
the sample also did not reach any participants who were not in any form of education at the time of interviews, and as such, this research does not capture experiences of young people who may have very different circumstances
interviews with parents or carers provided contextual information surrounding young people's experiences; this detail was missing for young people whose parent or carer chose not to participate in an interview
we were unable to recruit peer researchers who were in the asylum system at the time of the research, as we would not have been able to reimburse them for their work because of right to work restrictions; therefore, we were unable to match young participants in the asylum system to peer researchers also in this system
peer researchers had varying degrees of research experience, so the data collection process involved continuous learning and development; some of the initial interviews involved less detailed follow-up or probing questions until the peer researchers became more confident and developed their skills
This publication represents the outcome of a collaborative effort. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) Centre for Equalities and Inclusion Qualitative Research Team are grateful for the expert advice, contributions and assistance provided by many people throughout this project, without which this research would not have been possible. Most notably, the research participants, peer researchers, experts by experience, experts by profession, cross-government advisory group, Refugee Education UK (REUK) and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR).
Peer researchers were: Aiya Abdalla, Haleemah Alaydi, Arooba Hameed, Diana Nikitina, Tahmina Oria, Bilal Safi and Harneet Singh Baweja.
The experts by profession group comprised: Dr Jenny Barke (The Young Foundation), Professor Alice Bloch (University of Manchester), Kamena Dorling (Helen Bamber Foundation), Dr Ann Lorek (King's College London), Professor Joanna McIntyre (University of Nottingham), Bryony Norman (Afghan Evacuee Response), Ilona Pinter (London School of Economics), Professor Ryan Powell (University of Sheffield), Thea Shahrokh (NSPCC), Mohammed Shazad (The Children's Society), Professor Nando Sigona (University of Birmingham), Marieke Widmann (The Children's Society) and John Wiliamson (Refugee Action York).
The cross-government advisory group comprised representatives from: Cabinet Office, Department for Education, Department for Health and Social Care, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Home Office.
Researchers from NIESR were Kat Aleynikova, Jasmin Rostron and Sophie Kitson, and from REUK were Amy Ashlee, Divya Jose and Catherine Gladwell.
We would also like to thank all the charities, community organisations, schools and local authorities who supported this research and helped identify and recruit participants.Back to table of contents
Office for National Statistics (ONS), released 23 January 2024, ONS website, article, Experiences of displaced young people living in England: January to March 2023
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