Unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK: from centres of concentration to a better holding environment

Joanna Wilding

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    The United Kingdom’s Children Act 1989 provides that unaccompanied children claiming asylum in the UK are looked after by the local authority in whose area they first come to attention of the authorities. Unlike adults, they were not subject to dispersal to other parts of the country under the Asylum and Immigration Act 1999. This has created an uneven pattern of asylum-seeker children across the country, who have no choice in where they live and are concentrated in a few geographical areas, typically near ports and administrative hubs. That, in turn, has produced unmitigated pressure on local services while fostering a view in other areas that the children are someone else’s ‘problem’ rather than a shared responsibility for the country. This article maps the distribution of unaccompanied children in England (Different laws apply in Scotland). It considers the effects of this geographical concentration on the care of children, based on qualitative interviews with unaccompanied children and young people and adults working with them. These interviews are analysed through the lens of the requirement in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child that States must act in the best interests of the child. The support structure around each child is conceptualized as the ‘holding environment’ in which they live and develop, drawing on an idea developed by the British psychologist Donald Winnicott. It is argued that neither children’s legal rights, nor their best interests, are best served by living in areas of high concentration. However, the article also criticizes the language of ‘dispersal’ and ‘burden sharing’ in the wider debate on refugee reception. Finally, it analyses responsibility-sharing models from France and Austria and a similar model operating between different boroughs in London, concluding that the laws and practices which exist do not fully comply with the ‘best interests’ principle, often because of a failure to properly fund transfer and care arrangements.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)270-291
    Number of pages22
    JournalInternational Journal of Refugee Law
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2017

    Bibliographical note

    This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced version of an article accepted for publication in International Journal of Refugee Law following peer review. The version of record International Journal of Refugee Law, Volume 29, Issue 2, 1 June 2017, Pages 270–291 is available online at: https://doi.org/10.1093/ijrl/eex019


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