Education And Debate

Research with unaccompanied children seeking asylum

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 11 December 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1400
  1. Samantha Thomas, medical sociologist (,
  2. Sarah Byford, senior lecturer2
  1. 1Section of Cultural Psychiatry (PO 25), Health Services Research Department, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, London SE5 8AF
  2. 2Centre for the Economics of Mental Health, Institute of Psychiatry
  1. Correspondence to: Samantha Thomas
  • Accepted 13 October 2003

Research into the needs of lone asylum seeking and refugee children must be sensitive and appropriate to avoid causing more harm to a vulnerable population

The rise in the refugee and asylum seeking populations in the United Kingdom has led to increased research and debate about their health and social needs. Although more information is needed, concerns exist that some researchers may be unaware of the complex issues inherent in conducting research with such groups. Language, culture, religion, social norms, and experiences of oppression may make it difficult to obtain truly informed and voluntary consent or truly accurate responses to research questions. In addition, refugees may be stigmatised or risk reprisal merely by entering a study.1 These concerns are magnified for young people who are refugees or seeking asylum, particularly those who arrive in the United Kingdom alone. We have drawn on our experience working with unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum to suggest guidelines for researchers.

Unaccompanied, asylum seeking children

Unaccompanied, asylum seeking children are defined as those who are younger than 18 years old who have been separated from both parents and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, has a responsibility to do so. In recent years, the number of unaccompanied children arriving in the United Kingdom has increased, with almost 3500 asylum applications in 2001 compared with 2700 in 2000.2 The main countries of origin were Afghanistan, former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Iraq.

Guidelines for research

Research into the needs of children seeking asylum is essential to improve their care (box 1) but can be harmful unless conducted appropriately. The guidelines of the ethics committee of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health state that children are a unique research group who are particularly vulnerable, easily bewildered and frightened, and unable to express their needs …

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