A safe place to wait. Care practices in reception centres for unaccompanied minor asylum seekers
In this report we investigate the provision of care to unaccompanied minor asylum seekers aged 15–18 who live in asylum reception centres in Norway. In accordance with to Norwegian law and international conventions, Norwegian authorities are responsible for ensuring that all children and adolescents resident in Norway are provided with adequate care. In Norway, the Directorate of Immigration (UDI) is charged with the provision of care for unaccompanied minor asylum seekers aged 15–18. UDI has delegated this responsibility to reception centres operated by private, non-governmental or municipal agencies.
This report is based on quantitative studies among the management and staff of all reception centres for unaccompanied minors that were in operation in Norway in December 2017, as well as more comprehensive qualitative fieldwork in six reception centres. The period when the fieldwork for this study took place was not a typical period for reception centres in Norway. The autumn of 2017 brought a number of major challenges for the reception centres for unaccompanied minors and for UDI. A considerable proportion of the adolescents in the reception centres had been granted temporary residence permits, and had to leave Norway when they reached the age of 18. In addition, many reception centres were closed down during this period, making it necessary for many adolescents to move from one centre to another. Finally, for the minors in reception centres in 2017 the assessment of applications for protection took much more time than it previously had. Altogether, this caused considerable disruption in the reception centres. The situation in the reception centres in the autumn of 2017 is unlikely to be typical of the situation in the years to come. This notwithstanding, we believe that by undertaking the fieldwork in this period we have obtained particularly relevant data, since the pressured situation highlighted what works, and what does not. Managers of reception centres for unaccompanied minors need to be able to adapt to change, as there will be calm periods with well-functioning routines as well as times of fundamental change in the composition of the residents and frameworks, that require them to develop new routines and working methods. Variations in this ability to adapt became apparent in the autumn of 2017, when a number of radical changes occurred simultaneously.
The adolescents who live in reception centres for unaccompanied minors in Norway have frequently travelled for long periods with no accompanying adults, and some may have been in employment from the age of twelve, acting as family breadwinners in their country of origin. This can make it easy to forget that in spite of this, they remain adolescents. Physiologically their brains are not fully developed, and some of them may not be fully ready to take care of themselves. Similar to Norwegian-born adolescents, they need adults to impose boundaries, establish structure and provide care. Teenagers will frequently encounter problems in exercising judgement, planning, self-awareness, abstraction, impulse control and risk assessment. This may be particularly challenging if they are exposed to strong pressures, stress and absence of safe frameworks. For this and other reasons, reception centres for unaccompanied minors should emphasise safe boundaries and routines, and apply measures that can help lower the stress level for the adolescents.
Food and nutrition
UDI requires the reception centres to ensure that the young residents are provided with a healthy and balanced diet (RS 2011-034 2017). Some reception centres, however, are not fully aware of this responsibility. The only emphasis they have on nutrition involves information work seeking to train the adolescents in cooking healthy food on a limited budget. In some reception centres, however, even this information work appears to lack focus. The mandatory information meetings are held to comply with regulations, but these interventions are rarely evaluated in terms of whether they meet their objective – to enable the adolescents to manage their own finances and expenditures so that their money lasts until the next payday, and to cook healthy food on a low budget. Unaccompanied minors in Norwegian reception centres receive only small economic benefits, and enjoying a healthy and sufficient diet on this basis requires planning and sound economic management. It cannot be taken for granted that underage residents are able to manage this on their own. The ability to plan and think ahead is not as well developed in 16- and 17-year-olds as in adults, and they are not always able to plan their spending sensibly. In addition, many of the underage residents in reception centres suffer from mental problems, which may also affect their ability to plan and manage their own finances. The reception centres therefore need to engage in active measures to ensure that the unaccompanied minors eat an appropriate and healthy diet. In the reception centres, there is a varying degree of awareness that the staff ought to provide guidance in this area. Some reception centres arrange shared meals, cooking sessions and discussions on budgeting as a key part of their interaction with the adolescents. In other reception centres, the staff report that they are unaware of whether the adolescents have eaten or not, or what they have eaten, nor do they have any resources that can be devoted to improving the dietary situation. Leaving all issues related to food, nutrition and diet to the adolescents themselves is not consistent with appropriate care. We also find a lack of management and clear strategies to prevent the young residents from going hungry. In some places this has given rise varying and conflicting strategies on the part of the staff vis à vis the adolescents – while some deny them food, others provide them with food from the reception centre’s stocks, or staff members bring with them food that they pay for themselves. This produces a haphazard and varying access to food for the underage residents.
Many reception centres are troubled by disturbances during the night time, and three in every four residents report to have difficulty sleeping. These sleep disturbances are linked to nightmares, loneliness, fear and traumatic memories that the adolescents carry with them. Very few staff members possess basic knowledge about prevention and treatment of sleep disorders. Nor do some reception centres have a general strategy for keeping order during the night. The responsibility and development of strategies for handling this tend to be delegated to the personnel on night duty, who are often unskilled and overwhelmed by this task. The differences in choice of strategies for the night time, and not least the problems that manifest themselves during the night, are closely linked to the work done during the day. If the adolescents are unable to process their traumas during the day, chances increase that this will turn into disruptive behaviour, aggression or nightmares during the night. Therefore, the night-duty personnel need to maintain a close dialogue with the staff who work during the day. We can also observe a distinction between reception centres that involve the night-duty personnel actively in the provision of care and those that regard work on the night shift as a security service. The night-duty personnel are generally unskilled, and in those centres where they are included in and regarded as part of a more comprehensive care project, they also perform their job differently from where there is limited contact between the daytime and night-time personnel.
UDI’s circulars emphasise that the reception centre’s facilitation of the environment for unaccompanied minors should help establish a safe and meaningful life, with detailed descriptions of the routines that the centre should apply in cases of disappearances, concerns about human trafficking and family violence and justified suspicion of gross neglect or other issues that trigger the duty of notification. Our study revealed no breaches of these regulations. We found, however, that many reception centres struggle to detect and prevent conflicts between residents. This was the most widespread challenge to safety in the reception centres, and four out of fourteen centres reported that violent incidents had occurred only in the last month, while another two centre managers stated that they did not know if such incidents had occurred or not. A detailed circular has been prepared, stating requirements for prevention and handling of abuse and offensive behaviour against children and adolescents in reception centres, and there is an emergency team that can be called in if the reception centre is struggling with conflicts on their premises. The reception centres tend not to reflect on this when describing how they handle conflicts. The strategies applied by the staff appear to be chosen rather haphazardly, and many reception centres appear to have no shared strategies for addressing conflicts; different staff members report to use different solutions. Conflicts in the reception centres may assume forms that are more subtle than overt violence, and the staff may be only partly privy to negative group dynamics among the residents. What can be termed ‘low-intensity’ conflicts are not necessarily deemed sufficiently acute and serious to call in an ‘emergency team’ or implement routines as described in the circulars. However, this is an area that the reception centre staff perceive as difficult, and they feel that they are largely left without any tools to deal with it. In addition, UDI’s dual role as commissioning agency and supporter may cause the reception centres to be reluctant to seek help from UDI’s emergency team when conflicts arise. If a reception centre requests assistance from an emergency team, the management fears that this will be interpreted as an indication of their inability to cope with the task of running the reception centre. At a time when reception centres are routinely closed and there is uncertainty as to whether contracts will be renewed, it is in the reception centre’s interest to appear competent and able to cope with challenges, such as conflicts between residents. Finally, there can be little doubt that the reception centres harbour different expectations regarding what life in the centre should be like, and different thresholds for what is deemed appropriate behaviour and an acceptable level of conflict.
A large proportion of the residents in reception centres for unaccompanied minors feel unsafe and suffer from significant mental problems. Far from all those who need it are provided with follow-up by a psychologist. Some reception centres report that in practice, the regional outpatient psychiatric services for children and adolescents (BUP) have imposed a ban on all treatment of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers. This decision is based on the clinically controversial argument that traumas cannot be processed while the adolescents remain in a reception centre. In practice, the staff at the reception centre often assume the role of helping the adolescents process their experiences and provide them with security in an uncertain situation. An important, but difficult task is to make the situation intelligible and predictable. Alleviating the sense of powerlessness and making sense of the situation is crucial to address the adolescents’ concerns and reinforce their mental health. Making the asylum process comprehensible, especially rejections of applications, is a challenge to all reception centres. For many unaccompanied minors, who set out in confidence of getting a residence permit, a negative decision will be devastating. A contingency plan therefore needs to be prepared for these situations. The information also need to be repeated, and the meetings must include well-considered follow-up. The current decision meetings held under the auspices of UDI appear unable to bridge this information gap to any appreciable extent. In practice, the access to appropriate information on the outcome of applications is haphazard – it depends on the way in which the attorney, the representative and the reception centre staff interpret their respective mandates. Insecure adolescents need confident adult care providers, and not all adolescent residents in reception centres have access to one. One in three employees in Norwegian reception centres for unaccompanied minors report to have felt frightened at work during the last month. There is considerable variation in how reception centres address security issues for staff. At the extremes we find centres whose security measures are so strict as to make the staff feel less secure in their contact with the adolescents and maintain a distance from them, and centres that engage so closely with the adolescents that critical assessments of safety are virtually non-existent. In reception centres where the staff prepare meals with the residents and engage in active relationship-building through joint activities, the staff appear to be less frightened. The main explanatory variable for the staff’s feelings of safety is the extent to which they perceive that there is a consensus among them regarding how the centre should be operated.
The reception centres were originally intended to provide temporary and short-term accommodation. However, because of the way in which the reception system has been organised and operated in recent years, long periods of residence in reception centres have become the norm. Given that these young people spend such a long time in a reception centre, it has become more important to ensure that they can establish good and secure relationships with the adults working there. The largest variations in the work undertaken in the reception centres are in the efforts devoted to establishment of social relationships. Moreover, this area is least clearly described in the circulars that state the requirements for operation of reception centres. For this kind of work, it is rather difficult to define requirements that can easily be measured or operationalized. Working with relationships requires staff members who have sufficient time for each adolescent, who are aware of their responsibility for establishing such good relationships, who are confident in performing their job and who have sufficient knowledge of adolescents and their mental issues to be able to understand and deal with challenging situations and ensure that even the most troubled adolescents feel that they are seen and understood. This requires facilitation and explicit leadership. We find a key distinction between reception centres in terms of how the staff describe and understand their relationships with the adolescents who live there. In some centres, the relationships are taken for granted and virtually regarded as a characteristic of the adolescents – the relationship can be good or poor. In other centres, relationship-building is key to the notion of care, and emphasis is placed on activities that can help build good relationships, which in turn may form a basis for other types of care. Such activities may include cooking, eating, playing soccer or simply spending time with the adolescents; merely stating that the office door always remains open is insufficient. It should be noted, however, that we find equally large variations within centres as between them in terms of the quality of the relationships between the adolescents and staff. In all centres, there are some adolescents who feel that they are not seen, that they cannot approach the adults in the centre when they have problems, and that the staff do not care much about them. This reflects the fact that the staff are able to reach out to many of the adolescents, but in all centres there is a group that the staff fail to reach. A scheme for individual contact persons is intended to ensure that all adolescents in reception centres have an adult who will pay special attention to them and provide them with extra follow-up. This scheme does not function equally well in all reception centres, and in some of them the individual contact persons does not fulfil the role that UDI describes in its circulars. This does not necessarily mean that the tasks that UDI has allocated to the individual contact persons remain unfulfilled by anyone, but that no systematic efforts are undertaken to ensure that all adolescents have someone to follow them up. In these centres, the scheme functions mainly on paper only Some reception centres also tend to make very little use of interpreters, which may indicate a breach of UDI’s requirement that information work should be undertaken in a language that the resident understands (RS 2017-002). For some adolescents, the representative (legal guardian) is a key care provider with whom they keep regular contact, whereas others report never to have met their representative. The representative is responsible for ensuring that the adolescent receives appropriate care, personalised education and health assistance when needed. Since the representatives vary considerably in terms of how they discharge this responsibility, there are equally large variations in the follow-up provided to the adolescents. As a result, follow-up of the health services, care and education for these adolescents is also undertaken quite randomly. Nor do all representatives and attorneys appear to be aware of their responsibility for ensuring that the adolescents understand their asylum process. Many adolescents fail to understand the ramifications of their asylum decision or the grounds for a possible rejection or a temporary residence permit.
Having the opportunity to go to school is important to adolescents in reception centres, not only because they are in a stage that makes them highly receptive to learning, but also because the school days establish routines and structure in their daily lives. A good educational programme may provide those who are going to stay in Norway with a good start in life here, while for those who will return or continue to a third country, it will prepare them for their future life while providing structure and meaning to everyday life in the meanwhile. When the adolescents are asked what is good about their life at the moment, most of them mention school. More than half of them claim that school is the best part of everyday life, while approximately one-fourth point to friends or leisure activities. This applies to those who have been granted permanent residence, those who are waiting for an answer and those who have been granted temporary residence. Despite the fact that adolescents in reception centres are entitled to education adapted to their needs, large variations remain between municipalities in terms of the educational programmes that are provided. Some attend well facilitated school with trained teachers, whereas others are only given the opportunity to attend Norwegian language classes with unskilled teachers, in groups that are not differentiated by level. The quality of the educational programmes is a key explanatory factor for attrition. Not least, we can see that adolescents who are provided with training in the premises of a local upper secondary school have far better attendance rates than those whose classes are held in the premises of the adult education centre. We can see that the educational programmes are especially poorly adapted to those adolescents who have been granted only temporary residence. Moreover, the reception centres also find that this group is the most difficult to motivate for attending school. UDI administers a grant scheme from which reception centres can apply for funding for individual competence-building measures, but the financial framework of this scheme is too limited to make much difference in this general picture.
To enable the staff to adapt to the needs of the adolescents, good communication between the staff and the management is required. This will enable the management to identify challenges that the staff are facing, and assist and guide them towards joint solutions. In this way, they will be able to establish a shared understanding of the approach chosen to solve problems in the reception centre, something that is essential in times of major restructuring. Reception centre directors who succeed in this endeavour will have staff members who are confident and feel that their job is meaningful. Close links between the head of the reception centre and the agency responsible for operations also appear to be conducive to better adaptation to the challenges that the reception centre faces. Good communication between the management and staff depends on the availability of joint meeting points and a shared perception of the challenges prevailing in the reception centre. In some reception centres a clear distinction is made between those who have formal training and hold managerial positions – and primarily work during the daytime – on the one hand, and other staff members on the other, who have no relevant training and work in the evening or night time. Such staff allocation is an inappropriate use of the competencies available in the reception centre, and causes poor communication between the management and staff. Given that the adolescents rarely stay in the reception centre during the daytime, the skilled section of the staff and management obtain limited knowledge of, and weak relationships with, the adolescent residents. A more appropriate use of resource would be to let all staff members work shifts and make sure that as many of the staff as possible are working when the adolescents are present on the premises.
A sector which is outsourced by tender, with major fluctuations and responsibility for difficult tasks that are performed by largely unskilled and poorly paid staff on temporary contracts, presents obvious challenges. Today, UDI governs this sector through circulars with a varying level of detail and ongoing checks. This form of governance has certain obvious weaknesses. Currently, the checks are variable at best, and largely seem to fail to identify reception centres that contravene the general intention in the circulars. Circulars containing numerous and detailed requirements, and checks that focus strongly on specific, measurable requirements appear to induce many managers of reception centres to refrain from implementing measures beyond what is specified in the circulars, even though such measures will be needed to achieve the general goal of ensuring appropriate provision of care.