Centrepoint’s doors are open to young homeless refugees

16 December 2021

Many assume that, for young asylums seekers and refugees, life gets easier upon reaching western shores. But this isn’t necessarily true: they’re often interrogated on their origins, their age, their motivations. All whilst dealing with extreme fatigue and fresh trauma.

For those who are able to claim asylum in the UK, more barriers lie ahead. Many are left with no family, and without knowing the language, or how the systems that will be integral to their livelihood work, young refugees will struggle to secure the basics: food, shelter and good health.

Arriving at Oak House

Many start their journey at Oak House, Centrepoint’s emergency accommodation, which provides a specialised service for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC).

“We’ve got 20 beds, with 19 young people at the moment,” says Jo-Ann, Deputy Service Manager at Oak House. “We’re an assessment and progress centre – when young people arrive here, we’ll help them get set up here in the country, assist them as their claim for asylum progresses, and move them along the government pathway. As they develop independent living skills, they’ll move on to semi-independence, and then hopefully into council accommodation, depending on the available housing.”

All of the young people who come through Oak House are UASC, which means they’re taken care of by social services. “We work on a supportive level,” Jo-Ann explains. “We make sure they have clothing and food, and liaise with social workers, who make sure the responsibility of the local authority is met. We set up their education, and help with medical and general support.”

Young people are provided with an interpreter who assist them with key worker meetings, medical appointments and therapy sessions. They’re also introduced to the local connections, such as football clubs or mosques, to ensure they’re able to socialise outside of the service and make a life in the area.

Young asylum seekers legal advice clinic

All young people are assigned a key worker who will help them access the many strands of support that Centrepoint offers. One such strand is access to legal advice. Thanks to our relationships with external partners, young people can get free advice from a qualified, experienced immigration solicitor. 

The solicitor may be able to help them make their claim for asylum. Or, for young people who made their claim before they reached Centrepoint, it can be helpful to have a solicitor explain the process and what might happen next. 

As Nina, our Legal Advice Clinic Co-ordinator says, “Immigration law is extremely complex and individual cases are rarely resolved quickly. By linking young people with legal advice, and providing an interpreter if that’s needed, we can help young people, many of whom have suffered horrendous trauma, to have their voices heard. They can start to understand what is happening and know what to expect. It can also help them access any rights or entitlements they may have as they start to rebuild their lives.

Facing trauma through therapy

Unfortunately, much of the work done with asylum seekers is about managing expectations. Thanks in part to the pandemic, in the year ending March 2021 the UK offered protection to around 8,640 people (including dependents) – around 42% of the number in the year ending March 2020. In the year ending September 2021, the UK received 37,562 asylum applications from main applicants only.

“It’s just human nature to believe that when you get to the place you’re aiming to be, things will be better,” says Jo-Ann. “We need to manage those expectations when it comes to being a UK citizen and how the systems work, particularly housing, especially after the pandemic. We also help them with their trauma – their childhoods have essentially been stolen.”

That last bit is where Sule comes in: a key part of our Support & Housing Team, Senior Psychotherapist Sule works one-on-one with displaced young people over 24 one-hour sessions, ensuring they have the space to talk about not only their past trauma, but their worries for the future. 

Their fears can almost be divided into two categories: before asylum and after asylum. “Those that are still waiting for their asylum results have feelings of dread and hopelessness,” Sule explains. “They can go to college, but they can’t work; they can’t plan for the future. There’s that feeling of futility: ‘I can’t move on with my life’. Most in that state don’t want to talk about trauma at home, because they feel too unsafe in this country. In therapy, you don’t tend to talk about trauma unless you feel safe. These young people are scared about what will happen to them if they’re sent back to their country.”

Play video Graphic image of a Centrepoint worker talking to a young person at a table

Ahmad's story

Those who receive their Settled Status (Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK) initially feel elated, but it’s almost like a honeymoon period, says Sule: “Once that dies down, you get the feelings of loss. They’ve left their family and might not know where they are, or there’s no way of contacting them. That brings up feelings of hopelessness. This is when the trauma kicks in.”

Sule specialises in art therapy, so encourages young people to bring in artwork if they feel like it – pictures they’ve drawn themselves, for example, or even old postcards from their home country. But mostly she works on giving them space to express and explore their feelings. “The modality doesn’t matter,” she says. “At the end of the day what we’re offering is relational therapy, because the young person will have that trauma related to relationships.”

Young people can also bring their interpreter with them, which has a tendency to both help and hinder therapy sessions. 

“With an interpreter in the room, there’s someone else the young person has to trust. And the delay: sometimes by the time the interpreter has finished translating, you aren’t capturing the emotion the young person felt in the moment. Or occasionally, the interpreter can feel triggered listening to what they’re saying, so as a therapist you have to be more active in managing both of them.

 “Some refugees we work with can speak English but still have communication barriers – emotions can be complicated to explain even if you speak the same language. So sometimes we bring in their own vernacular and ask them to use the word in their language; it makes them feel more comfortable.”

Everyone deserves a future

Immigration is a contentious subject in the UK. Contrary to what many may think, the UK actually house less than one percent of the world’s 26.4 million refugees who have been forcibly displaced from their home country. Nearly half of these displaced people are under the age of 18. Research suggests that asylum seekers are five times more likely to have mental health issues than the general population, and more than 61% will experience serious mental distress – but they are less likely to receive support.

Our support system for displaced young people has many branches. Jo-ann and her team are there to support young people as soon as they need it. Advice from the Legal Team’s partners means that young people can prepare themselves for what’s to come – as can Sule and our Health Team. Our Bursary Team can help young asylum seekers and refugees find their passion and support them through it – like they did with Ali, who escaped Georgia for fear of persecution and is now hoping to study neuroscience at university.

And Ahmad, who fled violence in Afghanistan and was able to start a new life in the UK with Centrepoint’s help. “I’m so much happier now – at Centrepoint I feel safe again,” he says. “My key worker is so kind, she helps me with many things. Yeah, my life is good and happy.”

We believe that everyone deserves a future they can look forward to, whether their past has been in the UK or not. With our support, we hope displaced young people can start to feel at home again.


Asylum Seeker: A person who left their country of origin and whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed.

Refugee: A person who has fled their own country because they are at risk of serious human rights violations and persecution there. Someone isn't officially a refugee until he or she is given that status by an official entity.

Displaced person: Some who is forced to leave or flee from home or homeland.

Indefinite Leave to Remain: A person may be able to apply for indefinite leave to remain if they have refugee status or humanitarian protection. It gives one the right to live, work and study here for as long as they like, and apply for benefits if eligible.

Leave to remain: A person who will receive five years of limited leave to remain in the UK, with permission to work and study and access to the NHS and benefits. A person who has Limited Leave to Remain can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain at the end of this five-year period.