Separated or unaccompanied migrant children only make up about three per cent of the wider care population, but numbers are likely to grow and their distinct needs must be recognised by authorities and foster carers, say researchers from the Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education at the University of Oxford.

Until fairly recently, most unaccompanied children arrived in Britain having been sent by their parents in search of a better education. "As such, many foster carers found these children to be relatively well-prepared for their separation, grateful for the opportunities being offered to them with the potential to make good progress," explains Professor Judy Sebba.

In contrast, a growing proportion of separated migrant children now arrive in Britain from conflict zones having experienced wide-ranging trauma including witnessing or experiencing torture or abuse. "Not only do these children arrive into foster care having managed difficult experiences, they then have to manage the multiple, and sometimes conflicting ways they are processed by the state where immigration concerns can take precedence over access to welfare," says Professor Sebba.

Further challenges range from language difficulties to uncertainty over the foster child's age. Very often foster carers must accept uncertainty, ambiguity, mistrust and silence as they care for separated teenagers who are frequently living with doubt about their futures and may have multiple reasons not to discuss their lives fully.

Fostering teenage children is challenging enough in ordinary circumstances, but training, support, as well as mentoring from foster parents with prior experience is likely to prove increasingly important for foster carers of unaccompanied children, say researchers. Nevertheless, a recent survey suggests that over three-quarters of foster carers felt the placement of a separated child was going 'very well' for them and for the young person in their care.