An average of 1330 refugees resettle in the UK every year. Yet one of their most vital needs is often overlooked. Access to childcare for parents of 2-4 year olds is a fundamental necessity in order for them to be able to resettle and be self-sufficient. Not only does access to childcare remove one of the key barriers for parents of young children to find work, it also hugely benefits the child.
Why is childcare access relevant to refugees in particular?
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 80% of refugees across the world are either women or children. This reflects the disproportionate number of women surviving and caring for their children without the support of a partner. Refugees are also reported to have a larger proportion of under 5s than the general population and may therefore have a greater need for early years provision. Furthermore, many refugee women have also often lost their family or support networks, due to how difficult it is for large groups and families to all be granted refugee status together. This means that they often do not have anyone to help take care of their children, preventing them from being able to go to work. As a result, having access to childcare during the day is essential for many refugee families to be able to survive.
Attending a nursery or day care also has multiple benefits for refugee children. The National
Association for Language Development in the Curriculum highlights how being around other children will allow them to make friends, helping them to feel less isolated and to become more integrated into the new country immediately. It also notes how the cultural immersion provided by nurseries massively helps young children to pick up new languages easily, even if they have little or no prior knowledge of the language before attending.
There are also far more barriers for refugee parents to gain access to childcare than there are for UK-born parents. In 2019, 84% of refugees reported that they did not have the linguistic skills to pursue employment, suggesting that this also applies to the paperwork required to enter children into Early Years Foundations or to contact childcare providers. Even if parents are able to cross the language barrier, many parents may lack the confidence to travel to the childcare provider, as it often requires using public transport, navigating new traffic laws, busy streets, and encountering strangers, all of which can be incredibly intimidating in a new place.
Refugee parents can also sometimes be prevented from pursuing childcare due to lack of trust or information. As many of the countries that refugees come from lack early years services, refugee parents often lack knowledge about UK early years services and childcare conventions. This can lead them to doubt whether such institutions can be trusted. There can be a lot of reluctance to hand a child over to people who are essentially strangers, particularly if the child has previously been exposed to danger, either in their country of origin or during their migration. A Cambridge study on Refugee Access to Early Childhood Education and Care in the UK’ found that separation anxiety can be particularly acute for both the refugee parent and child.
Refugees are therefore disproportionately affected by limited access to childcare, both in terms of obstacles posed to them, and in terms of the resulting consequences.
Is there enough access to childcare for Refugees?
The steep prices and limited places in childcare institutions also prevent many refugees from
accessing childcare. It is true that all children aged 3-4 in England, Scotland, and Wales are entitled to some free childcare a week, with at least 15 hours a week in England for 38 weeks, 16 hours a week all year round in Scotland, and 10 hours a week in Wales being provided free of charge to all children. This does however mean that parents have to pay for the remaining 9-15 hours each week, depending on which country they are in. Despite this funding, however, some providers only have free childcare during term time, so parents can face a rise in prices during the school holidays. Many providers also use a ‘stretched’ offer to provide the same number of hours over a longer period of time, so there end up being fewer funded hours per week.
Furthermore, while Scotland provides the most hours of free childcare, and has the lowest average price per hour, the fewest number of refugees end up settling there. As of December 2022, Scotland had resettled the fewest number of refugees out of UK locations, resettling 7 refugees for every 10,000 inhabitants, while Northern Ireland managed to resettle 10 refugees per every 10,000 inhabitants. Edinburgh also exhibited the fewest resettled refugees in terms of direct numbers, resettling 615, as opposed to Coventry, which had resettled 787 refugees. This could be due to the fact that Scotland is the furthest to reach out of UK destinations from most refugee countries of origin. Either way, the majority of refugees have to pay towards the more expensive end of the childcare pricing range. There is much regional variation in the UK for the prices of childcare, with 25 hours of care per week, including universal entitlement, costing £43.78 in Yorkshire and Humberside, and 67.81 in inner London. Refugee families tend not to have any option but to live in more expensive regions, however, with Oxford Migration Observatory showing that the majority of refugees live in cities due to the greater availability of jobs.
Furthermore, care for 2 year olds is still more expensive, as well as funding more difficult to access. While the same number of hours are still funded, they are only provided in England and Scotland for children whose parents are in receipt of benefits. Wales, meanwhile, provides 12.5 hours a week of funded childcare, but only in Flying Start areas (geographic areas which are deprived). This may not accommodate some poorer residents of prosperous areas, who live there for the high concentration of jobs but get paid very little. In England and Scotland meanwhile, while providing funded childcare for those on benefits may seem like an effective system, in reality, far fewer low income refugee families are on benefits than those born in the UK. Although refugees are entitled to apply for benefits, in 2022 it was shown that unemployed migrants (including non-refugees) were 9% less likely to claim unemployment benefits than UK born unemployed workers. This phenomenon had multiple reasons, including the fact that unfamiliarity with the UK’s systems meant that many migrants did not understand their entitlements. Another reason was that again, the language barrier meant that many could not make sense of the lengthy documents that it is necessary to fill in in order to gain access to the benefits system.
Not only does funding decrease for 2 year olds, but as more staff are required to look after them, the hourly rate also rises. The UK average cost of sending a 2 year old to nursery part time (for 25 hours a week) in 2021 was £137.69, and £263.81 full time (for 50 hours a week) and has undoubtedly gone up since then. On top of this, some families face additional costs such as a lunch fee, as well as travel costs in order to reach the childcare provider.
Refugees are particularly affected by the high prices as refugees who are employees earn less and work fewer hours than UK-born and other migrant workforces. On average, they earn £9 per hour
and £284 per week, which is -55% less per week than the UK-born and 38% less per hour. Despite
many of them having excellent qualifications, with 38% of refugees from Syria having a degree,
refugees in the UK are 4 times more likely to be unemployed, or else working jobs below the
minimum wage of £10.18. Refugee women in particular are 4% less likely to be employed than UK
born women. As many of refugee women with children do not have male partners with them to help
support them, this is particularly problematic.
What support is there for Refugees?
There is some support for refugees, with websites such as ukranianrefugeehelp.co.uk providing
refugees with information about UK and where to find help with the costs. Although it is aimed at
Ukrainian refugees in particular, much of the information is relevant to refugees from other
countries. There are also instances of nurseries such as Nestling’s Nursery, Cardiff, providing free
childcare to refugees. These efforts, however, while much appreciated, are by no means enough to
support all of the UK’s refugees, and access to childcare remains a very prominent issue for refugees.
Florence is a second year Music student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.