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Britain’s disbelieved dream of better futures

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J D Mack under a Creative Commons Licence

‘I did not know the meaning of fear at the time.’ At 14 years old, Omar witnessed his friend die under the wheel as the two escaped North Africa on the axle of a lorry. Despite the apparent dangers, he insists he was not afraid, because the reality of staying in his country would be worse.

‘Since I can remember, I lived on the streets. No-one cares if you're going to die. I had a lot of problems. I used to sniff glue to stop the fear from overwhelming me.’

Omar won’t speak of the people who were going to kill him. The mere mention of them appears to leave him agitated. Instead, he recalls how he ended his arduous journey to England – weak, lost and relieved. ‘When I was in my country, I only knew Spain and France. I didn’t know what the “world” was. I’d never seen a map in my life.’

‘I was starving. I did not eat for 40 hours. I decided to call the police to get help. I knew that I was young and that I would get help.’

Omar’s is only one narrative out of many. Every year, an estimated 3,000 unaccompanied children arrive in Britain to seek asylum, criss-crossing borders from as far as Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Albania.

Every year, an estimated 3,000 unaccompanied children arrive in Britain to seek asylum, criss-crossing borders from as far as Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Albania

As conflict and corruption across the world continues to seethe, the number of children forced to flee their homes is increasing. Last December alone saw the highest number of unaccompanied minors seek asylum in Kent in three years, representing a 53 per cent increase since 2011.

The British public is not entirely indifferent to these young people, trapped in hellish realities. Britain ranks 7th out of 135 countries in terms of charitable giving, with the second most popular cause for all donations in the past year related to children’s welfare.

Meanwhile, the plight of children who escape to Britain is obscured by an immigration debate described by some as ‘toxic’. A report by The Migration Observatory last year appeared to substantiate the idea that media outlets consistently misrepresent migrants and refugees – and often do not make a distinction between the two groups at all.

The report highlighted that from 2010 to 2012 ‘the most common descriptor for the word “immigrants” across all newspaper types in the UK was “illegal”, which was used in 10 per cent of mid-market stories, 6.6 per cent of tabloid stories and 5 per cent of broadsheet stories.’ Furthermore, all newspaper types collocated the term ‘immigrant’ with words such as ‘millions, flood and benefits’.

Myths and misrepresentation

Unaccompanied child asylum-seekers make up a small proportion of all immigrants to Britain, and are considered among the most vulnerable. Yet far from being protected, a child’s application for asylum is often marred by discriminatory practices fuelled by media and political misrepresentation, leading to ‘poor quality legal representation, poor quality Home Office decision-making’, and a ‘culture of disbelief’ within the Home Office.

Last year, 28 per cent of unaccompanied minors were granted asylum for 5 years. Forty-seven per cent were denied refugee status but could not be returned to their country because it was deemed unsafe by international law. These children were granted ‘discretionary leave to remain’, allowing them stay for up to 30 months on an allowance of £10 to £35 ($15 to $50) per week.

Twenty-one per cent were refused on the grounds that their story or claimed age was false, risking detention, destitution or being returned to their country of origin. In light of these odds, some claim that many in the Home Office are predisposed to disbelieving children.

As one young asylum-seeker said: ‘We read on the news – every time 20, or 50 people in Afghanistan – all these people are dying. But they cannot believe one person coming here, and they call him a liar?’

Campaigners also point out that ‘bureaucratic inefficiencies and backlogs’ lead to many children living in Britain for years without final decisions on their asylum claims. During this time, they are not permitted to work or study, and are provided with a meagre state allowance of £5 ($7.50) a day. This policy, one young asylum-seeker claims, perpetuates media portrayals of immigrants as a drain on society.

‘Some people are here are waiting 10 years for asylum. Most of these kids end up selling drugs. They have nothing. You can’t buy anything with that money that they give you. They want you to look like a problem immigrant.’

The government claims it has ended child detention. Yet statistics show that at least 20 young people were held in detention in the first 9 months of 2014, of which 9 were subsequently reassessed as children

And so we reach an impasse. On one hand, reports give us gut-wrenching stories of innocents marred by violence and images of escapee children floating face-down in the sea. On the other, we hear of ‘illegals’ flooding to our shores to take benefits. But what of those who are stuck between the two narratives? How do young survivors manage to live in a system built to demonize them?

Sheila Melzak, Clinical Director at The Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile in North London, considers the question. She says: ‘In the UK, young asylum-seekers endure so much uncertainty. Very often the people assessing their claim challenge their credibility because they have a very superficial approach. All the while, these children are having to live with the after-effects of extreme violence.’

She hands over a booklet, detailing the lives of the children she works with. Their stories speak of unimaginable pain.

Farkirzai left his family in Afghanistan after the Taliban began recruiting in his local madrasa. Malaika ran away from her father and stepmother, who performed Satanic rituals. Le Van Thin was trafficked from Vietnam and forced to grow cannabis, for which he was later imprisoned.

One boy, Papi, writes: ‘I am positive. I want to succeed. But I wish I could reunite my family. I have no photos. I can’t remember their faces. War comes. People kill your family. You feel anger, revenge.’ ‘The central organizer of their experiences is loss,’ Sheila says. ‘About 40 per cent of unaccompanied children have significant mental-health problems. We help them find meaning in the present, but it’s really complicated.’

Living in the ‘Big Present’

The ‘complication’ Sheila is referring to is complex post-traumatic stress disorder. The condition, she says, causes traumatic experiences to be held in a different part of the brain from ordinary memories. Instead, trauma is held in the brain stem, where it can be triggered at any point and experienced as if happening in the present.

When confused, antagonized or faced with an unfamiliar situation, the children can undergo mental regression, taking them back to a time of extreme violence where ‘you don’t know yourself anymore’. Their inability to separate traumatic experiences and life events into a perfect chronological order is used by the Home Office as a means of discrediting their claim.

Sheila recalls the story of one former child soldier who was refused asylum on these grounds.‘He was given a card you can only use in certain supermarkets so you don’t have cash. He went into a supermarket the day he got his card and got a whole basket of stuff. The woman behind the till didn’t know how to use it. There was a queue of people forming. They were swearing and being racist. This boy just left the stuff. He felt so humiliated he walked into the street in front of a bus.’

Hamid, who fled Afghanistan, was forced to wait four years for a decision from the Home Office on his asylum status, a period he calls ‘the Big Present’.

‘I started smoking weed, all because of waiting for answers from the Home Office. If it were ten years, maybe by now I’d be sleeping on the streets. When you’re alone, you [get] stressed, ask yourself: should I jump from a window? For four years, I’ve had nothing. That’s why this is too hard.’ After arriving in Britain, he was referred to a processing centre to register his claim.

‘I told them how we came on the waves, we were in the forest and the river. We didn’t have a place to sleep, we didn’t have anything. Just, they were giving me smiles. Most of my [answers] they didn’t believe. They were never faced with these things, that’s why they thought I was making a fake story.’

He was deemed an ‘age-disputed case’ and was detained. ‘In a small cage, they give you food. But just enough to eat so you don’t die. You are always left in the Big Present.’

The government claims it has ended child detention. Yet statistics show that at least 20 young people were held in detention in the first 9 months of 2014, of which 9 were subsequently reassessed as children.

Zoe Gardner, Communications Officer at Asylum Aid, claims that the age assessment process used by the Home Office is seriously flawed, because it does not consider how physical appearance often belies regression in mental age due to trauma. It also does not take into account that many children come from cultures that do not keep records of age.

‘We see cases where people who are maybe 15 or 16 are being assessed as adults and then going into detention. That is incredibly traumatic for them.’

One of the 13 children Asylum Aid currently represents is 16-year-old Jendyose. She gave all her possessions to a smuggler to escape her rapist in Uganda, and was left abandoned at an Underground station in Central London. Her claim was rejected because she was too traumatized to explain how her father was abducted by militants and how she was attacked. Faced with the prospect of being returned, she attempted suicide.

‘In the UK, young asylum-seekers endure so much uncertainty. Very often the people assessing their claim challenge their credibility because they have a very superficial approach’

‘You imagine that human being – that little girl who suffered so much fear and confusion. That story isn’t told. It’s torture what these children go through. Meanwhile, there is this bellicose debate about immigration going on that doesn’t reflect their lives.’

Even in the face of these realities, many of the children express a wish to one day ‘just be normal and work and study’. Among those who visit The Baobab Centre, some aspire to become human rights lawyers, psychiatric nurses, English teachers and civil engineers.

One of them reflects: ‘Most of the migrants I meet – all they do is just work day and night. Where are the stories about them?’

On the other side of London, a group of asylum-seeking teenagers gathers every Saturday to learn English, cook food together and take sessions that prepare them for life as an adult. Run as a pilot scheme by co-ordinator Molly Abraham of the Klevis Kola Foundation, the youth club is now into its eighth week.

Molly says: ‘At the moment, education and finding college places is the thing young people are saying they are most worried about. The longer that young people wait, the more damaging it is for their confidence and ability to settle.’

Pjeter, an Albanian teenager who attends the youth club regularly, echoes these feelings as he cooks a pearl barley stew for his friends. He smiles while talking about his dream of one day going to college to study computer science.

Until that day, he and thousands like him will continue to toe the fine line between ‘victim’ and ‘burden on society’.