“New Londoners” – this is how the young generation of migrants is called in the British capital. Henry is one of them.
He came to the UK at the age of 12 and claimed to be unaccompanied asylum seeking child. Every year around 3000 kids like him arrive in Great Britain to seek a better future. Instead they end up in the complicated refugee system, not knowing for years if they will be deported or not. The result is that the promised land of dreams turns out to be roller-coaster nightmare.
The great expectations
Many children escape from the worst possible situations – war zones, genocides, famine, forced labor, female genital mutilation, extreme poverty. The majority of the unaccompanied adolescent children come from countries with recent armed conflicts or minorities’ persecution in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, China, Somalia etc.
Henry grew up in a tiny room with his 5-membered family in the suburbs of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. He couldn’t remember a day that he hasn’t been supposed to work, trying to sell just about everything possible from fruits to hand-made toys. Henry changed 8 schools for 2 years. His parents didn’t have money, so when the time for the fee payment came, he just continued to the next school.
“In the end you learn a bit, but you don’t make any official exams. There was no future for me there.” shared Henry. Many children have scarce knowledge about the world. Some of the younger children even don’t know where are they going until they land in the new state. “Everything that I knew about England was from snick up views in somebody else’s TV,” remembered Henry, “When you grew up like me and you hear about London, you think that everything is great in England. That was the image.”
Usually another adult or the trafficker chooses the country. The main destinations are the liberal western European countries, which are targeted because of their reputation as free democratic and safe countries.
Traveling beyond borders
Many children travel for miles by land to get to the UK. The lucky ones that can afford an airplane tickets get the faster way. Still this is usually the first big international journey for them. They are two main ways for adolescent children to travel across borders. In the first case they are accompanied by paid agents, who have a false version of the children passport.
Henry was 12, when he and his brother were travelled with a paid agent to the UK. This way has considerable risk for children to become victims of illegal trafficking. According to investigation conducted from BBC in 2010 “A total of 330 children aged between nine and 17 vanished between April 2008 and August 2009.”2. Social workers believe traffickers targeted many children for prostitution as asylum seeking children initially have no photographs, no real names and no documents.
However, luckily for Henry and his brother they met their sister, who had previously immigrated to the UK. “My sister separated me and my brother.” remembers Henry; “She said that we couldn’t live together because if we make a mistake they will send all of us to our home country. I haven’t seen him for many years. Even now we are not close because of that separation.”
On arrival many unaccompanied children are distressed because they had to leave their family, siblings and friends. They usually show signs of grief, fear and disorientation, but the worst thing is the mistrust.
The other way for children to travel across borders is alone with false passport, which states that they are 18 or older. Most of the children who arrive to the UK are between 16 and 17. In 2008, for example, only 9% of unaccompanied children seeking asylum were under 14, 24% were aged 14-15, and 47% were aged 16-17 and the ages of as many as 20% of the young people seeking asylum under the age of 18 were unknown.
Age disputed – The immigration bureaucracy roller coaster
The problem in this case is that once the young refugees claim unaccompanied asylum seeking children status they have to prove that they are really under 18.
The youngsters are regarded as suspects and “not genuine” until they prove the opposite.4 However, there is no liable age assessment test discovered so far. The immigration officers from the UK Border Agency (UKBA) need to make age assessment upon their impressions upon personal and visible characteristics. Unfortunately the physical appearance of many youngsters that come from problematic areas may appear older than their real age, because of the traumatic stresses and the premature life that they endured. The UKBA disputes nearly the half of the young refugees.
Conflict of interests with the age assessment
According to the Children Act 1989 the age disputed migrants need to be evaluated by the Local authority in the area where they are presented as an asylum seeker.6 They are interview by social worker from the local authority. However there is significant conflict of interest, considering the fact the same council will have to take the burden of supporting financially the child. According to research from May 2007 managers are pressurising social workers to assess unaccompanied asylum-seeking children as older than they are to save money.
In a case that they are assessed over 16, they receive less financial support and if they are 18, they are not supported by the local authority budget anymore. Some specialists warn that with the recent budget cuts the pressure on social workers assessing children age will be even bigger and the financial burden of may lead the local authorities to financial crisis.
While children are waiting to be assessed they are treated as majors and can be locked up in detention centers. Although the British government has promised that by May 2011 the children detention will stop, currently they are 6 asylum-seeking minors held in short-term pre-departure centers.
Once the age assessment is determined, the child can claim asylum. According to the UN Convention a refugee is “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”
Most of the children have to go alone to the UKBA and fill in a form, called a Statement of Evidence, which explains why they need international protection and after that they are interviewed. For the children is traumatic to describe their past of persecution and war experiences. In cases like circumcision and rape is extremely shameful for the children to talk with other people.
“I went alone. I was really scared”, remembers Henry “You must make sure that the story that you are saying, will make THEM believe. After one week living in the UK, I was certain – I did not want to go back. That was the one thing that I knew for sure.”
94% of children who seek asylum alone in the UK are refused. In 2010, of 2,700 decisions were made from unaccompanied asylum seeking children, 1,935 were given discretionary leave to remain. Discretional leave allows them to stay in the UK until they are 18, on the base that they can’t go back safe to their country. However the decision is just postponed. The uncertainty overshadows the children’s lives, because they don’t know what will happen with their future.
Foster care & schools
Once the children are given decision they are accommodated with a foster parent. “If you are lucky like me you don’t change your foster family and you start to build up your life again”, says Henry. Many children however change several foster parents, which increase the instability in their lives. They speak a little or no English when they enter the country. This slows down not only their acceptance in the school system and the ability to learn the material, but also their relationship with the other pupils.
Henry said in this matter: “The main problem at school was my accent. Kids are really mean because they don’t really sit around and analyse the situation where have you been, where you come from – you are just different. You have to grow up fast. At 10 you will be thinking in a much in term of life skills and in terms of life you will be thinking as 18 years old.”
The traumatic situations that children migrants endured in their home countries make most of them to grow up prematurely. This is why they can’t find common interest with the other pupils of their age and often stay lonely. Some of them also face racial discrimination.
“I was probably the only African kid in the school.”, recalled Henry “I did not know what racism is then. Now I know that I experienced bulling. The only thing that used to get to me was when it was about my parents. As far as I am concerned from where I come you respect family.”
The 18 years’ Limbo
Some of them turn 18 without final decision. At this point they can’t stay anymore at their foster parents and they are not allowed to work. Henry’s case was one of those. He waited for 7 years for the final decision. “When you turn 18 you are not normal like other 18-years olds celebrating and partying. You start to worry. They can send you back. You can either go down or survive.”
Henry was an exceptional case. His foster mother let him stay, while he was waiting for final decision. However most of the children must leave their foster parents once they turn 18.
The right of education
Not having a final decision also damages the prospects of higher education for the refugee children. From February 2011, the holders of discretional leave are not entitled anymore to students’ loans and they have to pay the overseas fees. In numbers this doubles the price and the figures range between 8000£ to 14 000 £. As most of the asylum-seeking children came with nothing to the UK, this leaves them on the mercy of the few charitable foundations. However the scholarships are not sufficient to cover the deep financial abyss that was opened with the introduction of the overseas taxes.
Fortunately Henry came from other generation, when the state was more generous with the children in need. After he spoke with the principle in his college, he got a scholarship to study mechanics. At the age of 19 he got also his indefinitely leave, which meant that he was allowed to stay and work in the UK.
The path to a better practice
The first and foremost priority of the immigration services should be to make faster decision on the situation of unaccompanied asylum seeking children. The prolonging of the process and leaving them for years in the limbo of discretional leave damages their whole childhood inevitably. They are also two recent events that need to be paid attention. First of all the budget cuts will affect badly the refugee children – there should be funding proportional to the number of asylum seeking children in every local community. Furthermore the decision for overseas fees should be reverse for children with discretional leave, who grew up in the country and had made their entry A-level exam like every other pupil in the UK deserve equal rights to access to education. These are merely the requirements that can turn the young generation of new Londoners successful and equal part of the British society.
By: Dobriyana Tropankeva