“Welcome to the land of the free”

The UK has, for some reason, a reputation of being accepting of refugees and asylum seekers. From many conversations I have had, young people often set their sites on The UK for that very reason. Yet, from my experience, and probably now from theirs, this unfortunately doesn’t seem to be true. 

Let’s roll it back….

So you’ve just jumped off a lorry (or you’ve been found by the driver, whose called the police). You’re somewhere in the UK. If you’re lucky, it was in a town or a city. If you’re unlucky, you’re on the side of a motorway. So from here, the chances are you’ve either been taken to a police station or a detention centre or, you’ve walked into a police station/ the Home Office (Croydon) to say who you are and why’re you’re here (if you have an interpreter and they actually managed to get you the right language or you already speak English, they’ll understand you). You are classified as an in country applicant – someone who claims asylum after arrival rather than a port application which is someone who claims asylum at the port of entry (i.e airport). The difference is, port of entry is legal. In country is not. The beginning part of this process can be quite blurry. Lots of people, lots of questions, not a lot of human emotion. You’re just another number.

You’ll be interviewed (known as screening interview), asked where you’re from, why you’re here etc. and be issued with a Home Office ID card. This ID card can be contentious – it’ll have your date of birth (which as I’ll discuss below, can be debated) and it’ll have your nationality – which is also debatable. One of the most common situations I have heard is among Pashto Afghans where they are taken for Pakistani. There can also be other issues for Kurds and Middle Easterns. This debate can go back and forth for a while – you might have to speak to a language specialist or try to prove where you’re from with legal documents (which can be difficult or impossible to gain). But you can’t claim asylum in the UK until you have a Home Office ID although you can continue to debate the age and nationality you have been given. Once you’ve had this discussion – whether you have been issued with a Home Office ID card or there are still areas for debate, you will be placed in housing.

Where you end up will depend on one thing – whether the authorities believe you or not. So to begin with, they could question your age. Many young people come from countries where they’ve never had passports, didn’t have the opportunity to bring their passport or it was destroyed (either by a smuggler or back home for another reason). It seems to be common practice for teenage boys from the Middle East or Asia to have their age disputed due to the fact that, quite simply we look different. Middle Eastern men and Asian men can sometimes be hairier. Not only that but a lot of the time, the horrors that young people experience on their journey to the UK undoubtedly ages them mentally. Many children see things and experience things no child should ever have to see. So, you get aged assessed. This is done with the local social services to wherever you’ve ended up in the UK and the ‘appropriate adults’. They might look at your physical appearance, ask you some questions. Yet at the end of the day, its all very subjective. Anyway, so they’ll either decide you’re the age you say you are, a different age but still under 18 or that you’re 18 or over. But hey, you probably have two birthdays now…. 1st January – Home Office Birthday!

So if you’re deemed to be under 18, you’ll be looked after by the local social services. Depending on how old you are – under 16 and you’ll be looked after by a foster carer, over 16 and you could find yourself in semi-independent living accommodation. Semi-independent is a bit like student halls except you have a key worker there who is responsible for helping you become independent. And then the waiting game begins….

You could be living in any area, with any sort of people. Some people might hate you. You’re a foreigner, you’re an immigrant, you’re here to claim their benefits. You’re not welcome here. You can however apply to go to college. Oh, and you get taken on a big clothes shop (which means more than 1 pair of clothes!). Best case scenario, you’ll be living with nice people – some people who speak your language maybe -, you’ll be in the local college or school learning English or if your English is already good, perhaps even starting your GCSEs! Your social worker and/or solicitor (that will have been given to you by the government through legal aid unless you have the money yourself for a private one) will have hooked you up with some clubs and other classes. If its not going to so well, you could be living with people who don’t speak your language, your age dispute could mean you’re not at school/college and your social worker/solicitor either doesn’t care to help you with extra curricular stuff or, more likely, doesn’t have the time to help.

The support network you have can make or break you. Simple as.

Before your substantive interview with the Home Office, you’ll be expected to sit down with your solicitor and write a statement of evidence. In between this and the long interview, you’ll be expected to report to the Home Office or a designated government office (so the government knows you’re still in the country).  Finally, the day comes round when its your long interview – if you’re under 12 you don’t have to do this) with the Home Office. Your time to tell your story and explain why you are claiming asylum. You’ll be given an interpreter – hopefully the right language/dialect – and your solicitor or social worker will have hopefully gone with you. And now you have to talk. You have to tell a cold-fronted stranger exactly why you’re in this country. You have to drag up all the horrors you ran away from. Every thing you tried so hard to escape. Everything you tried to bury. But careful, if you forget a fact, it’ll come back and bite you. You don’t feel welcome. You feel that they’re trying to catch you out. They’re trying to find a reason to say no.

It’s over. You’re exhausted – emotionally and physically. Back to the waiting game.

Now, fingers crossed – if you’re age assessment was correct, your nationality was correct and your from one of the countries on the Home Office list (or you suffered something so bad you honestly can’t go back), then congrats! You’ve got refugee status or humanitarian protection. Refugee status is based on the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees (1951) and it lasts for 5 years subject to review. Humanitarian protection is provided when an individual doesn’t meet the UN Convention criteria but it is still too dangerous to return to the country of origin and it also lasts 5 years.  Thats it. Your life is now perfect (despite the fact you miss your family, you’re mentally scarred and everything is disorientating).

If you were granted Refugee Status of Humanitarian Protection, chances are, your nationality was figured out correctly (meaning they agree you’re from where you say you are. I say this because from my experience, thats how its gone). However, if your age was disputed and you’re still disputing it, the battle may continue. You might suggest X-rays or checking teeth  – or perhaps you’re lucky enough to go to your country embassy and get documents (if its not the government you’ve run away from…).

The other option for you, as someone the government has agreed is under 18, is Discretionary Leave to Remain. This is when the Home Office doesn’t believe you require Refugee Status or Humanitarian Protection. This is also known as UASC Leave (Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children Leave). This is granted for either 3 years or until you are 17 1/2 years old, which ever is shorter. This is basically a rejection yet due to laws, the UK has a responsibility to look after children – so you can stay until you’re 18.

If you were age assessed as over 18 and refused, then bam. Nothing.

However, with UASC leave (if it is longer than 12 months) and refusals you can appeal…..

Asylum decisions are meant to be resolved within 35 days but it can take longer. Once a decision has been made, your legal representative and local authority will be informed. So, lets say, its bad news. You’ve been granted UASC leave. Yet you’re fleeing real persecution. You can’t go back there. Ever. So you’re going to appeal. The appeal system is a two tier tribunal system. If your claim is refused and you have a right of appeal, you’ll got to the Immigration and Asylum Chamber. If the appeal is refused, you can ask for permission to go to the Upper Tribunal. If this is still refused…. you can attempt to challenge the Court of Appeal. You only have 10 days to do this.

If none of this works…. you’re appeals rights exhausted. Too many people end up in this situation. Your options here become limited. You either find new evidence and ask a solicitor if you can put in a fresh claim, you wait it out until you’re 17 1/2 and see what happens or you go underground. This makes your life limbo. You’re only a teenager – as if being a teenager isn’t hard enough – and now you’re in complete limbo. You know that when you’re 18, you could be detained and sent back to the danger you fled and there is nothing you can do about it. You could have fled Albanian blood feuds or sex traffickers, you could have fled the Taliban or ISIS in Afghanistan or you could have fled ISIS/violence in Iraq. You could also be returning to that violence. The nightmares you’ve been having, the flashbacks…. could all become reality again. They didn’t want you here. You’re an immigrant, you’re not British. You’re not welcome here.

Regardless of the outcome, there are numerous other battles that young refugees/asylum seekers face in the UK.  Mental health affects young refugees/asylum seekers dramatically. The chances are, none of us can even try to comprehend the horrors. Young people suffer from being withdrawn, not being able to trust others and having constant flashbacks and nightmares of the things they have experienced. They may also feel isolated – English is a new language, England is a new culture. It isn’t an easy thing to get your head around. For young people from conservative countries, Britain is most definitely a shock. And undoubtedly, you’ll miss your family. What is your mum doing right now? How about your brother? Maybe you’ll be able to track them down (you’ve started the Family Tracing process) but theres no guarantee. Maybe it’ll be bad news.

Maybe. 

You continue, trying to live your life. Trying to build yourself a life in the UK. You read the news – they want to cut immigration. You see on FaceBook – ‘refugees aren’t welcome here’. You’ve never felt more alone. The government doesn’t want you here, the people don’t want you here. All you see is hatred.The concept that the United Kingdom is the land of the free appears in front of you as a lie. Whether you’ve been granted refugee status or you were refused, you still do not feel welcome.

This is the reality for many young people I have met. A lot of hatred is easily bred throughout social media and throughout the news. Be the change. Join the protests – tell them, refugees are welcome here. Give up your time, sign a petition. Let them know, they are welcome. Please sign the petition to campaign against the government back tracking on the Dubs amendment http://www.citizensuk.org/dubs_petition. 

Please note, nothing in this blog post is intended as legal advice. It is illegal in the UK for an unqualified individual to give immigration advice. This is simply a scenario based on a range of experiences I have been told about. There are other situations that can happen – this is not an exhaustive scenario. 

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