The abandoned 

The Western world seem to have gained themselves a pretty decent list of people that they have abandoned. From Afghanistan, to Eritrea, to Syria, to Yemen, we are continuing to let innocent human beings down. My biggest bug bear is the fact that there are numerous atrocities occurring worldwide that are worthy of everyday news attention but they don’t get it due to fear of the audiences becoming bored or not being able to handle the truth. But why should this be the case?

The most recent situation that gets me more than others, is the situation in Syria. In December 2016, the news went through its latest phase with the country where it focused on the children of Syria – especially Aleppo – and the evacuations occurring there as the government quickly tightened its grip, regaining the Eastern parts of the city that had previously been the rebel stronghold. Yet this fad quickly came and went. So what now? Lets be frank. We in the west need to toughen up a bit. By toughen up, I mean we should read things we don’t necessarily like, we should watch things that might make us cry. Why? Because it shows humanity – humans in war zones, political crises or poverty stricken situations – it shows the truth. Once you become emotionally invested to some extent, you simply cannot let yourself walk away. You feel this responsibility or this compassion to help.

I’m not going to pretend that we’re all diplomats who can negotiate peace, or doctors who can go and help in hospitals – but we have voices don’t we? We all spend so much time on the internet, on social media – we can shout about it, we can sign petitions. We can even get off our asses and go out in the streets and shout about it. Tell our governments to make a difference, to make peoples lives count.

I’ve heard it a lot recently – most upsettingly from a Syrian boy. We were talking about Daraa, about Assad, ISIS and the horrors of the civil war. And he asked me, “why do people not care if we live or die? Is our blood cheap? Is Syrian blood cheaper than Western blood?”

Perhaps we can do something. We can at least try to make our voices heard. Make our voices the voice of those the world cannot hear or refuses to hear.

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“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. 

“I am human” 

A couple of days ago, I finally got round to going to see Dear Home Office – a play that has been on my mind and agenda for a long time. I know it’s only February but it was without a doubt the best thing I have done this year. Unfortunately, they performed their final show on Wednesday night but they already have plans for a second one in the Spring. Not only was it incredible to see young asylum seekers and refugees on the stage acting, speaking in a language that for most, does not come natural to them, it was incredible and so important to hear their stories. It is the first step towards defeating this narrow minded attitude we see far too often and my only wish would be for more people to see it. I probably have quite a reputation among many for my strong opinions and my lack of respect for individuals who simply do not like foreigners and have the ‘we must help people at home attitude’ before we help others. There is not a bone in my body that will let me agree with that. Let me tell you why.

Globally, there are over 60 million displaced individuals who have been forced to leave their homes due to war/violence, political, religious, ethnic or sexual persecution. It is estimated that over half of these people are children. Now, I do not believe that adults have less of a right to flee or seek asylum and live a life free of fear and persecution but I, as I’m sure many would agree, cannot and will not accept that any child should have to live a life in fear with the threat of persecution. Children are often used as pawns in political games, held ransom or exploited in various ways in conflicts or political situations globally and are therefore, often forced to flee. Many young people are sent away alone by their families. This is not an easy decision for anyone to make and I can assure you that many children do not want to leave their families but often parents want their children to have a better life and therefore send them away (using all or most the money they have been able to save) in hope of a better life in Europe.

Due to the current attitudes of western governments (and many eastern countries too), the only route is usually an ‘illegal’ route and therefore requires people smugglers. People smugglers are the pits of society. I will not hold back in calling them vulgar, ungodly beings who simply exploit vulnerable, scared individuals and treat them as commodities to get as much money out of the families of those travelling as possible. But unfortunately, due to the closed boarders and impossibility of legal entry for those travelling without documents and visas, smugglers are left as the only option. The fact that anyone actually makes it to their final destination in Europe is alone a miracle. Many of these journeys are done squeezed into tiny spaces in vehicles where there is no room to breathe or, on foot where the terrain is so rough you could quite simply fall off a cliff. And that doesn’t take into consideration the lack of food, water and sanitisation along the way. For many, its often normal to go days without any food and with minimal water – if not longer.

As if that isn’t bad enough, certain countries have reputations for shooting at ‘migrants’ making the journeys across borders. Sometimes this could be the police (Iran and Bulgaria are both known for this), whilst in other places, it could be mafia groups (such as in Turkey) who also often try to kidnap asylum seekers on their journey and hold them for ransom. Often, individuals end up in prison – beaten and starved – some are released as guards are bribed, some are released only if they pay for their return, escorted journeys. All of this is only made possible by countries desires to prevent asylum seekers and refugees seeking safety in a ‘safe’ way. Safe passages are simply not provided.

So you’ve been through all this, manage to somehow keep going (or repeat the journey you’ve made) and you’ve reached Turkey or, if you’re coming from Africa, you’ve reached Libya. You’re ready to get to Europe – to Greece or to Italy. How do you get there? A rubber dingy full of far too many people in a life jacket that is a fake that you our your family have paid more than an arm and a leg for. We have all seen on the news the tragedies that can happen on this journey. Many do not make it. Images of Aylan Kurdi drowning on the beach horrified all those with a heart. Yet since then, nothing has changed. Thousands of people have been drowning in the sea every year and nothing has changed. Do we think their blood is cheap? That because thousands of people are being murdered in the countries they came from, what does it matter if a few more die on the way to escape? I’ve said it before – the international postcode lottery is all that decides where we are. It could be me, it could be you.

So lets say you survive. You managed to hold onto that boat for dear life, you didn’t fall in and your fake life jacket didn’t let you drown. You’ve reached the shores of Europe. Now what? Trains and buses have sometimes been routes – sometimes even paid for by authorities in a hope that these people won’t settle in their country – I mean who would want such resilient, often smart foreigners anyway hey? So you battle your way through Europe, either by foot, by car, by bus or train. But where is your destination? With the rise of right wing populism, the recent Brexit vote and such a fear of ‘terrorism’ from refugees, where do you go? So many people are so scared of you – I mean they’ve never met you – but you’re foreign and you’re probably Muslim or from a majority Muslim country (which is obviously the same to them). Your smuggler has got you to mainland Europe, each time you get a country further, your smuggler gets more money from your family back home or from you (potentially you’ll have had to do some god-awful work for months in order to pay them along the way) so they’re going to take you to the UK. Yep, the furthest possible place they can think of in Europe. Thats lots of money for them. What a great idea! You don’t know a lot about England – perhaps the football teams, they play cricket and they speak English.

You reach Calais. Theres thousands of others waiting there too. Your told you have to wait to jump on the back of a lorry. You have no idea how long you could be waiting. You thought your wait in Turkey, in Greece was long – those months waiting, scared, nervous to finish your journey. You’re so close. Yet so far. You could be stuck here for a year, maybe longer. Finally, you get the call to go. The latest smuggling agent has found you a lorry to jump on. Its a giant freezer. It could kill you but its the only chance you have.

The next day, you wake up. You’re almost frozen but you’ve done it. You’re in the UK. Next step….. The bureaucratic asylum system. You become a number, your name, your age, your story – does anyone care?

But you are human. Just like me, just like anyone.

On Wednesday 8th February, the British government further let down young unaccompanied asylum seekers as it back tracked on its promise to take in thousands of refugees under the Dubs agreement. The actual figure appears to be around the 350 mark.To stand against government back tracks on helping young refugees and asylum seekers, please sign the following petition http://www.citizensuk.org/dubs_petition

To see information on Dear Home Office: @WeArePhosphoros 

Forgotten states: Eritrea

Eritrea is finally hitting the agendas of mainstream journalists and the media despite the plight of Eritreans being an issue for over a decade. The African state is surely a prime example of western national interest. With the worst human rights record (arguably) in the world, lifetime military service and religious persecution (Sunni Islam & Orthodox Christianity make up the majority of the population and little else is accepted), it really shouldn’t have taken this long to hit the agendas. But here it is.

Eritrea first hit my radar about 3-4 years ago when I met a number of Eritrean teenagers through voluntary work I do in London with young refugees and asylum seekers. I knew absolutely nothing. I found myself questioning – why are they here? I felt naive. One only has to do their research to see how bad it is and since then, my empathy goes out to all Eritreans but also, praise. Their strength and intelligence never fails to amaze me. But first, lets go back to the beginning.

So Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a long and bloody war. In the beginning, people were positive. Women had been given a role in fighting, the country had united despite ethnic and religious divisions and finally, the country could have its own democratic country and constitution. Well, not so fast. Isaias Afewerki wasn’t about to let that happen.

Isaias made it clear from the early stages that it was to be a one party state and everyone was going to obey him. Not only that, he took on a very defensive stance – that attack is the best form of defence. Isaias fell out with most of his neighbours – Yemen, Djibouti and most bitterly, Ethiopia. The Ethiopian anger remains – albeit Cold War style. Due to this need to defend himself, he introduced military service for both men and women from the age of 18. This military service has become indefinite. This alone is enough to make parents want to send their children away. Of course, thats not so easy either. I have heard first hand accounts of parents/young people being imprisoned for trying to escape without permission – many parents in prison and labelled as ‘human traffickers’ (smugglers) for wanting to send their children away. Eritrean borders are on the whole guarded with a ‘shoot to kill’ policy meaning if anyone is seen escaping over the borders thats it. Game over. If you do escape, it’s not all gravy then. African countries, just as with Palestinians in the Middle East, tend to make Eritreans stay in refugee camps where they live to rot away with nothing to do. This makes their best bet Europe.

The journey to Europe includes horror stories too with many dying along the way whether it be from dehydration, the horrors of smugglers or the dramas of Libya. Smugglers are renowned for violence, sexual exploitation and well, you name it, to get as much money and exploit desperate individuals as much as possible. Unfortunately I’ve heard accounts of this ending in young people’s siblings or friends dying. If you make it past that, theres Libya. Libya has faced its own turmoil since the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011 meaning that those trying to reach Europe’s shores often have to face ISIS (many girls end up as sex slaves) and Libyan prisons. Again, I have heard of numerous occasions where individuals have been kept in Libyan prisons for a very long time – regardless of their age.

We all know how the European story goes – the boats sinking – but to Eritreans, it seems the risk is well worth it.

I can’t imagine the plight Eritrean individuals that I know have been through. The sheer repression of the largely unknown African state should not be kept quite any longer. The insane amount of human rights abuses and threat to life are beyond anything anyone in the western world can and should have to comprehend and they simply should not be allowed to happen any longer.