Nearly 8,500 asylum-seeking children arrived in the UK in 2004, and many fled from countries where major conflicts and human rights abuses were occurring. They may have witnessed or been part of brutality, been forced from their homes, or separated from family. Their journeys could have taken anything from a few days to months and been fraught with risk due to transport problems and the dangers of exploitation.
“We see children who have been plucked from everything that’s familiar to them and may not understand why,” says Stephen Rylance, from charity Refugee Action. “We have families arriving who have never seen a city or who have spent their whole lives in a refugee camp.”
However, arrival in the relative safety of the UK does not necessarily mean an end to their problems.
“Some are in trouble from the first day of arrival,” says Saidal Noorudi, advice worker at Refugee Network Sutton, a support group in the south London borough. “When they claim to be a child but their appearance suggests otherwise, the Home Office may dispute this and they may be placed in accommodation with adults until social services or a paediatrician confirms their age.”
As well as anxiety over their future, asylum-seeking children may face a wait for a school place. The fear of being deported, and horror of seeing their friends deported, combined with being in a foreign place where it can be hard to express their needs, is highly unsettling.
A 2003 estimate suggested there were more than 95,000 asylum-seeking and refugee children in UK schools, around 6,000 of whom arrived alone. But the support they receive varies greatly.
Cold Comfort, a report by Save the Children published in 2001, found “the level of care and type of support received by young separated refugees depends more on which social services department they arrive at than on their individual needs”.
While provision has improved in the past few years – in particular since the Hillingdon judgment ensured that unaccompanied 16- and 17-year-olds are now entitled to the same standard of care as younger children – services are still inconsistent.
“Provision can vary wildly partly because of resources and partly because some authorities are more progressive than others,” says Rylance. Samia Khaleeli, advice worker at the Refugee and Asylum Seeker Project in Hillingdon, west London, adds: “It can depend on how proactive the individual is, but a recently arrived child who has experienced trauma and is struggling with a language barrier may be in no position to be pushy.”
Experience of school can be equally variable. It can be a great source of stability and social integration for children and parents. Recent high-profile campaigns by schools against deportation decisions demonstrate how protective schools can be.
Yet there remains a stigma surrounding refugee status. “Asylum-seeker is used in the playground as a term of abuse in a way that it wasn’t a few years ago,” says Rylance. And Khaleeli points out that, even after children have made good friends, they hide the truth. “Many never tell their friends that they were seeking asylum. Even a long time after, they will make up a story to hide their lives,” she says.
Further difficulties arise at 18 when the young person may again face being returned to their country of origin, or dispersal away from recently-formed friendships, or a change of support systems and problems accessing higher education.
But for all the obstacles and uncertainties asylum-seeking children face, many remain resilient. In Cold Comfort, Save the Children describes how most young asylum-seekers showed “a determination to succeed and most were very grateful for the shelter and support offered to them – no matter how limited”.
How you can help
Early intervention after arrival can help. Having someone to discuss initial worries with can help prevent serious problems developing.
It was horrible – I felt like a criminal
Selam Tadesse (not her real name) left Eritrea three years ago, when she was 15, because of problems caused by her religion.
“I didn’t know I was leaving – it was all arranged for me in such a rush. My father paid an agent to bring me here. He left me in an Ethiopian restaurant and said he would come back for me, but he didn’t. Luckily the lady there helped me and took me to the Home Office.
“It was horrible – I felt like a criminal and they took my fingerprints. You don’t have any documents or know how anything works. I went into foster care at first. Now I’m at the Refugee Housing Association, living independently.
“I haven’t tried to find my family. In my head they are still alive, I’m not sure if I could cope if I found out otherwise.
“I’m lucky in that I could already speak English when I arrived here. Other friends who couldn’t had real problems. People didn’t take them seriously and they couldn’t make themselves
“It was difficult to find a school place, especially trying to start in Year 11. But the Refugee Council helped me and I took my GCSEs six months later and then A Levels. I’m currently taking a gap year before university.
“Now I’m 18 I have to get new papers – without them you can’t do anything. It’s hard even to open a bank account and I’ve been waiting six months already. I should have rights! I know they won’t send me back but I can’t have a full life here either.
“I’m so grateful, but every day I wake up unsettled and uncertain. I don’t tell people about my situation because of how asylum-seekers get treated here. I know I should fight, but it would just be my fight and I have to survive. This is a chance to tell my story.”