Crossroads crisis

Sara Mohammedi* arrived in the north of England
from the Middle East a year ago, having fled her parents and
husband after a forced marriage when she was 15. Her initial case
for asylum was rejected, but she was given leave to remain until
her 18th birthday. In the meantime she has learned English from
scratch and is studying for her GCSEs at a local college.

“I had the option to appeal, but the solicitor wrote and said that
they wouldn’t take my case further,” she says. This state of
affairs has come about because of the reduction in hours that a
lawyer can now bill as legal aid to prepare an asylum appeal.
Consequently, fewer solicitors are taking on this work, leaving
young asylum seekers with little chance of legal

With no one to make her case in the courts, Mohammedi now faces the
prospect of having to return in two years to a country where she
fears for her safety. She says: “In my country the rules are
different. For my family, me going away from my husband is a huge
thing. It’s against our religion and our culture. Because I ran
away after I was married, with no permission from my husband, the
rule is that you will be killed. It’s a government law.”

Although this threat hangs over Mohammedi, she has no right to
refugee status under the Geneva Convention, which recognises
persecution by the state, but not by families or individuals.

How does she feel about the transition to adult status when she
turns 18? “It worries me a lot,” she says, and her ready smile
disappears. “You’re living here for three years, but you don’t know
what’s going to happen to you. Whenever I find out more information
about it, I worry more.”

Mohammedi is not alone in her plight. There are an estimated 6,000
unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the UK, most of whom have
their application for refugee status refused early on. However, in
recognition that they are minors, most are given leave to remain,
in accordance with Home Office policy.

In the years after their arrival these children go to school, build
friendships and develop ambitions. But, as they approach 18, they
must appeal the initial decision, and it is here that the crisis in
legal aid provision for asylum-seeking children starts to kick

For a start, the reduction in the number of hours a lawyer can bill
as legal aid. Although this makes things difficult enough for
adults, there is no extra allowance for a young person on their own
who is finding it difficult to understand the labyrinthine system.
Nor is it taken into account that lone children may need more time
to reach a point where they feel able to disclose traumatic past
events. Few solicitors make enough money from legal aid to allow
them to carry out asylum appeals, and many have stopped doing
immigration work altogether. All in all, this means that there is
less expertise available.

It is a worrying situation, says Radhika Howarth, research and
development officer at charity Save the Children.

“Owing to recent restrictions on legal aid, we have come across
many young people who have no legal representation at all when they
come to appeal. What makes it worse is that they can have no adult
to help them either,” she says.

“When Save the Children has come across this, we have tried to find
some legal representation, even if it is last minute. But we have
heard of cases where the young person has just turned up to the
tribunal on their own.”

Mark Scott, a partner at law firm Bhatt Murphy, which specialises
in representing asylum seekers, agrees with Howarth. “Many
reputable firms are just not dealing with it any more because they
feel they can’t deliver the service they’d want to,” he says.

For a young person coping alone with life in a new country, the
uncertainty of whether they will be allowed to stay when they turn
18 can be destabilising. Some cope by trying to block out the
situation, sometimes with drugs or alcohol, while others operate on
the basis that knowledge is power and push for as much information
as they can get – although this in itself can increase their

Howarth thinks young people should be prepared for all the possible
outcomes to prevent total shock should the Home Office make an
unfavourable decision. To encourage understanding of the complex
legal situation, she has developed a series of workshops for
students seeking asylum and their tutors in colleges.

“A key problem young asylum seekers face is a lack of information
from the system that is supporting them,” she says. “There are
three potential situations at 18: the young person is given some
sort of leave to remain; or they have exhausted all appeals, but
cannot be removed because of difficulties in getting back to the
country of origin; or they have to return.

“We call this information-giving ‘triple planning’, and we want
local authorities and the Department for Education and Skills to
train social workers to prepare unaccompanied asylum-seeking
children for what is going to happen.”

But what could happen to them may change in the future, says Judith
Dennis, policy adviser on unaccompanied children for the Refugee
Council, as there are indications that some under-18s whose asylum
applications have failed could be forced to return.

Most agree that, to date, the quality of decision-making on
children’s cases has been poor because case workers knew that most
children would be given leave to remain as a stopgap measure. “We
hope that, because the stakes are higher now, case workers are
making better decisions,” says Dennis.

For Patricia Durr, parliamentary adviser at the Children’s Society,
the asylum system is still overlooking young people’s welfare. She
says: “It’s their status in the country that is put first. Turning
18 is not a magic date that turns you into an adult, able to deal
with lots of very difficult issues. It can be really scary. It
highlights how the asylum system is not child-centred, and we would
strongly argue that any decision on children has to have their
welfare at its core.”

At 16 and with two years left to go until she has to face her
appeal, Mohammedi remains optimistic, such is her relief at having
gained her freedom for the time being.

“The most important thing is that I feel safe now,” she says.
“There are things I want to do with my future – I’m looking forward
to it, and I’m really happy that I can do my education. I have
friends here now. I want to stay in this country and finish my
studying here and be useful here.”

Like many others, she can but hope that there is life in the UK
beyond the age of 18.

* Not her real name

For more information on help for unaccompanied
asylum-seeking children, contact,

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