Yesterday a heartbreaking photograph emerged of a Syrian toddler washed up of the beaches of Turkey, drowned as his family desperately tried to reach the shores of Greece and the safety of Europe. The image of the young child’s lifeless body shocked and revolted the world in equal measure – but behind the photo lies an equally horrifying story about the way authorities have been treating asylum seekers and in particular, children. It is a story that stretches all the way to the borders of the UK and beyond.
Over the past year I have been researching the struggle faced by unaccompanied asylum-seeking children that arrive in the UK looking for protection. I interviewed dozens of experts, social workers, lawyers and asylum-seeking teenagers and found that, far from being welcomed to safety, vulnerable children face an overwhelming number of obstacles. Rather than receiving sanctuary, children are routinely disbelieved about their age and locked up in detention centres as adults. Others are encouraged to settle into life in the UK only to be sent back into danger once they turn 18.
The number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in the UK is now higher than at any time in the last five years. Recent figures show the number applying for asylum has increased by 46% in the first half of this year. The number of sub-Saharan children asking for asylum has tripled in the last year, while 31 Syrian children have applied for asylum in the first six months of 2015, an increase from just three children in the same period in 2012.
Most children are fleeing horrifying conflict, and many face equally traumatic experiences while on their way to the UK. Catherine Gladwell, director of Refugee Support Network, a charity that works with hundreds of asylum-seeking children, explained: “A lot of young people tell us that some of the things that happen to them on the way to the UK are just as difficult and just as traumatic as things that happened to cause them to leave in the first place. We hear stories of young people travelling in groups and having younger friends that couldn’t keep up and who were walking too slowly or who got sick, just left to die in the snow by people smugglers.”
Parents, fearing for their children’s safety, pay huge amounts to people smugglers to ferry their children to safer shores. During the past year I interviewed several children who had made the perilous journey from Afghanistan and all had traumatic stories to tell. One described how he watched friends die in front of his eyes in a car crash in Iran. Another spent long nights sleeping in the snow, convinced he would not survive until morning. One said he was kidnapped by people smugglers in Greece and held in a house with no food until he managed to escape. Most were just 13 or 14 when they made their traumatic journeys.
But once they arrived in the UK the vast majority faced incredulity from their new hosts. The most recent figures show that only a fifth of all those unaccompanied children were granted asylum, and the rate at which children receive asylum has dropped in recent years. In fact, adults are far more likely to be granted asylum than children, so far this year 39% of adults were given the protection.
Syrian children fare a little better than average but still, despite the well documented atrocities in their home country, only 39% received asylum this year.
“If you’re a child fleeing on your own you have very little understanding of where you’re coming to and what the asylum system there might be,” explains Catherine Gladwell.
“So [children] don’t come with evidence, they don’t come with documentation, and part of that is just the nature of being a child.”
Instead, the vast majority of unaccompanied children, including those from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, have their asylum claims rejected and are given a temporary form of leave to remain, which runs out when the child turns 17.5 years old.
Children can appeal this decision when they first get it but few do and, on the advice of lawyers, often decide to wait until they become adults to appeal again. However, by then memories of crucial details of their story may have faded, and they no longer enjoy the heightened protection afforded to children.
But their problems do not end there. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that often these children have every element of their story questioned.
Freedom of Information requests to every Local Authority in England and Wales revealed that last year 25% of all unaccompanied asylum-seekers claiming to be children were disbelieved about their age and put through an assessment. Of those assessed the overwhelming majority, 72% were eventually judged to be children.
Some did not even get this far. The Bureau also found UK border and asylum officersmistakenly categorising children as young as 14 as adults and sending them straight to adult detention centres, in many cases despite clear evidence they were children and without referring their cases to social services.
A recent inspection report of the Yarls Wood detention centre found 13 children in the centre in the last year, while figures from the Refugee Council today show at least 127 minors have been falsely classified as adults in UK detention since 2010.
Many child asylum-seekers are treated as adults when they arrive in the UK
One of those children was Rauf (not his real name), a Syrian 15-year-old who was smuggled to the UK after his father was taken by an extremist group. He suffered physical and emotional abuse on the way. On arriving at the UK he told officials he was a child but instead of referring his case to a child expert in social services he was sent to a detention centre.
“There are no words to describe the horror of detention,” Rauf said.
“It was a prison. I struggled. I still have nightmares. I don’t know how someone can decide your age in ten minutes. Detention is devastating.”
One social worker I spoke to on condition of anonymity explained: “These children have come on this arduous journey. Starved, beaten, sexually exploited; when they arrive they often just shut their mouths. Then they are treated with suspicion. I’ve attended many interviews where the Home Office person says, ‘I think you are lying’, and I am sat in the corner, not allowed to say anything, thinking ‘Where have we come to?’ There is no respect shown to these children.”
Kamena Dorling from Coram Children’s Legal centre, which supplies legal advice to asylum seekers, agreed: “A culture of disbelief has developed in both the immigration service and social care, with vulnerable children often viewed with suspicion and assumed to be lying about their age. As a result, these children might end up being housed with adults, denied access to education or even detained as an adult in an Immigration Removal Centre and forcibly removed from the country.”
Then there is the ever-looming threat of removal. Once they turn 18 these young people can appeal their asylum decision again. But the Bureau’s study of Afghan teenagers found that just one-in-five former unaccompanied children that apply to extend their leave are successful first time. Fifty-five per cent were rejected outright, and decisions can take up to four years.
Instead young men found themselves wrenched from the lives they had built in the UK and put onto planes only to be dropped back into a country they no longer remember. More than 600 former child asylum-seekers have been removed from the UK to Afghanistan in the past five years alone. Many struggled. Often their Westernised mannerisms and accents are regarded with suspicion in Afghanistan. We found examples of young men who, after living their formative teenage years in the UK, were removed and left homeless, chased by the Taliban, kidnapped, ransomed and beaten.
One such boy was Hakim, who arrived in the UK at 13 only to be removed once he became an adult. He told me: “When I returned back to Afghanistan it was the worst situation of my life. No one helped me at all because I was completely different… I was strange to them and they were for me. I dressed differently I was not able to communicate with anyone.”
Despite this policy of temporary leave, children still make their desperate journeys to arrive at UK shores. Ninety-nine unaccompanied children arrived asking for asylum from Afghanistan in the first half of this year alone.
Now the situation is hitting crisis point. Kent County Council, which has responsibility for a large proportion of all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, is struggling under the increased pressure. The council says it has no more foster beds available and is facing a serious funding gap.
While David Cameron appears to be standing firm on his ‘tough’ approach to asylum seekers, the deepening crisis is prompting experts to call for a revision of the way vulnerable children are cared for in the immigration system.
“We need to think again about how we have treated, and continue to treat, children who have fled some of the world’s worst armed conflicts,” says Kamena Dorling.
Until we do, those children who survive the horrors of the journey to the UK will continue to suffer at the hands of the very people they hoped would save them.
This commentary piece was first published on Politics.co.uk