Every year, 2,000 to 3,000 children arrive in the UK alone, without parents or guardians, to seek asylum. They are provided with an education, support from social workers and often live with foster families.
If they aren’t granted refugee status upon arrival, they’re normally given a temporary period of leave to remain until they are 18. But as many of these children aren’t granted refugee status before they turn 18, they face an immigration cliff edge as they approach their birthday.
Some who have outstanding asylum appeals can’t be deported until their appeal is resolved, but others are at imminent risk of detention. At this point, the protections and services they relied on as children can be suddenly removed, leaving them to face the threat of deportation and detention with little support.
My research interviewing unaccompanied young people shows the challenges those without refugee status face in the UK’s current hostile immigration environment. Those who have refugee status have their own struggles too.
An immediate problem for those without refugee status is the threat of being sent to a detention centre. Aziz*, one of the 18 young people I spoke to, recalled being taken to a deportation centre still wearing his school uniform and carrying his school bag.
I said ‘at least let me get changed’. I felt so ashamed. I don’t know what kind of thing this is. At least have respect for the school.
Systems that have protected, guided and educated people like Aziz can suddenly disappear, leaving them exposed to the hostility of the immigration system. Aziz’s social worker wasn’t able to help him while he was in detention: his legal right to live in the UK had expired, and with it, his right to a social worker. As another of my interviewees said:
When, in the past I was young, everyone helped me. Now I am an adult they can do nothing.
Aziz was eventually released. He still didn’t have refugee status and feared being returned to the detention centre at any time. He had missed months of school and was unable to complete his studies.
Disruptions in education were common among the young people I interviewed who reached 18 without refugee status. One young man had been waiting six years to take up a university place because his leave to remain in the UK expired when he was 18, just before he was due to start his studies. He’d spent those years in a cycle of appealing to the Home Office and waiting for any news, unable to work or continue his education.
The threat of deportation is very real. Another young man I interviewed, Kamal*, had been in the UK for ten years. He had a job, a place to live and was engaged. He didn’t have refugee status – but had been able to keep extending his stay after he turned 18. One day, when he was 24, he received a letter from the Home Office telling him he was no longer allowed to stay and could be deported. For Kamal, this was like landing on a snake in a real life game of snakes and ladders – he had slipped right back to the start.
They let me stay because everyone feels bad for [the] young. Now you are older they don’t care. I have done all these things here and made my life here – but they should have sent me away the first time.
Missing their families
While the young people I interviewed who had refugee status by the time they turned 18 didn’t worry about detention and deportation, they still faced challenges. Most of all, they wanted to see their families again. But even for those who were officially refugees, tight travel restrictions meant they were prevented from visiting family members.
One young man called Roshaan*, who got refugee status at aged 16, told me he was unable to return to Afghanistan to attend his brother’s funeral. It makes sense that people can’t return to the country they came from while seeking refuge from that country – it would be dangerous to return. But for Roshaan, the risk of a brief return to comfort his family in their grief would have been worth it. He explained it to me with a simple question: “What would you do if you hadn’t seen your family in six years?”
Of the young refugees I interviewed who had reached 18 and settled in the UK, many were preoccupied with plans to reunite with their families, to bring them to safety in the UK. Current UK policy doesn’t support family reunification for unaccompanied children, although some legal challenges have been successful and MPs are considering changes to the law through an ongoing private members bill before parliament.
For one young man, Faizal*, the wait to reunite with his family from Afghanistan was difficult. He told me that “refugee status is like a jail”. He showed me a photograph of his two small siblings – all that remained of his immediate family. When I asked if he could imagine seeing them again, he said no.
I want to see them grow up and learn. I want to see them now. They are there now. The process is a really long time and it’s still not finished.
* Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of interviewees.