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Asylum-seeker children — more than a minor concern

30 October 2015

Rebecca Paveley investigates the reality for the refugee children who wait for a home, and families wanting to foster


Teenage travellers: two boys show their refugee-ship boarding tickets. Most unaccompanied children are boys aged 16-17

Teenage travellers: two boys show their refugee-ship boarding tickets. Most unaccompanied children are boys aged 16-17

AS WITH many modern conflicts, it has taken the image of a suffering child to awaken the British public to the refugee crisis.

The photo of the body of the Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, washed up in the surf on a beach (News, 11 September), looks set to become the face of this 21st-century exodus, in the same way as the image of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, fleeing a napalm attack, came to characterise the Vietnam war, 40 years before.

Aylan’s death prompted a worldwide outpouring of grief, shame, and promises of action; yet nothing so far has halted what is already the biggest mass migration since the Second World War.

Most of the children fleeing conflict areas for safety in Europe are with their parents or other family members. But growing numbers are not: last year, 24,000 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in the EU — four per cent of all asylum applications.

If, as predicted, asylum applications rise this year to more than one million, even a conservative estimate suggests that 40,000 will be from children on their own. And even this figure does not represent the real number of children coming alone into the EU, as many of them will not go into the asylum system at all.


CHILDREN who arrive on their own must be looked after by the state. In the UK, this means that unaccompanied children are looked after initially in a reception centre while their case is examined. Often, their age is disputed and has to be checked, before they are sent — if a home can be found — to foster parents.

For local authorities such as Kent, there has been a huge increase in the number of children who need care: from 220 in March 2014 to 730 by September this year. The authority is struggling to meet the needs of these children, and there is a £6.2-million shortfall in the costs of caring for them.

The latest figures from UNICEF and Save the Children suggest that 2200 children arrived alone in the UK in the first eight months of this year.

But the photos of Aylan and other children has prompted action, as well as mass protests. Local authorities all over the country have reported an increase in the number of people offering themselves as potential foster carers.

When the Christian charity Home for Good set up a page on its website for those wanting to find out about fostering refugee children, they were astounded by the response. In a week, more than 10,000 people had signed up. Those who have done so are directed to foster agencies in their area; they are warned early on that the process won’t be easy, and that it will take at least six months.

The chief executive of Home for Good, Phil Green, is aware that many people signing up on the website will do so as an emotional response to upsetting images on TV, or on the social media, and that the commitment to foster may not be there in the long term.

“The reality is that people sign up for a wide range of different reasons," he says. "We are very clear with them from the first that the fostering application process has to be gone through, and no attempts are made to shortcut the process.

“If you speak to local authorities, for every ten people who enquire about fostering one will become a foster carer at the end of the process. Our data suggests that, for the people who enquire through us, it is more like one in three go on to foster.

“But we have had 10,000 people who have never thought about fostering come forward, and it is a great opportunity to take them on a journey.”

The majority of unaccompanied children who make it to the EU and to the UK are not young children, but lone boys, aged about 16 or 17, who are vulnerable and need specialist care.

“We know that the British people are very empathetic in these situations,” the chief executive of the Fostering Network, Kevin Williams, says, “and there has been a huge outburst of generosity and good will to the refugee crisis.

"But people need to realise that those who are seeking asylum are likely to be traumatised by what they have seen and suffered, and that fostering young people is difficult.

“We need to ensure that these people are appropriately assessed and trained to meet the needs of complex young people, and, in most cases, this will mean going to people who are already experienced foster carers.

“We have also seen an increase in the number of people looking to see if they could foster. It is not a single event that leads people to become foster carers, but a series of events: many of those coming forward will have thought about fostering before.

“People often do not realise the depth of assessment that is required to be a foster carer. But we do need more people. It is not just about having the right number for the number of children: it is about having a choice, to ensure we can find the right home for each child.”

Graham and Sarah, former missionaries, have been fostering children for years — many of them unaccompanied minors.

Sarah explained some of the challenges: “For many of the young people we have cared for, their big question is: ‘Who do I trust?’ They have often been given instructions about what to do and say by their traffickers. Do they trust them, or us? We have to keep them safe while we win their confidence.”

Graham said: “The child may have left their country, their family, their home, their culture, their food, their school, their language, their friends — everything. The culture shock is enormous. Some arrive with little or no English. We have to work on how to communicate, and official meetings, of which there are many, have to be done by translation.”


THE refugee crisis has also prompted a look at Britain’s record on offering sanctuary. Comparisons have been made with the responses in the 1970s, when 19,000 “boat people” — refugees from the Vietnam War — were resettled in the UK, and when Ugandan Asians fled Idi Amin, and 27,200 refugees arrived in Britain.

Viktoria Cowley arrived in Britain as a toddler. She was listed as “Baby number 10”, and flown out of Saigon as part of Operation Babylift — a response to President Gerald Ford’s fears that the victorious Viet Cong would massacre all orphans, particularly those suspected of being fathered by soldiers from the United States.

Many babies went to the US, but 99 stayed in Britain, among them Ms Cowley, who was adopted and brought up in Sussex. She describes herself as an “English daughter of an English family, growing up in an English town”.

She told a BBC documentary team: “When I was little, my parents would tell me about my adoption as we were gathered round the dining-room table, after our Sunday-roast meal. The only thing I’d ever want to hear was how special I was, and how my father chose me out of all those children.”

The scale of the current crisis looks set to be much bigger than that of the 1970s. But David Cameron's response — to offer to take 20,000 Syrian refugees, direct from the refugee camps in bordering countries — has been criticised by agencies.

Save the Children is urging the Government to take in 3000 of the most vulnerable unaccompanied children who have arrived in Europe.

A journalist from The Daily Telegraph, Toby Young, has set up a petition urging the same, in memory of Nicholas Winton, who saved the lives of 669 children, in 1939, as part of the wider Kindertransport initiative, during which the UK took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children, many of them into the care of foster families.

Mr Young also believes that the job of checking potential foster homes now should be taken out of the hands of local authorities, and carried out by a government-appointed "child refugee envoy".

“Hardly anyone is safe in Europe’s refugee camps,” he said, “but unaccompanied children are the most vulnerable. They are prey to the worst kind of human predators, and many face horrific fates if they’re not rescued.”


SOME charities are offering an option for those who want to respond now to the growing crisis, and have a room to offer. The Glasgow-based charity Positive Action in Housing (PAIH) finds host families for destitute asylum-seekers, some of whom are unaccompanied minors who have fallen outside the ever-shrinking security net of the welfare system.

The director of PAIH, Robina Qureshi, says that their 2000 host families sign up to an “entirely voluntary agreement”, and, although home checks are carried out, the process is much quicker.

Initially, she asks hosts to offer a room for a week or fortnight; most are willing to offer longer by the end of that period.

“We set up in 2004, and we had a rule that we weren’t going to go home until everyone who was coming to see us that day had a home,” Ms Qureshi said. “We do need to ensure safety of the client and the host, and it is a voluntary agreement; but, in 11 years, we have never received a complaint.

“If you don’t have a home, you don’t have anywhere to put your paperwork; this provides is a breathing-space to think and plan your case, where for a time you can stop being concerned about your daily survival.

“There are people who are in need, and need some space to think about their case, and there are people who genuinely want to offer support and care. We put them together.”

Alison Phipps has been a host through PAIH for several years, and ended up fostering one teenage girl who came to her six years ago. She said she was inspired to host after volunteering at a removal centre, and seeing people released on to the streets, effectively becoming homeless.

Working as a host, she said, had been a “very lonely place to be” for years, but the current refugee crisis has changed that. “There used to be very few people around who we could share with, only a few other foster families doing what we were doing.

“The last six weeks have been the most amazing weeks in our lives, as we discover that other people do care; they feel a line has been crossed. We have seen almost a mass repentance, and 40 per cent of people now believe we should take in more refugees.

“People want to try to resurrect that little body on the beach of Aylan Kurdi. To use the language of the Church, I believe that all are welcome, that now it is time to worry about humanity first and security second.”


Seeking solidarity

GULWALI PASSARLAY, from Afghanistan, is one of those teenage refugees who flourished in foster care, after overcoming his own fears about the cultural differences. When he was 12, his mother sent him and his older brother away to Europe to escape the conflict that had claimed their father’s life.

The two were separated almost immediately by the people-smugglers taking them out of the country. Gulwali continued the treacherous journey into Europe alone, braving hunger, arrest, and abuse. To get to Greece, he was crammed into a boat with 100 others, where they spent 50 hours afloat in dangerous conditions, without food or water.

He eventually made it to “The Jungle”, in Calais, where he spent three months trying to smuggle himself into Britain. He succeeded in a banana truck.

Once in the UK, he was put into a reception centre and had to embark on another long fight to prove that he was only 13, as the authorities insisted that he looked 16 or 17.

He is philosophical about the cold welcome he received when he first arrived in the UK. “I always believe that things happen for a reason. I think if the UK had dealt with me more kindly, I would not be the person I am.”

Three years later, he was placed with a foster family, and they helped him to adjust to different cultural norms in the UK, such as seeing his foster father do cooking and housework. “My foster family really helped me, mentally and emotionally.

“I was 16, and unsure of fostering, because I’d heard from others about problems about food and understanding of religion; some of them seemed to do it only for the money. But I was very lucky, and was fostered by a wonderful family.

“I had the willpower and determination to do things on my own, but, when I came in, and food was ready, and I didn’t have to worry about paying bills, it helped. I knew I had their backing to achieve, and they gave me guidance.”

Gulwali was finally granted asylum, and has been reunited with his brother, who arrived in the UK before him. He has gone on to achieve great success. Now aged 21, and studying at the University of Manchester, he is a prominent campaigner, and was chosen to carry the Olympic torch through Bolton in 2012.

The European response to the current refugee crisis is “a disgrace”, he says. “We have the resources, power, and money to respond, but we do not have enough solidarity and humanity.

“This isn’t the time for a cost-benefit analysis, but is about saving human lives. Our first priority is to save lives; the second priority is to find solutions to the conflict.”


The story of Gulwali Passarlay's journey was published last month as The Lightless Sky (Atlantic Books, £18.99 (CT Bookshop £17.10)).

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