Protection is urgently needed for young asylum seekers in the UK

By Laura Keen

Under the current system, young asylum seekers between the ages of 18 and 25 receive no additional services or care despite being incredibly vulnerable. Most will have left home as children and grown up in incredibly harmful and traumatic environments, but are left isolated and unsupported once they reach the UK.

To support this vulnerable group, Refugee Rights Europe and the Meena Centre Birmingham have recently launched a campaign calling for Youth Welfare Officers in asylum accommodation to provide much needed support.

We hear from Liz Clegg at the Meena Centre on her experience working with young asylum seekers and why Youth Welfare Officers are so urgently needed.

1. What are some of the biggest challenges you think young adult asylum seekers are facing in the UK?

Liz: What I see when people finally arrive, I see so many of them experiencing grief and trauma because the adrenaline that sustained them during the journey has gone. A huge part of resilience on a journey is the goal of getting somewhere–you’re driven to get there. When you arrive, there’s the initial elation of having made it. After, for children specifically, they become overwhelmed by their emotions and grief and loss.

Then you realize we run a very hostile environment. You’re going to be thrown into an adult asylum process, which is certainly not trauma informed. The state of vulnerability that you’re in, the trauma that you’re experiencing, that limits anybody’s capacity to navigate anything. Any yet we expect them to navigate quite complicated, wordy processes alone.

2. We know that individuals who lodge an asylum claim in the UK are often placed in asylum accommodation whilst they await a decision on their claim. Based on your knowledge of working with young people in asylum accommodation, what is their experience in asylum accommodation? Are they supported?

Liz: The establishments that are used by the Home Office and the accommodation providers don’t have huge sums of money. They’re not designed to be nurturing environments. It’s bleak, it’s basic, it’s crowded. You could be sharing a room with complete strangers. You could be lucky enough to end up in a place where individuals are treated in a nurturing way, but the system is not designed that way–it’s designed to be hostile. Any organization that’s contracted to work with refugees and asylum seekers is oversubscribed. The staff of these organizations ultimately suffers from vicarious trauma, leading them to become more disorganized, less focused, and subject to compassion fatigue, which is a huge problem[i].

Photo credit: Meena Centre

3. These young people will clearly have already been through a lot before they even reach the UK, in their country of origin or on their journey. What is your experience of the mental health of young asylum seekers? Are they able to access mental health support?

Liz: Our mental health services are on their knees. For young people arriving in this country, it should be recognized that a nurturing and supportive environment is critical to recovery. I’ve seen children as young as 12 or 13 in refugee camps who presented as resilient, coping, and managing to survive in horrendous conditions. They arrive in the U.K. and after 2 years in Local Authority care, they’ve started self-harming, self-medicating, and fantasizing about suicide. That’s a clear indication we’re not doing enough. We do have the capacity to operate in a nurturing and trauma-informed way.

4. Another issue is unaccompanied children being wrongly placed in asylum accommodation. Could you tell us a little more about this issue and what some of the impacts on the child can be?

Liz: When young people have been age-disputed and placed in initial accommodation, it’s really shocking for them that they’re not believed. There’s such awful conflict because they believed this country would look after them, only to be called a liar and faced with ridiculous legal processes. They are forced to prove that they are a child. We expect them to remember details of timelines of their childhood, and a lot of it is retraumatizing.

There is also this horrendous fear that you are fighting the people that you’re asking to give you sanctuary. There is so much innate fear and stress of taking the Home Office to court because of possible punishment and retaliation.

Photo credit: Refugee Youth Service

5. What is your experience of the impact the lack of support can have on young asylum seekers?

Liz: The whole asylum process is based on discrediting people. I’ve supported girls who don’t want to speak the words of their experience because it’s so fresh and so traumatic. They don’t want to verbalize it. People are forced into reliving and recounting their trauma right at the initial stages of their recovery. We must recognize how traumatic it is to sit and tell strangers in detail of your experiences and then go back to some dark initial accommodation alone where you don’t know anyone, there’s strange food, and the environment is miserable. It undermines so much of their resilience. You see young people struggling to maintain their resilience throughout this whole process.

6. How do you think Youth Welfare Officers will help this situation?

Liz: I think it would make a huge difference, emotionally, psychologically, and on a practical level. It would mean there is someone watching over individual young people, who can provide a kind of parental care that is lacking. This person could talk them through a statement of evidence, provide additional support for their interviews. Before and after these appointments are key times when they need to know that someone is advocating them and there to support them. Its traumatic to recount in detail every horrific experience only to be sent back to adult accommodation alone. It’s appalling that you don’t have anyone with you when you’re 18.

Visit our campaign page and call on your MP to support this urgently needed initiative today.

[i] For more information on asylum accommodation in London, read our report A Hostile Environment? Documenting the Living Situation for Asylum Seekers in London: https://refugeerights.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/RRE_A-Hostile-Environment.pdf.

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