Here Alone: Refugee Children in the UK is the title of a conference jointly sponsored by Christians Aware and the Leicester Unaccompanied Child Initiative, held at Quaker Meeting House, Queens Road today.
Legislation defines an “unaccompanied asylum seeking child” as a child who
- is applying for asylum in their own right, and
- is separated from both parents and is not being cared for by an adult who by law has responsibility to do so
A child may move between the unaccompanied and accompanied categories whilst their applications are under consideration, e.g. where a child arrives alone but is later united with other family members in the UK, or a child arrives with their parents or close relatives but is later abandoned, or a trafficked child, or one brought in on false papers with an adult claiming to be a relative.
As soon as anyone who has been treated as a child under these conditions turns 18, they have to apply for refugee status. Only seven per cent of such applications are successful. If refugee status is granted, that is valid for five years. At the end of that period, one has to apply for leave to remain.
Barbara Butler (Executive Secretary of Christians Aware) introduces the day and welcomes the 30 attendees present at the start of the conference. She asks us to bear in mind that we are not talking about the giving of charity in the conventional sense (e.g. of handouts or food parcels) but the giving of hope, hospitality.
The conference proper starts with us watching a five minute-long animated film, Rachel's Story, one of a series of short films from Seeking Refuge, broadcast on BBC 2 in June this year. Seeking Refuge contains five stories giving a unique insight into the lives of young people who have sought asylum in the UK, told by the children themselves. Each of the films conveys different experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers, while communicating the collective struggles and hopes of young people fleeing from their country of origin, and the issues they face adjusting to life in the UK. The stories powerfully explore themes including persecution, separation and alienation, and seek to inform young audiences about some of the hardships these children face.
First speaker is David Pitts (on the right in photo above, with Brandon Akem), who sets the topic within an international context. David is a member of Christians Aware who every year spends time teaching English to children in camps on the border between Thailand and Burma. Something that sticks in my mind from David's talk is when he considers the words that Paul attributes to Jesus, "It is better to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35) in relation to those who have nothing and who are wholly dependent on others. It's not good for people to be on the receiving end all the time - they need to have opportunities to give. David shares tales of some acts of generosity and sacrifice shown to him by the children in the camps.
Alison Birch, from the Leicester Unaccompanied Child Initiative (LUCI), speaks about the situation with unaccompanied asylum seeker children in Leicester. There are reckoned to be 195 unaccompanied child asylum seekers in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Rutland. Of that number, 110 have come here from Afghanistan. She shows a clip from BBC East Midlands Today about the work of LUCI at The Centre project, based at Central Baptist Church. Many children and young people are sent to LUCI by other local authorities in the East Midlands, because of the diversity of Leicester, as it's assumed that they'll be able to be put in touch with members of their own community more easily here.
Brandon Akem, who arrived here from Cameroon aged 16 - volunteers for LUCI while studying Law at Leicester University. He speaks briefly about his own experience in both receiving and giving support.
Artist and author, teacher and educationalist Beate Dehnen (photo above) speaks next on the topic, "Refugees and Art: Art as Refuge". She shares examples of the kind of material created in her workshops with asylum seekers and refugees, which she has used a platform on which to empower people who feel powerless, to help them find a voice when it appears that no one can hear them. Some work by Beate and participants in her workshops on the theme, "Here Alone" is on display today. Most of the attendees take advantage of opportunities to view it throughout the day.
Last session of the morning is given over to watching the short documentary, Hamedullah: The Road Home by Sue Clayton. Sue was hoping to be here herself, but unexpected family commitments have prevented that. Sue is passionate about empowering young people to express themselves through social media, film-making and video diaries. Her film introduces us to Hamedullah Hassany, who arrived in this country as an unaccompanied child asylum seeker a number of years ago. Upon turning 18, he is deported to Afghanistan, leaving behind friends, home and studies in Canterbury, where he had been making a life for himself. Sue gave him a video camera on which to record his experiences in Afghanistan Although Afghanistan is nominally his home country (though Kabul is not his home town), Hamedullah is a fish out of water there. After spending some of his most formative years in England, he has nothing in common with the people he has been sent to live among and can barely make his way in their society. The people with whom Hamedullah comes into contact assume that, having been deported from the UK, he must be a criminal or some other sort of undesirable. Most shun his company because of that, while others play upon it for their own ends. He returns to the village where he grew up, only to find the homes there abandoned and decaying, like ancient ossified relics. Hamedullah soon comes to the grim conclusion that he has nothing to do, nowhere to go and no one on whom he can rely for help or friendship. We witness his transformation from a bright and cheerful, friendly and gentle, motivated and optimistic young man to one who is bitter and cynical, deflated and degraded, pessimistic and poisoned.
Hamedullah is still in Afghanistan, subsisting on small amounts of money that Sue Clayton sends him from sales of the DVD or fund-raising activities on his behalf.
I felt moved and appalled by this film, in fairly equal measure. Moved by the plight of Hamedullah, appalled at how anyone thinks this is a civilised thing to do to another human being.
Lunchtime next: a walk in the crisp December air of Queens Road is required after what I've just sat through. It takes a few minutes before I feel able to sit and talk with anyone else, or to eat anything.
After lunch, we have a choice between one workshop with Alison Birch or another with Lisa Matthews, Campaigns Coordinator (South) for the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns. Alison's workshop (photo above) focuses on what is being done - and what can be done - in Leicester, Lisa's (photo below) on national campaigns.
At the end of the workshop period, we all come back together and Lisa sums up the day.
It would be an injustice to those who are the focus of today's conference if we allowed our concern to peter out as we leave Quaker Meeting House. We make tentative plans for action to capitalise on the commitment of those attending today. At the very least, we should ensure that future events on this and related topics should have a more varied line-up in terms of those presenting and those attending. Greater effort could be made to involve people of other religions, traditions, cultures and backgrounds (on a mildly ironic note, Bahá'ís from city and county have been holding their local convention in an upstairs room and a couple of them join in for the last half hour of the conference, once their own event is done).