Whilst we continue with teams on the ground in Greece, volunteers have also been doing some follow up work with refugee children in the UK who have got in touch with us since arriving in the UK. When we initially started working with refugee children we always assumed that our focus for refugee children would be on those abroad. We assumed that there were already so many services in place in the UK that no one would ever feel a need to contact us in the UK. Our assumptions have turned out to be mistaken.
We are finding that quite a few Kurdish children and their families seem to be caught in a limbo. Statistics show that something like 10,000 Kurds have come to the UK over the last 5 years. Success and failure rates of asylum claims fluctuate but something like 90% of Kurdish Iraqi claims seem to be currently ending in failure. This means that there are potentially around 9,000 Kurdish individuals (or individuals applying on behalf of their families) with failed asylum claims, many of whom are probably still in the UK. Yet UK data shows that the repatriation of failed asylum seekers to Kurdistan is just 64 individuals over the same period.
When we have enquired into these figure we were told that it is just too dangerous to return people to what is effectively still a war zone. So Kurdish children and families seem to be caught in a situation where it is not quite dangerous enough to be granted asylum, but it is too dangerous to be sent back to their original countries. If the situation can drift for long enough, then the individuals can potentially seek settlement under different rules, thereby pushing them into a different set of statistics. In the meantime they remain in limbo. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, but considerable numbers of those caught in the situation view it was arising from the UK’s need to manage its immigration levels where it can, because of difficulties managing the figures in other areas such as with EU nationals.
We can see the evidence around us in many Northern cities, showing that this limbo continues for years and years. Whilst it continues it means that the families are unable to seek (lawful) employment. Sometimes they are even unable to access language courses or do exams to improve their English. The only people who will reach out to individuals and families in this limbo are extremists in the back street cafes which they end up haunting, because they cannot lawfully engage in most other activities.
Ironically, some failed asylum claims in the UK have involved Iraqi ex-soldiers or security forces, some of whom have even been wounded in action fighting against ISIS. What makes it particularly poignant for these individuals is that fellow refugee colleagues have ended up in a different European country and have been given asylum. How does it make sense for individuals fleeing from similar problems, in similar circumstances, to be granted asylum under International law in one EU country, but then refused it in another EU country, which reports that it is following the same principles of International Law?
Part of the answer to this question involves the way that the UK asylum system seems to be working. Individuals are interviewed with translators who are not always focused. People cannot find representation and are going into the all important asylum interviews unclear about what points they actually need to make and what information they need to present. Adversarial questioning often appears in transcripts of asylum interviews, where it is clear that asylum seekers are struggling to just find a way of expressing themselves about complex and deeply distressing matters. Little wonder then if it should turn out that claims are failing in the UK, when individuals in similar circumstances in other countries seem to be having their claims passed.
Children of failed asylum seeking families are still able to access education, at the moment. Of course there have been headlines about how the Prime Minister might want to change this. It is causing a lot of upset and stress to the young people caught in limbo, as they have no certainty about where they are going to be able to live their lives.
One young person said to us that he was really pleased to be learning English in an English school, but if he is going to be sent back to Iraq with his failed asylum seeking family, then he urgently needs to learn how to read and write Kurdish. His parents are unable to help him with this and so he wondered how he could do this in the UK. How indeed?
One primary age child was threatened with death by ISIS last year. Terrorists broke into her house one night, picked her up and told her parents that she would be beheaded if the father did not betray the Iraqi army. Understandably the family then fled the country. With countless examples of ISIS beheading in the news, the family was all to aware of the long reach of ISIS and of the fact that they do not make idle threats.
The child is now in the UK, but still becomes visibly upset around strangers. The family are desperate to find somewhere that they can settle and get their child started on the journey of rebuilding her trust in human relationships. They have been in the UK and now informed that their asylum case has failed. They are unsure what to do. Do they stay in the UK as failed asylum seekers, in order to give the child more time to continue the hesitant journey she has begun, in building relationships of trust? Or do they uproot and try to find a different country which will grant them asylum and thus allow them to earn a living and start to integrate into society? But if they take that later course of action, the action which is clearly better for the parents, it will potentially set their child back amongst a new set of strangers where she will be terrified again and have to start all over again trying to re-build trust in humanity. These are some of the agonising choices which asylum seeking families are facing.