Nobody’s children: Young refugees in Scotland
THEY arrive in Scotland lost, confused, hungry – young refugees with no family to help them navigate this strange new world. What they need is a guardian ...
Javid Akhound sat on a beach in Turkey. Alone. Crying. Just 14 years old, he watched as a tiny boat lurched out to sea with 17 other Afghanis on board. The agent who had brought him from Istanbul had told him to get on board. He refused. “I can’t swim,” he told him. “I have my eyes, I can see I’m going to be killed in this boat.”
The agent slapped him and left. Then, as the hungry, terrified teenager watched, the boat sank. “Three people died,” he recalls. “The other ones could swim.”
Eventually, after three months of lorries, car boots, sleeping rough in what he calls “jungle”, Akhound found his way to Glasgow. The journey cost him £13,000.
The city’s social work service is used to dealing with unaccompanied refugees. Akhound entered the system, stayed in a children’s unit, went to Shawlands Academy, did his best to cope with lawyers, complicated letters and interviews at the Home Office. Now 18, he has exhausted the asylum process and faces deportation back to Afghanistan. “Nobody told me,” he says quietly, “I had to return when I was 18.”
For Catriona MacSween, who runs the Scottish Guardianship Service for the unaccompanied youngsters who wash up in Scotland, this is hugely frustrating. When Akhound arrived in Glasgow, there was no specialist help for confused teenagers who might be trafficked, dumped in front of the Scottish Refugee Council’s office in Anderston or abandoned in Tesco. The local authority, which has a statutory duty to care for a young person until they are 18, followed the letter of the law. Akhound had a roof over his head. What he didn’t have was a familiar face, a person to help him navigate the complex asylum system or to help him get the hang of life in Scotland.
MacSween, who used to work for the Scottish Refugee Council, helped set up the Guardianship Service in 2010. to fill that gap Cases like Akhound’s, she says, “make me more passionate about guardianship because I can see from them how unprepared they are, the failures of not having that support”.
Akhound had, she can see now, a poor idea of what asylum means. A dispute with the Taliban forced his family out of Afghanistan when he was four years old. He grew up in Pakistan, where his father ran a clothes shop. His parents died in the 2005 earthquake. He is not technically a refugee because he is not fleeing persecution; he left Pakistan because his father’s friend, who had been caring for him, got married and could not look after him any more.
MacSween is now helping Akhound explore any final grounds for appeal. If he had arrived in Scotland after the Guardianship Service started, his experience would have been very different. He may well not have been awarded asylum status but he would have known that was a possibility from day one and been prepared for it.
There are five guardians currently looking after 78 teenagers – mostly aged 16 and 17, from Nigeria, Gambia and Vietnam as well as Afghanistan – in Glasgow and scattered across the rest of Scotland. They all understand the process in considerably more detail than Akhound, and know there is a good chance they will be returned home when they are 18.
Despite MacSween’s years of frontline experience with refugees and as a youth worker, fine-tuning this service has been a challenge. “When we started we were probably making it a bit too difficult, talking about the UN refugee convention, all the reasons you flee persecution: race, religion, nationality.” She laughs at her naive earlier self. “That’s too high-brow. Why would they know about these things? Our starting point is now safety. We use the map a lot to explain it. But sometimes they’ve never even seen a map before.”
So they talk about different countries, borders, the country they have come from, the country they have arrived in, the government agency called the UK Borders Agency, which decides who can stay here. “We say that people come to the UK for different reasons: to study, to visit friends, for a holiday. And some come to be safe. We start off at that really basic level. And we let them know right away that it’s not a foregone conclusion they can stay.”
Mohammed (not his real name) could not be more different from Akhound. Despite being in the UK for a shorter time, his English is better, his self-confidence visible. When the Taliban tried to recruit him in Afghanistan, his family paid an agent to take him to a safe country. After three months of cars and lorries, he found himself in London. The first social workers who saw him thought he was over 18, so treated him as an adult. He was ‘dispersed’ to Scotland, and ended up alone in the YMCA. It was the Scottish Refugee Council that spotted he was, in fact, younger than 18. When he was eventually assessed as 17, he was allocated a guardian.
One of the biggest problems facing MacSween and her team is that, by the time they find them, these young people who speak no English and may have come from a very different culture, have encountered a bewildering array of authority figures. How do they know which one to trust? How do they explain that a guardian is their independent advocate in the asylum process, via an interpreter, to a teenager from a rural village who does not know that the blue bit on the map is the sea?
A combination of patience, visual aids, tea and biscuits seems to work. Mohammed recalls, “They explain everything for me. People had told me I would get a lawyer. What’s lawyer? In my country, never seen lawyer. I don’t know what do for me. They explain everything, bring me to new accommodation, apply for college, make appointments. Lots of help.
“When I met my guardian, I finally knew my family. There’s lots of my responsibly they can do. They call me: you have this appointment. If someone doesn’t have a guardian, it’s very difficult for them. We are just talking all the time. It’s like my family.”
Now 18, Mohammed is waiting to hear if he will be able to stay in the UK. Until then, he is studying English at Anniesland College, playing football every Friday and, since his birthday, exploring the wilder shores of Glasgow nightlife. Guardians try to give these youngsters as many skills as possible – languages, practical training, perhaps a trade, confidence and resilience – which they will need whatever happens next. If he can stay in the UK, he would like to join the police force.
Iranian Aras Sheikhipour, 18, has been granted refugee status for five years. He comes bounding in to the Guardian Service’s office all smiles, shaking hands, greeting everyone by name. After just nine months in Glasgow, he is enjoying his first lush spring – “In my country, it’s too hot every time. I love the rain, the green, trees everywhere” – and planning his future. When his English is good enough, he will go to university. At the moment he’s thinking about studying mechanical engineering.
Sheikhipour, a Kurd, was not familiar with the legal framework of the asylum system when the lorry driver dropped on the outskirts of Glasgow and told him to go straight on at the traffic lights and keep walking. His political activist father was killed when Sheikhipour was ten. He joined his uncle in the outlawed PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) when he was 16. Their group was infiltrated by spies and his uncle was arrested. By lying to the police, telling them that Sheikhipour was Iraqi, he managed to pay an agent to smuggle his nephew to the UK.
Sheikhipour arrived in Glasgow at 3am on a rainy morning, in pieces. “I said, ‘My life is finished.’ I was alone. I was 17. I can’t come back to past life.” He had been walking through the city for four hours when the police finally picked him up.
“I was scared,” he recalls. “It was all new. I am from an Islamic country. People never hear a woman in town or anywhere. In Iran ladies don’t have hair like that, clothes like that. On any street, the car is on the left hand. Everything is different. You’re like a newborn, it’s too difficult to understand.”
Unlike some of the new arrivals, Sheikhipour had been to school and could speak some English. He laughs. “Dog. Fish. Elephant.”
As well as liaising with social workers, lawyers and the UKBA, sitting in on the key interviews in the asylum process and helping amass the crucial evidence that backs up an asylum claim, a big part of the guardian’s job is what they call ‘socialisation’. Basically this is day-to-day living, helping these youngsters get to grips with practical geography, fashion, home economics and the Glasgow accent.
For Sheikhipour, this started with using public transport. “My guardian helped me find my way round the city. I didn’t know how to use bus. The first time I went on it I gave him money, said, ‘I want to go to town.’ He told me you must put it in the box. I didn’t know nothing.”
For young men who have lived with their mothers, independence comes as a rude shock. “When you are at home you are eating, sleeping, putting new clothes on, going out. On your own it’s hard to be like that. Now I wake up every morning, clean my clothes, clean the dishes, go to college, come home.” He draws the line at cooking. “I’m too lazy for that.”
Spending time together, whether it’s shopping in Primark or going to the park, helps the guardian and their client develop a relationship. This is crucial if the guardian is going to help them build the best possible case. “We help them understand why they have to tell their story,” says MacSween. “We don’t coach them – we know how dangerous that can be. As soon as it’s not the whole truth, it’s so easy to catch them out. We stress telling the truth, which is why building a relationship is so important. At first they don’t trust the guardian more than anyone else, but over time they do.”
Many young asylum-seekers have brought no evidence of their story and a sketchy understanding of the geopolitical situation they are running away from. “I say, ‘Don’t beat yourself up, you’ve done the best you can,’” says MacSween. “‘Your mum was probably protecting you. That’s what mothers do.’ But it’s not helping their story.”
They might have been given misleading or conflicting advice from agents, traffickers and friends. “Some haven’t even thought it through. They might have fled with no planning. Some are trafficked, duped into coming to a better life, told they can study,” she says. “Then they’re sexually exploited or farming cannabis.
“An asylum application often comes down to the story of a scared, nervous teenager who wants to forget their horrible experiences. ‘I was raped and took a photograph’ – that doesn’t happen. ‘I’m homosexual, I was tortured; the Taliban tried to get me to join them’ – who has got the evidence to back that up? So much is based on their word and their credibility. We help them establish a timeline and make sure their story’s consistent.”
Sheikhipour puts it simply, “I was scared of the Home Office. My guardian, she made me ready.”
When the political situation for Kurds improves, Sheikhipour is “100 per cent ready” to return to Iran. “I would like to go back and do something for my people,” he says.
For the time being, though, he is studying hard, staying in on Saturday nights and making the most of his time in Scotland. “I have already been to Edinburgh,” he says proudly. “And the island of beauty.” (That’s the Isle of Bute for non-Iranian Glaswegians.) “I’m lucky I’m here. It’s a good chance for me if I use it.”
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