Author: Helena Cullen, Asylum Welcome’s recent Youth Coordinator.

Asylum Welcome youth service was established in the early days of the charity to work with unaccompanied children in the city and county. Essentially, it provides a space for young people to engage in positive activities and fun and also provides access to advocacy and advice. I was lucky enough to be the youth coordinator from 2015 to early 2022, and as anyone who works with unaccompanied children and young people will know, it is a huge privilege to work with this group of young people: to be there as part of their journey in the UK, meeting them when they arrive, seeing them settle into school and friendships, and seeing the transformative impact when they get their status.

“Despite all that is thrown at them, young refugees will always be there for others in the community when the UK has turned its back on them.”

Young people who arrive in the UK often have no knowledge or understanding of the asylum system and process: they are still children and only know that they need to get somewhere safe. The hopes and expectations that they arrive with, and their desire to be part of this society, sit in stark contrast to the demonisation of young refugees in the media and the treatment that they receive from the Home Office. Asylum Welcome’s service is there to support them through some of those difficult times.

Our 2015 annual report noted that the charity was ‘seeing an increasing number of young people, mainly Afghan, whose asylum claims have been refused and rights of appeal have been exhausted, and whose discretionary leave is not being extended past 18 years of age. They face the loss of all support, and the possibility of return to their home country. Some of these young people have been in this country for years, and have adopted British culture. A small number of these young people are homeless.’

The initial case load for the youth service was predominantly made up of those young people when I started in 2015. Over the last six and a half years, a huge amount of the work has been to try and support them to gain their status, through further submissions (fresh claims) that show their vulnerability, the risk to them of returning to their home country, and their connections to the UK. Once young people have lost their appeal rights they have no right to work, no right to study, no right to benefits or housing, and are destitute. They would have been asked to leave or evicted from their accommodation after turning 18 and they would have had financial support removed. They would have been given a human rights assessment telling them that as they had a viable option of return no support would be given to them. . Understandably, the trust that they have for services is incredibly low and much work is needed to keep them engaged and supported.

Helena, Caritas and Aiham from Asylum Welcome’s Youth team with youth volunteers getting their training certificates.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects for the Youth Service of the recent Afghan crisis was when we were contacted by three young people who had been deported back to Afghanistan in 2013. All of them had been in care in Oxfordshire as children, and were now asking for help to be evacuated. All we could do was to direct them to register with the FCDO, but we know in retrospect that those pleas went unread and ignored.

The stress and devastation inflicted on these young people who were ARE (Appeal Rights Exhausted) is almost impossible to put into words. To come as a child and be welcomed and made to feel safe, only to have that taken away from you as you reach adulthood, is a terrible act of cruelty done to them by the British state, and a retraumatising experience for many. When we look at the impending borders bill and how this will build-in destitution and temporary status for those making their own journeys, we already know from our experience that this will do untold damage to people’s mental health and sense of security.

We were very fortunate that no more young people we worked with were deported after 2015. Due to their resilience and support from ourselves and others within their community, most of that group were able to put in fresh claims and finally gain their status. Whilst we were thrilled with every young person who has gone on to finally be able to live their lives to the fullest, our pleasure is tinged with regret at the years of their lives wasted due to the cruelty of our system.

Despite this really challenging work and the difficult times we are facing with the current borders bill, there have been positive changes since 2015. One major and welcome change is that we have seen positive decisions for unaccompanied children go up substantially over the years, from a refusal rate of 85% in 2015. Nationally, the majority of young people arriving now do get a positive outcome, either at initial decision or on appeal, and this is clearly reflected locally. Our work is now often focussed on the increasing delays in the system. This has been made significantly worse since the pandemic, with some young people we work with waiting many years. These delays can lead to their having to move out of care-leaver accommodation once they reach 21. They are directed into much less suitable Home Office accommodation out of Oxfordshire, interrupting their education, taking them away from friends and networks, and causing significant stress.

We’ve also seen many changes in local Oxfordshire provision over the years. In 2016 the city lost the Children’s Society office, which did specialised work with UASCs and which we worked closely with. Some aspects of the work continued, through the orientation programme, and some of the youth counselling went to Refugee Resource, but it was a big loss. More positive changes have included greater training and networking for professionals working with unaccompanied children, to build their understanding of the asylum process and applicants’ needs. The social work team for unaccompanied children has also expanded massively. More specialist support is available, including guidance up to the age of 25, and increased provision of specialist ESOL at sixth form level through EMBS, Oxford Spires and City of Oxford College. Oxfordshire has long been signed up to take young people on the national transfer scheme from Kent and other areas with high numbers of unaccompanied children. When the government mandated that councils had to take more children into care from those areas, Oxfordshire already had put plans in place to increase capacity and support. Organisations in the city and beyond continue to work well in partnership with each other to get the best for young people in the area.

The other hugely positive change in the last couple of years came out of the pandemic and the ‘Everyone In’ mandate issued by the government for street homeless in the city. Because a number of these homeless were refused asylum seekers with no recourse to public funds, charities worked together to come up with a longer-term solution for them, including some young people. The Oxford homeless movement’s NRPF project was born, a collaboration between ourselves, Connection and Aspire to offer accommodation and support whilst people resolved their status. Alongside Sanctuary hosting, this means that there are some options for those whose appeal rights are exhausted whilst they try and resolve their status. The other change that happened internally through the pandemic was a commitment from AW to increase our hardship support to our destitute clients; this has continued and makes a huge difference for them.

It’s important to hang onto these positives whilst the overall picture for refugees feels so frightening. We are still not completely clear what the bill will mean for young people: it is not suggested that UASCs will be affected by the temporary status provisions but it’s not been made categorically clear that they will not be. We do know that age assessments will become even more contentious, as the Home Office may take responsibility for them again under a national age assessment board. This is being strongly opposed by professionals, including the British Association of Social Workers. From a local perspective this is so disappointing. We have spent time over the last few years advocating about the age assessment process; currently the use of age assessments is lower than it had been, and concerns appeared to have been listened to. This change, along with the other proposals in the bill such as off-shore processing and temporary status, means that the stakes for being assessed as an adult and the outcomes for young people assessed as ‘adults’ will be terrible.

The upcoming bill reduces even further the options for refugee family reunion, which was already very difficult for young people. Some of the most heartening outcomes we have seen over the years have been achieved by young people who have brought their siblings here, mainly through the Dublin regulations – which are no longer operating post-Brexit. For those we work with, the separation from family continues to be one of the biggest challenges they face even when other barriers are removed. In the rare occasions where young people have had family members join, it has been a transformative experience for both the sibling who managed to join them and the young person here in Oxford. To take this possibility even further away seems unconscionable.

Without doubt many unknown challenges lie ahead for these young people. One thing they always show us is the incredibly solidarity and support they have for each other. Despite all that is thrown at them, they will always be there for others in the community when the UK has turned its back on them. We could learn so much from their own approach and attitude if we could just listen. I have absolutely no doubt that Asylum Welcome will be listening to and supporting them whatever comes their way, and feel so proud to have been part of this team and to see Jess, Caritas, Alice and Navid beginning to take that work forward.