In 2002, the Ay family, Kurdish asylum seekers from Turkey, were imprisoned in a British detention centre for 13 months. Four of the detainees were children whose ages ranged from 7 to 13 and in January 2012, the Ay’s were compensated for their incarceration with a six-figure payout. This story prompts us to question how such an injustice was executed and to discover how exactly young asylum seekers and refugees are received in the UK.
An asylum seeker is defined as a person who has applied for sanctuary and is unable to return to their home country owing to “a well-founded fear of persecution […] for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” according to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Once in the new country, asylum seekers can be granted refugee status if they are able to prove that their need for protection is in line with international law.
It is estimated that there are around 1,055 asylum seekers in Nottingham, accounting for less than 0.4% of the city’s population, with many hailing from Afghanistan, Kosovo and Eritrea. Asylum seekers and refugees have unfortunately been the victims of yellow journalism, typified by the media sensationalising and deploring the flux of immigrants into the UK, and publications like The Daily Mail announcing, “Foreign workers take yet more UK jobs as number of Britons in work plunges and youth unemployment hits one million.” (17th November 2011).
This ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality is evident throughout the media’s rhetoric; many people fail to evaluate the plight of asylum seekers objectively, without fearing it to be to the detriment of society. Yet, despite tabloid scaremongering, it appears that the UK only hosts 3% of the global refugee population compared with countries such as Pakistan, Syria and Jordan, who accommodate the vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers.
When reminiscing on the final year of college and sixth form, most students will remember their 18th birthday parties and frantic UCAS applications. But for some, the most lasting memory is the horror of war, which forced them out of their country. Veronica* is one such student, who was forced to flee her country amidst hardship and war, “It wasn’t safe anymore and people were being killed in front of their families. I left my country to stay alive and seek out opportunities that I was not provided with.” After being granted leave to remain in the UK, Veronica worked for a few years to send money back to her family in Eritrea, before finally enrolling at Brunel University, “It was hard leaving home at 18 for good, especially when many young people remain with their families until after education here.”
University, a difficult enough transition for any student, let alone a refugee, has been especially hard for Veronica and she talks of the challenges arising from culture, language and age. “I had to study English for 3 years before coming to university. I was classed as a mature student and I felt socially isolated from my peers.” Veronica also missed the fact that she couldn’t spend the holidays with family or return anytime she wanted to, like most students, “Sometimes I think about how blessed I am having been given these opportunities, but feel sorry for some of my family and countless others who got left behind in my country.”
She talks of the difficulties of adjusting to British life, citing culture shock, especially once at university, “All of this would be made easier if I could be with my family and they could help me. Unfortunately, they were not in a position to help me.” Since then, Veronica has graduated with a degree in Chemistry and was heavily involved in political societies at university. She says, “If I couldn’t help because I wasn’t at home, then I could raise awareness right here in the UK,” and she fondly remembers her time campaigning against injustices abroad.
Upon entering the country, refugees and asylum seekers under the age of 18 are to be looked after by a local authority who must, according to the 1989 Children Act, promote the educational achievement of the child. By law, refugee and asylum seekers are to be in full-time education until age 16, with fewer continuing onto further and higher education. For most students, an impressive string of GCSE and A-Level grades may be enough to secure them a place at university; however, due to financial constraints, many immigrants with the same or similar qualifications are effectively unable to join the higher education system.
Asylum seekers and a small proportion of refugees who have been given discretionary leave (which means that their stay in the UK is contingent on conditions in their country) are classed as overseas students and forced to pay on average of £11,650 per year for their degree, with no access to student loans, bursaries or grants. Additionally, asylum seekers are denied the permission to work, with many relying on the paucity of welfare provided to them by the government, as well as on charities and friends.
Despite this, some universities have the power to charge home fees to asylum seekers and the University of Manchester offers concessions to those awaiting their status. Kamena Dorling of the Migrant Children’s Project at the Children’s Legal Centre argues, “Until these students are granted indefinite leave to remain, which may not be until they have been in the UK for over six years, they are cast into limbo at a crucial time in their lives.” Fortunately, unlike asylum seekers, most refugees are treated as ‘home’ students and are supported by their local authority until they finish their degree.
Philippa McIntyre, Advocacy Officer for the Refugee Council notes that “Being able to access higher education is crucial for asylum seekers and refugees, not only to enable them to fulfil their potential and get the qualifications they need, but also to help with their integration into society. Many refugees and asylum seekers will have had to overcome traumatic experiences in the past, and as a result often need to be particularly dedicated to their studies in order to achieve.”
For the now-grown Ay children, their biggest regret is the diminution of their educational attainment whilst in incarceration. Beriwan, then 13, had hopes of becoming a lawyer, and Newroz, then 12, wished to be a doctor. “When we arrived in the UK in 1999 we learned English very quickly and excelled at school,” said Beriwan. “In detention we didn’t get much of an education and since leaving detention, we’ve all found it much harder to study. The Home Office stole not only part of our childhood but also our future.”
The government should ensure that education is a priority for young refugees and asylum seekers, especially in their formative years, to provide them with the same opportunities that British children have. A Freedom of Information request submitted to the University of Nottingham revealed that since September 2009, Nottingham has enrolled 13 students with refugee status, but admits that the number could be higher. This is a meagre amount when considering the fact that there are 1000 young adults of refugee and asylum seeker status in Nottingham city alone and it is estimated that there are at least 82,000 refugee children in schools around the UK.
Student Action for Refugees (STAR) is a national organisation that has branches in many universities; it was founded by University of Nottingham undergraduate Andy Davies, who was shocked that nothing of the kind already existed. Its aim is to improve the lives of refugees in the UK and facilitate greater access to higher education for refugees and asylum seekers. The University of Nottingham branch of STAR is working in tandem with the Nottingham & Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum to help refugees and asylum seekers improve their English, particularly as poor language skills are shown to be inimical to social cohesion.
Veronica says, “I was able to study English to a high standard before university, but many other refugees and asylum seekers who hadn’t were struggling a lot more to integrate into the community because of this.” David Cameron notes the importance of learning English so that those immigrating can “be more integrated into our country”; however, his statement is incongruent with legislation passed last year which restricted the number of immigrants who could access fully-funded ESOL courses (English for Speakers of Other Languages). Those on ‘active benefits’ i.e. jobseekers allowance or employment support allowance would be allowed to access fully-funded ESOL classes; those on ‘inactive benefits’ such as income support and housing benefits or on low incomes would be forced to pay for half of their course fees, with courses potentially costing up to £1000 per year.
Even 50% of these fees are an exorbitant amount for anyone relying on state welfare and this restriction of ESOL funding from an estimated 80,000 is perhaps an attempt to force asylum seekers and refugees into searching for employment. This begets the question of how they might find a job when their English language skills are somewhat lacking and their ability to communicate is impaired. Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, denounces this move as “a mockery of the Big Society rhetoric,” and notes that these changes would affect the most vulnerable and hinder integration.
Ultimately, it would behove society to view immigrants not as a symptom of a chimerical problem threatening to engulf Britain, but rather as traumatised and helpless victims who are seeking a better life. Veronica attests to the effectiveness of state aid to her success, asserting that “without all the scholarships I was provided with, the financial aid and all the part-time jobs I held, I would not be where I am today. I am exceptionally lucky to have been able to progress onto a second degree and obtain a good job doing what I love. I now have 4 children of my own who are attending top British universities and this level of prosperity would not have been possible without the help of the government.”
*This person’s name was changed to protect their identity.