The system that greets unaccompanied minors fleeing Albania due to trafficking or blood feuds is hostile, and the odds of being accepted as a refugee are stacked against them. Friends of Refugees help asylum-seekers through their hearing processes. Here, an explanation of this process and of the reasons for leaving home.
Friends of Refugees at UCL
There’s a bit in Shakespeare’s King Lear that sometimes comes to mind when I think about the Friends of Refugees volunteering project, established at UCL this year (I realise this sounds a bit pretentious, but bear with me – I have an English degree). In the scene, the Duke of Gloucester has been captured by his enemies, tortured and blinded. When they are finished with him, these enemies cast him out to wander or perish. When all of the central characters have left the stage, two anonymous servants deplore what has happened. They plan to go after Gloucester, patch up his wounds, and find someone to guide him. Presumably they do, but we never see or hear of them again – and for the good characters, things keep on getting worse. I am not drawing a direct analogy between the contemporary British state and the lawless, tyrannous government of King Lear, but just as that ten-line scene doesn’t make King Lear a heart-warming, feel-good play, the fact that Friends of Refugees exists comes in a context of the isolation and suffering of thousands of people. It is not a good news story.
With that established, what do we actually do? Our volunteers, all UCL students, go to asylum tribunal hearings with young people who arrived in Britain unaccompanied. They are predominantly but not exclusively under 18, and all Albanian because we work with an Albanian community organisation, Shpresa Programme (we hope to expand into working with other communities in the future). We keep them company as they wait for their hearing, which is often a particularly stressful period, and we take notes during the hearing in case an appeal or a complaint is necessary. But much of our function is symbolic. Our presence affirms to the judge that there is a community who values this young person and is concerned about what happens to them. This can make a material difference to the outcome. As barrister Francis Webber writes in Borderline Justice: The Fight for Refugee and Migrant Rights:
The mere presence of people in the public gallery (friends, not hostile journalists!) improves the quality of decisions; when immigration judges know they are being watched they tend to behave with more regard for justice than when the only people in the hearing room are the appellant, the lawyers (if any), the Home Office representative and a dozing court usher. For a fighting lawyer there is nothing more dispiriting than an empty courtroom (2012, p. 9)
But back to my King Lear analogy. Our volunteering project is barely ten lines of the five act play that is navigating your way through the British asylum system as a unaccompanied asylum-seeking child. (The name ‘Friends of Refugees’ is something of a misnomer, actually. We work with asylum seekers who are applying for – but may not necessarily get – refugee status.) Albanian children seek asylum in Britain for a variety of reasons, but the most common are trafficking or blood feuds. Trafficking takes place for both the sex or drug trades – if you buy weed in London, it is significantly likely to have been grown by trafficked Albanian or Vietnamese people. Blood feuds are a phenomenon unique to Albania, now predominantly the more rural parts of the country. Broadly speaking, they are concerned with honour: if someone in family X kills someone in family Y, family Y have been dishonoured. The easiest way for family Y to regain their honour is to kill a male member of family X, and so it goes on for generations. Although the rules around blood feuds, found in the ancient set of laws known as the Kanun, state that only men over sixteen can be targeted, these are often ignored. Either way, a blood feud has an enormously damaging effect in every member of a household. The Kanun states that a person cannot be attacked if they are in their own home. Many people faced with the threat of a blood feud thus cease to go out at all, becoming ‘self-confined’. Trapped in a small space, unable to work or go to school, and faced with imminent threat of death, violence and alcohol abuse are not uncommon in self-confined households. Guidance offered by the British government suggests that there are merely one or two new blood feuds a year (thus all asylum claims on the basis of blood feud are rejected on their first hearing); the real number, although difficult to estimate, is certainly far higher.
The vast majority of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Britain are given leave to remain for three years or until they are seventeen and a half years old, whichever is sooner. They attend school or college and live with a foster family, an experience that can vary from a true second family to a host who refuses to give the child a house-key. In addition to dealing with any mental or physical health issues emerging from their previous experiences, they may suffer social isolation unless or until their English improves. They must also navigate their way through the legal system as best they can. Some are prey to unscrupulous lawyers who charge high sums for legally useless documents, or take on a case for the legal aid fee without making a serious effort to win it. What’s more, any illusion of stability is hindered by the knowledge that it could well end very shortly. Why apply yourself in college to gain qualifications that are useless in your home country? How can you even consider the future if you’re convinced you’ll die if you go home? Even if you do get refugee status, it now only guarantees five years of residence before the Home Office will reassess whether it is safe for the refugee to return home. Those who are denied status but still fear to return home frequently slip through the cracks towards homelessness and destitution.
Charities and organisations like Shpresa and so many others do fantastic work in supporting these young people. They offer advocacy, signposting to services and educational activities as well as fun communal activities like football or dance. But make no mistake – the proliferation of such organisations is an indictment of the failure of the state to provide. That Shpresa has to recruit students to accompany these young people because no one else is able to is an expression of a wider failure. But there are solutions, and Friends of Refugees, however small, however temporary, is at least one of them.
If you are interested in volunteering with Friends of Refugees, email us at UCLFriendsOfRefugees@gmail.com or join our facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/207566116413732.