Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Europe Fails Child Refugees
Seventeen-year-old Masak arrived in Britain in April 1999. Having witnessed the murder of his father and uncle, he fled Kosovo in fear of his life. The local authority found him a room in a small hotel. Frightened and alone, he could only summon the courage to make a weekly trip the supermarket.
Masak is one of record 5,000 unaccompanied refugee or asylum-seeking children in the United Kingdom. Twice as many as in 1998, and eight times the number in 1996, when there were just 631.
A large proportion of the children come from the former Yugoslavia. Their experience of life in Britain is one of isolation, poverty and racist bullying.
A recent report by the Save the Children Fund and the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees said there was a desperate need across the European Union for better care and protection of unaccompanied children seeking asylum. Their number in the EU has risen dramatically since the beginning of the war in Kosovo. They arrive at airports, ports and stations alone and bewildered.
Often sent with false documents claiming they are adults, they are not identified as children even when they reach the EU. Birth certificates and paediatric reports are frequently disregarded in favour of the age given in the falsified passport.
The report particularly criticises the UK for detaining children as young as 13 in adult prisons, while officials argue over their exact age and whether they are in fact genuine refugees. UNHCR guidelines state: "Children seeking asylum should not be kept in detention."
Practice and policy vary across the EU. The report criticises each member state. The trafficking of unaccompanied children is a particular problem in Greece and Italy, where Albanian children are brought into the country illegally to be economically and sexually exploited. In Holland, a number of children have disappeared from reception centres to work in the sex trade.
Many of these children have never considered claiming political asylum and so there are no reliable statistics on how many there actually are. Conservative estimates put the figure at 100,000. A large proportion of these children are from Romania, Albania and the former Yugoslavia.
Under Britain's 1989 Children's Act, unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK are the responsibility of the local authority. It's up to their social service departments to assess the children's needs.
According to Sheila Melzak of The Medical Foundation, a charity that works with victims of torture, these children have multiple needs because of their experiences of separation and loss but: "The real vulnerability of young people is not noticed. They do not get the standard of care routinely afforded to other children in need."
During the war in Bosnia, 10,000 children were separated from their parents but remained within the former Yugoslavia. Over 90 per cent were subsequently reunited with their parents. The problems begin once children travel further afield.
In the UK, unless unaccompanied children are granted refugee status, they do not have the right to family reunification. If they are granted "Exceptional Leave to Remain" they have to wait four years before they have the right to apply.
In practice the situation across Europe is little better. In the Netherlands, the child must have enough money to care for their parents and relatives while the number of unaccompanied children actually granted refugee status in France is so few there is no established practice in the field.
All alone, the children are often left to fend for themselves. Their individual needs and problems often ignored. In the UK almost 50 per cent, some as young as 15, are housed in bed and breakfast accommodation.
The charity, the Refugee Council, is concerned that many 16 to 17-year-olds, cared for under Section 17 of the Children's Act, are left to fend for themselves as adults on their 18th birthday if their asylum claims are successful.
Getting access to basic services is a major problem. Housed in temporary accommodation, many face difficulties registering permanently with a doctor.
A survey in the medical journal, the Lancet, found that most medical practices in London did not provide a new health check to asylum seekers and refugees, often leaving communicable diseases and post traumatic stress disorder undetected.
Getting an education isn't easy either. The new school term in England has found 2,200 asylum seeking and refugee children with no school place. Many others have access only to part time schooling.
Christina Daubeny is the Head Teacher of White Hart Lane secondary school in Haringey, North London. Four hundred of her 1,200 pupils come from asylum-seeking or refugee families.
They arrive traumatised and unable to speak a word of English. Many of them are alone and live in unsuitable bed and breakfast accommodation.
The paint may be peeling in the corridors but Daubeny has set out to make the school a safe haven. "You cannot underestimate just how important school is for these children," she says. "School is a stabilising factor."
Daubeny adds: "It's important to integrate new arrivals quickly into the life of the school, while at the same time giving acknowledgement of their identity and experience." Building a community when the pupils speak 55 different languages isn't easy.
According to Jill Rutter, of the Refugee Council, racist bullying is a huge and growing problem. 'Your mother is a gypsy beggar' is the latest playground insult. She blames media coverage of the refugee issue.
With an eye to their league tables, which list school exam results, many schools illegally try to avoid accepting children whose problems might drag them down a notch. To take the heat off, the government has just decided to take refugee children's exam results out of England's school league tables.
While all asylum seeking and refugee children receive free school meals, it is up to individual local authorities to decide how much extra assistance they can afford. According to the Audit Commission, the UK government watchdog, many children fail to turn up for school because they cannot afford the school uniform or even the bus fare.
Few have access to homework clubs or holiday projects. The Refugee Council would like to see better out of school learning provision especially targeted at those groups like Roma and Kosovo Albanians who underachieve at school.
Melzak says: "It is shocking that professionals can be so blind when working with children. There is a lack of support, supervision and training of social workers. The country is xenophobic and there are a large proportion of people who dehumanise these children."
She adds: "I have spoken to many adults who arrived in Britain as refugees after the Second World War, who had been in camps like Belsen. They say, 'what was missing in the way they were treated was love.'" That hasn't changed.
Rosie Whitehouse is a freelance journalist based in London
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