In November 2013, the story of Yonas and Abiy Admasu Kebede hit the front pages of national and local press in the North East of England. The two brothers had recently left care in Newcastle, having arrived in Britain nearly 10 years ago from Ethiopia seeking asylum.
In July the Court of Appeal decided that Newcastle City Council should offer loans to the two young men to continue into higher education. Yonas is using the loan to cover flying lessons before hopefully taking a degree in aviation at Kingston University (the cheapest option for such a career path) and Abiy is enrolled on a degree at Manchester Metropolitan. The portrayal of this decision in the press was dominated by claims of wasted taxpayers’ money. The national Daily Mail ran with ‘Taxpayers' £10,000 bill to teach failed asylum seeker to fly’, while the Newcastle based Chronicle went with: ‘Tyneside taxpayer money paying for Ethiopian flying lessons’.
Yonas and Abiy were taken into foster care in Newcastle after they became separated from their family. Granted discretionary leave to remain until 2014, over the course of this year they will be entitled to apply for permanent residence. Unaccompanied refugee and asylum seeking children account for around 10% of all children in care in the UK and ‘discretionary leave’ is the status accorded to many.
A growing number of higher educational establishments are being heralded as ‘equal access’ universities for students like Yonas and Abiy who have sought asylum in Britain; Exeter University is the latest to join the ranks celebrated by organisations including the National Union of Students this academic year.
So what turned a story of two young men achieving considerable educational success against enormous odds into front-page news laced with pejorative narratives of desert? Surely this decision should be celebrated as a victory for access to higher education and better futures for those concerned? This was the argument put forward in an open letter signed by 87 academics, researchers and refugee support organisations at the end of last year.
The case is illustrative of a number of pressing issues: firstly the continuing negative treatment of those identified as asylum seekers and refugees in Britain; secondly evidence of a legal and educational system which is failing to meet the needs of some of the most disadvantaged young people; and thirdly the continuing absence of the voices of those subjected to routinized suspicion.
Examples of aggressions directed towards asylum seekers and refugees are not hard to find. From the overt street based Islamophobia and racism of the English Defence League to the Conservative Party by-election candidate openly claiming ‘I don't care about refugees’, let us not be fooled by the UK Independence Party’s latest volte-face calling for Britain to welcome Syrian refugees: hostility is rife.
The drip-drip of negatively framed daily reports in the most widely read newspapers has also re-produced a figure of hate. These include misrepresentations of migration figures and the asylum process, a conflation of terminology around the status of migrants, the scapegoating of those seeking sanctuary and the invention of entirely fictitious stories. Such portrayals are common and have fed the anxieties of a public with limited knowledge of asylum issues.
Despite the determination and aspirations of young people in their situation, Yonas and Abiy were disadvantaged in a number of ways. As care leavers, as asylum seekers with discretionary leave to remain and as young black men there were, and still are, many hurdles to overcome.
Failures of the educational system
Researchers at Northumbria University have shown that care leavers in the North East are at particular risk of homelessness, drug addiction and poverty, evidenced by an over-representation of care leavers in their study sample of homeless people. The introduction of higher education tuition fees in 1998, with the cap on how much institutions can charge removed in 2012, has put increasing financial burdens on those from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to research commissioned by the Buttle UK children’s charity, only 6% of care leavers in England are in Higher Education by the time they turn 19, compared to 33% of the general population.
For asylum seekers in England and Wales, there is the double burden of a legal framework which prohibits the right to work, as well as being classed as international rather than home students, thus resulting in higher tuition bills. International undergraduate students at Kingston University for example are charged up to £12,350 per year while home students are charged up to £9,000. For prospective students in England with discretionary leave to remain, they now also (since 2011) have been disqualified from home student status, as well as excluded from a low interest student loan available to other home students.
While charities such as Save the Children and the Helena Kennedy Foundation and some Universities provide bursaries to students in such situations, these are limited in number and rely on the good will of a small group of institutions and the campaigning work of networks such as Student Action for Refugees. In addition to these hurdles, the Refugee Support Network point to a number of other barriers including delayed eligibility for support, immigration controls, inadequate advice and English language ability.
Research nationally has shown that even those refugees who secure permanent leave to remain, as Yonas and Abiy hope to do this year, suffer disproportionately high levels of unemployment and insecure and exploitative employment. Research by the Universities of Leeds and Salford has shown how asylum seekers and refugees in Britain, not protected by existing legal frameworks, are frequently subject to severely exploitative labour, including forced labour, in order to meet the basic needs of themselves and their families.
In this context, the court ruled that Newcastle City Council's continuing duties toward young people leaving its care should extend to supporting the costs of their education. As the appeal judge pointed out, it was extremely unlikely that a young person leaving care would have the resources to pay for higher education, and as a result of their immigration status Yonas and Abiy were prevented from accessing the same support available to other students. To deny them this support would deny them an education, and would undermine their opportunities to gain employment, to support themselves, and to contribute to society.
What is absent from the media coverage of this story, as for so many others, are the voices of the individuals themselves. The figure of the ‘failed’ asylum seeker often employed in such coverage is grossly misleading, but it is also powerful in creating abstract strangers deemed to be a threat to public resources and national identity. One way in which these inaccurate and de-humanising ideas can be challenged is through the powerful stories of the young people themselves, and in this spirit Emily Dugan's article 'Giving the other side...' provides an important corrective, from the perspective of Yonas, a young man who has grown up in the UK and ‘feels British’ but is shocked by the prominence and tone of recent reports.
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that ‘everyone has the right to education’; indeed it is vital for the exercise of all human rights. The denial of home student status to young people with discretionary leave to remain is an injustice, and compounds the stress and uncertainty they face rebuilding their lives without knowing if they will face deportation once their discretionary leave expires, to a country they left as children.
The UK All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Race and Community has launched an inquiry on Race and Higher Education, the deadline for submissions for which is 17 January 2014. This inquiry offers an important moment to present this case for individuals like Yonas, Abiy and countless other talented individuals across the UK. Universities have a key role to play in their decisions over whether to grant home status, but most importantly, greater pressure needs to be applied in the build-up to the general election of 2015 to reverse the national policy changes made in 2011. We need to adopt a much less hostile approach more generally towards those who have a right to education and to contribute, but whose successes are seen as a threat rather than a source of pride.