Young people at Shpresa Monday evening dance class, Forest Gate, London (Simon Parker)
“The first night I arrived at the foster carer’s she told me to prepare my food and then go and eat in my room,” Loran says.
“I was stressed as I was not good at cooking and it is very strange in Albania to tell people to eat alone. She was watching me and she told me to clean up as I made the food and I could not find the cloth to clean. I chewed and chewed but the food would not go down. I did not eat that night.”
Loran is talking to staff and volunteers from a refugee charity in York. He’s helping to train people who work with “unaccompanied minors” — child refugees who’ve come to this country without any adult relatives to care for them.
I first met Loran one sunny Saturday at Shpresa Programme, a registered charity run by and for women from the Albanian community, initially founded to help refugees from the Balkan conflicts to help themselves. Shpresa volunteers set up a Saturday drop-in for unaccompanied children from Albania who were struggling to help themselves.
His hands were often sore from long days cultivating the harvest. And the beatings.
Loran had been referred by his social worker. I took his statement. Back in Albania a crime gang had forced him to tend cannabis plants on a huge farm. He slept in a shed with a corrugated iron roof. Dogs licked his hands. He says this was comforting. His hands were often sore from the long days cultivating the harvest. And from the beatings.
Loud noises, sudden movements frighten Loran. It’s hard for him to tell his story. He tries to talk about the beatings, hesitates. His eyes twitch. He speaks of his escape from the cannabis farm. Pauses. Twitches.
Sometimes, when a boy cries, I might put an arm around him, hold his hand. Physical contact makes Loran flinch. That first session, Loran tells me he doesn’t need our help, he’s fine. He wants to help us. He trains professionals and welcomes new youngsters referred to the service. He says he can look after himself.
Loran was unlucky with his foster carers. Others call Shpresa to ask how they can best support the children in their care. Children as young as 11, who have night terrors and panic attacks, children who disassociate as they talk about the violence they have witnessed and been subjected to.
That Saturday, when Loran leaves, I walk out into the crowded, open plan office where boys and some girls may wait for hours to see volunteers who will try to find them a lawyer, refer them to the Red Cross for help in tracing family members, reassure them that they are not alone, try to guide them through the Kafkaesque UK asylum system.
At a Shpresa gathering (Simon Parker)
Some of these children have no lawyer when they come to us. Some have fallen into the hands of caseworkers who do shoddy work. We’ve seen pro-forma statements sent to the Home Office bearing the wrong country of origin. It takes care, time and skill to take a statement from a child who may be frightened and distrustful.
“My solicitor was kind,” Ilir says. “She told me what I said would not get back to Albania and she took time but I had not met a solicitor before… I did not know what she was going to do. There was an interpreter there and I thought she might speak to people back in Albania. She was actually really kind too but I did not know that then. At the first meeting, I was not relaxed.”
Ilir is reed thin, with a cheeky, disarming smile. He has waited three hours to see us. I apologise. He shakes my hand warmly, tells me to stop apologising. He’s thankful, makes us smile, jokes even about his homelessness and how his few belongings are scattered with friends across London.
He charms all the staff and volunteers — you hear happy laughter as he moves from room to room. Like Loran, Ilir was forced to work for a drugs gang. He waited nearly two years for a Home Office decision, and then it was a No. Any day now, he might get forcibly removed to Albania.
He claims not to think about it, not to care.
Ilir was forced to work for a drugs gang. He waited nearly two years for a Home Office decision. It was a No.
Then he tells me about the phone call from his cousin back in Albania saying men came looking for him. They had AK47s. Since Ilir wasn’t there, they tied up his sister. To stop her screaming they put a cloth in her mouth. “I am not upset for me,” he says quietly, “It is for her. I should be able to protect her.”
We didn't see Fation that Saturday. Fation is great at mechanics, loves volunteering, refurbishing old bikes. A while ago I asked him what he’d do if could stay in the UK. “My dream is to get a job in a garage and volunteer at Shpresa Programme,” he said. Fation, deaf in one ear from his father’s beatings, feared his father would kill him if he was returned to Albania. But the Home Office denied him asylum and his appeal was dismissed. We think he’s in Albania now. We haven’t heard from him.
That sunny Saturday we saw 13 victims of trafficking, violence or blood feuds. At 6.30pm we divided up the tasks, discussed who was the most vulnerable, whose case to put first on Monday morning. One boy had talked of suicide. We were quiet as we packed up ready for home.
Local authorities have a duty to protect and support highly vulnerable children like Loran. The UK government acknowledges that unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery, including trafficking, often have complex needs.
There’s a system for identifying and protecting victims of trafficking, known as the National Referral Mechanism. It’s supposed to quickly gather information from various agencies, identify trafficked children, keep them safe.
But the system isn’t working for Albanian children.
In 2016, of 229 unaccompanied children from Albania who received an initial decision on their asylum claim, only two were granted refugee status, according to the Refugee Council report, Children in the Asylum System 2017. The year before the figure was one.
One girl had been waiting more than 24 months for a Home Office decision. A lawyer told her: “You are from Albania, what do you expect? You’ll be waiting years.”
Even among professionals whose job it is to protect vulnerable children — lawyers, teachers and social workers — there’s a common assumption that Albania is a safe country, that these children are economic migrants.
But this does not match the facts. Of the 3,805 potential victims of trafficking referrals to the National Referral Mechanism in 2016, 699, the largest number, came from Albania, according to the National Crime Agency.
Young people from Shpresa learn outdoor skills with Shawfire CIC in Croydon (Simon Parker)
Albanian children are fleeing trafficking, violence and blood feuds, a post-communist phenomenon that draws on medieval Kanun law, and demands revenge killings to salvage family honour. While the Home Office claims these feuds are “few and in sharp decline” the European parliament reports rising numbers. Even the Albanian parliament admits that its efforts to prevent blood feuds have not succeeded.
The result is boys marked out to be killed when they reach 16.
The boy who talked of suicide that sunny Saturday had fled a blood feud. He saw his uncle shot in front of him. He wet the bed every night.
His appeal has been dismissed. The Home Office says the Albanian state will protect him. We could not find him a lawyer. We’ve tried calling his mobile. It just rings out.
Young people from Shpresa will talk about their experiences of the UK government’s hostile environment at ‘Breaking the Chains’, an event hosted by the Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP Houses of Parliament on Friday, 1 June 2018 from 1-5pm. The Migrant and Refugee Children’s Legal Unit and Shpresa Programme will bring together Shpresa’s young people with legal professionals and others who support young Albanians, with expert speakers on blood feuds, representing trafficking victims, strategic litigation, child-centred case work, and country of origin research.To register please visit Eventbright.
Young peoples names have been changed. Edited by Clare Sambrook for Shine A Light.