Dilagha is worried about his future and his missing family (Helen Taylor)
Imagine a boy of 13. Not a small child, but certainly nowhere near an adult. He could be your son or your brother. Now imagine that the unthinkable happens. His father is murdered. The attackers say they will come back for him. Someone in the family, an uncle maybe, finds the money to spirit the boy away. A journey of unfathomable hardship and danger follows. After four months he tumbles out of a lorry into England. But he doesn’t know it’s England. He finds himself in front of officials and tries to tell his story.
“Social Services said to me, ‘Why did you come here?’ I said: I wish this had not happened to me, not happened to my family… I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be crying in front of you. I shouldn’t be depressed, stressed about my family, about the situation… I didn’t even know I was going to come here… Why did I cross these mountains? Why did I cross lots of countries to come here? Because I didn’t want people to kill me. I came for asylum, to save my life here, to enjoy my life here, to make some friends.”
This is Dilagha’s story. We meet at the office of Migrant Welcome, a small organisation in south east London helping young asylum seekers. Dilagha’s father, a Taliban commander, was shot dead at their home in Afghanistan by men working for the government. The government and the Taliban then came for Dilagha. His family paid an agent and he fled the country, with no idea where he was going. “I remember walking in the mountain for three and a half days. I didn’t eat any food, any drink,” he tells me. “And I was on the axle under a lorry. I was there for 40 hours.” Sometimes he was travelling with 30 people from different countries, sometimes 200, at times alone with an agent.
Dilagha was given Discretionary Leave to Remain when he arrived in the UK and placed in foster care. Most unaccompanied minors – a curious term which does nothing to convey the vulnerability and desperation of young people seeking asylum alone – are given permission to stay for three years or until they reach 17 ½, whichever is the shortest. In granting this concession, the UK is adhering to international law, which prohibits the return of children unless there are adequate reception facilities in their country of origin.
But when Discretionary Leave runs out, this protection ends – unless a claim for asylum has been successful. In 2013, the refusal rate for asylum decisions for unaccompanied children reaching 18 was 70 per cent. This means that teenagers who have spent their formative years in the UK and often don’t know where their family are, face either deportation or remaining in the country with undetermined or unlawful status.
This is the situation now for many young asylum seekers in the UK, a large proportion of them from Afghanistan, the top country of origin for unaccompanied children for much of the past decade. Concerned about the limited care offered to them, the office of the Children’s Commissioner for England recently called for the protection of unaccompanied children to be extended to the age of 21, or 25 for those in higher education, so that they are treated in the same way as other children leaving care.
Dilagha is now a quiet and reserved 19 year old living in a shared house. He has a passion for cricket and thinks he might like to work for the government or join the police. But his Leave to Remain expired two years ago and he has been without status ever since. He has no idea when his case will be heard and what the outcome will be. He is constantly fearful.
“If they send me back, there is no point. I know they are going to kill me. Government or Taliban. And where can I go there? Where am I going to find my family?” Dilagha has had no contact with his family since he left. The Red Cross has also searched for them and found nobody. He worries about them all the time. “Maybe they move to a different country. Or maybe the government or Taliban already threatened them. Or maybe they killed them.”
Dilagha’s precarious situation in the UK was made worse because his age was disputed by the authorities. Social workers checked the size of his feet for clues. Doctors tutted when he grew much bigger during his first year in the country. His ability to recall the details of his terrible journey made them doubt him. “They say: Because you still remember your story, you are 16. I say: I still remember my story because it happened to me. This is my reality.”
The Home Office officially raised his age by two years, only to later accept that he had indeed been 14 when he arrived. In the meantime Dilagha missed out on school, denied his right to education under British and international law. His halting English was learned in college ESOL classes, rather than alongside English-speaking children at school.
Like Dilagha, Bilal also arrived in the UK alone at 13. His father, a businessman dealing with US companies, was kidnapped by the Taliban who then threatened to kidnap Bilal. Bilal looks and sounds like a London teenager, with his baseball cap and baggy jeans. He and his friends go bowling and to the cinema, “just like we are family”, he tells me.
Bilal had Discretionary Leave to Remain from the time he arrived until he was 16. Then he applied for asylum and heard nothing for two years, when his claim was refused. “I think they don’t believe me," he says, “I’ve even got proof and everything.”
He sees himself as “more English” now and can’t imagine returning to Afghanistan. “I kind of grew up in this country,” he tells me. “I’ve been in school, I’ve got friends here. I haven’t got no-one back in my country now. I don’t even know where my family is.” He has the words ‘Family First’ tattooed on his hands – a form of self-expression, he points out, forbidden in Afghanistan. “It’s not allowed there. They would chop hands and that.”
His anxiety is understandable. A recent report for the UNHCR, on the predicament of young Afghan asylum seekers in the UK, noted that some were being forcibly returned to a situation of danger, and most would face difficulties with cultural reintegration, mental health issues and a lack of employment if they went back to the country.
After he left his country Bilal kept up contact with his family. Then, three years ago, he got a phone call from a social worker to tell him that his younger brother had arrived in the UK with severe burns. The family house in Afghanistan had been set alight and his family disappeared. He doesn’t know what happened to them and is too scared to probe his brother for details. “He’s only 13 and he’s already got nightmares,” Bilal explains. “He keeps changing foster care because no-one can look after him.” His brother’s presence in the country does not appear to have been considered during Bilal’s asylum claim.
Bilal lives in fear of being returned to Afghanistan. I ask him what he wants people to know about his situation. He answers quietly, “If I was safe there, I wouldn’t be here. If my family was there, I wouldn’t be here.” He suddenly seems much younger: “I see people walking around with their mum and dad and I can’t even talk to my family. It hurts so much but people don’t understand.”
Ghulam fears he will be killed if returned to Afghanistan (Helen Taylor)Ghulam is another Afghani teenager who fears removal from the UK. A member of the persecuted Hazara minority, he fled when his father was forced to join the Taliban and a rocket was fired at their house. His journey to the UK took a staggering seven months. Like the others, he was given three and a half years Leave to Remain and placed in foster care.
Three months before turning 18 he submitted his claim for asylum, but a year later was refused. His appeal has been rejected. Ghulam is devastated: “I feel very emotional. I feel upset. I’ve been living here nearly five years. I feel I’m a part of this community. I grew up here in London.”
Like the other young men, Ghulam is poised between two possible futures. One in which he sees himself going to university and becoming an engineer, working to “find a good job and a good life”. The other, return to a country that has become unfamiliar and remains dangerous. “If I go back to Afghanistan they will kill me,” he says. He has had no contact with his family since he left and the Red Cross have been unable to find them.
While he waits for the Home Office’s next move, Ghulam continues to go to college and continues to worry. “Sometimes my friends they’re playing football and they don’t care about anything. And I look at myself, the situation I am in and I feel like a stranger. Sometimes I tell my story to my friends and they are shocked. They say, how can you manage these things?”
No amount of political rhetoric about ‘floodgates’ and ‘bogus asylum seekers’ can detract from the reality that these were children who were prepared to walk across mountains and hide under lorries, to leave their families behind, so that they would be safe.
For Dilagha, that safety still hangs in the balance: “If the Home Office refuse and say I have to go back, that is going to be my last day in the world. If the Home Office give me status, I’m just going to think I’m born again.”