Successful asylum seekers need more help to culturally adjustby Ismail Einashe / October 27, 2015 / Leave a comment
Demonstrators march in support of refugees in September (© SEE LI / NEWZULU/PA Images) I was nine years old when I first arrived in London from Addis Ababa. I felt a rush of excitement boarding a train that looked to me like a giant bullet with eyes. My first few days in Britain were spent in Bloomsbury. I stayed with family in a council flat opposite the British Museum. Most days I would stare out of a window at a Pizza Express marvelling at people eating pizza. It was Christmas 1994, and I ran into Russell Square and for the first time felt snowflakes on my fingers. I knew virtually nothing about the place I had escaped to from the Somali civil war. I spoke no English except “hello,” “good” and “thank you.” Coming to Britain as a child refugee was not easy. Nothing prepared me for the months spent at a dingy hostel in Camden Road with other refugees and asylum seekers—Kosovans, Bosnians, Kurds. Though, like me, they were mostly Muslim, their habits were very different to ours; the Kosovans liked to drink vodka. The months passed, and we got a house in Colindale, North London. At school an assistant teacher from a family of post-war Jewish refugees taught me English. For many refugees gaining asylum is a long and arduous journey. Most in Britain do not come under the UNHCR resettlement programme but arrive in the country and then claim asylum. Britain prefers receiving refugees through official channels: candidates for resettlement in Britain have to be classified by the UNHCR in camps and are selected on humanitarian or security needs—then the Home Office makes a decision of who to accept. Under a similar scheme the government has committed to take in 20,000 refugees from Syria over five years. But this 20,000 figure cloaks the government’s true intent, which is to avoid taking its fair share of the burden of the refugee crisis in Europe. In 2014 Britain received 25,000 applications, which is far less than its European counterparts—in Germany the figure was 166,800, in Sweden 81,300 and in France 63,100. Of the applications received 38 per cent of people applying were granted asylum and allowed to stay. The majority were refused, initially at least, because it’s difficult for people to provide the evidence to meet the strict criteria to be a refugee. Even when some asylum seekers get refugee status their lives don’t immediately improve, according to Andrew Lawton of the Refugee Council. He told me that there’s a psychological fallout because it dawns on them that they won’t return home and they’ll need now make their own way in British society. Most refugees come on boats via the Mediterranean and eventually on trucks across the English Channel. One such refugee is Simon, a child refugee from Eritrea who told me his story. Simon embarked on a dangerous journey at the age of 15. He was fleeing enforced national conscription in one of the most secretive regimes in the world. (Eritrea is known as Africa’s North Korea.) His journey took in Sudan via a spell in a notorious prison at Kufra in Libya where he was beaten before he reached Tripoli. After paying $1,000, he set out on a perilous journey with 29 others in a boat sailed by two Nigerians. Four hours out of Tripoli they encountered problems and the boat almost sunk in the cold night. Water started seeping in, women began screaming. He spent the night using water bottles to empty the boat. It was enough to buy them time to be rescued by the Maltese. He was taken to a detention centre in Malta. But since the authorities knew refugees have little interest in staying on the island he was let go. He slipped back into the smuggling conveyer belt of Europe. An uncle in America sent him money to get to the south of France. He reached Calais where he lived in the “jungle city” waiting for his turn to get into Britain. The journey so far had taken him a year. He was now 16. He waited night after night for trucks with GB licence plates. Eventually he made the attempt but was caught and put in detention for two nights. He was released and the French guards on his way out joked “try your luck tomorrow.” He succeeded on his second attempt. “Somehow I ended up in Kensington,” he says. “Police asked me my age and took me somewhere.” As a minor he was taken to the council’s social services. He was placed into foster care with an Eritrean family for two years but during his A Levels the authorities tried to return him to Malta because of the Dublin Convention, which says that the state through which the asylum seeker first entered the EU is held responsible for examining the claim to asylum. Simon’s life was thrown into chaos. But he appealed and got status as a refugee. Simon now recognises that he was “lucky to get into foster care and go to university to study maths and economics.” This opportunity gave him a chance to excel in Britain. He adds that “it was a good time to come when I did ; now it’s much harder to study, to integrate into society, I now work with other young Eritreans and there’s less hope for them today.” The truth is the system does not help refugees once they get into the country. Those who are lucky enough to get refugee status get a 28-day notice period before formal support is withdrawn. But without financial support to ease them into British life, many fall through the cracks. According to Lawton, it is “impossible to deal with all the issues within a 28-day period.” It takes time to apply for a National Insurance number, to open a bank account, to apply for job-seekers allowance—navigating through a complex system is more than many shattered refugees can handle. In the end many in London and the large cities end up on the margins with no ID, no money, no housing and worst of all no English. Rather than enable refugees to take English classes, the state is left paying for translators. The result is the asylum system ends up forcing people to become homeless and destitute. Ne Kunda Nbala, a Congolese filmmaker, fled because of political threats at home. He told me: “I was very depressed, I left my family behind, a successful career.” He says that the Home Office treated him like a suspect; they claimed he was pretending to be someone he was not. While his application was being processed he was not allowed to work, claim any benefits or study. This took three years. Eventually, he won his case and he got refugee status in 2011. But, he said, “getting refugee status is not the end of a journey, but a start of a new one, you’re suddenly at the bottom of the pile—you don’t have the recognised qualifications or social networks”. The refugee sector has been hit hard by government cuts. The government shut down the Refugee Integration and Employment Service (RIES) in 2011, which now means there’s now no statutory funding in Britain to support refugees to integrate. RIES provided support for 12 to 18 months depending on need; there was also a mentoring element. Such intervention could be cost-effective in the long terms. According to Lawton, “migrants often follow a planned route but forced migration means people leave without documents, they don’t know where they are coming to.” Now integration loans are capped at £500, which in London where most refugees end up is nowhere near enough for private rented accommodation. Another key area is employment. Lawton says that “refugees can make a vast contribution, support them to a point of them being financially independent.” We don’t harness the potential of refugees from countries like Syria, Iran and Congo; many are engineers, doctors, and lawyers. Yet most refugees end up down-skilling: it’s a waste of human talent and a potential source of taxes. Simon was lucky: his age protected him from a lifetime of low-skilled employment. He has gone on to study economics and maths at a leading university. “I will pay in tax more than what I got from the system,” he said. If the right framework is in place they can excel. For this to work refugees need to learn English. English classes should be provided along with “welcome to Britain” packs. These would be UK familiarisation courses run in conjunction with employment support schemes. A humane dispersal policy should be enforced—spreading the burden from major urban areas. We must avoid dumping refugees in pre-existing zones of poverty in the inner cities; this only stores up social problems for later. The government has announced a Minister for Syrian refugees, but his mandate is not clear yet. And it’s problematic that the focus is solely on Syrian refugees—what of Eritreans, Iraqis and Somalis? Britain has a history of letting refugees in and many of them have been a success. We should harness the experience of refugee communities like East African Asians and Jews, some of the most successful groups in Britain, to mentor the new generation of refugees. Also by Ismail Einasche: Who is the real Jihadi John?