'After I turned 18, everything changed'
Last Friday, we organised an event in the Houses of Parliament to bring together a group of young people, aged 17-22, and the Earl of Listowel, a peer in the House of Lords, who has long campaigned for the welfare of young refugees and care leavers.
The meeting gave six young people a chance to talk to Lord Listowel about what life is like for them being alone in the UK, and what it means to have their support from local authorities withdrawn because of immigration law.
Currently under law, young asylum seekers – who are not allowed to work – may end up without any financial support, access to education or health care after they turn 18. For some this means having to sleep rough or sofa-surf, to beg or borrow money in order to survive. Some young people may also be prevented from attending college or receiving important medical treatment or vital counselling services.
Young people’s stories of losing support
The young people who met Lord Listowel fled persecution or abuse in their home countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Angola – and sought safety in the UK.
Although each young person’s story is different, they shared the common experience of feeling abandoned by those who are supposed to support them, including their social workers.
Vanessa* spoke of how she had been presented with a bill from the NHS for over £1000 after she was in hospital following a medical emergency. But her social workers didn’t want to help her even though she was in their care and she didn’t have any money to pay.
Robert* explained how his social worker contacted a trauma care service that had been supporting him and told them to stop his counselling sessions.
Tom* told us that he had successfully secured a place at four universities, but was unable to accept any of them as he is not entitled to a student loan and the local authority - which serves as his 'corporate parent' - wasn’t willing to help him.
Impact of immigration law on care leavers
Children leaving care in the UK have the right to receive continuing support until they are at least 21 years old, or until 25 if they are in education. But under immigration law local authorities can withhold or withdraw support from young people based on their immigration status.
This is often the case for young people classified as 'appeal rights exhausted' - meaning they have run out of options in their asylum case and are considered 'unlawfully in the UK' - when they turn 18. Even though local authorities have a responsibility to continue to provide accommodation to these young people if their welfare requires this and shouldn’t rely on Home Office support, in practice there is still a great deal of confusion and uncertainty between how immigration law and child welfare law fit together. The result is that these vulnerable young people are left at risk and in limbo.
Many young people in this situation have been in the UK on their own for many years. They came here as children, escaping persecution and exploitation in their home country, or were separated from their families for other reasons. They ended up in the care of local authorities and in many cases they have no family or lasting connections in their home country. By the time they are ready to leave care, many will have spent years in the UK and consider this their home.
We and other charities of the Refugee Children’s Consortium have been campaigning to make sure that all care leavers get the support they need, no matter what their immigration status is and calling on government to change its policy to make sure that no young person is left destitute and homeless in this country. (Our briefing document explains more about how this policy affects care leavers.)
'What's going to happen tomorrow?'
Today, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Dr Maggie Atkinson, is publishing a report on this issue called 'What’s going to happen tomorrow?': Unaccompanied children refused asylum.
The report's research is based on interviews with young people who arrived in the UK as unaccompanied children seeking asylum, and with professionals who work with them. The report echoes our own recommendations to reform the issue of support for care leavers, ultimately to make sure that they are not left destitute.
* Young people's names have been changed to protect their privacy.