Posted: 30 January 2013

Working with vulnerable and often forgotten families in the asylum system

Today’s report by the parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people presents evidence of the appalling poverty and rejection faced by children and families. Sadly, the cases described in the report remind me of people who I know from my seven years supporting refugee and asylum-seeking families in Leeds.

One woman I work with may have been trafficked into the UK. She has four children and suffers from depression. She regularly misses meals to provide for her children. 

I supported another mother and her three children, two of whom have a disability. They were not able to pay for transport to attend hospital appointments and could not afford resources that would help in their children’s development. 

Just last week, I received two more referrals - one family is about to be made homeless.

Asylum seekers in Leeds

In 2008, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust published a survey showing that over a four-week period, 331 people in Leeds, including 51 children, were destitute. Most of them were asylum seekers who cannot return home to their countries, places like Zimbabwe, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq. 

At our LEAP programme, we support young refugees and asylum-seekers by advocating for families in the asylum process, advising them and giving practical help so they can access services such as counselling and legal aid.

As part of the inquiry, a young person called Riyya, who I have worked with, gave evidence to this parliamentary inquiry

Having supported Riyya and her family for five years I wanted to tell you all a little about what they have been through.

Riyya’s story

As an 11-year-old fleeing persecution with her disabled mother, Riyya’s rights as a child were never promoted but instead were undermined. She and her mum were housed in a flat, which was not adapted to her mother's disability.

They were placed in one of the most deprived areas of the city, where Riyya was targeted by older men and drug users. Her mother was unable to protect her. The flat was infested with rats. Riyya and her mum sought protection and support from social services, but were turned away several times. They were even turned away from GPs. They faced prejudice and discrimination because they were asylum seekers. 

I think the level of poverty the family was in, the continuous rejection and hostility pushed the family to its limits. At times Riyya wanted to end her life. Likewise, her mother wanted to end her life and leave her daughter in our care because she felt responsible for the suffering she went through. 

This made me think, What sort of system allows a young child to feel so desperate that she would consider that her life is not worth living anymore when it is just beginning?

Highlighting vulnerable families’ plight

Riyya and her mother are doing much better now, but sadly, many other children and families are still struggling.

It is very important that the report has highlighted the plight of these vulnerable and often forgotten families. I hope that the government listens to their recommendations.

The recommendations in this report must be acted upon so that children can have a decent start in life.

By Abdou Sidibe - Programme staff

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