“I never imagined the hardest part of my journey as a refugee would be having nowhere in London. To have no one here. It was easier in the snow in Calais.”
Over the past 16 months we’ve all gained a wider perspective of the importance of communities we live, work and grow in. We’ve gained a new appreciation of home and hopefully a better picture of how difficult it must be to not feel safe, fulfilled and included in your home. The young people we see and speak to every day understand this deeply and not all of them have left a home in London. Many come from across Great Britain, and some from further afield, all with the hope of finding something better. Refugees and asylum seekers have always formed a distinct and significant portion of the young people we support and with Refugee Week 2021’s theme being ‘We Cannot Walk Alone’, we’re looking at the stories of the young refugees we walk alongside.
When we are speaking about young refugees and asylum-seekers we’re referring to anyone under the age of 25 who has left their country of birth and come to the UK to escape an unsafe or oppressive situation. Many of these people walk through our doors with little more than what they are carrying, they might not speak English well and have very little information on where and how they can get support. They are afraid and traumatised, as any of us would be if we had been forced to leave everything we know and love at that age. Last year 121 refugees and asylum seekers sought our help: 17% were female, 83% male and over 70% identified as black. 43% needed urgent support around their emotional or mental health and 21% had physical health needs. 63% were sleeping rough, 40% of which had been sleeping rough for more than a month, with 9% having been street homeless for over a year. All of them were extremely vulnerable to harm and exploitation.
Not everyone had fled their country. Some were born in Britain and upon turning 18 faced the shock of discovering they are not legally British. This may be because their parents didn’t have a clear legal status themselves or didn’t have the means to navigate the complex and expensive migration system to regulate their child’s status. This also happens with a lot of children who have been ‘looked after’ by their local authority, who are then failed in the process.
We walked alongside every one of these young people. We helped them to access emergency housing, get clothing and food, receive mental health support, financial skills training, learn or improve their English and work towards employment. Our frontline teams hear a lot of the same things coming up from the young refugees and asylum seekers they support, the main being the overwhelming sense of disappointment and betrayal. These young people left their homes due to unspeakably difficult circumstances to come here in the belief of something better, only to find confusion and for more than half, no other option than sleeping on the streets. Most are holding an enormous amount of trauma, not just from their own experiences but also those of their loved ones, many of whom are still back in their homeland.
As one member of staff shared “There is a mismatch between a felt sense of belonging and immigration status that can feel very painful and something akin to being thrown out of the family home. It is the same question we all face at this age “Where do I belong?” We believe they belong here, we believe that London has space for all who choose to make it their home and we believe that everyone has a right to a safe home.
These young people are going through things no one should have to experience, at a point in their lives that should be focused on exploration, expansion and freedom. We’ve never had a greater need and understanding of community and rather than strengthening our commitment to all young people, we’re seeing an increase in policies that have created what the homelessness sector is calling a ‘hostile environment’ for refugees and asylum seekers. We don’t demonise or abandon young refugees and asylum seekers. We refuse to let them walk alone. So this Refugee Week we’re asking our team, community and partners to take a step closer. How can we support these young people in the same way others did for us at this crucial transformative period in our lives? How can we do better by every young person, no matter where they were born?
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