Lime Legal

No place for a child

Published 01 January 2024

Phil Frampton investigates the plight of asylum seeker children left homeless and destitute because they can’t prove they are under-18.

The last time Bahman Mohammadi saw his mother, he was about to be arrested by the Iranian secret police, the Eta’laat. He was just 14 and had refused to act as an Eta’laat spy because he knew the people he told them about would be targets for torture and assassination. And they were Kurds like him.

‘I left home after dark. Arrangements were made to get me out of Iran and I was on my way to meet the mafia man who arranged for people to be smuggled out of the country and into Europe,’ Bahman said.

After crossing Turkey in the back of a van, he was brought to England by people traffickers, hidden for three days with a group of other asylum seekers behind crates in a truck, and then smuggled across the Channel in another lorry. He was let out of the lorry in Leicester and arrested at a petrol station.

He was interviewed by immigration officers, but they refused to believe he was only 14. He was counted as an 18-year-old and sent to live with other asylum seekers in Lancashire.

I spoke to Bahman on the day after his 16th birthday. He was in tears as he finished telling the story of his epic journey, struggling to survive without his family. He fled Iran and has faced homelessness, a collapse in his physical and mental health, and loneliness.

And his position isn’t unique – his plight is shared by thousands of unaccompanied asylum seeker children who are left homeless and destitute every year because they cannot prove that they are under-18.

Forty-five per cent of unaccompanied children applying for asylum are deemed to be ‘age disputed’ – that is, their status is disputed and they are denied proper support from social services. Officially the government insists that child applicants should be given the benefit of the doubt, but children’s commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, has stated that this is frequently not the case.

Last year a report by the Centre for Migration Policy Research slammed the system of age assessment as surrounded by a climate of official disbelief and cynicism, inadequate Home Office procedures, poor training of social workers and penny-pinching.

Terry Smith, an assistant programme director at Save the Children, has worked with unaccompanied young asylum seekers and refugees for many years. He comments: ‘Now and then we have had young people turning up at our door who are effectively homeless. Sometimes they appear to be under 18. There are times when local authorities dispute responsibility for them leaving them in limbo on the streets. On occasion, young people have even been sent to spend the night in police stations.

‘Anyone who has worked with young people knows that assessing precise ages is extremely difficult, often becoming a matter of personal judgements by social workers and others. The problem lies in the assessment and how we deal with it. Because there are concessions for asylum seekers who are children, and because dealing with younger asylum seekers is likely to cost the government and local authorities more than adults, there’s intense pressure to deny asylum seekers’ age claims unless they can give some form of verification.’

Smith adds: ‘There are even Kafkaesque situations where the immigration authorities initially declare a young person to be a minor but later social services decide that the young person is over 18. In this situation children can be denied support by the local authority but are also refused adult provision because their official papers report them as being minors.’

But Smith believes there is a humanitarian solution. ‘We need a system that will accept uncertainty, and errs on the side of not putting a child at risk,’ he says. ‘We need the benefit of the doubt to go with the young person and to stop demonising them. It often seems that we are treating that young person as deliberately trying to cheat benefits from the system.’

Social workers are pressured by managers to consider the budget implications of ‘generous’ age assessments. Given the uncertainties, many social workers object that this pressure can be prejudicial to the care of the child. Smith argues that age assessment must be taken out of the hands of social workers and immigration officers: ‘Age assessment should be carried out by trained professionals who are independent of the service providers and freed to assess the needs of the asylum seeker rather than the needs of the providers.’

Meanwhile, thousands of vulnerable young people cannot plan for their future. Katharine Bird at Manchester’s Young Refugee Resettlement Service says: ‘More than 80 per cent will be denied asylum, yet it will be deemed unsafe for them to return to their country. The levels of anxiety and stress are incredible. What’s the point of working hard or going to college when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring?’

Some, she says, simply disappear from the system, becoming destitute or resorting to crime.

Government ministers declare that immigration benefits the economy. It makes no economic sense to leave these young lives wasting away when they could be learning, training, being productive and making a contribution to society.

Bahman Mohammadi recounts the journey that took him from his family in Iran to the streets of Northern England

‘There were seven of us trudging through the dark in Iran. A van came. We were ordered in and driven off, but soon we were back on foot. Sometimes the mafia man ordered us to hide to avoid being seen by the police, occasionally he just said: “Run!” I was frightened. We slept in forests in the mountains. For four days we travelled like this, hardly washing or eating, scared and weary.

‘When we crossed the border into Turkey, we still had to be careful. A van picked us up and took us to a house where we were sent into a cellar to sleep. My clothes were so dirty that I threw them away and a man gave me new ones.

‘The next day we were crammed tight into the back of a truck where we sat between crates. The mafia man had a supply of biscuits and water for us. He gave us a bottle that we could piss in. For four days we hid, never seeing daylight and hardly able to move. When the truck stopped we did not know what was happening. We just sat in the dark, wondering what would happen next. At first I grimaced at the horrible smells of sweat, shit and piss that we made, but then I got used to it.

‘Eventually, the mafia man opened the truck door. I was so relieved but under cover of darkness we were ordered into another truck to suffer another four days and nights of hell. When the mafia man opened the truck door again, we got out in a dark forest. I had to wait while a man searched the back of a couple of trucks that were parked by the side of the road. He was looking for spaces between crates where we could hide. I was jammed tight between two crates so I could not be seen and was all-alone.

‘I was told to wait for three days then jump out. It seemed like forever. I was hurting, filthy and hungry. Finally, when the truck stopped, I leapt out. It was in a lay-by at the side of a road. As I got out the driver saw me and began shouting at me. I just ran and ran.

‘I found a shop at a petrol station. A woman was horrified by how distressed and dirty I was but she gave me a drink and a snack. I didn’t speak English so she called the police. They handcuffed me and put me in the back of a van. At the police station I was given food and I showered. I talked to them through an interpreter and was left in a cell for seven hours.

‘They told me that I was in Leicester and I had to go to Liverpool to see the immigration authorities. They gave me a note to show people, which said: “I cannot speak English. I am trying to get to Liverpool.” I had no money and no idea how to get to there so I kept getting re-arrested when I was found crying in the street. The police taunted: “You can run to Liverpool.” After six days, someone got the Red Cross to help me get to Liverpool.

‘There, I showed the immigration officers my official Iranian papers. I hadn’t even begun shaving, but they decided I was 18. I was sent to live in Bolton with two other men who were asylum seekers. I was given a social worker and told that I had to go to Bury and share a flat with a 28-year-old Iranian Kurd.

‘I was very unhappy. I was 14 and had never cooked for myself, cleaned the house or washed my clothes. I was in a country where I could hardly speak to anybody. I really missed my mother. Often I just lay on my bed and cried. I began to get headaches and pain in my kidneys. The man I was sharing the flat with saw I did not know how to cook and said that if I gave him money he would buy food and cook for me.

‘I told the social workers that I was 14 and showed them my papers but they still insisted I was 18. Someone got me legal support and the lawyers said that I should be in care and not with an unauthorised adult. Finally, I was taken to live in shared accommodation in Bury. I was allowed to go to college and enjoyed studying. I volunteered to work for charities helping disadvantaged people and I helped a football coaching scheme for young people.’

Last December, Bury council learned that the Home Office had refused him asylum. Adult asylum seekers who are appealing against a refusal have no legal right to be housed or to receive benefits and are also not allowed to work. But lacking a passport, Bahman was now effectively stateless.

‘They ordered me to leave my flat and stopped my allowance. I was 15, homeless and penniless. I went to the college and told them I had to leave because I had no money and nowhere to live. I cried. I didn’t know what to do. The teachers at the college were upset and helped me.

‘At first I slept on the streets. Then I was sent to the Boaz Trust, which assists asylum seekers. Boaz helped me find somewhere to sleep. I kept attending college but every evening I would have to wait in the cold on a bench in Manchester then call a number to be told to go to this hall or that hall, a church or someone’s house. I never knew where I would wake up the following day. My life was on hold.

‘I didn’t know what would happen tomorrow. I cried for my mother and to be home. Luckily at one of the shelters, I met an English couple who had worked in Turkey and spoke some Turkish, which is similar to Kurdish. They helped me and gave me a place to stay. At the same time a lawyer challenged Bury council that even if my official papers said I was 18, as a young person with no family in the UK, I was still a vulnerable person so they had no right to throw me onto the streets. After three months, the council relented and gave me back my place in the flat and my allowance.

‘I started working as a volunteer in an Age Concern shop. What has made me happiest is the family that has taken me in. They are like mother and father, brother and sister to me. I miss my own family so much but this family has helped me feel like living again. It is the first time that I have ever been happy in this country. They are trying to adopt me and are campaigning for the Home Office to recognise my real age and give me citizenship.’