Rachel Alsop and Esme Madill
Children and young people fleeing traffickers, blood feuds, honour based violence and organised crime in Albania have a less than 0.5% chance of securing protection at first instance when seeking asylum in the UK.
The treatment of Albanian cases does not match the reality on the ground in Albania. Albania is consistently in the top 5 or 6 applicant-producing countries of children seeking asylum in the UK. For the last five years, it has also been one of the top three source countries (aside from the UK) for children referred to the National Referral Mechanism as potential victims of trafficking. Such is the scale of the trafficking problem in Albania, that in October 2018 the Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability announced that the UK would spend at least £2m up to March 2021 to tackle Albanian modern slavery. And while the Home Office and Immigration Judges repeatedly state that Albanian victims of violence from traffickers, family members, gangs and organised crime will be protected by the Albanian state if returned, the 2018 US State Department reports of ‘significant human rights issues’ in Albania, with ‘pervasive corruption in all branches of government’. The limited existing research describes a country where the rule of law is weak, enabling, in the post-communist era, the resurgence of traditional Kanun law and related blood feuds.
The result of this mismatch between the reality of life in Albania and the treatment of those seeking asylum in the UK is that children and young people are living in terror of being returned. Those refused asylum, rather than face their persecutors, frequently ‘choose’ to disappear into a half-life on the margins in the UK, invisible, so no one knows or care when they are re-trafficked or become modern slaves. The voices and experiences of Albanian children and young people who claim asylum are ignored and denied.
Breaking the Chains
Breaking the Chains is a partnership project developed by Shpresa Programme, a registered charity and refugee community group, and MiCLU, the Migrant and Refugee Children’s Legal Unit at Islington Law Centre. Working closely with barristers at Garden Court Chambers and with Albanian children and young people seeking asylum, Breaking the Chains is founded on the principle that children and young people need to be listened to, and to inform every aspect of the policy and practice issues that affect their lives.
At the heart of the project is a group of children and young people trained as Immigration Champions. They advocate for their peers, train lawyers and speak at high profile public events where they describe their lived experience of being trafficked and fleeing violence and abuse.
When consulted about what we should write in this article, they told us:
‘Just say that we are human beings. We are just children, like other children’.
By listening to the young people themselves we have identified key barriers for Albanian children and young people seeking asylum.
Absence of children and young people’s voices
In this climate of hostility, the voices of children and young people are almost completely absent. Those caught up in the system are not even afforded the name children. Using the term ‘unaccompanied minors’, they are ‘othered’: seen as problematic migrants first and children and young people second.
‘I just stay quiet at college. When my teachers says ‘bring your parents in’ or ‘ask your mum to contact us’ I just try and avoid her eyes. Parents evening is hard and the holidays are worse: you have to come back and pretend you have had a great time when, really, you’ve just been working in a car wash. I hate it when they talk about uni… I don’t have a future. I am silent and invisible and mostly very lonely’.
The hostile environment
The all-pervasive hostile environment has resulted in a climate of disbelief where the starting point is to doubt the narratives of children and young people.
Children told us how recounting experience of extreme violence, rape, murder and exploitation is painful and re-traumatising. ‘Keeping the hurt inside’ is a coping mechanism that the Home Office neither recognises nor respects; and children are forced to revisit traumatic experiences, not in a way that respects their narratives but in what appear to be attempts to trip them up and prove them to be lacking in credibility. Re-traumatising is a recognised phenomenon in theory but less so in practice:
‘I feel like I am being forced to beg the Home Office for the right to be safe. Mostly now I think I should just go back and be killed. At least there would be some dignity in that. In Albania, I was working from the age of 10 or 11. Here I can do nothing. Just hang around and have people tell me I must be some drug dealer or gangster because I am Albanian. But I am just a human being. I have feelings like everyone else.’
The problematic conceptualisation of a ‘safe country’
For children and young people this mismatch between the Home Office’s depiction of Albania as a ‘safe country’ and their lived realities is hard to navigate. Many of them yearn for home and family but know they can never go back. The concept of a ‘safe country’ cannot begin to capture the complex, nuanced relationship they have with their country of birth: a country they fled and to which they fear returning.
‘I can laugh and joke when I am at college and with my friends but when college ends my friends go back to their mums and dads. I go back to my room in a shared house, I shut the door and lie on my bed and all those memories of the traffickers are just waiting to attack me. Some nights I am lucky if I get 3 hours sleep…and then I wish more than anything that none of this had ever happened and that I could just be with my mum and my little brother again.’
Gaps in country of origin research
While the Home Office is quick to dismiss claims based on blood feuds, the reality is that there is very little reliable evidence and the data which does exist varies widely. As a consequence, decisions are being made on claims without any accurate knowledge of the pre-flight experiences of these children and young people.
By contrast the children and young people from Shpresa describe levels of corruption, gang violence and trafficking that do not make their way into the sanitised pages of Home Office Country Policy and Information Notes.
‘In my village, trafficking of young girls was so common when you got to secondary school there were more boys than girls in each class. Parents kept their daughters at home to try and keep them safe’.
Cuts in legal aid
Albanian cases are complex to run: children are often too traumatised to disclose their fears and many are still under the control of traffickers. With cuts to legal aid, lawyers are reluctant to take on cases, which are costly, time consuming and subject to excessive delays, making access to justice even harder for those who urgently need high quality legal representation.
‘I have been waiting for more than 3 years for a decision on my claim. My lawyer won’t even answer the phone to me’.
What can be done?
We need changes to policy and practice:
- The Home Office should not approach Albanian blood feud claims from the starting point that they are likely to be clearly unfounded.
- The National Referral Mechanism is not fit for purpose and requires urgent reform. It fails to address children’s fundamental safeguarding and protection needs, while the unconscionable delays in decision-making lead to extreme distress and greater vulnerability to re-trafficking.
- Professionals should remember that the Albanian children and young people are first and foremost children and young people, many of whom are in the UK without any family or support networks.
- Lawyers should use Breaking the Chains resources and listen to, and work with, children and young people to increase the numbers who secure protection.
- The Home Office must recognise the risks inherent in interviewing highly traumatized children and young people. Currently many report feeling as if they are interviewed with the clear intention of discrediting their accounts.
Breaking the Chains seeks to affect policy, practice and the law to bring about lasting changes in the way vulnerable children and young people are treated when they seek asylum by placing their voices and experiences front and centre in a system which so frequently silences them.
During the writing of this article, a 19-year-old survivor of trafficking sought to end her life following a negative Home Office decision. Her friends are not surprised:
‘Sometimes you shut your door at the end of the day and it is too hard to cope any more. I know how she felt. It is hard not to give up’.
Esme Madill is Justice First Fellow trainee solicitor at MiCLU (the Migrant and Refugee Children’s Legal Unit) at Islington Law Centre, London. Rachel Alsop is a Lecturer in the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York. This article is dedicated to the Immigration Champions of the Breaking the Chains Project, with thanks.
Image: Simon Parker, Young Albanian asylum seekers, Shpresa Programme, London 2017.