As numbers grow, lone child migrants find sanctuary at UK center

Reuters News
|
Posted: Sep 04, 2015 3:56 PM

By Tom Esslemont

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When 16-year-old Alem fled his home country, Eritrea, in February of this year he never imagined he would be heading for a new life in Britain.

"My first goal was to get to Sudan. I had no idea where I would end up, but then somebody told me I should head for the UK," he said, shyly looking at the floor.

But seven months later Alem is in England, standing in the noisy sitting room of a reception center for teenage boys in the southeastern county of Kent.

While Prime Minister David Cameron bowed to pressure on Friday to accept more Syrian refugees, Kent - just over 30 km (20 miles) from the French coast - is struggling to cope with growing numbers of unaccompanied children arriving illegally through the ports of Folkestone and Dover.

Alem reached England in July during one of just many dramatic episodes of the refugee and migrant crisis that has spanned the shores of the Mediterranean to the borders of northern Europe.

Migrants, most of them from the Horn of Africa, blocked roads in the French port of Calais in an attempt to board UK-bound vehicles, sparking a major police operation and disruption to cross-channel transport services.

"I boarded a truck, which then boarded the train," said Alem, referring to the high speed services which shuttle freight and passengers through the channel tunnel.

Alem's dark, sullen eyes occasionally wander; around him other boys laugh, joke and play board games as the autumn sunlight streams into the single-story building, known as Millbank, in the town of Ashford.

More than half of the boys it currently houses are from Eritrea, with Afghans, Ethiopians and Sudanese making up a large contingent.

With no national dispersal system for young asylum seekers, Kent has accommodated the majority of unaccompanied child asylum seekers, with numbers of arrivals doubling to 730 by early September from 368 in March, officials said.

In 2014 the UK received 1,945 applications for asylum from unaccompanied minors, government figures show, more than half of them from boys aged between 16 and 17.

Kent County Council said without top-up financing from the Home Office, the responsible central government department, it would suffer a 6.2 million pound ($9.4 million) budget shortfall this financial year.

WHATEVER THE COST

"The government is very aware of the pressures faced by Kent in caring for unaccompanied asylum seeking children," a Home Office spokesman said in a statement, adding that the department had offered a short-term increase in financial support for other authorities accepting cases from the county.

But after fleeing persecution and conscription in their home countries, the council maintains the children's safety is the top priority, at whatever cost.

"One of the boys told me his parents had been murdered in front of him," said Peter Oakford, Kent's cabinet member for children's services.

"Another said he'd fled after his village was attacked and still didn't know to this day whether his parents were dead or alive," added Oakford, who regularly visits the center and two other facilities in the county.

Arrivals at Millbank usually happen at night, hours after the asylum seekers have been picked up by police or immigration officers at port, the center's staff said. The center has a capacity of 50, but currently hosts 63 boys. The few girl asylum seekers are housed elsewhere.

Inside the boys are shown to a bedroom, often shared with another resident; a set of pyjamas and clothes are also provided. Muslims are given a prayer mat and a copy of the Koran. Eritreans receive a copy of the Tigrigna Bible.

In the 6 to 8 weeks the boys spend there they receive health checks and assessments to verify their age, as many do not have documents. They are given the chance to learn English, with many entering full time education once they have been processed.

"I wanted to learn English, so that is why I came to England," said Adam, 16, from Sudan, looking up from his exercise book containing sentences he'd carefully written out.

His journey from his home in the war-ravaged region of Darfur took him through Chad and Libya, where he traveled by boat across the Mediterranean.

"Five people died during the crossing," said Adam, bowing his head, adding that it took him four months to reach the UK.

Another Sudanese boy, Yassin, described how he had traveled across the Channel from France by stowing himself in the under-carriage of a truck while it boarded a ferry.

"No one spotted me, but I became exhausted," he said.

Yassin, interrupted by the sudden sound of chanting, looks up as a group of teenagers gather round two of their peers who are being escorted to the car, en route to their new accommodation.

"I hope I will soon make it to London," said Yassin.

"That will be a dream for me."

(Reporting By Tom Esslemont, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)