I was 12 when my mother paid people smugglers $8,000 to take my brother and me from to Europe. After my father and grandfather were killed by US armed forces the Taliban put pressure on us to become suicide bombers. Drastic as it was, sending us away was the only option my mother could see to keep us alive.
I then began a 12-month odyssey across . I was separated from my brother almost immediately and incarcerated three times. I jumped from a speeding train in Bulgaria, nearly breaking both my legs, and almost drowned in a tiny overcrowded boat off the coast of Greece. When I arrived in the UK I was still only 13, but almost unrecognisable from the child I had been. That’s what hunger, cruelty and brutality does to you.
Huddled in the back of a banana truck from Calais I recall smelling British air for the first time and feeling nothing but relief. Even as police unloaded the truck, roughly ordering us into the back of their van, I remember thinking it was all going to be OK. Having been forced to do endless squat jumps with my hands on my head and being watched over by horse whip-carrying guards in an Iranian prison yard, tortured by police in Istanbul and left to suffocate in the back of trucks without food or water so many times, I wondered what the British authorities could do to hurt me that I hadn’t been through already.
As I sat in a detention centre I soon had my answer. How old are you? “Thirteen,” I answered. They laughed at me. Kent social services declared me to be 16 and a half. They said I was too clever to be that young, that I looked too old (my face was scarred from a month of sleeping outdoors and burned from a failed attempt to climb into a truck carrying chemicals from Calais). They also refused to believe I was Afghan.
This is something that happens to many young asylum seekers. Most, exhausted, traumatised and unable to navigate a byzantine system they don’t understand, accept a negative decision. When I arrived in the UK I hadn’t slept or eaten for three days and was hardly coherent. And it is common for children to have age disputes with the authorities. Because I was considered a young adult, not a child, I was not offered foster care, or school, had limited access to counselling services and very little monitoring or support.
For the next two years I was housed with adult men. It was only when I encountered , a specialist education unit for migrant children, in Bolton, that I found allies. Teachers at the centre allowed me to attend and observed me over several weeks before reassessing my age, finally convincing the Home Office and allowing me to start mainstream schooling.
As soon as I got into school I learned English and began passing exams. I was 16 when I finally got into foster care, which changed everything. My foster carers gave me a home with love and warmth but also a cultural fast track which allowed me to better navigate my school life and eventually I won a place at Manchester University. It sounds simplistic, but I went from being horrified to learn that my foster father, not his wife, did the cooking to being able to cook food from all over the world. Cooking is not only an essential life skill for any migrant but has become one of my favourite hobbies.
In those early dark days of battling bureaucracy I was so isolated and depressed that I made two separate suicide attempts. Yet today I’d be unlikely to get anything like the level of support I received. Today Starting Point and most other specialist support services like it are closed due to local authority cuts. Today I’d be unlikely to find foster parents because there is a drastic shortage of foster carers across the country, especially in counties with high numbers of asylum-seeking children.
I have seen other young asylum seekers fall prey to radical mosques or drinking and taking drugs to numb their pain and loneliness. Because if finding yourself all alone in an alien culture after a journey of fear and trauma is incredibly hard for anyone, it is almost unbearable for young, unaccompanied asylum seekers who have nowhere to turn.
I know of one youngster who went to jail for sexual assault a few months after arriving in the UK. Of course I do not for one second condone his actions, but I do wonder how lost young men, perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, learn to adapt to a liberal western culture without any friends, support networks or teachers.
Today in Europe we are witnessing an , the greatest number of people on the move since the second world war. Britain should show some of its famous gumption and lead the way in this huge humanitarian crisis. We can solve the Channel tunnel problem at a stroke by taking the 3,000 refugees currently camping out in Calais. The shameful media hype would have people believe there are hundreds of thousands, but in reality there are not.
It makes me angry when people fail to understand that recent wars have contributed to this crisis. I would still be living at home if the US invasion of my country hadn’t happened. When I was on my journey in 2008 the majority of people I met were other Afghans or Iraqis. Today it is Syrians.
Europe partly created this crisis so its politicians can’t just shut borders, build barbed wire fences and sit on their hands while people die. This summer, in calm seas, hundreds of people drowned in the Mediterranean sea. The choppy waters of winter – they will keep trying because they are desperate and many more will die. We know this. What are we doing about it?
The UK should be using all diplomatic channels to find a peaceful, long-term solution to end the insecurity and instability in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But right now families with hungry, tired, wet and cold children are sleeping outdoors in Greece, Croatia and Slovenia with only the clothes on their backs. In , a place where I became almost subhuman in my misery, I met children as young as eight, all alone and shivering in freezing, flea-ridden tents.
Is that what human rights in Europe really mean today? Aren’t European countries supposed to set an example to poorer, less educated nations? Isn’t Europe supposed to be a beacon of all that is right? Instead of dehumanising people or seeing them as “different” or “not like us”, why not let them in and allow them to work so they can contribute to the economy rather than being a problem?
I will always be an Afghan in my heart and I will always be a devout Muslim. But I don’t see that as inconsistent with my love of Britain. I understand why some people fear extremism and worry that allowing more immigration will fuel it. But I want to add this to the debate: will abandoning young asylum seekers to a cold, heartless, turn them into better British citizens in the long term? Or could an increase in support services actually save money by turning out useful members of society like me?
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