The end of the journey? Young asylum seekers and the struggle for stability in the UK

By Helena Eynon, RRE volunteer researcher.

“The definition of home for these young people is not where they came from but where they can find a new life in safety. But many struggle to find this in the UK.”  Samer Mustafa, RRE

Young refugees and asylum seekers in the UK often face unique and complex challenges to their mental health and well-being, with many having experienced unimaginable atrocities within their homelands, before enduring long and treacherous journeys to reach this country. Now supposedly safe in the UK, it is apparent that many are now facing a very different set of challenges, as they try to find stability in a strange new land.

In considering the needs of this extremely vulnerable group, it is important to take into account where their journeys began; often in situations of conflict and widespread humanitarian crises. During their escape, many have faced exploitation and abuse, or become accidentally separated from their parents and families. They could also have witnessed someone die, for example 1,312 people were reported dead or missing at sea in attempting to reach Italy during 2018.[i] Some have risked their lives again in their bid to enter the UK[ii].

Two young men in Calais, France, 2017.

Having survived such unimaginable trauma, many young people are now affected by serious mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders, behavioural issues, anxiety, depression and self-harm; with several young lives already tragically lost to suicide.[iii] [iv] However, this emerging crisis is not entirely due to events of the past, because what happens in the UK also contributes to psychological ill-health amongst young asylum seekers.[v] [vi] The complex asylum process, lack of support, social isolation, language difficulties, poor living conditions and fears about the future are all major factors, and can also exacerbate the effects of past trauma.[vii] [viii] In considering what has occurred in their homelands, the experience of flight and the situation within the UK, a clearer picture emerges of the ongoing needs of many young refugees, who may find themselves alone in the UK, without family or community support. This also enables us to identify the steps that we as a host community need to take in order to break down some of the barriers that often hinder young refugees as they attempt to realise their fundamental human rights and rebuild their lives in the UK.

Asylum seekers are entitled to Home Office support in the form of a subsistence allowance and accommodation. In early 2017, the Home Affairs Select Committee branded these provisions a ‘disgrace’, recommending improving the living conditions and speeding up the asylum process. The report highlighted a number of concerns surrounding this accommodation, including vermin, cleanliness and a lack of essential support services.[ix]

Inside an asylum accommodation centre, January 2018.

During January 2018, RRE visited an accommodation facility in Kilburn, London, to document the first-hand experiences of the people living there. Our 33 respondents were mainly young men and boys, with the majority still awaiting a decision on their asylum application. They talked to our researchers about their experiences as asylum seekers, and of life within the accommodation centres.

The centres provide basic, hostel-style accommodation. Most residents shared bedrooms, with some people sharing four-to-a-room at the time. There were managers and cleaners employed to service the buildings, however the overall standards were generally poor. Specific issues that were highlighted included vermin, a lack of heating and hot water, sanitation, cleanliness and health and safety issues, including fire safety. The centre managers appeared to be generally unsympathetic and even hostile, with some people reluctant to complain because of the apparent threat that things could be made very difficult for them as a result.

Security was a particular concern, with almost two-thirds of respondents feeling ‘unsafe’ or ‘very unsafe,’ amid reports of security breaches whereby non-residents gained access, usually at night. Some were allegedly drug-users carrying illegal substances. Others appeared to be seeking shelter and were sometimes abusive, with one-third of the residents having experienced violence or abuse of some kind. Conflicts sometimes arose between the people themselves[x], probably due to inevitable clashes between exhausted and highly stressed individuals from different backgrounds and age-groups confined to sharing a small space.

Inside an asylum accommodation centre, January 2018.

RRE research across multiple settings has found that a lack of information and legal support is a common yet serious problem for people in displacement[xi]. In London, it was found that residents who were not fluent in written English faced a barrier if they had no help in translating official documents, with some Home Office appointments being missed for this reason. Health and safety in the accommodation was also of serious concern, with some residents suffering from the effects of mould in their rooms; and of fires breaking out indoors.

Some people told us of their mental health struggles, for example one 17-year-old explained that he had been diagnosed with PTSD and appeared to acknowledge that his living conditions were exacerbating his symptoms.[xii] Others were less forthcoming, although there was clearly a sense of hopelessness amongst many of the people we talked to, which could have been rooted in the feeling of being unwelcome or of not belonging in this country. Many appeared to be living in fear that their asylum application would ultimately be rejected, in which case they would have to leave the accommodation and face destitution on the streets and even deportation.

It is apparent that vulnerable asylum seekers in the UK continue to face considerable obstacles in accessing the care, integration, humanitarian protection – and refuge – that they so desperately need.[xiii] The post-migration experience is clearly critical for young asylum seekers, and it is evident that certain factors must be addressed in order to help these extremely vulnerable young people to find stability in the UK.

The complicated and protracted nature of the asylum process must improve; with information and support services made available in appropriate languages. Secure accommodation should be provided, in-line with the recommendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee, providing adequate living conditions that pose no unreasonable risk to the health and well-being of residents; with no-one having to remain in sub-standard housing unless this is necessary to cover a short, emergency period. It is also vital that youth welfare officers are placed within all initial and dispersal accommodation facilities, to provide much-needed support to the young refugees and asylum seekers arriving there.

Whilst it is evident that there is an emerging mental health crisis affecting many young asylum seekers in the UK, it is also clear that positive action could help to transform many young lives. Until these issues are addressed however, many people will continue to struggle to lead a safe and healthy life within this country, as they remain trapped in the shortcomings of our asylum system. For many vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in the capital and beyond, it seems that their journey to safety is far from over.

Asylum facts at a glance

  • The world now is witnessing the greatest number of forcibly displaced people since World War II, with over 68m people have now been displaced from their homes; the highest level ever recorded.[xiv]
  • Over 12m of the world’s refugees are under the age of 18.[xv]
  • During 2017, 26,547 asylum applications were made in the UK, excluding those for dependent family[xvi]. Their countries of origin included Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan and Eritrea. In the same year, 68% of applications were refused, representing a percentage increase from previous years. 28% of applicants were granted asylum and 4% were given Leave to Remain on other grounds.
  • Immigration detention forms a significant aspect of the UK asylum policy. Anyone can be detained at any time, either in port upon entering the UK or in-country, and there is no legal time limit on the length of time that someone may be held for. People are detained within immigration detention centres or short-term facilities, and whilst in most cases the period of detention lasts for days or weeks, a person may remain for months or even years.
Find out how you can take action to #ProtectYoungAsylumSeekers here.

A shortened version of this article was originally published by The Children’s Society in March 2019.

Special thanks to Samer Mustafa, Mind, the mental health charity and The Children’s Society for their kind support and assistance in producing this article

Mind has a confidential information and support line, Mind Infoline, available on 0300 123 3393 (lines open 9am – 6pm, Monday – Friday)




















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