Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Young People Seeking Safety: the network finds its feet in Manchester

The STAR (Students Action for Refugees) Northern Conference was held on March 17th at Manchester University. The event discussed and emphasised the experiences of both young people claiming asylum and refugees in the UK and informed us all of the reality and issues that young people seeking asylum encounter. The key-note speeches and workshops were particularly useful because they were led by a wide range of people with varying insights on the asylum system. They consisted of practitioners, campaigners and legal experts who all have experience either working and campaigning in this area or seeking asylum in the UK themselves.
Justin Nsenglyuma of Refugee Action addressing the STAR conference
(c) Lora Evans//PressGangLeeds
The event began with a warm welcome by Emma Williams of STAR National and a thank you to Manchester University’s STAR group for hosting and organising the conference. Justin Nsenglyuma from Refugee Action then gave a whistle-stop, explanatory tour of the complicated asylum process and also drew attention to the unhelpful and irresponsible reporting by the mainstream media who regularly fail to make any distinction between people coming to the UK as immigrants or economic migrants, and people who flee their home countries and claim asylum here.

Lisa Matthews from Young People Seeking
Safety (c) Lora Evans//PressGangLeeds
Lisa Matthews from Young People Seeking Safety explained how the asylum system particularly affects young people. She stressed that a significant problem is caused by a person having to fit into a category of the 1951 Refugee Convention in order to receive protection. In many cases the children and young people themselves do not know exactly what circumstances led to their parents or guardians sending them out of the country, and yet this information is demanded by the Home Office. Another massive problem is that the UK Border Agency regularly disputes the age of children, treats them as adults and occasionally detains them with adults. She strongly advocated that the interviewing of young people needs to be child centred; shorter, with more breaks, evidence given the benefit of doubt and with legal representation always present. Lisa concluded by reading a moving poem by a young writer from the English Pen exiled writers’ group about his journey and experiences.

I attended two workshops during the day; the first, ‘Personal Testimony’, was led by a member of WAST (Woman Asylum Seekers Together). She spoke of her journey to the UK with her daughter and the problems they encountered particularly with the Home Office not understanding why they hadn’t brought ‘evidence’ with them. She provided much information about WAST, how the women support each other and share their stories. This was followed by a lively question and answer session. The second workshop, ‘Welfare, Support and Destitution’ led by James Jolly from The Children's Society, looked at how the problem of destitution has been exacerbated rather than alleviated, primarily by the removal of the right to work in 2002.
(c) Lora Evans//PressGangLeeds

The last speech was given by Anita Hurrell from Coram Children’s Legal Centre. Her talk was particularly helpful for those of us without legal knowledge and demonstrated how significantly the law impacts on individuals’ cases. It was interesting to hear her thoughts on the potential for the development of law in the areas of humanitarian protection and discretionary leave, in order to protect more people.

Finally a panel discussion was held with the title 'Access to university is becoming increasingly unequal: where do asylum seekers fit in?’ The struggles people face going to university were talked about, especially the difficulty of demonstrating prior education level and the high international fees asylum seekers have to pay. It was interesting that Manchester University is exceptional for not charging these extortionate fees and the discussion continued to focus on how students can lobby other universities to follow suit.
Final panel discussion (c) Lora Evans//PressGangLeeds
The whole event was really interesting and useful for students and activists who wanted to learn more about young people and the asylum system, where developments are being made and what we can do to create positive change.

By Lora Evans 

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