Musa’s only thought was that he needed to disappear from his home country, and disappear fast, even if he didn’t know where he was going to end up: “I just had to vanish,” he remembers. “I don’t know what I was hoping for – just a better life and somewhere I could start afresh.”
He had no idea where to go or who to ask for help when he arrived in the UK as a 17-year-old unaccompanied minor, seeking asylum. “There are lots of emotions you have to work with, and work with them very fast. I felt terrified but also relieved. I was so happy to be out of my own country. But all the time you don’t know what’s going to happen to you – so many questions go through your mind.”
With nothing on him but his identity papers, Musa made for the police station and asked for help. The police called in social services, which registered his claim for asylum, appointed him a social worker and found him a place to stay in a local hostel. He recalls being scared that he might be deported. “That anxiety continues for many years. It’s not something that you can just dismiss – you just have to put it into sleep mode,” says Musa as he reflects on his life in the UK since he arrived six years ago. “When I was 17 or 18, I just felt if I did anything wrong or didn’t engage with what people expected of me, I would be deported. You give up all that you are, your whole self, when you are an asylum seeker.”
With support from his social worker, Musa enrolled in his local college in the West Midlands to study English as a second language and complete BTec qualifications in science, and all the while he was going through the complex asylum-seeking application process hoping for settled status – the first step on the road to becoming a UK citizen. Not only did he secure a place to study, he also became student president and governor, being the voice of more than 24,000 students.
But poor legal advice meant his application failed and it wasn’t until his hostel put him in touch with The Children’s Society that his life took a significant turn for the better. “I started going to a place, like a youth club for asylum seekers, run by The Children’s Society. I went once a week – it was the only place I could go and speak freely about myself,” he says. When the project workers heard he was struggling to find good legal support they helped find him a new solicitor and within months he was granted the right to remain in the UK. “It’s because of The Children’s Society that I am here today. If they hadn’t helped me find a new solicitor I don’t think I would have been so motivated or confident enough to continue with my application.”
Musa, now 24, went on to complete a law degree, and has just started his master’s to become a barrister and has plans to specialise in immigration law and open a law firm. “I think that’s a given, given what I have been through myself. I want to go to work every day knowing that there is somebody needing my help and more importantly knowing that I can help them.”
Musa is also devoting time to a campaign, supported by The Children’s Society, for every unaccompanied child to be entitled to a legal guardian. The guardian would guide the child through the immigration system and be their advocate and support them every step of the way.
The campaign is being championed by those with first-hand experience of the immigration system. According to The Children’s Society’s policy manager Azmina Siddique it is “a huge part” of the charity’s wider campaigning and advocacy work, which draws upon research in calling for better support for refugee and asylum seeking children.
In 2019, the charity helped 1,500 refugee and asylum-seeking migrant children in a vast range of ways, including providing vital mental health care and counselling and helping them through the asylum process. The need for such support is likely to rise following the exodus of families from Afghanistan this summer. About 8,000 Afghans have recently fled to the UK seeking asylum – half of them children – following the country’s fall to the Taliban, according to Refugee Council statistics. And another 5,000 Afghans are due to arrive later this year as part of the government’s resettlement scheme.
The current immigration system for young asylum seekers is flawed and needs reform, says Siddique. “There are so many ways in which these children fall through the gaps in provision – whether that’s because they are here on their own or because of their family’s migration status. The system just doesn’t work,” she says. “We work to try to change the system that is around them once they are here to make it better for them – that seems simple, but it’s a real struggle.”
That struggle is tougher because of the “toxic” discourse around immigration: “There is a lot of vilification,” she says. “But refugee and asylum-seeking children are children – children who are seeking our protection.”
The Children’s Society fights for the hopes and happiness of young people facing life’s toughest challenges. This Christmas, send a message of hope to our future generation.