‘They’ll fight for you’: how Scotland’s guardians change young refugees’ lives

Joseph was just 16 years old when he arrived completely alone in Scotland – a country he had never heard of – seeking safety, after travelling across the world for six months from Vietnam to the UK, living in forests and being smuggled across the Channel.

On his journey, he had learned not to trust people, so when he first met his guardian – an “on your side” adult allocated to every unaccompanied young arrival – he had doubts. “She was saying nice things but I wasn’t sure she was going to help me,” he says.

Six years on, Joseph, who is studying business at college and works as an interpreter, says his advice to anyone meeting their guardian is simple: “They are the only person you can trust. They will help you no matter what, they will fight for you. Tell them everything you’ve been through.”

Guardians are qualified immigration advisers, and can accompany their charge to Home Office interviews and appeals but, as Joseph explains, their role is as various as the young person they are supporting. “They helped me understand the law, with my sleep problems, with the culture. They helped me establish my own life here.,” he says.

“I’ve only lived here for six years but I feel it’s a lot longer, because of the knowledge that’s been passed on to me.” He was granted discretionary leave to remain in the UK last year. As for Scottish culture, Joseph says he would love a kilt “but they’re very expensive”.

Since 2010, more than 850 asylum-seeking and trafficked children and young people have been supported by the Scottish Guardianship Service, which is run by the children’s charity Aberlour in partnership with the Scottish Refugee Council. This scheme is unique across the UK in offering continual one-to-one support in everything from navigating the gruelling bureaucracy of the asylum system to grasping the meaning of local slang.

For one teenager from Angola, named Tati, this became pressing as soon as he began classes at the local Scottish high school: “They used to call me ‘tattie scone’ at school. I didn’t even know it was a potato.”

“When a young person arrives in Scotland, traumatised and completely alone, it is overwhelming,” says Aberlour’s service manager, Catriona MacSween. “They are suddenly involved in all these processes – asylum, trafficking, criminal justice, age assessment – and they just need someone to explain how everything works.”

With 405 cases active across Scotland, Aberlour guardians support young arrivals who are mostly male and aged between 15 to 17, although the youngest case at present is just 10 years old.

Since it was first piloted in 2010, the scheme has expanded to include a befriending service and the Allies project, a specially tailored group course to support trauma recovery in partnership with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

“Sleep is one of the main problems that affects our young people,” says Alexis Wright, who leads the project. “For some, their sleep has been so disrupted for years that it is hard to break that pattern. For many, night-time was a dangerous time. During their journey, they speak of taking turns to stay awake and keep watch.”

To help young people coax themselves back into the present moment after experiencing a nightmare or a flashback, they are offered a “grounding pack”, which includes a stress ball, scented oil and the sort of postcard you might pick up in any convenience store: four panels of sentimental Scottish scenes, including a castle at dusk and a fluffy Highland cow. For a teenage asylum seeker waking alone and fearful in the dark, it is a psychological lifeline.

Wright says: “We encourage them to put it beside their bed if they wake up afraid, and to write on the back messages that will make them feel safe: ‘You live in Scotland now, no one can hurt you now.’”

The Allies project gives young people a chance to reflect on the experiences that brought them to Scotland with others in similar situations, and often for the first time, says Wright.

“Many have family members who have died, and for others they have lost all contact and don’t know whether their family are alive or dead,” she says. They are invited to decorate a stone with an image that reflects this loss, then the group holds a minute’s silence to honour it. “Many young people have not had that opportunity. Going through the asylum process, officials always want details, but there’s no space to process the loss.”

While the Allies project necessarily focuses on past trauma, these young people are also itching for skills to map the present. Recently, they requested more guidance on relationships, and now Aberlour offers sessions on consent, healthy boundaries and the basics of sexual health. “They might not know where to get free condoms, if sexual health provision didn’t really exist back home.”

The guardians also organise fortnightly meet-ups for the young people in their care, where they can try activities like storytelling, cooking, art and drama. “That is a lifeline,” says Wright. “Some of them are so isolated, and this is a chance to just be young, to feel that sense of connection with other young people.”

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