On Refugee Day we’re honoring the bravery of the children and young people who’ve had to see and endure more than any child should. Children like Ali*.
Ali* was 10 years old when he first began his journey to flee his home country. His village was attacked and he lost his parents and siblings. Many people in the village were raped and killed. Ali witnessed all of this at his very young age.
Very few people survived the attack, but those that did helped Ali to escape and begin his long journey. This was Ali’s first time away from his mother and he was scared. He told our workers about the horrendous physical, mental, sexual and emotional abuse he experienced over the years he was travelling alone.
His aunt paid a smuggler to help Ali escape to Europe. As with many young people fleeing Africa, this meant he had to travel through Libya. The smuggler didn’t keep his promise to help him reach Europe. Instead, he sold Ali to traffickers at the border of Libya. He was enslaved and was made to stay in an underground building crowded with hundreds of other enslaved refugees. These people were crammed into the building so much that often there was standing room only and they had no sanitation or food.
Ali told us he was beaten and tortured every day. He and many others were forced to work on large agricultural fields and building sites as slaves. The perpetrators deliberately tortured people to extort information about their families, so they could contact them and ask for a bribe for their release. Ali didn’t have his family’s details. He was made to stay at the border for nearly two years. He told us he’d been stabbed, whipped, burned with cigarettes and beaten with metal bars. When he wasn’t being tortured, he was listening to those around him being beaten. On one occasion, he saw his friend being shot and then had to sleep next to his body.
Eventually Ali was released and managed to reach the port where a boat to Italy (organised by traffickers) arrived. He described it as a small dinghy or lifeboat. The traffickers filled it with hundreds of people, including his friends. On his journey across the Mediterranean, the boat was so overloaded that it sank. Whilst a large ship arrived to the rescue, only a few were saved. Ali lost many of his friends. He still feels the immense guilt of his friends dying in this way.
Ali was around 13 years old when he arrived in Italy. He described the conditions for refugees were there - he slept on the streets of Rome, was detained by the police and then was released out on to the streets again. He decided that the only way to find safety was to travel to the UK. He spent a year or so making the journey across Europe via train. He eventually made it to Calais. He showed our workers the scars he has from being beaten by the police there. Finally, he was able to leave Calais hidden on a lorry.
Arriving in the UK
After spending days on the lorry, he arrived in Belfast. Because he was under 18 he was brought into the care of social services. He was scared because he was told that he would be separated from the other people he travelled with - he didn’t understand the difference between minor and adult services and the implications for services.
Ali was placed in a hostel. It was felt by some that he may not be under 18, so age assessments were conducted. This is where our Independent Guardians raised concerns and advocated for Ali to be treated as a minor until the authorities could prove otherwise. This is in keeping with the position that all young people we work with are treated as a child until proven otherwise.
Since then, our service has helped Ali to challenge his age assessment, as well as his treatment by the Home Office. His first interview with the Home Office was particularly difficult for him. He was asked to go into the details of his journey, which brought the trauma up again - he struggled to cope and our guardians had to speak to the Home Office about this. They highlighted the impact the process was having on Ali’s mental health and they advocated for Ali to be given the chance to talk to them in a more therapeutic setting. Ali is receiving ongoing support and has recently found out that he has been granted asylum. He will continue to be supported by social services and our services.
Since it opened in April 2018, our Independent Guardians service in Northern Ireland has worked with 55 vulnerable children like Ali. They told us this about his story: “This is only one of many harrowing cases we’ve worked on. The trauma experienced by young people who make it to Northern Ireland is on a scale far beyond that which is easy to listen to.”
Tragically, some young people have come to us after being victims of trafficking within Northern Ireland.
Of the children we've helped, some have successfully claimed asylum – which can be incredibly stressful for anyone, let alone a traumatised young person – while others have managed to safely return to their home countries.
In all cases, our independent guardians work with the best interests of each child in mind. They represent their views, wishes and needs across different areas of their lives and make sure they have a legal representative that specialises in immigration and asylum-seeking. But we don't stop there.
As these vulnerable children struggle to deal with the trauma of their harrowing journeys, our dedicated guardians continue to support them long after their legal and practical issues have been resolved. As our independent guardians say: “Their loss is immense and we are duty bound to find ways to best support them.”
*Ali's name has been changed and a model has been used in order to protect his identity.