Over the past year, there has been an increase in the number of refugees and asylum seekers attempting to reach the UK by crossing the English Channel. This guest blog by Dr Razia Shariff, the CEO of Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN), details how KRAN supports young, separated refugees and asylum seekers, how they adapted their services during the pandemic and how they work to challenge the narrative around the ‘migrant crisis’.
Kent is currently at the centre of a ‘perfect storm’ in relation to refugees and asylum seekers. Although recently the circumstances have changed, the challenges remain the same. The coincidence of a number of different events during 2020 has created a unique context for Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN). The only constant has been the resilience and positive stories from the young people we work with. They have shown us how they are empowered to rise above any challenge they face, when given the right support and encouragement.
Kent currently has over 500 refugees and asylum seekers under the age of 18 in its care, and over 900 refugees and asylum seekers leaving the care system, having arrived as separated, asylum seeking young people. This is coupled with the recent establishment of an asylum seekers holding centre at the Napier Barracks in Folkestone for up to 400 adult, male asylum seekers. As there are very few safe and legal routes to claiming asylum in the UK, refugees and asylum seekers use lorries, cars and, more recently, boats to get to Kent.
The pressure on the system in Kent has meant that Kent will no longer take new arrivals, so new arrivals are being dispersed to other local authorities which may not have the infrastructure to support their needs. The increase in numbers in Kent has also meant that those turning 20 will no longer be automatically offered social housing as a care leaver and will have to find housing in the private rental market. This is a challenge in itself because of the stigma attached to someone who is young, on benefits and a refugee, but also because affordable private rental accommodation near colleges and supportive networks is scarce.
In response, KRAN has expanded the offer of ‘Learning for Life’ classes and advocacy and support services, which include case work, mentoring, destitution support, well-being activities, a youth forum programme and a youth ambassador programme for refugee and asylum seekers aged 16-24 years of age. In anticipation of a rise in demand for our services, we would welcome additional support and partnerships working with other organisations, to ensure that there is a consistency and quality in the services that we offer to all asylum seekers and refugees, in Kent and beyond.
Adapting to the coronavirus crisis
The Covid-19 crisis has made it tougher for us to ensure that the needs of refugees and asylum seekers in Kent are being met. The legal system ground to a halt and asylum claims and appeals were put on hold. The legal system is only just starting to reboot. Any faster legal processes that are introduced, to deal with the backlog and blockages, must be just and fair.
Most of those living in shared accommodation became very isolated during the crisis, unable to access college and other support activities, and with limited budgets and limited access to Wi-Fi. During the early phases of the crisis, we had to close our three hubs, but KRAN maintained regular contact with our young people through phone calls and online platforms such as Google Classrooms, WhatsApp and Facebook forums. The challenge was to secure support to ensure our young people could access our online activities. We offered digital troubleshooting, to help everyone engage with us online. We also put pressure on local colleges and the local authority to offer IT equipment and internet access for those in care. Most of our young people now have access to the internet and are more confident in engaging with services online. Our youth forum met virtually on a weekly basis and was able to link up with different organisations and initiatives on a regional and national level, thus extending their voice and reach beyond Kent.
During the summer, we started to offer Covid-secure classes for new arrivals in household bubbles, face to face case work and we have been offering football training sessions as a way to re-engage young people. KRAN was very fortunate to secure short-term crisis funding from a range of funders, so that we could continue to offer and adapt our services. We are now focusing on recovery support and funding for the medium to long term, as we continue to adjust to the ‘new normal’.
The so called ‘migrant crisis’ has recently captured the imagination of the British media, politicians and the public. However, since KRAN was established more than 15 years ago, refugees and asylum seekers have consistently been arriving in Kent. KRAN has been engaging with a wide range of media platforms and outlets to try to change the narrative on this. Our social media profile has increased significantly as a result. The wider narrative of hostility is something that we have tried to challenge in the media too and through our social media networks. This has generated a new aspect of our work in public awareness raising. We respond to media requests but have also started to share stories of the achievements of our young people, and we raise their voices through blogs and media pieces. Most of the responses have been extremely supportive and positive, although we regularly now receive rude and threatening telephone calls, emails and handwritten letters. Over the past few years, we feel the tide has started to turn with more informed, balanced, and positive media reporting, however unfortunately, the political rhetoric is still lagging behind.
It is crucial that we support safe passage; we ensure that, post-Brexit, the UK Government fulfils its commitment to the Dubs amendment; we enable family reunification; and we honour the UN convention to offer refuge to those fleeing persecution. We are not just ‘do gooders’ and ‘lefty lawyers’, but people who want to ensure that Britain maintains its historical tradition of welcoming those seeking safety. As civil society, we must continue to hold thought leaders and opinion formers to account, to ensure that a wider rhetoric—which seems to be playing into a hostile popular narrative—is not perpetuated.
2020 has offered a steep learning curve, as well as opportunities to engage and share with a wide range of national networks. We have been able to highlight the challenges and limitations of the existing systems in place for refugees and asylum seekers. Kent, at the centre of ‘the storm’, has many lessons to offer other areas, to ensure that even in a crisis, the human dignity of all, including the most vulnerable in society, is respected. I hope that now the context has changed, existing systems and practices can continue to be adapted to empower those most in need—rather than the challenges we face remaining forever constant.