Feven and Danait were both 16 when they arrived in the UK from Eritrea in north-east Africa. They travelled unaccompanied, on foot, in the backs of lorries, and by boat. Their journey took them five months, via Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Italy and France. When they finally arrived in the UK, they were placed in foster care. Neither of them spoke any English.
Feven was ill when she arrived here, and didn’t check how officials spelled her name on her arrival documents. They made a mistake and it delayed her resident’s permit by months, meaning that, when Danait had eventually learned enough English to start applying for UK colleges, Feven had to wait, even though she wanted to be learning.
The girls’ story is not uncommon. According to the Refugee Council, 3253 unaccompanied children
claimed asylum in the UK in 2015. The majority come from Eritrea
(736), closely followed by Afghanistan (694) and Albania (481), with the number of child refugees coming from Syria (169) much lower than the media might have you think.
When people first arrive in the UK, either as refugees or as migrants, they usually face a number of big challenges: a bureaucratic battle over paperwork; sometimes homelessness; a struggle to acclimatise to their new surroundings and a feeling of invisibility, often compounded by an inability to speak English.
This would be tough enough for an adult, but it can be even more difficult for children – especially unaccompanied minors who have left behind their friends and family because the prospect of starting over seemed less risky than staying where they were.
Across the UK, committed individuals help these kids through the settling-in process; explaining how to fill out forms, showing them how to buy a travel card, and teaching them English so they can apply for UK schools. Some are paid, some do it on a voluntary basis.
One of the many organisations that help is Into School, which runs out of The Baytree Centre
in Brixton. Into School teaches English to a dozen or more girls at any one time – Feven and Danait both attended – as well as filling up their days with activities like art or cooking, in order to prepare them for the UK school system.
“We tend to have small groups of about 10-15 girls at any one time,” says Rosanna, who is the Volunteer and Youth Development Manager at Baytree. “Syrian refugees, girls from Latin America, Eritrea, Somalia, Angola. We get referrals through other community organisations, or social services if they’re unaccompanied minors in foster care, and then a lot of girls through word of mouth within their local communities.”