Welcoming unaccompanied children on New Year’s Eve

22 Dec 2016

I’m a Children’s Advisor at the Refugee Council’s Children’s Services in Dover. We are a 24/7 service for unaccompanied children who arrive in the UK in search of safety.

On the 31st of December I expect it’ll be quiet at our reception centre in Dover… it will just be me. I’ll be waiting for a child to arrive, though I doubt anyone will come. Very few refugee children actually come to the UK.

I was at home for Christmas with my friends and family. At first when I found out I was working, I thought, it’s sad for me to not be with my family on New Year’s Eve. But for these young people, it’s just another day in their life. I felt selfish because here was me thinking – “I can’t be with my family”, when they haven’t been with theirs for months and months.

I’m just glad I’m going to be here to make them feel comfortable and hopefully put a smile on their face.

If a young person arrives they will come down to us after seeing the immigration officials upstairs. The interview can take hours and hours, especially if the authorities don’t believe their age. It’s a lot to handle after the journeys they have had, not to mention what they have seen at home – witnessing the killing of family members, or being subjected to torture or violence themselves.

When they come to us they have to do another interview with social services. By the time that’s over they’re exhausted.

It’s difficult for them to trust anyone after all they have been through. They may have experienced violence from police or the army in their country. That’s why we dress casually and not in uniforms, so that they can see that we aren’t police or immigration and that we are here just for them.

When they have finished all of the interviews and paperwork, they can finally have a shower and go to the room where there are some beds to have a sleep. We give them a welcome pack which contains a t-shirt, some trousers, a towel, underwear, soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste.

Their old clothes are in a really bad state because they’ve been wearing them for so long. Often they are really ashamed when they see their old clothes next to the new ones. They are dirty and torn. Many of the young people just want to throw their old clothes in the bin. I suppose the clothes they were travelling in on these traumatic journeys must hold a lot of memories too.

There is another room for families, with toys and a little baby’s bed. Recently a family arrived and the mum and dad really needed a sleep. The little boy played with puzzles. They were very exhausted and confused after the journey.

Sometimes the young people arrive together. They meet on the journey. These two boys from Afghanistan arrived recently.  One of them was very quiet and tired. He just wanted to sleep. I can’t imagine his relief at seeing a bed to sleep in, in a safe room after all of the horrendous places he has been sleeping.

He thought his journey would end here. He didn’t know this was just the beginning.

The other boy was very distressed. The whole thing is so confusing. They ask “Where am I? Where am I going? What will happen when I get there?”

They will start 2017 either with a foster family or in supported accommodation, alone.

Young people who are age disputed can end up being detained in adult detention centres, or being moved from home to home. They can’t make friends or plans for tomorrow, let alone for the future. The uncertainty is crushing, especially for someone who has already been through so much.

These young people have to tell their story over and over again – to immigration, solicitors, the Home Office. It’s impossible for them to disconnect and be able to move on from these experiences.

They cannot start again and stop thinking about what’s happened. Many have lost track of their families, haven’t spoken to them for months and don’t know where they are.

On reflection, I’m glad to be spending my New Year’s Eve here.  I don’t know what 2017 will hold for the children I see, but at least it’ll begin with a warm and friendly welcome.

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