Enveloped in an oversized puffer jacket and cap, the 14-year-old boy in front of me looks anything but tough. True, he has made the perilous journey from the conflict in his country, travelling alone across the mountains, dodging bandits and snipers on the way. He also survived being robbed of all his money and violently beaten in the Calais “Jungle”. But now he’s rocking in his chair, arms wrapped around himself like a much-needed hug as tears stream down his face. “I’m all alone,” he wails, doubling over in pain. “I haven’t got anyone.”
Said isn’t one of my scheduled clients, having been referred to me by a children’s section colleague when he arrived this morning after a night on the streets. I know there’s little I can offer in practical terms – my colleagues, who are experts in helping young people in these circumstances, are already on the case, finding him a solicitor and emergency accommodation. Instead, I sit quietly listening, giving him the space he needs to cry the tears he’s been holding inside since fleeing his country, leaving behind everyone and everything he knows.
An hour or so later, I’m listening to another young man in tears. Robel escaped the militia through the Sahara, after his family were targeted for political reasons. He knows his father was killed, and probably his sister, but he thinks his mother and a sibling made it through to Europe. He tells me he has made an appointment to see the Red Cross Family tracing service, hoping they’ll be found and he can bring them to safety in the UK.
“You have to have hope,” he says, as he tells me that being apart from them is worse torture than the physical and sexual violence he suffered during six weeks’ detention in Libya. He talks about a wonderful dream he had last night, where he was with his family again – followed by the agonising pain when, he tells me, “I wake up and it’s not real … I am here all alone.”
All our clients are children who have come to the UK alone. Many have grown up in stable, loving homes, with no clue that their lives would suddenly change like this, that they would find themselves a terrified teenager, alone and traumatised in a foreign land. These children could not have known that the UK is one of only two countries in the EU that refuses to grant child refugees the right to be reunited with even their closest family, unlike adult refugees. So even if Robel is granted refugee status, the government will not permit his mother or sibling to join him – the very thing that is keeping him going.
Every day brings an inbox full of referrals for therapy. There’s one from a GP about a young man “separated from family, with concerns for their wellbeing and his future” who has presented with mental health issues. Another is from a foster carer worried after “Ali disclosed information about his family … He was crying alone in his room.” And there is a poignant description from a social worker, who told us: “Abbas reports that ‘his heart was hurting’ but the doctors could not find anything wrong with him when he was examined in A&E.”
It’s hard for therapists to witness how distraught these children feel, wanting so desperately to be reunited with their families. After more than an hour and a half with Said, I gently bring the session to a close, reminding him that he is not alone now, the Refugee Council is supporting him. “And you … you will be like my mother now and look after me,” he says and starts to sob inconsolably.
The Refugee Council cannot replace the lost families of our young clients, but the UK Government has an opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of child refugees like Said. In March 2018, MPs from across the political divide voted in favour of a Private Members Bill introduced by Angus MacNeil MP which proposed the necessary changes to reunite refugee families currently being kept apart. Thanks to thousands of our supporters who joined the campaign and wrote to their MPs, the Bill passed its second reading with a fantastic majority of 131 MPs, and it currently progressing through the next stages in Parliament.
Momentum is building behind our campaign and MPs have already sent a clear message to the UK Government that it is time for change. We are now asking Sajid Javid to change unfair rules keeping refugee families apart. Please join us by calling on the Home Secretary to show true leadership and enable refugee families to be together again – just when they need each other most.
Sarah Temple-Smith is a children’s psychotherapist at the Refugee Council.
This article first appeared in the Guardian Social Care Network. All names have been changed.