The attack on a teenage asylum seeker in Croydon last Friday comes as reports of abuse directed at refugee children are becoming more frequent, charities and experts have warned.
As Reker Ahmed, the 17-year-old Kurdish Iranian who was attacked, recovered in hospital on Monday, those involved in supporting asylum-seeking children expressed dismay at the attack.
Andy Elvin, chief executive of the fostering organisation Tact, which has looked after hundreds of asylum-seeking children across the country, said he was aware of a number of children in his organisation’s care who had been verbally abused in the streets, and he believed this was a growing problem.
“It is verbal abuse – about their status, what they are doing in this country, why they don’t go back,” he said. The organisation runs support groups, advising newly arrived asylum seeking children on how to respond to negative experiences. It was particularly an issue which young people encountered on public transport, he said.
“We have made several reports to the police of hate crimes. We think it is rising. It is entirely linked to the environment that has been created by the public discourse about people coming to this country from overseas ... Asylum seekers are all seen as bogus – not as children, not traumatised, not in need, just freeloaders coming here to take advantage of the system.”
Usually the abuse came as a complete surprise to the young people, Elvin added. “They didn’t expect to be targeted in this way. The perception of the UK abroad is still that it is a fair equitable country, where people are treated decently.”
Croydon currently has just over 400 unaccompanied child asylum seekers, a higher number than most local authorities, because it is the location of Lunar House, the government office where people must go to claim asylum.But a council spokesperson said: “This type of incident is extremely rare and our experience has been that the vast majority of young asylum seekers have been welcomed into the community.”
Most of the younger child refugees in Croydon and elsewhere are accommodated by the council in foster families, and will go to school in the borough. The older ones, aged 16 or 17, are more likely to be found beds in supported accommodation, and may attend English classes, but will not be in school. Some councils provide acclimatisation sessions for newly arrived refugee children, educating them about British laws, the risks posed by drugs and their personal safety, but often the older arrivals are left largely unsupported to fend for themselves.
Liz Clegg, who worked with child asylum seekers in Calais and is now helping child refugees to settle in the UK, said most were entirely unprepared for hostility. “They think: ‘Oh, now we’re in the UK, we’re completely safe.’ They have fled conflict zones and think they have arrived in the promised land; they have a very positive outlook. We have to educate them that there are still serious dangers, that they need to be careful for their personal safety.”
Gulwali Passarlay, author of The Lightless Sky, an account of coming to the UK as a lone child asylum seeker from Afghanistan, said that attitudes towards refugees had hardened in recent months.
He highlighted the negative effect of the reporting of the arrival of child refugees from Calais last October (where the ages of the asylum seekers were questioned in some parts of the media), stoking cynicism about child refugees’ asylum claims, and dramatically souring a popular mood of support for child refugees that had followed the drowning of the three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi in 2015.
“The environment has changed. People with rightwing views think it is OK to insult asylum seekers. There are a lot of good people in the UK but the mood is changing. Asylum seekers need to be cautious; it’s not always safe to walk around UK cities,” he said.
Josie Naughton, co-founder of Help Refugees, said the attack demonstrated “the level of fear and prejudice which is taking hold of parts of British society”.
Rabbi Janet Darley, who works with Citizens UK’s Safe Passage project, which supports unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, said: “This is a sobering reminder of the importance of the need to create a welcoming society, where refugees feel welcomed and accepted.”
Donations to a crowd-funding site for the victim had reached over £10,000 by Monday afternoon. Bridie Watson, who launched the fundraising drive, had no personal contact with the victim, but was liaising with the police and social services to make sure the victim received the money. “It was so horrific. We wanted to help people put their shock and love into something positive. We want to show that this is not what the UK is about,” she said.