January 21 2022

Child asylum seekers and a culture of disbelief

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Child asylum seekers and a culture of disbelief

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Liza Schuster 2, TBIJAccording to work by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published last week, more than 600 former unaccompanied asylum seeking children have been sent back to Afghanistan since 2009 – their claims and appeals rejected.

Having lived in Afghanistan for the last three years, I have met more than 100 of those who have been deported from European countries, including Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the UK and been asked to prepare expert reports for dozens of those facing removal, including children who arrived aged 12, 13 and 14.  As a result, I am familiar both with the Home Office perspective, detailed in refusal letters, and the situation facing those who are returned.

For some European countries, deportation to Afghanistan remains unconscionable. Afghanistan is a country in conflict, riven by corruption and with a culture of impunity that protects the powerful and leaves the weak exposed to a wide and shocking range of human right abuses.

For these reasons, there is a blanket ban on deporting unaccompanied children under the age of eighteen when it is not possible to return them to their families or to safe reception conditions. Children who have arrived with their families – no matter how young – can be deported with their families, but only the Scandinavian countries are actually deporting families. I have written elsewhere for The Conversation of how traumatic these forced family returns are.

Plans by a small group of EU states to create a ‘safe reception area’ foundered last year, due partly to resistance from civil society in those countries, given the impossibility of guaranteeing the safety and welfare of unaccompanied minors, and partly due to resistance in Afghanistan.

  • This article first appeared on the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s site HERE
  • Read the Bureau’s investigation HERE: at least 605 former asylum seeking minors deported

However, as the Bureau notes, once the child reaches 17.5 years old, their discretionary leave expires and they become ‘deportable’. The report notes a high rate of initial rejections of the child’s claim though some of these are overturned on appeal. Many of the refusal letters that detail the reasons for rejection of the appeal cite the child’s failure to appeal at the time of the initial refusal as evidence that the child accepted the decision.

Since these are young teenagers with limited English and no understanding of legal bureaucracy or terminology, this has always struck me as a particularly egregious and cynical tactic.

Frequently, the asylum claim and the appeal stand or fall on the credibility of the child’s account of their life and experience in Afghanistan. Accounts are sometimes fabricated, in some cases because the child, on the advice of those around him (friends, agents), prefers to use a ‘case’ that they know has succeeded rather than risk telling the truth – especially when they don’t understand what is expected of them and are intimidated by the asylum system. Having conducted in-depth interviews with some of those who have returned, it is clear that in some cases had they explained the real reasons they had left, they would have had grounds to remain.

Home Office decisions on a child’s credibility are based on Country of Information reports; occasionally, when a lawyer can persuaded the Legal Aid Agency to fund them, on expert reports; and on ill-founded assumptions about what would be reasonable or normal behaviour in a country about which the decision-maker knows nothing.

The Country of Origin reports are a compilation of information garnered from organisations such as UNAMA, UNHCR, UNDP, OCHA, government departments such as the US State Department, DfID, and occasional fact-finding missions. These are usually compiled by people living in secure compounds who move around the country in armoured vehicles with police escorts and have little or no contact with the local population.

The CoI reports also cite ‘expert reports’ that are prepared by those who have some knowledge of the country of origin, though again this expertise (overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, male; and overwhelmingly, non-Afghan) is often based on multiple very short visits (usually a matter of days) over a number of years staying in secure hotels and communicating with ‘locals’ through interpreters. There are exceptions: there are a handful of ‘experts’ who have lived in the country, conducting ethnographies, and learning the language (including Giustozzi, Harpviken and Monsutti).

A culture of disbelief
These reports can quickly become outdated as the situation changes rapidly. Nonetheless, the refusal letters reveal a ‘culture of disbelief’ in which evidence that confirms the child’s statement is cited, but then either disregarded or twisted to justify rejection of an applicant the Home Office has already decided is lying or failing to cooperate. Reports that the Taliban recruit children between the age of 12-16, for example, are cited as evidence that at 18, the person to be deported no longer has to fear such recruitment. A failure to report threats or attacks to the police ‘proves’ the claim is fabricated although reports show 80% of the population would not go to the police. The size of the Afghan Forces is cited as evidence that someone could turn to them for protection, regardless of the challenges facing those forces or their capacity to them. Even President Ghani has accepted that the ANSF are too busy trying to fight insurgents to provide protection to individuals (March 2015).

A ‘failure to cooperate’ also undermines credibility and is frequently evidenced by the child’s ‘failure’ to provide birthdates for himself, his parents or siblings – though birthdates are not widely known or recorded in Afghanistan; or to provide an accurate chronology of events, though this is almost impossible for any child in Europe, but particularly in Afghanistan where dates simply do not carry the same weight. I have just witnessed an argument between two educated men over the year in which President Najibullah was killed, as the young man said he was ‘about two when that happened’ – but neither of them could be sure exactly what year (never mind what day or month) it was.

Finally, the fact that the child arrived in the UK and managed to learn English and adapt to English culture is used to claim that, even though “it is always challenging settling in a new environment”, he should be easily able to reintegrate into Kabul even if he has no family or networks there. Here the Home Office chooses to ignore the help and support afforded to the child on arrival in the UK and the complete lack of such support in Afghanistan. From my experience, the small amount of financial support available to these young men on return is inevitable used to leave Afghanistan again – convinced as they are that they will not be able to survive there.

From the refusal letters it is incontrovertible that the asylum process in the UK is designed not to identify those in need of protection, but to keep to a minimum those granted asylum. If the Home Office was serious about protecting those who meet the criteria of the 1951 Geneva Convention, or who risk serious abuse of their human rights, it would allow the decision-makers time to develop some expertise for a particular country. This would shift the emphasis from disproving claims to discovering whether an individual has a well-founded fear of persecution. And whatever evidence is examined should be done so in good faith and not as means to disproving the claims of a newly arrived unaccompanied minor.

10 responses to “Child asylum seekers and a culture of disbelief”

  1. Christopher Lennon says:

    These people should take what they have gained from Europe in terms of education and cultural awareness, for example and return to take part in the great project to build a new Afghanistan.
    None of the reasons cited against the Home Office approach carries any real weight, in my view and I work in Afghanistan myself. There are the usual flimsy excuses and generalisations. All Afghans belong to large, extended families and all Muslims have a charitable duty to help the disadvantaged, especially their own brothers and cousins. Taliban recruitment only occurs in a few areas and is more of a problem in Pakistan, a Commonwealth country that has already exported some of its problems to the UK. What limit is to be placed on immigration into an overcrowded UK from the Moslem world, if this continues? If they really do not wish to return to Afghanistan, would they not be more at home in a majority Muslim country? Oh, those countries won’t accept immigrants, you say? We are being taken for suckers in the UK and Europe generally. It is time it stopped.

    • Karl Schuster says:

      Er, Mr Lennon, I think Liza’s looking at how children are so poorly treated by the system? Your reply sounds like a rant.

  2. Liza Schuster says:

    So amusing to see the (unfounded) accusation of ‘flimsy excuses and generalizations’ followed by some really sweeping and ignorant generalizations. I can only assume that Mr Lennon is one of the thousands of western immigrants to Afghanistan who work as private contractors for hugely inflated salaries and live parallel lives in secure enclaves without learning Dari or Pashto, or making any effort to integrate. As such he would unqualified to make any comments on Afghan or Muslim culture. In the light of the millions of Syrians who have found refuge in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, compared to the very few in Europe, the ignorance at the end of the comment is inexcusable.

    • Christopher Lennon says:

      Salaam Alecum Liza. Kobasti? Actually, I work for an Afghan insurance company, alongside local staff (trainees), at a salary much less than I used to earn in the UK, though board and lodging are included, as is usual for expats in Afghanistan. I am superannuated, by UK standards. I am not complaining, but it is certainly not a ‘vastly inflated’ salary or particularly comfortable lifestyle. My salary is not inflated at all, in fact. I am aware some contractors are very highly paid, but I also know other people who do wonderful work here in Afghanistan for very little reward. I might mention my ‘Family’ membership and support for the Children and Women’s charity PARSA, to show how wrong your casual perceptions are, just because I dared to disagree with you. It is a well known tactic, when presenting a weak argument, to attack the bona fides of your opponent, rather than address the points made. One big difference between Syrian refugees and the young Afghans you wrote about is that the Syrians are genuine refugees, fleeing from imminent danger, many of them and they hope to return to Syria when the situation allows, whereas you are trying to make (flimsy) excuses to justify the permanent resettlement in the UK of persons (‘children’, as you misleadingly and emotively describe them) who might perfectly reasonably be returned to their own country, after gaining a good deal in terms of education and experience, overseas. It is true there are risks, but dangers exist everywhere, even in London (I was there, both during IRA terrorism and the more recent Islamist atrocity). Besides, none of us can conduct our lives, or achieve anything, without accepting risks. You may assume I know nothing of Muslim culture if it makes you feel better, but you are welcome to contact me for a discussion at any time. You will find I know the difference between Sunni and Shia, Pashtu and Hazara, so do please try me. The ‘ignorance’ at the end of my first comment is a widely held view, by the way.

  3. Hamid Khan says:

    I would have to agree with Mr. Lennon. Most afghan asylum cases are not genuine. I worked as an interpreter for one of the legal aid charities in London back in 2009-10, all the cases I interpreted for were fake. They would ask me to make something up from my side which would strengthen their case and ask for my suggestions if their case was strong enough or they should spice it up . Forced Taliban recruitment is very rare in Afghanistan. Most minors who end up with the Taliban are those who’s parents, especially the father figure is not available to stop them. The life with the Taliban is an exciting one for them and they willingly join them. Unfortunately, those who are genuine refugees don’t usually make it to a safe country.

  4. Liza Schuster says:

    Dear Chris,

    Sentences that begin These people…, All Afghans…and All Muslims are sweeping generalizations. You offer no refutations of any of the arguments in the article, any evidence to demonstrate the ‘flimsiness of [my] excuses’ or to support your own arguments. Widely shared ignorance is still ignorance and in the light of widely available statistics in easily understood formats that clearly show how few refugees are settled in European countries compared to eg. Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan (not mention many African countries) would seem to indicate either laziness or willfulness ignorance.

    Knowing that there is a difference between Sunni and Shia is a bit like knowing there is a difference between Catholic and Protestant and hardly indicates more than a basic level of familiarity. In your original comment you remarked that Muslims have ‘a charitable duty to help others. So do Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and Atheists – all others. This (together with political expediency) is the reason why, for example, more than six million Afghans found refuge in Iran and Pakistan (there are less than half a million Afghans refugees in the rest of the world). But this duty does not guarantee that all those in need (whether in Christian, Hindu, Musliim or secular countries) will be taken care of (or that people will refrain from killing each other or stealing or committing adultery. As you know living in Kabul, unemployment is currently at about 48% and levels of destitution are very high, with large numbers of beggars including women, children, the elderly and the disabled. On one 100 metres stretch of road from the university in Karte Seh all these Groups are represented. Only a tiny minority of those returned to Kabul are from Kabul, and whatever skills a young man may have gained in Europe, without connections and a network, he stands little or no chance of finding even the most meniel job. And many families in Afghanistan are dependent on money sent from abroad. the forcible return of a young man will often have serious consequences for the wider family. The population of Kabul has at least quadrupled in the last few years but basics services scarcely exist unless you have the money to pay.

    Like you I have lived through a number of terrorist attacks in the UK and many more in the last three years in Kabul.To compare the current situation in Afghanistan where there are daily attacks on security forces and civilians, kidnappings and where the security forces are overwhelmed and unable to provide protection, is ridiculous. There are currently close to 1 million internally displaced persons in Afghanistan, including an elderly man hosted by the family I am currently staying with here in Baghlan, forced to leave his home because the Taliban has taken control of his district. Of the 5.7 million Afghans who returned following the fall of the Taliban government, 40% are unable to return to their district of origin because of insecurity and its consequences.

    This is becoming another report, and difficult to write on an iPad without access to my sources. However, should you require, have enough evidence and reasoned arguments to fill many books. When you are ready to argue on the basis of evidence rather than prejudice, I am at your disposal

  5. Liza Schuster says:

    Dear Hamid,
    I am afraid there are a number of reports that have verified the forced recruitment of children by the Taliban in Afghanistan, including by UNAMA, HAGAR, and Antonio Giustozzi, the foremost International expert on the Taliban has written:
    Similarly, the Taliban has been quite ruthless in the recruitment of suicide bombers, taking in young males aged 12-17 as well as adults; from 2010-11 even female suicide bombers made their appearance. Although the evidence does not suggest the forceful recruitment of suicide bombers, it seems clear that young boys, even below puberty, are taken into training/indoctrination course and may spend there even years, before graduating as proficient suicide bombers. Others seem to be recruited and deployed after relatively short (a few months) training and indoctrination; the large majority of suicide bombers appears to be recruited in Pakistan among Afghans and non-Afghans alike.
    Many of the young Afghans who arrive in Europe have lived as refugees in Pakistan or Iran, while others speak of being brought across the border into Pakistan and kept in Madrassas there.
    What has become clear to me over the years, however, is that there are a range of reasons (including blood feuds and sexual abuse – see the Hagar report), why the boys leave or are sent away, and possible recruitment by the Taliban is only one of them. However, as I said in the original article most of these boys do not understand the asylum system and are told by smugglers to say they fear Taliban recruitment.
    Their unfamiliarity with the language and the system would lead them to seek reassurance from a translator. The fact that they may be lying in order to access protection does not mean that they are not entitled to protection. It does mean that the system should focus much more on creating an environment in which they are able to disclose than “proving they are liars’.
    I write this not as a ‘naive do-gooder’ but as someone who has had the time to learn about the situation in Afghanistan and the experiences of many of these young men.

  6. Christopher Lennon says:

    Dear Lisa
    The reference to Sunni and Shia in a post reply, following your describing my earlier remarks as “ignorant”, was simply shorthand. I don’t think you can reasonably expect an essay on the Ummayads, Abbasids and Shiites in Islam, just to gainsay your condescension and intellectual snobbery, especially as it is beside the point.
    The persons you misleadingly describe as “children” in the heading to your posts were, I believe, admitted to the UK as children, i.e. boys (no girls, apparently, even though they have a much tougher time in Afghanistan), under 18 years of age, for their protection and on the understanding they were not being granted permanent residence and their cases would be reviewed individually and a decision taken on whether they could stay, once they reached that age. That is now happening and many of them are being returned to Afghanistan, where conditions have improved a lot in the meantime, which is not to deny there are still many problems.
    One of your arguments seems to be that it is unfair to return them after they have spent time in the UK, received education, made friends and so on; the other that it is still unsafe in Afghanistan, even in Kabul. The first I regard as perverse, in that it amounts to going back on the original terms of admission. The second is true only in a relative sense. I was walking on the streets of Kabul yesterday, as I do regularly, with a group of friends and we invariably meet and chat with friendly locals. Have you had that experience? The dangers of Kabul are not sufficient reason for young men to be allowed in to the UK as immigrants. Therefore, I believe the UK Home Office approach is the right one and that in all but exceptional cases they should be returned home.
    Hamid has commented, from his first hand knowledge, on the excuses sometimes offered by applicants for asylum and that they are not valid. I agree. They include, for example, claims of having no relatives in Afghanistan – very hard to believe when everyone you meet has several brothers and sisters and numerous cousins (their parents are often first cousins), besides a determination to have as many children as possible, often with two wives. Taliban recruitment is also a manufactured excuse, as these young men are unlikely to be susceptible. You must know all this is true and that is another reason your original post provoked a response you were apparently not expecting.
    You also have an unfortunate tendency to twist your opponent’s argument. When I referred to the Islamic duty to give to charity, I referred to something inherent in the faith. It may be inherent in Christianity as well and atheists may choose to give (no ‘duty’, surely?), but we are discussing the situation in an Islamic country, so those comparisons are not valid.
    In your response to Hamid, you declared you are not a “naïve do-gooder”, but those are your words and that is how you come across, unfortunately, ‘naive’ being kinder than ‘deliberately misleading’.

    • Hamid Khan says:

      Actually, I am no do-gooder. I have never added my suggestions to anyone’s case or given them a suggestion as to what they should say. I just stated what I had seen.
      The topic is a philosophical and I am not sure can be argued via comments on a topic which covers a fraction of the whole issue.

      • Christopher Lennon says:

        Lisa, the issue is bogus asylum seekers, of which the UK has to cope with far too many; hence some attempt by the Home Office to apply rigorous controls, which certainly has public support. It does not preclude grants in exceptional cases.
        Another relevant issue, given the particular ethnicities of Afghans and their religion, is; who are the young men going to marry, in due course, if allowed to settle in the UK? Naturally, they will return to their ‘unsafe’ homeland and find a wife (perhaps already chosen by parents or uncles) from within their own extended family or clan and bring her back to the UK. You must know, Pastun marry Pashtun, Tajiks marry Tajiks and Hazaras only Hazaras, as a general rule. So, for every man allowed asylum, there will be a couple. And then it is traditional for Afghans to have five or more children … . We have seen it all before with Pakistani immigrants. Thus our country’s services become more and more overloaded and under strain.
        That, in a nutshell, is the reason behind my objection to your original post.

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