Last month I accompanied Tim Farron on a visit to a British Red Cross centre in Gravesend, Kent to learn about the projects they run for unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASCs). Home to the British end of the Channel Tunnel, Kent has always had a high proportion of UASCs, but 2015 brought an unprecedented number, with over 1000 new children entering into the care of the Local Authority. During our visit we met young people from Sudan and Eritrea who spoke about their experiences both in transit and since they’ve arrived in the UK.
In many ways it was similar to the visit I took with Tim and Catherine Bearder to Cologne in February, but there were also startling differences, and the starkest difference was in access to language courses and education.
In Cologne, language was the absolute priority. The Deputy Mayor, Andreas Wolter explained to us that they had learnt lessons from the 1970s when little attempt was made to integrate the influx of Turkish people to Germany, leaving what he described as “dual societies”, with little effort to teach German to first generation Turks. Now, with the new refugees from Syria and beyond, they were investing in German classes for everyone as soon as possible after arrival. We met Syrian teenagers who had been in Germany for a few months and happily introduced themselves in German- name, age, where they were from and what career they were planning to pursue.
The contrast in Kent was bleak. Only two of the seven kids we met were having English lessons, and they all needed translators for more than the absolute basics, despite some of them having been in the UK for more than six months. Access to ESOL level one- the standardised entry level English as a second language course- is almost impossible for them. None of the colleges in Kent offer it anymore, and the college in Lewisham they used to travel to had recently stopped the course. All the young people were adamant that they wanted to go to school. They want to learn English, get an education and get a job.
Both experiences have provided Tim and our team with incomparable insight of the challenges to integration, of safeguarding for the vulnerable, and the clear value of getting it right. Yesterday, Tim launched a blueprint which answers some of the challenges of implementing the campaign to resettle over 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from within Europe, with input from experts across the sector and local government officials.
Anyone who is paying attention will realise that the refugee crisis isn’t going away, and my colleagues and I will continue to support Tim in pushing the UK government to stand up for the rights of those fleeing conflict and persecution, both at home or abroad.
Earlier this week Tim also visited the border between Greece and Macedonia with my colleague Vinous, who will to follow this up with a piece on the experience out there in the next few days.