Sanctuary in the Senedd – Why it is important

As Voices Network, we paid great attention to this event happening at the heart of the Welsh Government, the Senedd in Cardiff bay. The subject of the event is wellbeing and health of people who made Wales their Sanctuary Home. This is why the event is so important as it touches upon mostly forgotten aspect of the asylum process in the UK – the impact on the individual’s mental and physical health conditions. We are delivering our testimonies to shed light on this very important issue by talking about the challenges in integrating into a new life in Wales, accessing education and employment and how these challenges affect our health.

Larysa, our ambassador living in Newport, talks about emotions and feelings of an asylum seeker by explaining how trauma, uncertainty, living in limbo, fear and (forced) poverty affects the way we think and see our life. She suggests that providing extra funds and facilitating access to education is the panacea, because it gives hope, happiness and a reason to get up and put on clothes to do something good during the day. But she says that it takes time for the bad feelings to go away -in any challenge all uncertainty and mental health problems can quickly show up.

George, living in Cardiff, echoes the difficulties of not being able to continue his education and its impact on his life. Sometimes he finds himself sitting on a bench for several hours without doing nothing. He wants the government to provide more funds to access his courses and obtain a certificate in construction management. Letting him access to his desired class will make him happy and healthy as a father and a husband, who finds raising his family in Wales “joyous and full of laughter”.

Yasmin talks about her experiences in getting used to the life in Wales. She highlights that social connections is the way to tackle any health and mental problems, and sometimes finds it difficult to find close friends to talk to and to improve her English. As an experienced radiographer, she would like to find a job in a hospital and bring joy and happiness to people’s life in Wales. She is working so hard to get a high score on English exam to get a certificate for this job, but being apart from her family make her so sad and affects all her motivation to study. Strict family reunification rules do not allow her to bring her sick parents to the UK, but she hopes one day her parents will come and she and her sisters will have a big family together like they had before.

Mauda, living in Swansea, has suffered a lot from the uncertainty of her life during her asylum journey. However, she has never lost her hope – and sings her song named “A journey of a person seeking asylum”.

Godwin, living in Wrexham, is a poet and he expresses his ideas about wellbeing and health via his poem entitled “The Unseen Tears of Refuge Seekers”.

Our Voices Network will come together for this event, and once again become “the voice of the voiceless refugees”. We will continue to raise our voice, because our stories matter.

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Education is Power – Barriers to Education for Refugees and People Seeking Asylum.

“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.

Drawing on the lived experience of refugees and people seeking asylum in the Voices Network and beyond, I would like to explore of the factors negatively affecting us in accessing and remaining in education:

Mental Health.

Mental health, particularly associated with past trauma and current anxiety and poor mental health induced by the UK asylum process leads to increased absences and exclusions from education. The rates of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression are high amongst refugee children (particularly unaccompanied minors) when compared to the general population, and this in turn impacts upon their ability to adapt and learn in school. One Unaccompanied Asylum Seeker Child (UASC) told:

“you might not be psychologically ready if you have experienced rape, harassment, torture in the past, this may still be on your mind and so you can’t focus on going to school or you are scared.”

These challenges lead to a variety of issues, including being unable to concentrate in class; absenteeism (typically linked to night-time insomnia or nightmares and consequent morning sleeping); inability to retain information; becoming withdrawn or angry; self-harm and suicide attempts, and struggling to make friends.

Bullying and Social Isolation.

Experiences of bullying and racial and religious harassment and discrimination are not unusual.

“I am always treated like an alien in the class. They are always whispering about me whenever I enter the classroom. My teachers are good to me but I hate to be among my classmates. I feel so lonely. My only best friend in this country is my teddy bear.”

One in five children from refugee and asylum seeking backgrounds say they have experienced bullying since starting school.

One parent shared that their child “can’t enjoy his education because he is bullied” and that “my son loves science but this school never discover that because he is suffering from bullying – he can’t focus on anything”. One parent went so far as to say that her son was so unhappy that “he said ‘I want to go back to Syria’ – he is prepared to go back to war”. The stigma surrounding people fleeing persecuting persists and in the divisive political climate of a post-Brexit UK, I fear this will only worsen.

Poverty, particularly linked to the ability to afford educational resources, participate in school trips and travel to and from school also hampers academic growth and the ability to participate fully in social activities and form social bonds. This is part of the Home Office’s ‘Hostile Environment’ policies which force asylum seekers to live on £37 per week. Further barriers delaying refugee and asylum-seeking children’s entry to education include challenges resulting from being placed in temporary initial accommodation to be then relocated and be forced to start all over again.

Long Delays in Accessing Education.

Research by the children’s charity UNICEF found not a single region in the UK had successfully met the 20-school-day target for finding places for all the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) in their care. Refugee and asylum-seeking children face long delays accessing education after arriving in the UK, in many cases because schools are reluctant to offer them a place over fears they will lower exam results and affect school league tables.

people seeking asylum also face long waiting periods to access basic college course in English, this prevents them from integrating sooner and presents massive barriers to people rebuilding their lives.

“I had to wait for two years to get a college place so I could start learning basic English.”

The UNICEF report which is the first to provide a comprehensive national picture of the educational experience of children arriving in the UK, says young people trying to get into secondary schools and further education face the longest delays, with up to a quarter waiting for more than three months for a place and some up to a year. The majority of UASC arrive in the UK at an age where they would typically enter education at Year 10 or Year 11, but their education is being disrupted.

Furthermore, many of us in the Voices Network are highly education, we are professionals but the UK doesn’t recognise our hard work and qualifications.

“I have a Masters degree from Iran. They don’t recognise my qualification even at the college here. As an asylum seeker, I don’t have enough money to pay for my qualifications to be accredited”

Lack of Specialist Support.

Finally, all of these challenges are exacerbated by a lack of expertise amongst staff in supporting students with lived experience of being a refugee or seeking asylum. Whilst some schools have elected to provide specialist training for their staff, this remains rare, and staff may be left ill-equipped to meet the complex needs of children affected by conflict in an often already under-resourced and over-stretched sector.

In addition to language barriers, the sense of isolation and lack of confidence experienced by some refugee children can come from a range of cultural barriers. Refugee and asylum-seeking children may experience difficulty adjusting to a new educational culture, which can be very different from what they experienced in their home countries. They may be unfamiliar with certain rules and norms that is followed here and such creates further tension in their learning experience.

By a Voices Ambassador.

The Voices Network aim to:

Change people’s minds, policy and practice around refugees and people seeking asylum.

To follow our work please search #AVAILProject on Twitter.