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In search of justice for young Albanians - #RefugeeWeek2020

Tuesday 16 June 2020

By David Neale, legal researcher and former barrister at Garden Court Chambers.

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Over the last few years Garden Court has been successfully collaborating with Breaking the Chains, a unique and ground-breaking project based in the Migrant and Refugee Children’s Legal Unit (MiCLU) at Islington Law Centre. Breaking the Chains was created in 2018 as a partnership between MiCLU and Shpresa Programme, a user-led organisation serving the Albanian community.

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people from Albania face many problems. Many of them are survivors of physical, sexual and/or emotional violence. All of them have been torn apart from their country, culture and attachments at a young age and thrust into an unfamiliar country and culture. While still children, they have been made to face a hostile immigration system which re-traumatises them many times over. In a typical case, traumatised young people are forced to describe the worst events in their lives over and over again through repeated interviews and hearings; treated with callousness by immigration officials; and accused of lying about their experiences. Often, the accusation of lying comes because they have muddled up dates or forgotten details and because their recollection is not wholly consistent from interview to interview. Such accusations should never be made: decades of psychological research shows that it is inherently difficult to remember temporal information (such as dates, frequencies, durations and sequences of events), proper names and peripheral details; that remembering such information is more difficult for children than adults; and that these problems are magnified in survivors of abuse and trauma who are suffering from PTSD and/or depression. Studies have shown time and time again that there are just as many inconsistencies in a true account as in a false one.

Yet the Home Office and most judges continue to ignore the science and continue to treat “inconsistencies” as evidence of lying. It is not an exaggeration to say that the UK asylum adjudication system is itself a form of abuse, inflicted deliberately by the state on traumatised, vulnerable and marginalised people – for no good reason whatsoever.

Those young people who are disbelieved often end up in situations of deep vulnerability – either detained and forcibly returned to Albania, or living in the UK on the margins of society with no immigration status and a constant fear of the authorities. This situation of vulnerability, created by state policy, pushes many into the hands of human traffickers and organised criminals. When the realities of the asylum system are examined in this way, it becomes apparent that the state’s purported commitment to combating trafficking is a cruel sham. As long as vulnerable children and young people are disbelieved for spurious reasons, refused asylum, and faced with the unenviable choice of returning to a situation of danger at home or living a marginalised existence in the UK, trafficking and other forms of exploitation will continue to thrive.

Unfortunately, the adults who should be on the side of these young people have often failed in their duties. For many years, too many Albanian children and young people have suffered from poor-quality legal representation; from an unjustified attitude of scepticism among lawyers about their claims; and from a lack of support from social workers, foster carers and other adults in their lives. Many Albanian children and young people, represented by a lawyer who was just going through the motions, have lost their cases – and many of them would have won their cases if they had been adequately represented.

The Breaking the Chains project has made a huge difference. With the support of a dedicated team at MiCLU and volunteer barristers at Garden Court, we have been able to take on many Albanian children and young people as clients – including those who have already been through the system and are now coming forward to make fresh asylum claims, as well as those who are still at the initial asylum claim or appeal stage. We have also provided support and training to other lawyers – with well-attended training events in 2018 and 2019, and a joint Garden Court-MiCLU resource hub to help lawyers understand how to prepare, and win, Albanian asylum cases. Our aim is not just to take on and win many cases ourselves, but also to encourage other lawyers to take on these cases, to adopt best practices, and to win. At this juncture I want to acknowledge the amazing work of Esme Madill, volunteer at Shpresa, solicitor at MiCLU and co-founder of Breaking the Chains – without whose tireless efforts none of this would be happening.

As we see a rising tide of resistance around the world against racism and oppression, I hope that in my lifetime we will see immigration controls consigned to the dustbin of history. But as long as the machinery of state violence continues to operate against the most marginalised members of our community, Garden Court and MiCLU will continue to work together to help secure good-quality legal representation for young Albanians. 

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