Young Afghans in the UK: deportations in the dead of night to a war-zone


This article appeared in Open Democracy (50:50) on 24 June 2013.

Each year around 400 children forced by war to leave their families and homes in Afghanistan seek sanctuary in the UK. Lisa Matthews writes for Young People Seeking Safety Week on the young adults who, having rebuilt their lives, are now at threat of return. 

“You want to send me back to a country that does not know me, to a country that will hurt me. I only know my life now. Nothing else. In Afghanistan they are not in life. That’s not life. I have no family. I have no home. My life was torn apart. I was a child when I came here. I am not an adult now. Oh, these are not the answers you wanted? What more can I say? I want a bright life. More than this.”

These are the words of Asef, the young Afghan protagonist in a new play called Mazloom. Mazloom is a portrait of a young asylum seeker, alone in London, whose life is being torn apart by the impending prospect of deportation to Afghanistan, where indiscriminate violence and Taliban intimidation await.

Each year around 400 children are forced by war to leave their family and home in Afghanistan to seek safety in the UK. Mazloom draws on original testimony to explore the experiences of those who, having arrived as children and spent several years in the UK, are now at risk of deportation. The script was written by Sara Masters, after working with young people who attend Merton and Wandsworth Asylum Welcome, and directed by Kieran Sheehan for several shows around London last year.

This year, Mazloom is being taken on tour to six cities around the UK by the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) and film-maker Sue Clayton as part of Young People Seeking Safety Week, which begins on 24 June. Young People Seeking Safety Week, which is organised by the national YPSS network, aims to bring positive attention to the issues of young asylum seekers; to encourage conversation and action across the nation; to provide a platform for young people to share their experiences and express their concerns; and to act as a showcase for the talents, creativity and diversity of young people seeking safety and those that support them.

Mazloom. Photo: Themba Lewis

Lives shattered simply by turning 18

Several audience members at a public rehearsal of Mazloom have looked after young people in a situation not dissimilar to that of Asef. They spoke of the cruelty of lives shattered simply by turning 18.

If a young person’s asylum claim has been refused but there are not adequate ‘reception arrangements‘ allowing them to be returned to their home country, they are given a short period of leave to remain in the UK and are usually looked after by foster carers or social services. These young people have been sent from their homes (sometimes as young as twelve and thirteen, or even younger) by their families for their own safety. Many have made perilous journeys lasting months and even years to reach the ‘sanctuary’ of the UK. They are then faced with a hostile asylum system, and find themselves disbelieved about their age, about their past, about the dangers they have been through.

Alone in the UK, unaccompanied asylum seekers often forge very strong bonds with their foster carers. They become their new family with whom they can start to heal and attempt to move on from the dangers in their country of origin, the traumas of the journey and the separation from home, family, friends and all that they know.

Once they are 18, all of this protection is taken away from them; they are at risk of detention, deportation and destitution. Having lost so much already, they now face losing their new homes and families too. As the British family of ‘Josh’, a young man from Iraq who last year finally won his battle to stay in the UK, said: ‘Having to fight to keep our family with us, this just doesn’t seem fair. Our son needs his family and we need him. The threat to remove our son would rip the hearts out of us as a family, as it would do by removing any child from their home.’

What awaits in Afghanistan

Mazloom gives us glimpses of what has been left behind, what has been overcome, and what once more may be lost. We start to think about what is next for Asef, what he may be forcibly returned to.

Many people in the UK may be vaguely aware that Afghanistan is not safe. We hear occasional news reports of the odd explosion. But what we don’t hear about are the weekly reports of terrible bomb attacks killing civilians. Added to this, incomprehensible numbers of Afghans are internally displaced – UNHCR estimates that in mid-2012 there were some 425,000 internally displaced people in Afghanistan. Many more die during the harsh winters, or live in terrible conditions in the slums in Kabul and other cities.

Children and young people are most at risk, particularly those who have lived for much of their life outside of Afghanistan and may be singled out as targets upon return. Asef is just one of them.

Mazloom. Photo: Themba Lewis

A movement to stop deportations to Afghanistan

Very few people know about the ‘ghost’ charter flights which remove dozens of young Afghans against their will every month. These flights leave in the middle of the night from unspecified airports, operated by unnamed companies. Over 5,000 people refused asylum seekers have been returned to Afghanistan in this way since charter flights there began in 2004.

We can try and imagine what this reality feels like for the hundreds of young Afghans in Asef’s position, but it’s too much.

We may also ask, how can the UK be locking up young people, then forcing them onto secret flights in the dead of night, to deport them to a war-zone?

The weight of that injustice can sometimes feel overwhelming, but individuals’ stories can continue to inspire us to speak truth to power and to be a megaphone for the young people directly experiencing this truth.

The concerns expressed by many young Afghans who my colleagues and I work with  – that the asylum system is not protecting those in need, that children are being disbelieved and inadequately supported, and that young people are being returned to an unsafe country – are already echoed by the twenty-six members of the Young People Seeking Safety network. Human rights groups across the world, including Amnesty International, have also warned of the risks of deporting refused Afghan asylum seekers. The proposed project to deport even younger children – aged 16 and 17 – under a European project called ERPUM – has provoked particularly widespread condemnation from groups such as Human Rights Watch.

Ordinary members of the public are speaking out too. During 2012, NCADC was regularly contacted by concerned teachers, foster carers, social workers, friends and community members who knew young Afghans at risk of deportation and were appalled that these young people were facing forced removal to a country in which such violence persists. In response to this, NCADC organised a public meeting in June 2012 to give people an opportunity to express these concerns and build a plan of action. From this meeting, a Stop Deportations to Afghanistan campaign was formed.

From the individual to the universal

As Jennifer Allsopp has argued in these pages, ‘Anti-deportation campaigns are a crucial expression of human solidarity, and most importantly, an essential device for holding states to account.’ The campaigns are about individuals, the human stories that break down seemingly intractable political issues. Mazloom is one of these stories. Hamish Jenkinson, director of the Old Vic Tunnels London theatre, has described it as ‘a tender and honest piece of the human story behind an issue that is so often reduced to statistics and political manifesto soundbites’.

Theatre has the power to move you for a moment and for a life-time; to tell you one person’s story that is an ‘all of ours’ story. Both theatre and campaigning are about voices, heard from a stage.

Even those of us who have seen the play several times, upon watching it again, become once more angered and saddened; outraged and inspired. In the play, Asef also switches between these emotions – one moment a child, talking about his love of cricket and avoiding the ominous letter than has arrived through the post; the next, an angry young man, fed-up of being treated like luggage and having his rebuilt life and his hopes for the future taken away from him.

In the context of an asylum system that attempts to silence the asylum-seeker; dispersal and enforcement policies that seek to divide ‘us’ from ‘them’; and much public and political rhetoric that portrays immigrants as undifferentiated, threatening mass, Asef’s words reach out to us, reminding us that he is just a young guy, feeling how we would feel, urging us to hear him and to do something.

Mazloom is on tour from 25 June and will be coming to Newcastle, Canterbury, Leicester and Brighton. It will then travel to Glasgow in September 2013. You can join the Stop Deportations to Afghanistan group on Facebook and consult the website to find out more about your local Young People Seeking Safety group.


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