Safe haven for teens escaping violence in war-torn countries
As the escalating refugee crisis spreads across Europe, authorities in Kent are dealing with unprecedented pressures as more and more young asylum seekers cross the Channel to the UK. But what happens when they arrive here? was given exclusive access to a
There are no signs to the Milbank centre in Ashford and hidden behind a high wooden fence, it is hard to find – deliberately so.
Arriving there, you could be mistaken for thinking it is a youth club. Outside, a group of young teenage boys are kicking a football about.
Inside, around a table in a common room, others are playing board games or practising their English.
Boisterous shouting echoes through the corridors.
But behind this seemingly ordinary scene, there are stories of desperate struggles to escape persecution and violence in war-torn countries that belie the cheerful atmosphere.
This is a centre that, for the past few years, has seen hundreds of teenage asylum seekers come and go and tries to give those who arrive a chance of bettering their lives.
They come from countries ravaged by civil war and oppressive regimes and poverty, often taking huge risks to flee and travelling alone – refugees rather than economic migrants.
Milbank, which used to be an old people’s home, now houses close to 100 teenage boys many of whom have endured journeys lasting months and in some cases, years.
Sadiq from Sudan has been there for about four weeks. Quietly spoken, he tells of how he fled the war in Darfur.
Talking through an interpreter, he says his journey began in 2013 when he got on a boat in Libya – along with several hundred others – which eventually landed him in Sicily after being picked up by the coastguard.
From there, he got to mainland Italy but is, perhaps understandably, wary of revealing details. It is clear the conditions under which he travelled were arduous.
“It was a difficult journey and we could have died at any time. The boat came close to capsizing several times.”
He then managed to get to France but the details are sketchy. It seems he spent several months in Paris but he is less forthcoming about the means by which he managed to get to the UK. He says he did not pay any money to traffickers, as many do.
Since setting off and arriving in England, he has had no contact with his family that he left behind – something that is all too common.
“Unfortunately, since I left I have not learned anything about my family. I am very sad but what can I do?”
Once his stay at Milbank ends he says he wants to study at college and become an engineer.
Another boy, Nassim, from Ethiopia recounts how he was urged to flee by an uncle.
There’s an element of bravado when he talks of how he reached the UK not on a lorry but on a train from Lille, travelling without a ticket.
He, too, is reluctant to say why he fled but eventually it emerges that his father was an opposition politician and was faced with threats to his family.
“I would have liked to stay at home but I couldn’t.” His dream is to become a pilot. Short term, like all those at Milbank, he will be assessed by social workers and child psychologists, partly to establish their ages before they are moved out to shared accommodation or to foster families. Many end up at college and once they turn 18, can claim official refugee status.
Others have more harrowing stories. One Sudanese boy saw his father killed in front of him.
The centre does its best to equip the young teenagers to deal with life in the UK and how to look after themselves.
They are taught some basic English, taken shopping and shown how to do things like their laundry.
Very few abscond and if they do, often return after a few days, according to managers.
Although recent events have focused on refugees from Syria, most of those at Milbank are from countries like Eritrea and Afghanistan.
Often, the teenagers forge friendships and move out together. None stay much longer than eight weeks but it is rare for the centre to have spare capacity.
For Kent County Council, which has a statutory obligation to help the teenagers, rising costs remain an issue.
It spends £600 a week looking after each teenager and with the increasing demands, has estimated that this year, the council faces a £6.2m shortfall on what it expects to receive from the Home Office.
But social services chiefs emphasise that it is secondary to ensuring that vulnerable teenagers are given the care they need.
Teenage asylum seekers at Milbank