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

Kentish Express Ashford & District - - Desperate Journeys -

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

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