Benefit changes and a new Bill due later in the year will have catastrophic effects on hundreds of children seeking asylum. Reva Klein reports. Like Home Secretary Michael Howard, I am the child of a refugee. Had a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania not succumbed to his conscience 54 years ago and issued a couple of hundred Polish and Russian Jews with forged visas, I would not be here - or anywhere else. My father took flight from his village in the Ukraine as the Nazis tore their way through eastern Europe. A fighter in the Jewish resistance, his days were becoming numbered and his options fewer.
One by one, countries were closing their minds and their doors on the desperate Jews of Europe. As a last resort, my father and his fellow asylum seekers lobbied the only remaining, if unlikely, possibility - the Japanese Embassy in Vilna. Many years later, the diplomat's widow said that her husband stuck his neck out because he knew they had nowhere else to go. To ignore them would have meant living with their deaths. And so he spent days and nights forging documents for them, knowing he would lose his job, his career, his future. As he did.
Today, 44 years after the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the Convention on Refugees were established out of a collective sense of guilt about the Holocaust, the mood in the west towards the escalating number of the dispossessed and displaced is unwelcoming. Fortress Europe is pulling up the drawbridges against outsiders as never before. Be they high-profile dissidents like Mohammed al-Mas'ari from Saudi Arabia, whose safe haven in Britain would cost the Government, by its own admission, millions of pounds in lost trade, or anonymous families fleeing from the unprecedented numbers of strife-torn regions, they're all the same. Their problems are not our concern.
Britain is a European leader in this approach. If the Government wins the vote in the parliamentary debates in both Houses this week and next, social security regulations will be introduced on February 5 that will remove all rights to income support, housing benefit and other related benefits - such as free school meals - for people whose in-country applications for asylum (made after passing through the port of entry) or appeals are refused.
The average waiting time for applications is currently eight months. To date, 64,000 people await decisions on their applications. Appeals can take anything from eight to 33 months to be heard.This means that appellants could be left without any means to look after themselves for up to nearly three years. The immediate effect will be that about 3,000 people a month, plus dependent children, will lose their benefits. Come next September, their hardships will be compounded by the introduction of the Asylum and Immigration Bill. As well as bringing in a "white list" of countries from which no asylum applications will be considered, the Bill will end asylum seekers' entitlement to public housing. "Nowhere else in Europe, with the exception of Italy, are asylum seekers left without any kind of shelter or support," says Sue Simmonds of the Refugee Council.
Among those who will lose their benefits are 116 unaccompanied minors and a further 150 unaccompanied 16 to 20-year-olds living on severe hardship benefit, some of whom look after younger siblings. In the coming year, Home Office statistics indicate that a further 30,000 asylum seekers and 4,200 dependent children will be affected by these changes. Agencies including the Refugee Council, Barnardos, Family Service Units, Save the Children, religious groups and, most tellingly, UNHCR itself, have condemned this legislation, calling it a violation of the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Britain is a signatory. Article 22 of the convention calls for states to ensure that "a child who is seeking refugee sta- tus...shall...receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance."
Elsewhere, the document states that every child "has the right to benefit from social security".
These new laws will be catastrophic for asylum-seeker families. With no rights to work for the first six months after arrival, no benefits, no housing, they will face destitution, homelessness, despair. While many stay with friends or relatives when they first arrive, their hosts are likely to find it impossible to keep them on a long-term basis without income support.
Already, landlords are turning away asylum seekers for fear that they won't be able to pay rent, as Changiz Ghobadi, an Iranian refugee and student union activist at a London college, has seen for himself. "I went with a refugee student to find a flat after the bed and breakfast where he was staying chucked out all the refugee families and single people. We went to 60 commercial letting agencies. Nobody would accept him."
When Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley announced the changes, he referred to "assisting local authorities with any unavoidable additional costs arising under homelessness legislation or the Children Act".
But the Association of Metropolitan Authorities is dubious about the levels of that support. Matthew Warburton, the AMA's under-secretary for housing, says the association hopes it will be adequate but suspects the Government will be looking for some contributions from local authorities' resources. "The fact is that a lot of asylum seekers currently living in private accommodation will be thrown out by landlords and will approach local authorities for housing. "
It is unknown whether local authorities will be able to meet the volume of demands - what is known is that insufficient housing stock and financial insecurity will mean families moving from one short-term housing solution to the next, constantly on the look-out for something cheaper.
Children's education will be disrupted and their already tenuous sense of security will suffer further blows. These stresses, on top of those brought about by the upheaval of leaving their home countries, are known to lead to family break-ups, and perhaps to domestic violence. Children may be taken into care.
What does the future hold for these families? Andy Keefe, co-ordinator of the Halkevi Kurdish and Turkish Community Centre in Hackney, envisages a grim scenario. "Education will quickly become a secondary issue for children trying to struggle through with nowhere to live and nothing to eat. Everything will become a matter of staying alive." Seventy-five per cent of Turkish Kurds who apply for asylum have their applications refused.
Plans are being made for emergency accommodation for the thousands who will lose their only means of support. The Refugee Council is opening an emergency hostel and Halkevi, among others, is considering how to shelter and feed 2,000 families in a building that is not equipped for the task. As often the only secure focal point in refugee children's lives, schools will be affected by children whose families lose their benefits.
At Stoke Newington School in Hackney, where about 160 asylum seekers are on roll, deputy head Jenny Moorhouse and her staff are preparing for the worst. "Obviously we as a school can't rehouse families. However we are committed to meeting the needs of our refugee students. We have links with social services and welfare agencies, and we have our own Turkish home school liaison teacher. Our new refugee policy has the full support of our governors and we will all be doing what we can to make sure that our families get the support they need. "
But the real effects of the legislation are hard to predict. As Sherry Leizer of the Kurdistan Workers Association in Haringay says: "We've tried hard to make asylum seekers aware of what will happen, but they have gone through so much already, it's too horrible a concept to take in."
* There are 27 million refugees worldwide, 80 per cent of whom are women and children.
* Eighty per cent find refuge in poor, developing countries while only 5 per cent come to Europe.
* Britain accepts fewer refugees than other European countries and the numbers are dropping dramatically.
* Whereas 50 per cent of asylum seekers were granted refugee status in 1979, the figure was less than 4 per cent in 1994.
While children under 16 have an entitlement to education irrespective of immigration status or length of residence under the Education Act 1944, it's a different story for students over the age of compulsory education.
Until now, asylum-seeking students have been able to have their fees waived for English and other courses as benefit claimants. But with their loss of benefit, colleges will be forced to demand overseas fees as if they were any foreign student. The Further Education Funding Council will have no powers to reimburse colleges attended by asylum seekers who lose their benefits.
FROM KURDISTAN TO HARINGEY
Esma's soft-spokenness belies her determination to do everything in her power to keep her children safe and sound. This has meant paying money-fixers who late last year trundled her, her four children and other families into a truck bound for Dover, leaving behind everything and everyone.
She had no choice, she says. She and her children, aged 11, 13, 15 and 17, are Kurds who, in 1991, were routed west from their homes in Kurdistan by the Turkish army.
They weren't alone. An estimated two million Kurds have been internally displaced, their villages burnt down, their way of life obliterated, their leaders and activists murdered.
Esma's husband was one of them. Tortured in detention, he died of his injuries in 1987. Over the past couple of years her children were attacked and threatened at school by the police and Turkish racist groups. They were told not to get involved in politics or they would wind up like their father.
"Some of their teachers at school tell them 'you must learn Islam and Turkish culture and you must only speak Turkish. You're not Kurdish, you're Turkish now'." Esma shakes her head and says quietly, "I can't live in Turkey anymore. "
She and her four children now live in Haringey, north London, with her recently unemployed brother, sister-in-law and their three children in a three-bedroomed house.
As she arrived in early November and applied for asylum a few days after she got here, she will be among the 13,000 to lose their income support when the changes come into effect. And as a Kurd seeking asylum from Turkey, her chances of being granted asylum are slim.
SIX-MONTH WALK THROUGH ETHIOPIA
There are 40 unaccompanied young asylum seekers on roll at Hampstead School in north London. One of them, 18-year-old J from Ethiopia, has just been refused her asylum application. She doesn't know what she will do.
She came here in late October after walking six months through Ethiopia to escape the government troops who killed her three siblings. They were targets, as was she, because of their father's involvement with the Eritrean Liberation Government.
After some weeks in a Kenyan refugee camp, she got on a plane to London, not knowing where her parents were. She was brought to the school by another pupil who came across her at an Eritrean church hostel, where she is staying. Of the Pounds 32 a week she receives in benefit, she spends Pounds 25 on transport to the school.
Athy Demetriades, a teacher at the school, is co-ordinator of the refugee charity Children of the Storm run by sixth-formers, pupils and staff. "We are the only people she has," she says. "When her money is stopped, we don't know what will happen to her.
"Someone has got to make a plea for these kids. They're only children and every last one of them wants to go back and rebuild their homeland. The situation is horrific - and it has a tremendous knock-on effect on all the children and staff. A pupil is here one day; the next day, she could disappear. "
* Children of the Storm is launching an appeal to support pupils whose benefits are withdrawn. Cheques should be sent to Children of the Storm, Westbere Road, London NW2 3RT. Alternatively, money can be sent through your bank to Children of the Storm, charity registration no. 0135774. Nat West account no. 41414381. sort code 60-08-21.