Young Eritrean refugee living in Glasgow thwarted in asylum bid
Seventeen-year-old Rima Andmariam is studying for her Intermediate 2 maths prelim. She is a positive young person, bright, friendly and open, say her teachers at Glasgow's Anniesland College. But Rima's continued happiness hangs in the balance.
Rima arrived in the UK in March 2008, aged 15, fleeing persecution in Eritrea, north Africa, and then racist neglect in Italy. Her family are Pentecostal Christians, a creed which is illegal in Eritrea.
Her father was taken away by police when Rima was 14; she does not know if her parents are alive or dead.
Today, every time the doorbell rings, Rima and the Scottish family who have taken her in jump. Despite having sought asylum as a child, Rima could be deported because the Home Office has contested her age.
According to her baptism certificate, Rima was born on July 1, 1992, meaning her asylum application should have been treated as that of an unaccompanied minor, giving her a better chance of being allowed to remain in the UK. However, the Home Office claims their age assessment shows she is over 20 (see panel). Now, in spite of her strong case, Rima faces being deported to Italy under the Dublin Conventions, which state the first EU country to receive an asylum application is responsible for deciding that application.
Lyn Ma, a senior lecturer at Anniesland College, who runs the unaccompanied children programme 16+, says: "Most of the young people will have at some point been in that situation.
"If their age is not disputed, they tend to get leave to remain. But when they turn 18, they have to start the process again. Most have been in the situation where they don't know if their claim is going to be granted - and some still are."
The college has around 75 unaccompanied youngsters who have fled from countries around the world - Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo, Iran, Iraq - ending up in Glasgow, which in 1999 became one of the cities to which asylum seekers were dispersed.
A few are in mainstream classes, but most attend a specially-designed English for speakers of other languages programme, which began in 2004, after the college realised adult ESOL classes were inappropriate.
"Adult ESOL learners know why they are coming to a class and how to behave," explains Ms Ma. "Often, these students have had no schooling or fractured schooling, which means they are not used to sitting still for two hours or to being organised or to interacting with others in a classroom situation."
The college runs a beginners' literacy class for young people with no English, who are illiterate in their own language, and three ESOL classes pitched at different levels. Rima attends the upper ESOL class led by Ms Ma.
"We focus on giving the youngsters life skills and getting them some SQA qualifications," she says. "They do Intermediate 1 ESOL and also Intermediate 2 maths."
They undergo mock interviews and are helped to write personal statements and CVs. Once a week, they take part in the John Muir Award, getting out and about in the Scottish countryside, learning about conservation and the plants and animals native to Scotland. "It is about preparing them to move on and making sure they have everything they will need," Ms Ma sums up.
Rima loves college, says Alison Phipps, a Glasgow University professor, who along with her husband, Robert Swinfen, took Rima in over a year ago. Rima calls them "Mum" and "Dad" (pictured below).
"I suppose all parents say this, but Rima's got a bright future," says Professor Phipps. "She wants to be an engineer and build bridges. She's a disciplined young lass, works hard and is making good progress."
The family is campaigning for the Home Secretary to intervene and give Rima leave to stay in the UK on humanitarian grounds.
Professor Phipps continues: "It is not rare for children from the Horn of Africa to have to survive without parents, but it is rare to lose a second set, having had the good fortune to find people who will love you as their own."
When young people like Rima arrive at Anniesland College, staff know little about their past but histories come out as the teachers win their trust. It can be a difficult time.
"Often when they get here and start to feel safe, that's when things start to fall apart psychologically," says Ms Ma. "They realise the magnitude of what has happened and that they might never see their families again."
Trouble sleeping and nightmares are frequent, says Ms Ma. College staff offer some support, but where problems are complex they refer them to agencies like the Red Cross and Compass, NHS Greater Glasgow's asylum seeker and refugee mental health liaison team.
The group is "extraordinarily supportive", says Ms Ma. In Rima's case, students have organised a campaign and have started a petition. "In the midst of all this chaos, we can provide security and stability," she says.
"Here they concentrate on something other than their problems and are just ordinary young people learning."
Where there is doubt over whether a refugee or asylum seeker is under 18, age assessment is carried out, usually by social workers.
They take into consideration physical appearance and demeanour; they also ask questions about family circumstances and history, educational background and activities during the previous few years in order to make a decision.
However, according to the Scottish Refugee Council, the process lacks consistency. Assessment should take place over a period of time and the child should be told, the council argues.
Guidelines issued to paediatricians by the Royal College state that age determination is an "inexact science", with the margin of error as much as five years either side.