In recent months, it has been exhausting and dispiriting to see the British government demonising Albanian asylum seekers. For several years now, formerly as a barrister and now as a legal support worker, I’ve worked with Albanian asylum-seeking children and young people. The anti-Albanian rhetoric of politicians and media figures has been deeply misleading and unfathomably cruel. And the Home Office’s current anti-Albanian campaign is going to cost lives.
One of the most toxic narratives has been the idea that Albanian boys and men, as opposed to girls and women, aren’t “real” victims and aren’t in need of protection. This assumption is false. I’ve worked with many Albanian boys and young men who came to the UK as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. They are exceptionally vulnerable. Many have been trafficked, either within Albania or from Albania to the UK or other European countries into forced labour or forced criminality, and severely abused. Most are from deprived backgrounds and some have suffered childhood domestic violence. The overwhelming majority have post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and some have other disabilities.
Many have been retraumatised by the UK asylum system, let down by the adults who should have helped them and ultimately retrafficked within the UK. Against this backdrop, it’s particularly disturbing that 176 Albanian asylum-seeking children who were placed in hotels run by the Home Office have gone missing, and may have been trafficked by organised crime gangs.
Young people forcibly returned to Albania by the Home Office after they reach adulthood are at high risk of being trafficked there, too. Research by Asylos and Asylum Research Centre in 2019 found that the risk factors for trafficking or retrafficking included poverty, low education, suffering from physical or mental disabilities, domestic violence and/or sexual abuse within the family and being LGBT. Most asylum-seeking Albanian boys and men I have worked with display some or all of these risk factors. Despite this, the Home Office has recently claimed that Albanian trafficked boys and men are not at risk in Albania, and has even determined that their claims can be certified as “clearly unfounded”, which means depriving them of the right to appeal. They are completely wrong.
Besides trafficking, another common cause of Albanian boys and men fleeing their country is blood feud. A young man can be targeted because of something his father, grandfather, uncle or even a distant cousin did. Some blood feuds last for decades. Some can erupt suddenly even after a years-long lull. Many men and boys have no option but to self-confine, remaining in their homes for years at a time, with devastating consequences for their mental health.
In 2012, the UK’s Upper Tribunal assessed the evidence on blood feuds, and accepted that the Albanian state does not provide adequate protection to those who are in an active blood feud, especially in the north of the country (where most blood feuds occur). For the past few years, however, the Home Office has been arguing in its country policy and information notes (Cpins) – the guidance it gives to its caseworkers – that the situation has improved and that Albania now provides adequate protection. Even more concerning is that successive Cpins have claimed that asylum cases based on blood feud can be certified as clearly unfounded. Such decisions can be challenged by judicial review, but not all asylum-seekers are fortunate enough to have good legal representation, or know what their rights are.
Since 2018, I have been reviewing (and debunking) Home Office Cpins on Albania, most recently the January 2023 Cpin on blood feuds. When one actually reads the sources cited in Cpins, instead of taking the Home Office conclusions at face value, it’s clear that the conclusions are not supported. According to independent sources (as opposed to the Albanian government’s rose-tinted self-appraisals) adequate protection is not provided. Most people won’t check the accuracy of their conclusions, and overworked, underpaid legal aid lawyers don’t have the time. The result is that people in desperate need of protection have their asylum claims refused, sometimes without a right of appeal.
Misleading country policies aren’t the only reason why asylum claims are wrongly refused. Many asylum seekers are found “not credible” by the Home Office because of “inconsistencies” in their account, such as muddling up the date something happened, or the number of times it happened, or how long it took. Decades of psychological research has shown that human memory for this kind of temporal information is extremely fallible, and that depression and PTSD can cause memory problems. This is exacerbated in the case of children, whose autobiographical memories are not fully developed.
Yet it’s still common for the Home Office, and some judges, to disbelieve traumatised young people because of inconsistencies in their account. And asylum decision-making isn’t just intellectually dishonest, it’s also highly retraumatising. Asylum seekers are forced to relive the worst experiences of their lives in interviews and appeal hearings, quizzed by hostile officials whose job is to find reasons to call them a liar. Many don’t have the benefit of a good lawyer fighting their corner, due to the chronic shortage of legal aid immigration advice, and the poor quality of some private advice.
Incorrect refusals come at a terrible human cost. Many young people whose asylum claims are refused end up becoming street-homeless, exploited in illegal work on construction sites and car washes, or even trafficked by criminal gangs which subject them to brutal violence. Some young people I have worked with have lost hope and attempted to take their own lives. The current media hostility towards Albanians has only worsened the mental health of these young people and made suicide attempts more likely. And if a young person is detained and removed to Albania, it can be a death sentence. The Home Office’s culture of refusal, and the lack of adequate safeguarding for asylum-seeking children and young people, are causing immense and avoidable suffering.
The government is blaming the victims of its own policies. Having failed to provide safe and legal routes to the UK that would give desperate people an alternative to human smuggling, it’s now cracking down on a deeply vulnerable group of people who are in dire need of the UK’s protection. History will not judge this government kindly. (The Guardian)