The big screen

I’m misleading you a little this week because I’m not going to be blogging about the cinema. Though what I’m attempting to describe was at times as surreal to me as something you might glimpse on the big screen. This week’s blog is about the Home Office screening interview that all children seeking asylum in the UK need to attend.

Often this screening interview takes place at the point of entry. But quite often it happens some time after the child has arrived in the country, particularly if the child has been discovered by authorities somewhere other than at the border. Our fostered child’s interview came five weeks after he came to live with us.

The purpose of the interview is to give the Home Office a clear set of answers to questions around the identity of the child, their age and family details and also to confirm how and why the child came into the UK. After this interview, the child will be sent a Statement of Evidence form to complete within 20 days, ahead of the substantive interview (the in-depth interview that will result in an asylum decision.)

Prepared for the worst?

I know all of this before going into the interview with our lad and am prepared for the questions they will ask him and the difficult answers he will most likely give. I know that the boy we have lived with for the last five weeks is honest, calm and pretty open for someone who has been through what he’s been through. I’ve explained the interview to him with the use of an interpreter and told him to answer the questions truthfully. When I asked if he was worried about anything or wanted to ask me any questions about the interview, he said no. So I think he is prepared as well as possible and as I’ve said, I think I am too.

So, the reality is a bit of a shock to be honest. I don’t know what I expected the Immigration Officer to look like - a bespectacled, middle-aged, grey haired, sallow skinned, unremarkable professional, I suppose. What we’ve got is biceps, blue shirt and trousers that look very much like a uniform and huge boots that I can’t stop looking at (the boots not the biceps, obviously). I must add at this point that the Immigration Officer is perfectly friendly and professional and our child seems unfazed by him.

I am equally unprepared for the very first sentence the officer utters which sets the scene, ‘You have entered the country illegally,’ and the rest of the interview is peppered with terms such as imprisonment, criminal, detention, offence, removal – all of which conjure the negative. Language so at odds with this child whom we have come to know and love in the short time he’s been with us. I feel like standing up and shouting, ‘He’s not a criminal, he’s a child!’ But I remind myself that we’ve got a job to do now. The officer is doing his job. It isn’t his fault. This is just how it is.

But I can’t pretend my heart doesn’t break when they fingerprint him. It’s a lump in my throat as I type. I just can’t explain how it feels to watch the child - the one you have seen crying because he’s so homesick, the one whose clothes you’ve washed, the one whose sheets you’ve changed, the one you’ve cooked for, whose likes and dislikes you have started to know (loves eggs, hates kale – a child like any other), the one who loves Mr Bean but just doesn’t get MTV - to watch this child being fingerprinted and photographed is like a knife in your gut. To me, he is a child. Full stop. This knife is twisted sharper still as you watch the child accept all this as completely normal.

The system

At the end of the interview, the Immigration Officer gives our lad his paperwork which states that he has entered the country illegally. With the help of the interpreter, he explains that he has been served with this paperwork because he has done something illegal. For the first time, our child’s face clouds over and he says that no, he hasn’t done anything illegal. And it suddenly dawns on me, why would he know this? The officer explains that it is illegal to enter the country in the way that he has just recounted and did he not, after all, enter the country in this way?

‘Yes,’ he says. If coming into the country in the way he did is a criminal offence, he is admitting that he’s guilty as charged.

So again, I want to add that the officer is perfectly kind, gentle and respectful when doing what he has to do. I am not demonising him in the slightest, far from it. The system however, in my mind, acts without the slightest degree of empathy. It treats these children with suspicion and fear, and is unmoved by their tragic stories. And there are all sorts of logical, sensible, important reasons why the system operates like this but that doesn’t make it feel right, it doesn’t make it feel fair and it doesn’t make it feel human. That said, it is also a system that we now have to work with. We have to ensure it doesn’t trample our child underfoot. We have to make a little sunshine in its shadow. And we have to do this whilst hoping that at the end of it all, the system won’t rob our child of a future. In all of this, we could really do worse than to take a leaf from our brave young lad’s book – and just learn to deal with it with dignity.

We are also very aware that we must prepare him thoroughly and painstakingly for what lies ahead. There is so much about the process that must be broken down for him. It is not just a matter of language. He is 14. What do most 14-year-olds know about the asylum process in their own country let alone one so far removed from their own? But it is cultural too. Does he even understand who the Home Office is? What a solicitor does? Does he know such a thing as immigration law even exists? To him, there are only two things he understands in this whole conundrum: death and life. He chose life. But as to who is making the decisions about this life, I doubt very much he could tell you.

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