Unhappy 18th birthday: The teenage refugees who fear they'll be sent 'home'

Audio library highlights plight of youngsters who fled war zones when they reach adulthood in UK

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The Independent Online

For most people in Britain an 18th birthday is an occasion worth celebrating, usually with a first pint at their local pub.

But for thousands of children who come to the country as refugees, the excitement of reaching adulthood is tainted with fear and uncertainty as they face being sent back to the countries they fled.

To draw attention to their vulnerability, the Refugee Council and publishers Penguin have created an audio library of moving accounts by refugees who were forced to flee war zones as children to seek refuge in the UK, or were trafficked here as children.

Most refugees under the age of 18 who arrive in Britain are granted leave to remain and are entitled to support from social services. However, as they approach 18 their case is reassessed if they have not been granted refugee status. After that their support is often reduced or withdrawn, with many facing the prospect of being held in detention centres and returned to their home countries.

The stories were written during a workshop led by Booker prize nominee Romesh Gunesekera in September, and range from creative writing to autobiographical pieces. They are all inspired by the theme “Turning 18”.

One story by 17-year-old Valentina, who was trafficked to the UK from Columbia, describes the feelings of isolation and loss of childhood she has experienced. Eric, who was a child soldier in Uganda, talks about the difficulties of losing support from social services and having to live off food vouchers.

Shan Nicholas, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “These stories echo the terrifying and lonely experiences of many of the children we work with every day, but also illustrate the courage many of them have to move forward with their lives despite that. It is unacceptable that support from social services is vastly reduced when they turn 18.”

The recordings, available online and as podcasts, include introductions from celebrities including Vivienne Westwood, Grayson Perry and Zoë Wanamaker. Joe Dunthorne, author of the best-selling novel Submarine, has also submitted a guest contribution to the collection.

“The thing about coming of age, from a writer’s perspective, is that it’s an absolutely universal experience. All your memories from that point remain vivid,” Dunthorne said. “People in their 80s remember their teens better than yesterday. It’s so sad when that very formative part of someone’s life is put through that strain – because it’s going to refract through the rest of their lives.”