Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 April 2021
‘I don't know what to do, I’m walking round like a wild chicken.’
These were Dan's words, blurted down the phone. He had just heard that the United Kingdom (UK) Home Office had finally agreed to give him indefinite leave to remain. For nine years he had been stuck, his life defined by a legal status that variably categorized him as ‘failed asylumseeker’, ‘appeal rights exhausted’ and ‘undocumented’. During this time, he was unable to study or work and had no secure place in which to live. He did not know where he would next find food or a way of clothing himself and he was unable to make any plans for the future. He was, as one young person in our study described his similar experience of life without documents, living ‘life with the pause button on’. Being finally recognized as a bona fide human being has transformed Dan. He is happy, he looks different and he has acquired an air of confidence and calm. In less than a year, he has a job, somewhere to live, has been able to visit family in Europe, is making plans for university and is having fun. When we catch up on the phone, Dan chats about day-to-day occurrences at work and his plans for the weekend with friends: normal stuff, unclouded by the status issue that has dogged him for so much of his life. These used to be such different conversations: no matter how hard we tried, we would inevitably circle back to the corrosive effects of his precarious immigration status. Finally, though, he has found what he came in search of: the elusive netsanet, a word meaning freedom in Tigrinya, one of the languages spoken in his native Eritrea.
During a research project lasting more than three years and directly involving over 100 unaccompanied young refugees and migrants, the majority of whom had come to England and Italy to flee persecution, violence and other extreme hardships, we encountered many young people living in situations of protracted limbo that lasted many years. We witnessed the profound impact this had on them. Even when young people were granted leave to remain, the transition to adulthood was not plain sailing.