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A delivery truck sits at the back of the RAF Lakenheath commissary, where trucks drop their goods off at the store.
A delivery truck sits at the back of the RAF Lakenheath commissary, where trucks drop their goods off at the store. (Ben Murray / S&S)

RAF MILDENHALL — Since the discovery of eight Afghan youths in a delivery truck at RAF Lakenheath on March 8, details have been slow to emerge about how they made their way from the war-torn nation to an air base in England.

What is known is that the truck that brought them to the fighter base started at a Defense Commissary Agency distribution center in Germersheim, Germany, two days earlier, loaded with nonperishable foods.

From there, the soft-sided truck traveled north, made a ferry crossing to England and gained access to the base about 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning. Eight Afghan males, claiming to be between 11 and 17 years old, were discovered when the truck reached the base.

But while police, immigration and base officials have refused to elaborate on the circumstances that led the Afghans onto the base, the process of what likely happens to them now is more defined.

According to immigration lawyers in London, cases where illegal entrants are discovered in the U.K. often involve an immediate application for asylum, a complex but structured system in Britain with a limited number of outcomes.

“The basic thing that will happen is that they will be required to put forward their asylum claim,” said Jackie Peirce, a lawyer with Glazer Delmar Solicitors in London.

Once such a claim is filed, applicants generally get scheduled for a pivotal interview, held in a matter of weeks, in which they attempt to prove that it is unsafe for them to return to their home country, Peirce said.

To be granted full asylum, an applicant has to prove a well-founded fear of violence or persecution in the whole of their native country — not just a particular region — that would make it unreasonable for the British government to send them back, according to the Home Office Web site.

It’s a difficult standard to uphold.

“The majority of asylum seekers are refused,” Peirce said. But an asylum refusal doesn’t necessarily mean a deportation.

If an applicant is accepted as a youth and can prove he is from Afghanistan, it is likely he will be granted what is called “discretionary leave” to stay in the U.K. until he is 18, when his case is reassessed, Peirce said.

In fact, according to the most recent Home Office numbers, 69 percent of the unaccompanied youths applying for asylum in 2005 were given discretionary leave. Only 5 percent were granted asylum.

But that’s still a 74 percent chance of gaining some type of permission to remain in the U.K., making the question of age a tricky one, lawyers said.

Many human traffickers know the benefits of entering the U.K. as a minor and coach illegal immigrants to claim to be younger than 18 regardless of their true age, said one London lawyer who declined to be named because he also works as a judge in similar cases.

“Very often people will claim to be under 18, because if you do that, no one will remove you,” he said. The minors live legally in the country until their required review at 18, and then often disappear “underground” if they fear their asylum claim will be denied, he said.

Additionally, applicants from Afghanistan often don’t have legitimate asylum claims because their problems are tribal, and often could be solved with a domestic relocation, a factor that leads to asylum refusals, he said.

Still, thousands of Afghans attempt to enter the U.K. every year, and stowing away on a delivery truck is, “common as hell,” the London attorney said.

Indeed, it is not the first time in recent memory illegal immigrants have been discovered in a truck making commissary deliveries to RAF Lakenheath. On Sept. 27, 2001, six men claiming to be Iraqis reached the gate of the base in a small compartment under a refrigerated truck before security forces heard their voices from inside and halted the truck.

In that instance, the truck did not gain access to the base, and the men, thought to be asylum seekers, were taken into custody by Suffolk police.

Asked if security measures were altered in the wake of the March 8 incident, 48th Fighter Wing spokeswoman Staff Sgt. Vanessa Young said in an e-mail that the base does not discuss security tactics.

“We do not comment on security procedures on base. At the time of the incident, all security procedures were observed and at no time were base security measures compromised,” she wrote.

DeCA, however, quickly took steps to improve the security of its delivery trucks headed to the U.K., according to a statement from agency spokeswoman Gerri Young.

“In direct response to the stowaway event on March 8, DeCA Europe immediately began taking steps to eliminate any soft-sided truck deliveries to the United Kingdom. Starting March 21, all trucks leaving DeCA’s Germersheim facility destined for the United Kingdom have been hard body and will continue to be so,” Young wrote in a statement e-mailed to Stars and Stripes.

Ministry of Defense police said March 8 they believed the Afghan youths probably did not intend to end up on Lakenheath and were likely just trying to enter the country.

Lawyers contacted about the case were uniformly adamant, however, that the fate of each stowaway will depend entirely on the specific circumstances of his claims — which also likely will never be publicly known.

Detention, a future in foster care, discretionary leave, asylum or deportation to another European country — each is a possibility.

The Home Office, however, will only confirm that it “encountered” eight Afghan males March 8, and a spokeswoman said they will not provide a “running commentary,” on how the cases were decided.

“We don’t comment on individual cases,” she said.

Immigration facts

Afghan children were the most common unaccompanied youths seeking asylum in the U.K. in 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available.Of the 2,965 children younger than 17 seeking asylum, 530 (18 percent) were from Afghanistan; 85 percent (2,520) applied from “in country,” rather than “at port.”Of 2,560 asylum applications by unaccompanied youths addressed in 2005, 5 percent were granted, 69 percent were granted discretionary leave and 15 percent were refused. One percent was granted humanitarian protection.An estimated 31 percent of the 25,710 applications for asylum in 2005 resulted in a grant of either asylum or humanitarian protection or discretionary leave to remain in the U.K.In 2005, 13,370 asylum seekers and their dependents were removed from the U.K.Source: Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Aug. 22, 2006, “Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2005”

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