Refugee Stories: Seven personal journeys behind the headlines
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I CONFESS to liking the sound of Dave Smith even before I read this book. He is the founder of two Manchester-based charities, Mustard Tree and The Boaz Trust, which help destitute, refused asylum-seekers and refugees. He was awarded the British Empire Medal in 2013 for services to the community, but returned it in protest at the UK’s increasingly draconian immigration legislation.
That view is entirely borne out by these first-person accounts, told to Smith by asylum-seekers from Ethiopia, Congo, Iran, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and Sudan. This last country is described by one as a place where you have two choices: “Forget what you have been taught about being good. Follow the government, go with the corruption, shut your mouth. You will have good money and a nice life. Or on the other hand, you can die.”
All seven (six of whom were finally accepted as immigrants) ended up fleeing on long and dangerous journeys. Those in the tiny minority of asylum-seekers who actually make it to the UK are met with a system that is bewildering, obstructive, inflexible, and often incompetent: the key failing of British society, Smith observes, is an unwavering commitment to sticking to the rules, even when that is counter-productive, or dangerous.
The process is interminable. Hanes, an Oromo from southern Ethiopia, records receiving no reply for three years from the Home Office about his fresh claim. He spent those years working as a volunteer and living on £30-a-week food vouchers. For ten years, he unfailingly signed in every week at the reporting centre, until one Monday he was taken to prison.
A woman doctor from Sudan, who arrived in the UK in 2005, missed a vital Home Office interview in Liverpool because she had been admitted to hospital after haemorrhaging. She was not called for another interview until a year later, when the interviewer demanded proof that she had worked in a Darfur hospital. “How could I get the evidence?” she asks in despair. “The hospital was run by the government, who would not give me a letter.” Many of the accounts demonstrate the intractability of this Catch-22. The Home Office insists on documentary proof that, even if it can be obtained, is then often dismissed as fake.
Mary, a Roman Catholic convert from Iran who had fled a brutal second husband, was taken away by Immigration in a van “with a grille in it, like criminals. It took me to Manchester Airport, in my pyjamas. They did not allow me to change or even go to the toilet. They kept me there still in my pyjamas for two days.” She was then handed a card with the destination Yarl’s Wood (detention centre) printed on it.
Her priest accompanied Mary to a court hearing to testify that she was a real Christian, but the judge did not believe her. Smith writes in one of his very informative footnotes that many judges have little understanding of a genuine Christian faith, and a minister’s testimony is often ignored.
Britain’s adversarial legal system gives asylum-seekers little opportunity to tell their stories, and they remain at the mercy of careless or indifferent solicitors. One barrister who turned up to represent a client had so little knowledge of the case that he had to ask where Congo was.
These voices speak more powerfully than any polemic about a deliberately harsh system. They bring shame on all of us.