These are the ghost people, invisible and disappeared. Thousands of refused asylum seekers are alone and adrift with nothing at all, nowhere to live and banned from working. They are not accidental victims, but deliberately made destitute to starve them back to lands to which they cannot return. Their suffering is designed by successive governments as a public deterrence to would-be arrivals.
The latest screw-tightening immigration bill going through the UK parliament removes support from thousands more, in a vain pretence that the state has a grip on the war-driven refugee crisis.
Punish failed asylum seekers severely enough and no more will come — that’s the hope. But few turn back, because they can’t. The inexorable rise in numbers shows these punitive measures have little effect.
The Red Cross opens its doors at 59 centres nationwide to 11,782 failed asylum seekers and their children made destitute by the law, a number up by 13 per cent on this time last year.
By nature, the Red Cross ignores nations’ policies and politics, salvaging victims of war, including those we eject on to our streets.
Once a week the projects they support welcome people in for a brief respite, offering £10 (Dh55) a week for up to 12 weeks, a lunch, a bag of food, clothes, health checks and, most valued of all, advice.
At a church in Leeds, queues tail down the road on Thursday mornings, waiting for the Red Cross-backed PAFRAS project to open. About 200 turned up last week, filling the centre to standing room only, speaking in a score of languages, each with their own heart-stopping story to tell.
At 24, Liliane has already suffered more than she can quite bring herself to describe. In Eritrea she was a teacher; her English is good. Her husband was pressed into indefinite military service, but when he was found out as a member of the political opposition, he was jailed; he bribed his way out and escaped. She had no idea where he was running to, but soldiers took her off to military service where she was, she says tactfully, “sexually abused” by the man in charge. It was to happen again on her dangerous journey. “He tormented me, insulted me and I was afraid for my life, so I ran away.”
She escaped over the border to Sudan, but soldiers were returning Eritreans so she fled to Libya.
“I can’t tell you what they do to refugees in Libya; they are not human. They abuse women, they hit you, they come every night to the hall to pick women they want,” she says.
An uncle sent her money to pay traffickers and she took a packed, leaky boat to Sicily, then to France where they left her in the filth of the Calais jungle.
For months she tried jumping on to the backs of lorries. “Then some boys helped us, eight girls from Ethiopia and Eritrea together.”
They climbed into a lorry as it slowed round a corner and they hid until arriving in Coventry, where a horrified driver called the police.
Denied refugee status
She was refused asylum as she has no papers to prove she isn’t Ethiopian: only Eritreans qualify and immigration officials didn’t believe her story.
Her husband reached Angola, but Angolans don’t let foreign spouses in. So she is stateless, penniless, her appeals used up, yet she can’t be sent back as there is no route to Eritrea and the Ethiopians won’t take her.
She has joined the Catch 22 people, those from Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Congo, Malaysia, Palestine and other countries where the Home Office agrees it’s physically impossible to return people — and yet still denies many refugee status.
What’s plain from Red Cross cases is how arbitrary the system is, seemingly accepting and rejecting people randomly from the same countries.
Here’s a shocking story: they tried to deport Florent back to Chad after 17 years living and working in Britain. He had escaped aged 21, pursued as an opposition supporter from the wrong tribe. After prison, he escaped to Cameroon, travelling until traffickers left him at Waterloo station: he didn’t know what country he was in. He applied for asylum, was sent to Sunderland, worked, learnt four languages, took a degree, volunteered as a translator for a charity but eventually exhausted his appeals.
Two officers took him by plane to Chad but the authorities refused to accept him. On the way back, the UK immigration guards dumped him in the transit lounge in Paris and fled, to the fury of French immigration who immediately sent him back to Britain. Now he’s another non-person, sofa-surfing with friends, barred from working, hoping to find new grounds to appeal. He can’t go back, he can’t go forwards.
You might think Iraqi Kurds would have some sympathy, but Egid is stranded. His uncle paid to send him here as a boy after his brother and father were murdered. As an unaccompanied child, speaking no English, he was well cared for by a foster family and doing well at school until the shutter came down on his 18th birthday. Immigration officers forced his ejection from college, from family, from all support, and told him to go back.
“I cried and cried,” he says. The Red Cross tried to trace his uncle but couldn’t find him. Now Egid relies on the £10 a week from the Red Cross, on friends and on the Grace Hosting scheme where kind families take him in for one or two nights at a time. “These are such good people,” he says. He clings to Leeds because his adviser here is trying to re-open his case.
This is the only lifeline for all these people lost in the dead zone. Without papers, status or rights, they are outcasts.
Here’s the great dilemma: politically, those with no right to be in Britain should be gone as border controls require it. But what ought to be collides with reality. This policy traps people in a British no man’s land from which there is no escape. All those I met were enterprising, energetic people made listless by this demi-life of uselessness, when they could and should be working and contributing.
The Red Cross cares for them as best it can and at the same time campaigns vigorously for a sane policy to rescue them.
Asylum seekers’ support was cut back this year and the Home Office says some 8,200 more failed asylum seekers will be cut off under the new bill “to remove incentives” to remain.
Campaign to humiliate
Only a few families “in limited circumstances” will still have what’s now called Section 95a help: from now on there will be no appealing against refusal of that crucial £35.39 a week, although currently 60 per cent are granted it on appeal.
The few eligible get their money on an Azure card, cashable only for food in few shops, with no bus money to reach them, intentionally humiliating. The Red Cross campaigns for this to be paid in cash.
Some problems have no right answers and some policies that look rational in parliament make no sense in practice. Deterring future migrants sits oddly with chaotic maladministration that delivers arbitrary decisions on who can stay.
The people I met would go home if they could: no one chooses to live like this. In the end, those with nowhere to go must be allowed to stay and live good lives as British citizens. Until then, the Red Cross helps keep them alive.
Names have been changed to protect identities.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd