by Tekla Szerszynska
(Names have been changed to protect anonymity)
We spoke to four women, who are asylum seekers based in Greater Manchester, to find out what their experiences of the asylum system have been, and how they feel about the treatment of asylum seekers in this country. All of the women have been living in the UK for a number of years and most of them are awaiting final decisions on their cases which have been significantly delayed.
Mary* described the devastating impact the asylum system has had on her mental health from the moment she arrived in the UK. When she got to the centre where she was told to claim asylum, it was closed. Mary found herself alone and afraid in an unfamiliar city and eventually, after walking the streets and being turned away from a refugee centre, she found a church where she was allowed to sleep for two nights as she waited for the asylum screening centre to open. When it finally did, and Mary was able to begin her claim, her relief was short-lived and turned quickly to fear and distress as her interview began. ‘They tried to intimidate me’, she says. ‘You’re coming because of torture or traumatic events and you’re not really yourself… They try to confuse you and ask the same question again but twist it. Then they will use the answers against you. Sometimes they write something down that you didn’t say and when you start reading the interview sheet you think “I didn’t say this! How come this is there?”’
“There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.”
Read our fact post out tomorrow on Asylum in the UK
After her initial interview, Mary was handcuffed and taken in a van to a place she didn’t know. She was given tiny portions of food and water and her photo was taken, like a police mug shot. ‘It was so scary. I thought, “What is happening to me?” And I said “I’m not a criminal, why do you do this to me?”’ Mary was then taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre and this is where she first experienced symptoms of schizophrenia, a mental illness which current research understands can be triggered by a stressful life event. Mary is now on medication for her schizophrenia, and though it has helped reduce her symptoms she is also suffering from its side effects. Now in the UK for seven years, Mary has been taken to Yarl’s Wood three times, one of which saw her spending Christmas and New Year there. Detention has been very traumatic for Mary and has always come unexpectedly – ‘I was supposed to be going to the tribunal but they just arrested me when I went to sign at Dallas Court’, the local immigration reporting centre. Most asylum seekers must report to one of these centres on a weekly or monthly basis and, because of experiences like Mary’s, people set off to report not knowing whether they will return. Mary’s case went to judicial review and has been handed to the Home Office. As she waits for news, Mary is overwhelmed with uncertainty and fear – ‘I don’t know what will be happening to me now. My situation is frightening. I’m even sick because of this whole thing. Inside I feel very lonely as if nobody’s there for me. It’s terrible.’ Her voice grows quiet as she says ‘sometimes I just feel like dying’.
The women we spoke to are all experiencing slightly different circumstances and concerns but Mary’s deep fear and despair resounded with them all. They explained that the regular trips to report at an immigration reporting centre are a major source of stress and humiliation in all their lives. Every time they report they are scared that this will be the day they are arrested and placed in detention or even deported. ‘This is a journey we must make every week, whether it is snowing, whether we are sick’ explains Rose. For Rose, an accidentally missed reporting resulted in a letter threatening jail or a large fine, despite the same system keeping asylum seekers in financial hardship. The frequency and significance of these appointments hang over the women. The fear of the consequences of missing one or being late means they often go early and are made to stand in the cold outside, while the centre sometimes opens late. ‘They don’t care about us’, explains Rose. For these women, the attitude of the centre staff demonstrates one example of a widespread double standard – the staff working in the asylum system make mistakes unapologetically, even when these mistakes seriously impact upon the people who are caught up in the system. Meanwhile, those seeking asylum know that any mistake they make may cost them their freedom, their safety and their mental health. Josie explains that one of her friends was overjoyed to receive a letter granting her indefinite leave to remain in the UK. She then received another letter to say it had been sent in error. Another friend received a ticket to go to Liverpool for an appointment but on arrival, she discovered it had been a mistake. This led to her being reprimanded for missing her normal appointment at the reporting centre. While these women’s futures hang in the balance, miscommunication and blunders such as these can feel like the final straw. ‘Our life – you never know what is going to happen. You know any time you can be taken.’
Manchester No Borders are running an Azure Card Buddy Scheme where volunteers give support to asylum seekers when out shopping, helping with any problems that arise. You can find out more info and sign up here.
“The Azure Card replaced the voucher system for the provision of weekly funds to asylum seekers in the UK. In addition to the tiny amount people are asked to live off with these cards, capped at £35 a week, they greatly restrict both where and on what people can spend their money. They also prevent asylum seekers from saving money and so obtaining even basic essentials as a pair of shoes or a winter coat becomes near impossible. Other problems people report facing with these cards include stigmatisation, including humiliating treatment from cashiers and members of the public, and having their money unfairly reduced by the Home Office without warning. There have also been many reports of the card not working at all and card users have to go home without food. The Azure Card system plays a central role in restricting and destabilising the lives of asylum seekers in the UK.”