Ahead of Refugee Week 2016, Swindon’s asylum seekers and the team dedicated to supporting them share their experiences
BEDRAGGLED stowaways latching on to the undercarriage of lorries risking their lives for a safer future or crowds of nameless faces parked like cattle in camps miles away from home – these startling yet all-too-familiar images splashed across our TV screens are easy to overlook from the comfort of our living rooms.
But what of those who have already made the treacherous journey to the UK? What of the men, women and children on our doorstep who travelled across oceans, with just the clothes on their backs, to escape persecution only to be left in limbo in Swindon, crammed into shared housing and let down by a punishing system?
Each week, these displaced masses report to The Harbour Project on Broad Street, determined to perfect their English and learn about their host country’s culture, clinging on to the hope that tomorrow will be the day they finally cross the impregnable line between asylum seeker and bona fide refugee.
“You just want a chance,” Ahmed* shakes his head, defeated. The 26-year-old’s voice is almost inaudible over the hum and thrum of the charity’s drop-in centre. The hall at the rear of St Luke’s Church is crowded and volunteers and staff are dashing from one visitor to the next, helping to decipher jargon on legal forms, handing cups of tea or sharing a few words of reassurance.
Ahmed should not be here any more. After four years, the Pakistani student’s asylum application was approved a few months ago. But his relief was short-lived and he discovered the Home Office had appealed against the decision.
“I had to leave my country, there was a threat on my life from the Taliban,” he adds timidly in flawless English.
“I left my family behind. It’s horrible. I’ve not seen them for five years – I was on the run for a year before I came to the UK. It took me eight months to manage to come here. When I started running I had finished a masters in international relations, I was going to start a PhD.”
But the Home Office argued he could return safely to other parts of Pakistan, where the Taliban are not considered a serious threat.
“I’m not going back,” he insists. “I have no other option. But I’ve been here four years, I’m not allowed to work, I’m not going to university. I’m not doing anything that would give me a push to live my life. I worry all the time. I check the post every day to see if I’ve received a letter from the Home Office.
"Every month I have to go to the police station, just so they can check I’m still there. It’s humiliating, I’m not a criminal. It’s not a life. Harbour is the only place I can come and spend quality time, not wait and do nothing.”
And he is not alone - 200 asylum seekers in Swindon are in the same untenable situation: unable to return home for fear of reprisal or persecution yet stuck in a strange country unable to start a new life and forbidden to find work until their claim has been processed.
Mutaz’s application was also recently denied and he is in the process of appealing. He arrived in the UK in August last year having fled his native Sudan. He was forced to leave his wife and young son behind. This was the first step to securing a better future for his family, he explains. He hopes they will one day be allowed to join him in the UK if his claim is approved.
“I had to make a sacrifice,” says the 37-year-old.
“I was arrested many times in Sudan. I’m from the eastern part and there’s no health or education there. When we ask more for our lives as citizens we get arrested.
"They get violent to stop you complaining. They tied me to a chair at the police station. They abused me, hit me. So I spoke to some people, they got me a passport. I don’t know how they did. But if I get sent back I would have nowhere to go. I will be killed.”
More optimistic about his prospects of staying in the UK than Ahmed, his smile and good humour make a stark contrast to the sea of dejected expressions and concerned faces around the room. When called to help interpret for a volunteer he doesn’t hesitate. Feeling useful, he explains, and being given a sense of purpose each day has been invaluable.
“Harbour is my family,” says the 37-year-old. “They helped me to get a solicitor, and many other things. I just want to help the way like they helped me.”
The terms asylum seeker and refugee are often used interchangeably but they mean very different things.
An asylum seeker is a person who has applied for asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention on the Status of Refugees, claiming that if they returned to their home country they would be at risk of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, political belief or membership of a particular social group. Those thought to have legitimate claims for asylum are put into accommodation provided by the Home Office in dispersal towns – including Swindon – while their claim is considered.
Successful applicants will gain refugee status and will be allowed to stay in the UK for five years. If the situation in their country has not improved after five years, they can apply to stay permanently.
This is a lengthy, complex and extremely lonely process and this is where The Harbour Project comes in. The charity was founded in 2000 by a group of concerned volunteers in response to the Kosovo crisis, which saw tens of thousands of displaced families seek refuge overseas from civil war in the Balkans.
Since then, it has offered a safe haven and practical support to UK arrivals directed to Swindon by the Home Office from such countries as Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran and China.
Over the years staff and volunteers have strived to involve users in fulfilling and uplifting activities including football and art workshops and to give those stuck at a halfway point something to look forward to each week.
They also run computing classes and offer English lessons to help asylum seekers assimilate more easily.
“People pay agents and fly over but many people here have come via Calais in or under lorries,” says project manager Nan Bains.
“They risk their lives and there’s a good chance they’ll get killed. And when they come here and start the asylum process, it’s very difficult. They are in limbo for a long time before they get a decision and it impacts on their mental health. Some end up having breakdowns.
“They’re not allowed to work. When they get their decision they are given 28 days to get on to the benefit system or the support stops, and they’re faced with destitution. It normally takes a lot longer than that for anyone to get into the benefits system.”
Swindon, one of four dispersal towns in the South West, has currently reached its maximum quota of 200 asylum seekers. This surge has put increasing pressure on the charity, which costs £90,000 to run each year, to cater forto as many users as possible while continuing to support refugees –whose cases have been approved – to look for housing, and navigate the health or benefits systems. Harbour has 400 people on its books.
Unlike other ‘mainstream’ charities, Harbour faces constant prejudice and a barrage of ignorance. Staff are forever fighting to dispel myths surrounding asylum seekers or the common misconception they are illegal immigrants.
“Asylum seekers are here legitimately, they are going through a legal process,” adds Nan firmly. “They’re often on their own, they feel isolated and get no help. There’s a lot of ignorance, especially in the media.”
“Asylum seekers are a completely different kettle of fish,” agrees chairman of trustees David Rowlands.
“The attitude to asylum seekers in the UK has always been negative. We get people who were doctors in their country, highly educated. There’s such indignity to it all.
"They are ordinary people like us and sometimes exceptional human beings fleeing from war and persecution. We want to give them more a life. They deserve better.”
Refugee Week runs from June 20 to 26.
To find out more about The Harbour Project or make a donation go to harbourproject.org.uk
*Not his real name.