More Friendship – T4K November Update

I apologise profusely for the delay in sending out an update. I think that those apologies are mostly due to my indefatigable colleagues who have not shirked any of their responsibilities and who have kept T4K humming along. Thanks to your support and their efforts, T4K continues to make homes for the disposed in Brighton. There are two families and four single men being housed on your pound plus loads of other people hosted and/or assisted to make a life for themselves in our fair city.

One of the reasons I’ve been struggling to write these updates is that the immigration system and its brutality is wearing me down. We had two big victories back in September and I wanted to write to tell you about them, but as I started they came to seem more and more Pyrrhic. I’ll write about one of them because I think it perfectly encapsulates just how life denying our asylum system is.

A family look across a wild sea to an imposing grey building with an EU flag

There was a couple, it doesn’t matter where they’re from, who faced death threats from their neighbour. Their neighbour was an important figure in a violent, fundamentalist and politically powerful religious organisation. He didn’t like the fact that his neighbours were, from his point of view, unbelievers. He started to harass them and threatened to kill them. Our couple decided to go abroad for a while. They arranged for a student visa to come to study English in England, thinking that if they went away things would blow over. When they returned, one of them was arrested at the airport and tortured. Fortunately, the imprisoned partner was released. They went into hiding and sorted out another ticket to the UK. On arrival they claimed asylum.

The claim was refused. The Home Office argued, among other things, that the couple could relocate to another city. They argued that, despite the “deplorable mistreatment” at the hands of the state security, the fact that they were able to leave the country showed that they were of no interest to the authorities. They refused to believe that the neighbour had political motivations or political power. They claimed that had they been in fear, they would never have returned in the first place. On appeal, badly prepared by an overworked asylum lawyer, the judge went further than the Home Office. Determined to refuse, she denied that there had been any mistreatment by the state authorities. The judge also invented implausible stories to explain why the state security might have decided to arrest my friend. The higher courts decided that there was no “error of law”. The judge was entitled to decide the case in the way that she did and that left the couple with nothing.

That was 8 years ago. Shortly after the refusal, associates of the neighbour broke in and murdered the brother of one half of the couple. They also tried to burn the house down. This formed the basis of a fresh claim. To make a fresh claim you need to have new evidence (in practice, evidence not available the first time around) which would, when read in conjunction with the previous evidence, allow an immigration judge to come to a different conclusion. To a layperson that seems like a low threshold. Perhaps legally it is a low threshold. The reality is that the Home Office always say that there is nothing new about the evidence you produce. They claim that the case has already been decided.

That is if they bother saying anything at all. Their other tactic is to lose the claim or to not issue a refusal. Something like that seems to have occurred in this case and so, unbeknownst to our friends, they had no outstanding claim with the Home Office. When they went to report in the usual way – asylum seekers are forced to sign at the Home Office on a regular basis – they were arrested and taken to Yarls Wood. Immigration Removal Centres, like all prisons, are dark places. They are doubly horrific if removal from the UK means death.

Meanwhile, back in the country of origin, prosecutions for serious crimes, allegedly committed whilst the couple were in the UK, had been brought against them in abstentia. In a rush, relatives sent them copies of the court judgement and a solicitor, who later turned out to be unregulated, may have prepared a fresh claim based on these documents. It’s not clear that the claim was ever submitted, but in any event the couple were released from detention.

My friends went back to waiting for a decision. After three years, they enquired of the Home Office, no longer trusting in their lawyer, about the state of their claim. The Home Office denied the existence of any outstanding claim. The same dodgy lawyer was instructed to remake their various fresh claims, but of course the original documents had been lost and so copies had to be relied upon.

The Home Office, when they finally made a decision, refused to acknowledge that there was anything new in front of them. They were able to make that claim, in part, because the first judge had found that one part of the story had been embellished and so the decision-maker decided that they could safely ignore copies of the court orders. They held that nothing the applicant said could be trusted. Legally this was a terrible decision, but the only recourse our friends had was a judicial review of the decision. Without legal aid these are phenomenally expensive and you are left liable for costs if you lose. Although there is legal aid available for a judicial review, finding a solicitor with the capacity to do one is very hard. Nobody wanted to take it on. They spent money they didn’t have on their dodgy solicitor who did a shoddy job and who disappeared once the Home Office pointed out his lack of credentials. The couple were left with an award of costs against them and no fresh claim.

An acquaintance visiting the country of origin was able to get the court there to issue new copies of the judgements against the couple and a fresh claim was prepared. The couple and their solicitor did a good job. They successfully argued that, in fact, they had been found to be credible witnesses and so what they submitted in evidence could be relied upon. The Home Office refused the claim, but acknowledged that there was a fresh claim and so the couple had an appeal right.

Experts in the vagaries of the system, the couple did everything right. They wrote a powerful witness statement, gathered medical evidence and made sure that their barrister understood the case thoroughly. They were up in front of the fair-minded judge, and despite the best endeavours of the Home Office’s barrister, they stood up well under cross examination. The judge, this time was minded to accept. He went to great lengths to find legal reasons to allow him to overturn the first judge’s decision.

After nearly 9 years of limbo, the right decision was made. Two people who obviously had a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of religion were awarded asylum. I suppose I ought to be happy, but my overwhelming feeling is one of anger. Everybody from the first Home Office decision-maker, their presenting officers and barristers, through the various judges, through the various rejections of the fresh claims, right up until the final judge knew full well that there were two people in need of international protection in front of them. Nevertheless they did everything in their power to find a legal reason to refuse the claim. Finally the couple got lucky and found themselves in front of a judge who wanted to accept. It’s a wasted decade. It’s years of further trauma piled upon the original trauma. It does nothing for anybody. It helps nobody. It puts a burden on communities. It puts a burden on statutory services. It undermines the rule of law. Nevertheless it is deemed necessary by our deeply racist establishment.

I do want to end on a note of optimism. We are in the middle of a general election. The Conservatives want to be the party of Brexit. The Brexit campaign during the referendum was built around the demonisation of people from abroad. Nevertheless Farage, the arch-brexiteer, has complained that there isn’t enough focus on immigration this time around. Labour has disappointed its base by promising to restrict rather than expand free movement. This is a seismic change in our politics. It seems clear to me that our racist establishment can no longer hide their racism behind the idea that they have to respect the fears of ‘ordinary people’. It’s clear to me that we are winning. Citizens’ initiatives like this one, the movement to make refugees welcome, the campaign for justice for the victims of the hostile environment and a myriad of attempts to build a truly inclusive community are changing politics. If we keep at it, the establishment will be forced to catch up with the citizenry.

It’s that belief that allows me, at least, to keep supporting people in their fight for the right to safety despite the exhaustion, the pain and the anger that it brings. So thanks a thousand for what you do

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