Names not Numbers: the Human Face of Asylum

Shelagh Simmons looks for the truth beyond the media and public hysteria and explores the reality of life for asylum seekers in Portsmouth.

As someone with a bit of experience in the human rights field I thought I’d go behind the ‘scroungers and criminals’ tabloid headlines and look at the truth about asylum. Armed with my trusty sword of zeal and shining shield of righteousness, where better to look than right on my doorstep – my home city of Portsmouth? Surely there would be no shortage of indignant victims of a notoriously idiosyncratic uncaring system willing to spill the beans about their treatment?

One refugee activist suggested I write ‘A Survivor’s Guide to Asylum’. She offered a possible contact to share their step-by-step account of being processed by the system that loves to say ‘no’. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘that sounds perfect.’ The contact did not return emails. Another potential source was suggested – a young Syrian separated from his family and now living locally. He would only agree to talk if it could help his case. I couldn’t guarantee it would so that was that. Other similar first-hand accounts failed to materialise. A pattern was emerging. Was it me?

The reality was that I had totally misjudged the current mood, naively reckoning without an increasingly hostile political and social climate. It’s a climate that makes no distinction between economic migrants and refugees. It’s a climate of ‘austerity’ which pits groups of people against each other, encouraging a culture of the deserving and non-deserving – a culture of ‘us and them’. It’s a climate in which total strangers don’t hesitate to tell a wheelchair user ‘we’re paying for you’, as I heard a distraught victim recount in a recent radio interview.

It is in this climate that I came up against a wall of suspicion and fear: where I learned that those going through the asylum process just want to keep their heads down; and those with refugee status simply want to put the trauma of violence, destroyed families and a dehumanising asylum process behind them to build a new life. You can’t really blame them when you risk ‘Oh, you must be a Muslim then. How many people have YOU killed?’ as was asked of one Portsmouth refugee when asked where he came from. Never mind that you may have witnessed the killing of your family. Or that Muslims account for the largest number of terrorist victims. Or that the origin of some refugee crises can be traced back to foreign policy decisions taken by the British Government – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being just two examples.

Set back from a busy road in and out of Portsmouth is the imposing 1828 Portland stone All Saints Church. Serving one of the most deprived areas of the city, it is still a place of worship; but like many other churches it has had to evolve to meet changing needs and is now ‘an active centre for community life’.

Alongside the charity shop, Wednesday Club for adults with mental health problems and Rainbows and Brownies, All Saints Centre hosts a twice-weekly refugee and asylum seeker drop-in. The Drop In is co-ordinated by the group Friends Without Borders (FWB), whose offices are on the first floor.

‘If you were in a war zone, terrified for your life, would you sit down and do a cost-benefit analysis to decide on where you should go or would you just get the hell out and run?’ asks Anne Dickinson, FWB co-ordinator. It’s a fair question. She is sitting in her office with its opaque, criss-cross leaded bar windows – an ironic metaphor for the asylum system itself. A system which sets people up to fail. A system that looks for reasons to refuse. A system that penalises those fleeing for their lives without the right documents and holds it against them.

Anne tells me the stereotypical tabloid image of ‘floods’ of asylum seekers deliberately heading for the UK is far from the truth. Asylum seekers are frequently victims of people traffickers and often don’t know which country they are destined for until they actually arrive. ‘I only knew I was on the sea because the lorry started swaying backwards and forwards,’ said one new arrival.

Coleen Le is a volunteer and FWB trustee. She has previously worked supporting asylum seekers in Hong Kong and says working with ‘marginalised people is where my heart is’.

Coleen explains there are two strands to FWB’s support – befriending and advice. FWB can’t give legal advice but helps, for instance, dealing with utility companies and other unfamiliar aspects of domestic life in the UK. Those needing legal advice can be referred to the Access to Justice (ATJ) project which shares premises at All Saints. These referrals are usually difficult cases – perhaps where asylum has already been refused and legal aid isn’t available. ATJ can also help with family reunion work, again where there’s no access to legal aid.

If your asylum application and appeals are refused you are at immediate risk of deportation. The obligation is that the Home office must give 72 hours notice of their intent to remove you from the UK. You can be told on Friday that you will be deported on Sunday, leaving very little time to seek help. The only ground to make a fresh asylum claim is if there is new evidence – for instance, the situation in your home country. You can also request a judicial review but only if the Home Office has made a mistake in your case.

Contrary to popular belief, asylum seekers get less social security than the rest of the population. Regulations forbid them to work so they can’t support themselves. Nor are they entitled to council housing. They are mostly accommodated in properties that are ‘hard to let’ where other people don’t want to live. These properties are ‘managed’ by private companies contracted to the Government. There is a clear profit motive. Asylum seekers get only £35 per week for food, which is paid in vouchers. They’re not allowed to travel outside their accommodation area. The Home Office finds out if they do because all voucher ‘spends’ are recorded, including where they were used.

Coleen says a typical caller at the Drop In could be someone who is destitute and has no support from the UK Asylum Support system, National Asylum Support Service (NASS) or access to social security. FWB helps them with a small amount of weekly money. They can also provide travel expenses when people have to attend court or appointments with their solicitor.

If your asylum application is successful, you are given 21-28 days notice to leave your asylum support accommodation, immediately lose your NASS support and have to wait six weeks for social security to begin. FWB helps negotiate the quagmire of form filling and applying for entitlements.

The Drop In is a haven away from a flawed, hostile system in which the odds are stacked against applicants and people wait too long for decisions. Monday Drop Ins are funded by FWB; Thursday by the British Red Cross, based in a nearby building. Run by the service users, the Drop In provides refreshments and an opportunity for much-needed social interaction in a welcoming environment. Women support each other and build informal family structures. Coleen tells of a house of women and children in which one older member has taken on the role of honorary grandmother.

People from many countries use The Drop In, including those from: Cameroon, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, Sierra Leone, China, Tibet, Algeria, Lebanon, Guinea-Conakry and Liberia. These are just some of the countries represented by asylum seekers living in Portsmouth.

254 people saw Friends Without Borders last year. Needs vary and FWB made 2662 interventions on their behalf helping to open bank accounts, make medical appointments, apply for driving licences, liaise with solicitors and assist parents with school-related matters.

Coleen says refugee children really value educational opportunities, are committed to their studies and do well at school/college. One 11 year old boy told her ‘when we left Afghanistan I was only 5 and we walked into the mountains. It got colder and colder until I thought I was going to die.’ He is now studying at college and speaks perfect English.

She tells me about one family whose asylum application was refused. The reason?  Soldiers had broken into their house and held them at gunpoint. They had not been killed and this, according to the Home Office, meant it was safe for them to return.

Some people suffer mental health problems due to the stressful asylum system and traumas suffered in home countries – for instance, female genital mutilation, political torture or torture for being homosexual.

If you have claimed asylum you can get primary care. If your application is refused and you are ill you must go to a Walk-In Centre. GPs have discretion over whether or not they will treat failed asylum seekers so a lot depends on having a sympathetic doctor.

FWB volunteers also visit those whose asylum claims have been refused and are awaiting deportation in Haslar Immigration Removal Centre in Gosport (now closing and re-opening as a prison). Detainees can also be there for a variety of other reasons ranging from disputed status, lack of documentation or on immigration technicalities.

Detention is meant to be short term but a few people have been there for up to two years. Sometimes the grounds for detention are questionable. For instance, one detainee arrived in the UK without any papers. His country of origin’s embassy wouldn’t accept him without documentary evidence of citizenship so he is technically in stateless limbo.

Hien (not his real name), a 15 year old Vietnamese boy, was trafficked to the UK by his foster father. Hien thought he was coming to a legitimate job but was forced to work in a cannabis ‘factory’. The ‘factory’ was raided by the police and Hien was jailed. It is a common story. Those running these ‘factories’ often make trafficked young people sleep in the hall so that they are first to be picked up in a raid. Hien was held for two years, first in a Young Offenders’ Unit and then Haslar IRC. By chance, Coleen mentioned him when she was at a Barnardo’s training course. They took up his case and secured his release. He should already have been in social services care but the police hadn’t believed his age. Hien is now in the care of Barnardo’s but it is only through sheer chance that he isn’t still languishing in immigration detention.

FWB visitors don’t just offer a friendly face. They provide phone cards to allow vital contact with friends and family at one of the most isolated times in these men’s lives. They also provide clothing and can arrange to have luggage moved when necessary.

The majority of asylum seekers used to be Iraqi Kurds but countries of origin change in response to world conflict areas. You might expect many to come from Syria. That is not the case. The ‘Dublin System’ means that Syrians must apply for asylum in the first EU country they reach. The British Government does accept those who already have a family connection with the UK but the Refugee Council is critical of the British Government’s lack of response to the Syrian crisis. Last year the total number of Syrian refugees resettled in Britain stood at just 143. It is a pathetic response to a humanitarian tragedy which has seen around four million forced from their homes.

One of the many myths about asylum is that ‘Britain is the asylum capital of the world’. The Refugee Council says that in 2014 Germany, Sweden, France and Italy all received much higher applications than the UK.

Among recent arrivals are those fleeing Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. Once part of Ethiopia, it gained independence in 2000 after a bloody war. Currently a one-party state with elections frequently postponed, it has a human rights record described by Human Rights Watch as one of the worst in the world. Enforced conscription is one reason for the number of people fleeing the country.

If we were fleeing persecution, how would we expect to be treated? If we had been tortured, seen our family killed and been totally traumatised, would we expect to be labelled ‘scroungers’? Should we be worried that such people are scared to speak out in what ought to be a place of safety? Are our opinions shaped by the popular press or does the popular press follow our lead? Is it the job of the press to tell the truth – and be held to account if it doesn’t – or to fuel division and hatred?

These questions are complex but looking at the truth behind the headlines, maybe part of the answer will be found in seeing the human face of asylum.

Ghandi said ‘the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members’. When it comes to asylum seekers and refugees, by any measure we are falling short.


Florence has been in the UK waiting for a decision on her asylum application since she came here nearly 15 years ago. She fled to the US from the then white minority rule of Rhodesia, returning to the new Zimbabwe in 1980 when black rule was established and Robert Mugabe came to power. Full of hope for her country’s future, Florence was shocked at the brutal crackdown on Mugabe’s political opponents. She became an opposition activist, encouraging women to organise politically and risking her life in the process. She eventually fled to neighbouring South Africa but, still within reach of Mugabe’s agents, finally came to seek safety in the UK. Her son was murdered in Zimbabwe in 2005. Her husband – a magistrate who refused to collude with corruption – was also murdered there 3 years later.

No stranger to tragedy, Florence had already lost a son to a brain tumour when he was just 10 years old. Yet she remains optimistic. When I comment on all that life has thrown at her she smiles and recalls her mother-in-law’s words ‘if not you, then who?’ Florence says she is grateful for the network of friends around her, especially as she recovers from a recent stroke. She is currently fundraising to sponsor an education project in Zimbabwe, paying for schooling and for children to grow vegetables and raise chickens. The aim is to help them feed themselves and be self-sufficient in the future.

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Photography by Sarah Cheverton.