Life as an asylum seeker in west London

Image above: Migrants in the Mediterranean; photograph by U.S. Navy Senior Chief Personnel Specialist Galen Draper

The Home Secretary is trying to stop them coming but what is life like once they are here?

Suella Braverman has announced a new deal with France, in an increased effort to stop the transit of migrants across the Channel. The UK has agreed to pay the French government £8m more a year for French authorities to increase patrolling of their beaches.

More than 40,000 people have crossed in small boats so far this year according to official figures. The Home Secretary has made it her mission to reduce the numbers coming here in hope of a better life.

Whether or not they should come here and how they get here is one discussion, but how we treat those who come once they are here is another. The Chiswick Calendar has spoken to two asylum seekers living in west London being supported by the charity West London Welcome, to try and understand a little of what life is like for them here.

Adam is a young man from the Darfur region of Sudan, where there has been civil war for most of his life. Sara is a trans woman from Iran, where she says she was bullied and persecuted.

Both have lived in hotel accommodation with airline style microwave meals for many months. As asylum seekers they are not allowed to work. They are entitled to just £8 a week to live on, beyond the basic necessities of food, a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap.

They are better off than rough sleepers physically, but they are isolated, having no family or friends here, living in acute poverty with the boredom and hopelessness that entails. They face the barrier of language and the anxiety of not knowing whether they will be given refugee status when eventually they get their Home Office interview, leaving them in limbo.

Image above: Adam from Sudan

Adam from Sudan

Adam is 25. All his life he has known war, as the fighting in the south of Sudan started when he was six and only came to a conclusion with the comprehensive peace agreement signed in August 2020. Explanations of the conflict are complicated and various, but seem to boil down to the Arabic north of Sudan being in opposition to the black African Christian and animist south.

Adam is Muslim and black African and found himself the victim of Sudanese security forces who, he says, picked him up, arrested him and mistreated him without reason. I asked if his family were involved in politics or had been involved in the fighting and he said “no, not at all”.

“My father said ‘this is going to keep happening so you must get to a place of safety’.”

He does not know how it was organised, but the first ‘place of safety’ proved not to be, nor did the second. He found himself in Libya, in a prison where he was kept for more than two years with ten or eleven others until he was told he could go, as he had no money.

The global think tank ODI says his experience is a common one:

‘The Sudanese are some of the poorest of the African migrants in Libya. They were therefore especially vulnerable to being kidnapped, held for ransom and sold into slavery or bonded labour. If they managed to escape, or earned their freedom, they were desperate to leave Libya.

‘Many were forced to attempt the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. Again, as some of the poorest of the African migrants, the Sudanese ended up in the least seaworthy and most dangerous boats.’

Libya was also in the grip of civil war between 2014 and 2020, with fighting between armed militias making life dangerous and unpredictable.

A man in a restaurant seemed to take pity on Adam when he was released from the Libyan prison and gave him food. He arranged for him to leave Libya by boat and he arrived in Italy in 2021, making his way across Europe by train, ending up sleeping rough in Paris.

It had not been his original intention to come to the UK, but he decided to home here, jumping on a lorry to get across the Channel. Having no English at that point, he does not know what the lorry driver said to him when eventually he banged on the partition to make his presence known. He was picked up by the police walking along the motorway.

He has now spent 17 months in a west London hotel. The hotel serves Home Office guests microwave meals or sandwiches day in, day out, without fresh fruit or vegetables. Initially he was also isolated because of Covid.

Life has vastly improved since he has been introduced to West London Welcome, where asylum seekers can hang out with other people in a similar situation, some of whom speak their language, they can learn English and have a hot, home-cooked meal.

West London Welcome also organise day trips to museums and places of interest in London. Kew Gardens is a regular favourite.

Adam’s English is now very good, though it took me a while to adjust to his accent.

“It was so hard before. I just did a lot of walking. I would just like to be able to work. It makes me sad because everything is so difficult but I now have friends and I will never regret leaving, no matter what, because at least my life is not in danger.”

Like many of the asylum seekers who West London Welcome support, Adam does voluntary work, which gives him a sense of purpose during the interminable waiting.

“It gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

“Life is better now” he tells me. Unusually he has been kept at the same hotel. “I have got to know the staff at the hotel and they are kind.”

What does he hope for? “I try not to think too far ahead, but I would like a job and a better life” he says.

Images above: Volunteers at West London Welcome

The hostile environment

In the past few weeks our treatment of asylum seekers has been constantly in the news. 700 migrants had to be evacuated from a reception centre set on fire by a man who later killed himself, motivated by an extreme right-wing ideology. The attack put the spotlight on conditions at the processing centre they were moved to, showing squalid, overcrowded conditions.

There was also an incident where a group of asylum seekers were dropped off at Victoria station and left there all day, with nothing to eat or drink and no information about what would happen to them next, some just wearing flip flops on their feet. The Home Office have admitted that this was an ‘error’ on their part.

Theresa May’s government deliberately introduced a policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants, but immigrants are only ‘illegal’ if they have been interviewed and refused the right to remain here as refugees.

Most migrants who make the perilous crossing over the English Channel are seeking asylum, saying they cannot return to their own counties either because of political oppression or human rights abuses. When they arrive they are destitute, most with just the clothes they are wearing. Most are eventually granted refugee status.

Images above: West London Welcome

Joanne McInnes, who runs West London Welcome, says she personally has received death threats and asylum seekers have been threatened outside their hotels. She is determined to counteract the hostile reception asylum seekers have experienced before they discover her organisation.

“It is both the deliberate hostile environment and bureaucratic incompetency. They are so incompetent in everything they do. I had someone the other day who received a letter saying they were being moved on and the date given in the letter for their removal was one week before it arrived.

“Some people get their interview with the Home Office one week after they’ve registered their asylum appeal, others wait two years. I have someone who waited 11 months for a decision after they’d had their interview.”

She pointed out the difference with Ukrainian refugees, given refugee status and able to work straight away.

One of the applicants at West London Welcome is a doctor, a cancer specialist originally from Yemen, fluent in several languages, including English.

He registered with the BMA as soon as he arrived here but waited so long for an asylum interview that his ability to work as a doctor expired because he had not worked for so long. Now he has been granted refugee status and is legally able to work here, he is having to do refresher courses costing £6,000.

As I met them, Sara had just heard she had been granted refugee status, leave to remain, a cause for celebration, but says Joanne McInnes, it is a bitter-sweet victory, as attaining refugee status means they are no longer the responsibility of the Home Office, they are evicted from their accommodation and become the responsibility of the local council along with all the other homeless people.

The day before I met her, Sara had spent all day in the offices of the local council, with nothing to eat or drink and her possessions in bags, while she waited to be seen. Just before the office closed she was given a post code, no hotel name or directions, just a post code. She had been given hotel accommodation by the council and will be homeless again after a week.

Image above: Sara from Iran with translator Mehri

Sara from Iran

Sara is 31. It has been one year and one month since she arrived in England. She came because she is transgender.

“In Iran I was in fear of my own family and the government.”

In Iran being gay is illegal, being trangender is not, but she says, it might as well be:

“In Iran if you are transsexual (sic) your family, society and the government refuse to have anything to do with you.”

I spoke to her through a translator because her English is still minimal. She has known since she was six years old that she wanted to be a woman. She enjoyed dressing up in her sister’s clothes and was bullied at school and by her four brothers and criticised by her parents and sisters for not wanting to take part in ‘boys’ games like football.

“I never enjoyed being with my classmates. All I wanted was to get home and be myself.”

At 13 a psychologist told her she was transgender. At university she found other transgender women.

“We recognised each other. There was a group of about six of us who used to lock the door when it was safe and put on makeup and women’s clothes.”

When it came to getting a job after university though, she found everywhere was barred to her because of who she was. She identifies as a woman but did not start hormone therapy in Iran and could not dress as a woman or wear make-up publicly, so she has only started her transition since she has been here.

“People always knew” she told me.

When her grandmother died, she took her share of the inheritance and got on a plane to Turkey. She crossed the Mediterranean by boat, in the hold of a ship with 80 or so others, keeping a cap down over her eyes and her Covid mask on the whole time for fear of being noticed.

“I was really scared to be seen.”

In England she is very isolated. I asked if she was in touch with trans women here. She wasn’t, she said, because she didn’t speak English. I asked if she was in touch with other Iranians here. She wasn’t, she said, because they would have the same reaction to her as people in Iran.

“They wouldn’t accept me. You just have to look at Instagram to see the kind of things they say.”

Her translator Mehri was very sympathetic, and she has found an older woman at the hotel where she was staying who has also been supportive, although now she does not know where she will be staying from one day to the next.

Her hopes now? “To have the operation, to feel like a proper woman, to improve my English and to do a job which has something to do with the law.”

Image above: Volunteers and guests at West London Welcome

West London Welcome

West London Welcome has supported about 800 people over the past four years, predominantly asylum seekers from 54 countries staying in 12 west London hotels. The biggest nationality groups they support are Iranians, mostly Christian converts, and Syrians displaced by war, followed by El Salvadoreans, escaping gang related terror, Eritreans and Ukrainians.

They are always grateful of support through volunteering, gifts of money and clothing and they are especially looking for landlords willing to take people on Universal Credit who have been given leave to remain.

Offer cash donations through their website: westlondonwelcome.com

Contact them by email:

Buy toiletries: forcommongood.co.uk
West London Welcome is Winner of the LB Hammersmith & Fulham Civic Honour Award 2022

Registered Charity number 1183261

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