By Isabel Ringrose
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Trapped in Britain’s racist refugee system

The Tories make life in the asylum system as hostile as possible. Isabel Ringrose gives an account of a refugee trapped in the system, using stories and experiences from people waiting on decisions, activists and lawyers
Issue 2904
Picture of Lunar House immigration centre in Croydon where refugees are snatched up by the home office

Lunar House immigration centre in Croydon, south London (Picture: Steve Eason)

Mahmud is scared. He’s received a letter of intention from the Home Office to send him to Rwanda. He thinks, what kind of life will I have in Rwanda? Mahmud fled for three years from the Iranian regime as his life was at risk. He travelled by foot, car, train and boat to reach Britain. He came here because he can speak some English.

There was no other way for him to reach Britain—he didn’t have time for visas, plane tickets and documentation. He wonders why Ukrainian refugees had a safe welcome, but for him this was the only way to reach safety. After attempting to cross from France for a month, Mahmud was rescued from a small boat in the Channel after it came into danger. After being picked up, he was taken to a processing centre for 14 hours.

Sometimes people are taken straight to a hotel, sometimes they’re taken to a detention centre. The treatment in the system, from start to finish, is random, arbitrary and hostile. Mahmud arrived in December 2023—which means under the new Tory legislation he is classed as “illegal” because of the way he travelled to Britain.

The law says officials will detain and deport any who come after this time. But there is nowhere to deport people to, so the system is clogged up. He only had the clothes he was wearing, which were damp and cold as he sat waiting to be processed. He was then shoved into a coach—and only told once he was on board what his destination was.

His paperwork took some time to sort out, because border forces wrote down the wrong name and date of birth. Mahmud was dropped off at a hotel in London where the staff were unfriendly and shared a room with another man. He was forced to move hotels after a few weeks, with a day’s notice.

He has just £8 a week to live on. The hotel provides his food, but they’re small, microwavable meals that don’t taste good, aren’t healthy and don’t fill him up. Mahmud is in limbo and his life isn’t his own. He can’t work, he can’t study properly. He relies on charities to help improve his English and get to know people locally.

He attends meetings organised by charities to help him integrate with local people. There is no support or information about life in Britain. He tries to relieve himself of the boredom of having nothing to do.  The Wi-Fi in his hotel often stops working, and he has no work to fill his time. He mostly sits in his room or walks near his hotel.

But the boredom means he doesn’t escape from the worry of his asylum claim, or the horrors he fled from. Many refugees he knows suffer with severe mental health issues. People are often crying or stressed and go without medical assistance. They are left with their queries unanswered by the Home Office’s Migrant Help service. 

Every week Mahmud has to travel from his current hotel in east London to Lunar House in Croydon for his immigration bail. He’s heard that even after people have been detained and released, the police can still turn up at your house and take you away. The laws mean it’s harder to appeal detention, as now it is only after 28 days of detention that refugees can legally challenge it.

Mahmud turns up early for his bail appointment like his letter tells him to. But the guards on the door of the grey, uninviting building tell him to wait outside the building for 15 minutes. There’s lots of people huddled around the door showing their documents. 

People are told they can come in, then they should wait, then they’re called back. Some are here to check-in, others are here for interviews, to claim asylum or other reasons. One man didn’t speak English and was at the centre to claim asylum. His two family members weren’t allowed in with him as they weren’t counted as his spouse.

On the door people give out information leaflets about the Rwanda scheme, with phone numbers of who to call if you’re detained. Mahmud hears one man say that he’s been signing-in as part of his bail since 2012. “They can send me back, I don’t care.” He seems to have given up.

When walking through the doors, the building is cold. The walls are bare and beige and the building is old. Everyone has to queue again for security checks—everything is searched, like an airport. Sometimes the queue takes minutes, sometimes it can be hours. There’s women with children and babies here, and women who are pregnant all queuing to go through security.

He takes his bag and jacket off and walks through a metal scanning frame. Sometimes the staff are nice. ­Sometimes they can be abusive. Coming here is ­harrowing. Once Mahmud finds the right floor he waits on a hard metal chair. One man next to him has come from north London 28 miles away. He came to Britain over 25 years ago.

He tells Mahmud he is pissed off at having to come every week. “I want to kill myself. That will probably make them happy too,” he says. “They want to deport me, they said they’re sending me back home to my country. What home? There’s no home for me there. I live here, my family is here. No one here helps us.”

As Mahmud waits to sign in, the Home Office worker calls, “Next customer”. But he’s not a customer. Signing-in is another word for immigration bail. It’s so the Home Office knows where you are. From behind a glass screen an official asks him where he lives and if his mobile number is the same—even though they sent him a text on that number to be here.

He has to bring bail documentation that outlines the conditions of his bail. It states he has to turn up every week, stay in the same address and he cannot work. Mahmud has so much anxiety and panic about coming here every week.

If he doesn’t come he doesn’t know what will happen to him. It could go against his asylum case and then he’ll be trapped in limbo for longer or be at greater risk of deportation. Sometimes people come in and are given ankle tags too—it seems like a random process as to why.

Mahmud feels like shouting and screaming when he’s in the building, but he gets through it and is told he’ll be seen next week. He’s remembered his lawyer’s number off by heart in case he’s detained and his phone taken off him. 

Home Office piles on trauma

Coming to sign-in every week is a risk. Men are taken into rooms for half an hour that becomes two hours and then more. Officers return to detain you without a real answer as to why. Mahmud doesn’t know when he comes to check-in whether he will ever get back to his hotel room. It’s about control—and making his life in Britain as hostile as possible.

During the pandemic those in the asylum process checked-in over the phone. Why can’t it be like that again? Some people come every week, some people come every two weeks. For others it’s every six months over the phone, or checking-in online or in their hotels.

Mahmud first went to Hounslow in west London to check-in, but now he goes to Croydon, south London. He doesn’t know why, he just goes where he’s told. Mahmud’s solicitor tells him to comply, but that makes him angry. He shouldn’t have to comply with these restrictions on his life. He’s on bail but he’s done nothing wrong.

He came to Britain for safety. He wants to be here. Why would he run away? But part of him does now feel like running away, especially when he’s threatened with losing his claim, or being sent to Rwanda. The Home Office isn’t consistent with providing his transport fee to get to Croydon. Charities step in and help support him, and with clothes, access to lawyers, extra food and a mobile phone.

Being in the asylum system is extra trauma for Mahmud. He wants to contribute to society, he wants to work, support himself and live his life. He knows what the government says about refugees—that they’re here to get benefits, free housing and steal jobs. He doesn’t want any of these things. But he’s stuck. And given the huge backlog of asylum cases, it’s a lottery as to whether his case will even be considered.

And Mahmud thinks the Rwanda scheme is used to scare people. He doesn’t feel like he has any rights, or that anyone in the system cares about what happens to him. Mahmud knows of one man who was put in prison as soon as he arrived off a boat after being mistaken for someone else. Why are the officials allowed to get away with this?

He thinks the system is useless and vicious and that the Home Office is dysfunctional. People’s cases and lives are transferred across the country with no warning or reason. Mahmud sees what is written in the newspapers, and knows that refugees are painted as dangerous and bad.

He feels that most people don’t understand why he’s claiming asylum in the first place. For many people they have no choice. One man in his hotel was trafficked in—he had no way home and it wasn’t safe to return. Mahmud has left his whole family behind and doesn’t think he’ll ever see them again. Every week is a struggle. He has no privacy or control. Why is he being targeted like this?

All this does is help the people the government is supposedly trying to stop. No legal routes to Britain mean more business for the smugglers. Not letting people work puts people at risk of being trafficked or exploited. But all Rishi Sunak is worried about is that nobody likes him. But Mahmud wants opportunities. He wants to be integrated into society and heal from the trauma of leaving his home, travelling half-way across the world and then being abandoned in a racist system.

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