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Inside the ‘torture’ of the UK immigration system for asylum seekers

Dave built a life for himself in London. But after two decades, deportation threat letters pushed him out of work and his home. He told The Big Issue people don't understand what asylum seekers go through

asylum seekers

Dave found relief in art therapy after his experience as an asylum seeker caused him to feel anxious and depressed. Image: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr

When Dave, originally from Malaysia, left a post-9/11 United States for the UK, he hit the ground running and built a successful career for himself. But nearly two decades later, he found himself at the heart of the Home Office’s accelerating “hostile environment” tactics against asylum seekers, pushed into homelessness and relying on money from passers-by to survive. 

Life as an asylum seeker is “an open air prison”, Dave, now in his late forties, told The Big Issue. Detention centres are “concentration camps”. The government is creating “modern day slavery” by leaving asylum seekers to live on £39.50 a week and turn to working underground, he said. “People say the system’s broken, it’s not broken. It’s designed like that.”

Dave, who preferred not to give his surname, fled political persecution in Malaysia and studied in the US, but faced increasing hostility after the September 11 attacks and struggled to secure his right to stay. “Everyone from an Islamic country was labelled a terrorist,” he said. Opting to leave for a different English-speaking country, he fled to the UK as a “last option”.

Over the next five years Dave developed his career in London, built a life and even completed jury duty all while battling to regularise his immigration status – the process by which undocumented migrants gain permission to stay in the country. He went from solicitor to solicitor, all of whom took thousands of pounds from him but left him without the legal right to remain.

“They were stringing me along,” he said. “They said ‘oh, your case is complicated’, took £500 here, £1,000 there.” By the time Dave found out one solicitor had not actually submitted papers to the Home Office as he expected, he had overstayed his time in the UK. Later, another solicitor submitted papers for Dave under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – which protects a person’s right to private and family life – because he had built a network of friends and community around him. 

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It was rejected within a month, and the Home Office had started sending Dave deportation threats in the post. He was forced out of work in 2019, lost his home and “went underground”, finding somewhere to stay in a squat then homeless shelters. 

“At the shelter, you had to leave at eight or nine o’clock in the morning then come back at night,” he said. “If you’re not feeling well, you have to go out. If it’s raining, you go out and get wet. There’s no privacy once you’re in there, your stuff can go missing.” Some days he would go to Heathrow airport where members of the public would give him money, buy him coffee and have a chat with him. 

Asylum seekers are given around £39 per week to live on until a decision is made on their application for refugee status. Dave spoke with a police officer while homeless, who said he doubted he could even get by on around £39 a day.

“You have to choose between buying shoes to keep you dry or eating that week. People don’t know what the experience of an asylum seeker is like,” Dave told The Big Issue. “They say you’re given a house, you’re fine. No one gave me somewhere to live for such a long time and I couldn’t afford to return home even if I wanted to.

“There is so much spin in the media, a lot of people don’t know what we go through. The plight of an asylum seeker is not easy. I would love to go wherever they think it’s all cushty for us.” 

After over eight months, Dave was granted asylum accommodation and was finally able to move off the streets, but he is still in limbo waiting to be given the legal right to stay in the UK. 

The stress of his experience with the UK’s migration system had an impact on his mental wellbeing. When living on the streets he found relief, a sense of home and “a new family” in art therapy sessions at New Art Studio, and still attends the classes every week.

“As asylum seekers we might find it difficult to describe the feelings caused by what we go through,” he said. “Art makes it easier to express. It gives you autonomy, the freedom you don’t have otherwise. When doing art, nobody could tell me what to do, when or how to do it. It makes you feel like a person.

“It feels I have regained my freedom and I leave all my worries – my fear, anxiety and depression – at the door. It feels I am in utopia even if it only for few hours.

“Everybody in the classes comes from a similar background, and you can talk to them for support if you’re having a bad day.”

Dave contributed his art and story to exhibitions highlighting the experiences of people who lived on the streets. He also had pieces exhibited by the National Survivor User network, and is working on a podcast about the lives of homeless people. His art will be exhibited at the Barbican later this year.

He wants to “change the narrative” around asylum seekers and homelessness. “It’s not a matter of choice,” he said. “It doesn’t define who you are. I don’t suddenly have two horns because of what some paper says. 

“It’s too painful, it’s torture. We didn’t do anything wrong. The whole system needs to change – people who come seeking safety deserve to be treated with dignity, respect and compassion, just like all of us.”

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