Opinion

Life as a UK asylum seeker: 'Will I ever really be safe?'

On the 70th anniversary of the signing of the 1951 Refugee Convention, AsylumSeester officially became a British citizen. She reflects on what those personal and historic milestones mean to her.

Being an asylum seeker, it makes you feel ashamed. The minute people hear the words “asylum seeker” or “refugee” they think “benefits scrounger“. They think you’ve come here just to take their jobs, claim benefits and overwhelm their NHS.

When you are an asylum seeker or a refugee you are not seen as a human any more, you are a problem that needs to be solved – you’re a cancer that needs to be cut out.

The media plays a massive role in how we are viewed. Headlines describe “swarms of refugees” – like we are flies, pests. These are people the same as you and me, the only difference is that they are running away from torture, from war, running for their lives.

I came to the UK from Zimbabwe when I was 14. I’m 36 now and last month I was granted British citizenship, finally, after 22 years. It’s been a very long journey.

The minute I stop being a ‘good immigrant’, am I done for? Will I ever really be safe?@asylumseester

At one time I had to report to an immigration centre every month with my paperwork. My husband said that every time I went he was terrified, absolutely terrified, because he didn’t know whether I would be home when he got back from work, or if I could have been detained. It’s only looking back you realise the impact that has on you. It takes its toll.

Becoming a British citizen has been bittersweet. It feels as if a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I am happy, and grateful for my life here, but I will never feel like I belong here. Having that passport doesn’t take away that feeling of not being wanted here.

And the fear is always there – if I put a foot wrong, will they revoke my citizenship? Will I be deported or put in a detention centre? I have the same legal rights as a British citizen, I am ‘British’, but am I really? The minute I stop being a ‘good immigrant’, am I done for? Will I ever really be safe? I will live with that for the rest of my life.

This summer has seen a number of mass deportations. A few weeks ago I had a relative who was detained under threat of deportation. The Zimbabwean and UK governments have reached an agreement to start deporting people back to Zimbabwe, something that hasn’t happened for many years due to the political situation there, but now – in the middle of a pandemic – they have decided it is safe to start sending people back.

I joined in the campaign to stop the deportations. Fifty people were due to be on that plane, in the end 14 were. It was 14 too many. My relative was allowed to stay, but 14 families were torn apart. It’s heartbreaking.

This new Nationality and Borders Bill isn’t solving the problem, it’s creating a bigger one.

asylumseester-2-scaled-1

Now to be deserving of freedom you have to have come into the country in a particular way, you have to meet certain criteria. But when somebody is fleeing for their life and seeking sanctuary does it really matter how they got here? Shouldn’t we just be welcoming, and provide them with protection and safety regardless of how they got here?

So many more lives will be lost as a result of this bill. It will not stop people smugglers doing their business, they will just choose more and more dangerous routes. People will do whatever it takes to try to get to a safe place.

People don’t understand how difficult the life of an asylum seeker or refugee is. These people leave their families behind, their children and their spouses, to get on a boat when they don’t know if they’re going to make it to the other end alive… nobody does that just to get a council house.

An adult asylum seeker gets less than £40 a week from the government. If you have a child aged between one and three, you get an extra £3 a week. With that money you have to buy food, clothing, toiletries, nappies – who would choose that?

The media use these scare tactics, scaremongering, they target people who are struggling, living from pay cheque to pay cheque, worried about their children’s future, and they make them panic, make them think “I’ll lose my job to an immigrant”, but that’s not how the system works.

Most people are not allowed to work while their case is pending. There is a massive backlog at the Home Office because of the pandemic. Sometimes it can take five to 10 years before a decision is made.

By stopping people working these policies feed the false narrative that we come here to sit on our arses and get free money. The truth is people are desperate to work, to make a life for themselves here and be part of society.

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I found out a few days before the ceremony that I’d be granted citizenship on the 70th anniversary of the UN 1951 Refugee Convention. It made it even more meaningful to me, but I can’t help feeling like we’ve actually taken a few steps back since then.

When you look at the way people are living in the refugee camps in Greece at the moment, being forced to live like animals, it’s appalling. We are talking about innocent children. I imagine my son living in an environment like that and I start to cry.

I have been married for 10 years, my husband is English, our son is nearly three. He is British, born here. It brings me so much comfort to know that he will not have to go through the things I have. Being a mixed-race child he will face challenges of his own, but he won’t have to spend his life worrying about his immigration status or being deported back to a country he doesn’t even know.

Being a parent changes your perspective on things. I have become an ambassador for Families Together and campaign for reform on the policies around refugee families being reunited in the UK. Everybody deserves to have their family with them. It is a basic human right.

And I work with City of Sanctuary, creating welcoming spaces for asylum seekers and refugees. I want to help give people like myself hope, to help someone feel like they belong here. They deserve to be safe, they deserve happiness, just like everybody else.

You can follow @asylumseester on Instagram. Interview: Claire Henderson.

This article is taken from the Refugee Special edition of The Big Issue Magazine, out on August 23. Get a subscription linked to your local Big Issue vendor to make sure you don’t miss it.

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