Asylum seekers: When the questions tell us so much more than the answers
For the last four years I’ve been paying my karmic dues (I would say “contributing to the big society”, but it makes me feel a bit sick in my mouth) by teaching English to a group of asylum seeking women in East London. This is what they want to know.
“Is Scotland in England?”. Anyone asking this totally legitimate need-to-know question clearly hasn’t shopped around asylum systems searching for an easy ride. Last Christmas for a bit of light relief I brought in a map of Europe and asked the women to label the countries. Some of them had written UK on Sweden, although in fairness when the tables were turned and one of them brought in a map of Africa, I certainly couldn’t differentiate Burundi and Lesotho. Like them, I’m learning.
“What is the difference between thongs and briefs?”. When you live on £36 a week asylum seeker’s benefit, when you’re not allowed to work and when at zero notice even that can be taken away, buying or asking for the wrong underwear is a big problem. Many years ago the government paid for English lessons for asylum seekers. Cutting them was an act of cruelty and ignorance.
“What does ‘maiden name’ mean?”. The amount of paperwork these women are expected to get through is ridiculous. All the more so since many of those I meet have come from places like Eritrea where literacy levels are low. They are learning to read and write for the first time, in a new language, in an unfamiliar country, sometimes in their 60s. They can’t afford interpreters and lawyers. They can’t afford food.
“How do you spell ‘murdered’?”. One of the group had written to her MP who had agreed in response to contact the Home Office in support of her application. The rest wanted to try to do so too. I suggest writing a few lines about why they left their home countries. In my sample letter I write “My family were put in prison”. They make me change it to “murdered”, it’s more useful. They all know how to spell “rape”.
“What can I write on my voluntary work CV so people won’t know I’m an asylum seeker?”. These women know the horrible image of them bandied about the popular press. They know the looks they get and the abuse if people find out their legal status. Many have skills in demand in the UK but they are denied the right to work, often for years and years, and then treated with contempt for claiming meagre benefits.
“Will I get in trouble if the Home Office finds out?”. One of my students has been asked to speak about her experiences of the UK asylum system. She agrees on condition that her name not be given and the video recorded is sound only. Her story is terrifying.
Leaving her young children behind she left Cameroon and came to the UK out of desperation. Arriving without a word of English she was given a translator for her preliminary interview. She gave her full story as best she could, painful as it was to describe. She was searched three times in one day and put into a detention centre for eleven days.
With her application in the system she began attending the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (now called Freedom from Torture). Based on their work with her their medical experts wrote a letter in support of her application for asylum. She was turned down.
She understands why now, thanks to the English she’s learnt. The translator assigned to her for her preliminary interview didn’t do the job properly. At one point “knife” was translated to “rubber”. So the interview didn’t match the medical report and they concluded that the medical issues in the report must have been self inflicted or the result of an accident. The report from Freedom from Torture says this is not possible.
Once her case was rejected her benefits were taken away and she was made destitute. She is pursuing an appeal but has no money to pay for legal support.
Her speech at the conference is deeply moving. The pain of being disbelieved, treated as a burden and a criminal is raw and real. She asks one more question: “If they deport me to Cameroon, I will be killed. Why don’t they just kill me here?”Tagged in: asylum seekers, benefits, english lessons, feminism, women
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