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Asylum seekers: When the questions tell us so much more than the answers

Kate Smurthwaite

106626934 300x240 Asylum seekers: When the questions tell us so much more than the answersFor 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?”

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  • Mr B J Mann

    Oh, purleeze!

    “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…..”

    If you want to go to GB/UK/England you don’t need to know Scotland exits. And you don’t need to be able to pinpoint England on a map unless you’re flying your own plane or piloting your own ship.

    ” “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…..”

    Were they writing shopping lists for La Senza?!?! Even I know if it’s not hanging up you can look at the picture on the box to see what’s in it. Why do they kneed to know what it’s called?

    “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…… They make me change it to “murdered”, it’s more useful. They all know how to spell “rape”.”

    Well, they seem to learn quickly enough!

    “Leaving her young children behind she left…..”

    Them to be raped and murdered?!?!?!

  • adeara11

     Shut your mouth, your opinion is not needed here,ship yourself to DM or the Sun.

  • Raibert

    Cheeky pasty-faced little sod, aren’t you – all bravado behind the anonymity of the internet.

  • adeara11

    Shut up

  • Mr B J Mann

    A century ago Ethiopia had a population of 5 million famine and drought stricken thirsty and starving people.

    Today, thanks to bleeding-heart wooly-liberal “aid” Ethiopia has a population of 100 million famine and drought stricken thirsty and starving people.

    That’s TWENTY times as many SUFFERING!

  • Mr B J Mann

    As I head towards what should have been retirement, which I will probably never see, I look back in amazement.

    For, throughout my life, the left and the “liberals” have been swearing blind that this country is not just so full there isn’t room for another motorway or quarry.

    But so full that if we build so much as another inch of road, or just one more house, the whole country will have been concreted and tarmaced over!

    And yet, all of a sudden, in a country that the Greens tell us can’t sustain more than 17 million people, while we are fast approaching 70 million:

    We now seem to be able to throw open our borders to one and all.

    Have the left, “liberals” and environmentalist been lying through their teeth to us for all these decades??!?

  • Raibert

     Oh dear, the wee baby is wailing again.

  • http://twitter.com/DemirDrama Demir Drama

    Asylum problem and the solution:
    1. Asylum seekers must be protected it is not humane to send back people whose lives are in danger or have to bear terror
    2. Every country has a capacity of bearing asylum seekers and this should be even through out countries that sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Putting down your name to this isn’t sufficient countries have to walk the talk.
    3. Given the fact that the UK houses a normal fair amount of asylum seekers their conditions must be minimum of regular citizens.
    4. Asylum seekers should not be permitted to enter their home country i.e. for holidays. You can’t claim a death threat is there and then spend your vacation there.
    5. Asylum seekers should not be able to choose which country they are placed, if they are placed in Bulgaria, India or Zambia as long as they have median conditions at their foster home they should be comfortable.
    6. Should there be an influx from a particular country action must be taken by all participants of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, economic and military.

    All these measures should cut down the massive fraud in this area. Most asylum seekers are scammers but there are a lot that have legitimate claims and need our support.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tony.verity.9 Tony Verity

    Is it just me or have Daily Mail readers invaded the Independent with their ignorant comments? It’s as though these idiots actually roam around the internet trying to find articles about immigrants just to spout their usual bile. It’s evident here: this article is about the difficulties asylum seekers face even in the country they hoped they’d feel safe, yet the Daily Mail elite morons choose to overlook everything in the article and rather than debate its substance and the complexities of the issues raised, they think it’s wise to go on a usual rant about multiculturalism, religion, multiculturalism, religion.


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