In the past, SWVG volunteers shared their experiences of some key moments in the asylum process as they worked with people. Although policies and procedures may have changed since these stories were written, they are still make interesting reading.
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Asylum Registration Card
Immigration Appeals Tribunal
Liverpool appointments to make a fresh asylum claim
Reporting to the police station
UKBA documentation interview
Refugee status: getting started
Visiting an embassy to get a passport
Asylum Registration Card
An SWVG client lost his ARC card and was called to Electric House in Croydon to get a new one. It’s near Lunar House, and a walk from the station. We were early for his appointment and I asked at the security desk if I could go inside with him, which was permitted. After the usual search, we went into a small waiting room with a counter and windows. It wasn’t long before he was called for finger prints and a photo. A very easy process.
I accompanied my client to Lunar House, Croydon, to make an initial claim for asylum. As she was visibly frightened, I was allowed to stay with her throughout the proceedings.
There is information on the UKBA website telling you what to bring and roughly what to expect. This can be found at www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/asylum/claimingasylum/howtoclaim
Although we took the required photos, these were not asked for, but we needed passports and evidence of living accommodation.
I telephoned in advance for an appointment at 11am but we did not leave the building until after 5pm and I was glad I had unlimited parking in an NCP car park opposite the building. We were checked in just like an airport check-in, with bags screened and given a numbered ticket. They quizzed me about why I should be allowed in and I mentioned extenuating circumstances and the fact that we had come a long way. A senior colleague was consulted and I was told I was allowed in under special dispensation.
The waiting area with 25 interview counters was packed with people, crying babies and children running about. I was glad I had a thermos flask of coffee because the vending machine was not working. All mobile phones have to be turned off so you can’t go to the café and keep in contact with the person who is waiting.
We were not called until 1.25pm. My client was offered a translator at this point, but did not need it. The immigration officer was courteous but quite officious, asking questions and typing as my client answered, wanting succinct answers and reading back what he had typed. He kept to a script which I found clear and easy to understand. This was a preliminary interview, after which he created a file and printed out his notes. We had taken a solicitor’s letter indicating that my client should not be detained on health grounds, so she was asked for her medical history and all her medication was noted.
We moved into a more detailed interview, where she was asked to sketch her story in the country of origin and details of her arrival in the UK.
After all this she was given a copy of the immigration officer’s typed notes and asked to sign for them. We were sent to be fingerprinted and given a further form to fill in about her family history. I found the fingerprinting staff very friendly and they even wished us good luck.
There was another lengthy wait at this point before our number was called. My client was told she had breached immigration rules in entering the country on a student visa, knowing full well she was escaping a dangerous situation and failing to claim asylum on entry to the UK. We were told there would have to be a tape-recorded interview. She would be cautioned and was offered a telephone call to her solicitor beforehand, which we declined.
We were taken into a separate room and the procedure was carefully explained to us. Two tapes were made of the proceedings, one sealed afterwards for use by a judge and one kept in my client’s file. On tape I had to explain who I was (I said I was “a friend of x”). She was then cautioned and asked again about her personal details and her story. It was put to her that she had breached Immigration law and she was asked to explain why. I was allowed to make notes and we were told her solicitor could apply for a copy of the tape.
Then we were taken back to the counter and my client was given her Asylum Seeker card and many papers, indicating reporting procedures to a police station, the right to add more information within the next 10 working days and instructions for her to follow. We were then free to leave the building and return to Southampton. The drive took three hours each way, because of heavy traffic on the way there and leaving in the rush hour. It was an emotionally draining day for both of us.
Pam Humphreys, Sept 2010
I went to Lunar House in Croydon with two clients (sisters) who were claiming asylum. They had been in the UK for six months and their solicitor advised them to claim immediately. We arrived at opening time (10 am) and I had to persuade the security guard to let me go inside with them.
We waited in a room with chairs and a counter with windows (like a Post Office counter). My clients were asked to register, given a number and told to wait and it was a long time before they were called. They had to give evidence about their asylum claim at one of the windows – with no privacy – and were then taken into another room. A woman came out at about 4pm and told me they were being detained. I was not allowed to speak to them and was not given any information. Having to abandon them and drive home was very distressing.
Linda Huggett, April 2008
After my clients were detained at Lunar House (see Claiming Asylum), they were taken to Yarlswood Immigration Detention Centre in Bedfordshire so I contacted a very helpful member of the Yarlswood Befrienders’ Group. My clients were allowed to have their mobile phones inside the Centre so I could speak to them on the phone and arranged to visit them. I tried to imagine what a prison in their home country would be like and assured them that, although this was a detention centre, they wouldn’t be chained or beaten but that they should do what they were told.
I called Yarlswood in advance to tell them I was coming to visit clients and they were very informative and helpful.
When I arrived after a long drive, I went through a barrier where there was a security guard in a kiosk, and into the reception area. The man on reception was very friendly, though the waiting room was very basic. I was there with another befriender and we had to hand over our passports and were photographed and finger-printed and our bags thoroughly searched for sharp objects etc. We went through to another office where we were given a quick body search and then taken to the visiting area – an enormous hall. It was now early evening and there weren’t many people there. We were told we had to sit at separate tables (one visitor and client per table) and were not allowed to talk from one table to the other. There were cameras and no privacy and it was not an easy environment. By now it was so late that I had to stay the night in a b&b.
Back home, I made a huge amount of phone calls to find a solicitor, get information about bail and contact the Helen Bamber Foundation (for victims of torture). I found Yarlswood Befrienders and Puck de Raadt of the Churches’ Refugee Network extremely helpful. Thanks to a good solicitor from RMJ, and perhaps the fact that one of the sisters got chicken pox, my clients were released after about a fortnight.
Lessons learned: I wish I had been prepared for the possibility that my clients would be detained when they went to Lunar House to claim asylum, so that I could warn them. They were in the fast-track system and I believe that the fact they were in the UK for 6 months without claiming asylum made them more likely to be detained.
Linda Huggett, April 2008
Immigration Appeals Tribunal
My client wanted to be reunited with her children but the UKBA had refused them permission to join her so she appealed against the decision.
We went to the Immigration Appeals Tribunal at Hatton Cross near Heathrow. Everyone is asked to arrive at 10am and your case may not be called till the afternoon but, because of my client’s health problems, we were fortunate in being called first. We were in a large room with a desk for the judge and tables for the lawyers. Shirley Firth and I had made witness statements on my client’s behalf so we had to wait outside while she was questioned. She told us afterwards that she had been treated as a liar by the Home Office solicitor and found the process very distressing. I had prepared a statement and copies were given to the judge and the HO solicitor. I was asked my name and address but nothing else. The hearing lasted from 10am to 1pm, which was unusually long. My client was never offered a break, even though she is severely disabled. I was very aware that some people have to wait all day for their cases to be heard. At least there is a Tesco and coffee shop across the road for refreshments.
It took several weeks to get an answer, and it was negative.
Linda Huggett, June 2009B
Appointment in Liverpool to make fresh claim
My client received a letter from the UKBA calling her to Liverpool to submit her documents and asking her to phone to make an appointment. The phone lines are only open for a limited period on weekdays but she managed to get through fairly quickly and her appointment was fixed for a fortnight’s time. She went to Refugee Action at Avenue St Andrew’s to ask for the train fare. When they received a copy of her appointment letter, they took her to the railway station to buy the ticket.
She was given a UKBA form to fill out and take to Liverpool with accompanying documents. I helped fill out the form, which was asking for new information supporting her fresh claim and supporting evidence. There wasn’t much space to write in and I was daunted by the task because I knew it was her last chance of getting asylum. Because she didn’t have much in the way of new evidence, we tried to emphasise the work she had done for the community and her problems with ill health and attached letters of support from SWVG and her church.
Her appointment was in the morning so she had to travel the night before, but she had someone she could stay with in Liverpool. All she was required to do at the UKBA office was hand over the form and her documents, which took a few minutes. Then she had to make the long return journey.
After two months she was told she had been given indefinite leave to remain.
Reporting at police station
I accompanied my very scared client to his first appointment to report at Basingstoke Police Station. We queued for a while with many others of different nationalities and were then seen by an extremely friendly, smiley policewoman. She gently explained that they needed his photograph and some details and we were taken into a side room for this. I was impressed by the police’s efficient but reassuring manner and it was all over very quickly.
This is the time when immigration officials grab people. It happened once when I was at the police station. UKBA officials were present and took someone into a side room. My client now gives me his keys when he signs on.
My client was called to an interview in Southampton held by officials from the UKBA in Porsmouth. I was allowed to attend but not participate. The purpose of the interview, which was conducted in a friendly manner, was to ask him to sign a request for travel documents to go back to his home country, Ethiopia. He was told it was a legal requirement to do so but refused. So far, he hasn’t been detained but has to sign on once a month at the police station and I go with him.
Jilly Cooke, 2010B
Refugee status: getting started
Further to being granted leave to remain, my client registered for a National Insurance number and opened a bank account. He then applied to Southampton City Council’s housing department for housing benefit and signed on at the Job Centre. He was told he qualifies for jobseeker’s allowance (£65.45 a week) while looking for a job. He can also claim an emergency loan, which has to be paid back in installments once jobseeker’s allowance comes through.
My observations and experiences to date have been that the housing benefit department are very efficient, helpful and supportive. Everything seems to be explained and spelt out clearly, with copies of agreements or updates being typed up and printed out for clients and new forms are printed off for the client to complete there and then. The situation at the Job Centre is not so simple. One is given a 3 minute appointment initially and then one has to make a longer appointment if matters can’t be answered within 3 minutes. Phone calls are not returned and it is very difficult to get through to the numbers given. When jobseeker’s allowance had not come through after 8 weeks?of regular “signing on” and having papers verified and copied twice, I tried to help my client get to the bottom of the delay. It took considerable perseverance and assertiveness to find someone who knew the right person to take responsibility. Finally we discovered his papers had been mis-filed. If I had not refused to move until we had some indication that things would be different after our meeting, I suspect that my client would still be waiting for their papers to be processed.
Jackie Batchelor, April 2010
My Ethiopian client has had problems applying for Job Seekers’ Allowance and, in retrospect, I wish I had gone with him for his first interview. He has health problems including back pain but probably isn’t ill enough for Incapacity Benefit. On his first visit, the Job Centre gave him a list of vacancies but, because of these problems, he didn’t apply for any of them. He was subsequently refused the allowance on the grounds that he wasn’t willing to take what was on offer. With the help of CLEAR, he appealed against the refusal and waited for two weeks with no response from the Job Centre. He had to ask for temporary financial help from SWVG. Prodded by CLEAR, the Job Centre then admitted his appeal application had been sent to the wrong office and he was given a temporary loan which has to be repaid when he gets his Allowance. Several weeks and more phone calls have passed and he still hasn’t received an answer to his appeal.
Jenny Cuffe, August 2010
Visiting an embassy for passport
A is a Syrian Kurd who has recently lodged a fresh claim for asylum. As he has no Syrian passport, the UK BA arranged for him to be seen at the Syrian Embassy in London “for confirmation of nationality”. A is terrified of being deported to Syria (where the Kurds are persecuted) and initially he was reluctant to keep the appointment. When it was pointed out to him that he could be arrested if he did not attend, he agreed to go on condition that I went with him. The consular official agreed to my being present at the interview. He took a few details of A’s history and that of his family in Syria and told us that, after initial enquires in Syria, he would get in touch with us by letter. In fact we heard nothing from him, despite several telephone calls by me. Eventually I decided that the Syrian embassy had no interest in A’s case and that he was in fact stateless. I told Christine who suggested we contact our legal advisor Jo Renshaw, who agreed to lodge a fresh claim for asylum, using the evidence of the negative attitude of the Syrian embassy and the present unstable.
Unfortunately, towards the end of last year, A and one of his friends was involved in a fight and he was charged with three offences and found guilty of one. He was sentenced by the Crown Court to 200 hours of community service. The legal proceedings involved two appearances at the magistrates’ court and a final appearance at the Crown Court. Although he was well represented by a solicitor (and at the Crown Court by a barrister) and had a court Kurdish interpreter, he seemed to value my attendance at the magistrates’ court hearings. (I was unable to attend the Crown Court). I am hoping the court decision wil not adversely affect his application for leave to remain.
Dr Ben SteinbergB
I have known my client for over two years. At the beginning there was a reasonable hope that his claim for asylum would be sustained. SWVG helped him through the ASSIST Scheme and a legal worker moved his case through to an appeal. Sadly the appeal was not accepted and consequently my client was faced with the probability of removal.
My client and I had recognised that the future options were limited and that detention first, followed by removal, were highly likely. We took the obvious steps of ensuring that we could maintain contact by phone should detention occur. A number of weeks elapsed between the decision that the appeal was not granted and the eventual call early in the morning and removal of my client to first Southampton Police Station and then a detention centre. He was only allowed to take a small fraction of his possessions to the detention centre. However he was able to alert me. As a result I made my first visit to a detention centre. My client was composed but very upset for two reasons. The major reason was the obvious likelihood of removal to his country. The minor one, which made him really angry was his inability to take the examinations of courses, which he had completed with an expectation of sitting the examinations over the next few days.
In retrospect the examination problem was not unhelpful because for a few days we concentrated our efforts on permitting the examinations to be taken in the detention centre. We failed, but not because of an unhelpful detention centre. They were persuaded that the examinations might take place. The college was happy to cooperate. The nasty folk were the examination board which refused to cooperate because the detention centre was not on their list of approved sites. So this was the first failure: an inability to persuade authorities to allow examinations in what might be judged to be a secure environment. It has led to a warm appreciation by Itchen College of the work of SWVG and correspondingly by SWVG of the dedication of the staff of Itchen College. It also revealed a helpful spirit in the detention centre. But it then left my client having to confront removal.
An extraordinary step was his transfer to a different detention centre to facilitate his being taken to his High Commission to permit an interview with officials. There he was asked whether he was an asylum seeker, the reasons why he had left his home country and what had he claimed on arrival in the UK. He later returned to his home country with all this information available for subsequent interviews and prior notice to the media of the return of ‘failed ‘ asylum seekers. In returning to a deeply divided country, the compliance of UK authorities to licence such an interview in the UK seems extraordinary. So the second failure: this interview should never have taken place and our client should have been warned to say the minimum to his home authorities.
Soon a date was set for the flight from the UK. This precipitated two levels of action. One was the recovery of most of my client’s possessions from his Southampton flat. This was sad to effect the triage of what might be given to others, what might be thrown away and what might be taken to the detention centre. In retrospect we should have had a discussion at an earlier point but the result was removal of a large suitcase filled with clothes, books and papers to the detention centre. There I found that the case was simply held so that on the day of deportation my client would be reunited with his possessions. This was quite alarming because the paperwork of his appeals was in the case and we suddenly realised that the statements with criticism of his home country could easily arrive in that country to be read by officials there. Happily my client was able to open the case and remove the offending papers before his flight. However failure three was not to recognise the danger of taking incriminating evidence to the detention centre and risk the removal of the documents without my client intervening. In leaving his case I said a final goodbye to my client. He was courageous but very miserable. On his last night at the detention centre another asylum seeker attempted to commit suicide.
The second level of action concerned the possibility of at the last minute having a hearing in the High Court. The obstacle was in part cost. However as a result of seeing that a London solicitor was appealing at the High Court on behalf of another client due to be removed on the same plane, it became possible to envisage an appeal on behalf of a number of clients. The solicitor of my client and my client were happy to explore this possibility and to my surprise I found that the case of my client was accepted pro bono by this new solicitor. The finding of the solicitor came by exchanging information with Amnesty International and the National Coalition of Anti-deportation Campaigns. The new solicitor proved to be extremely helpful both in taking the case but in also attempting to deal with the consequences of the removal. The solicitor believed that those returned would be placed in extreme danger and that the removals were wrong.
My role at this critical point on the day in which the case was taken to the High Court involved 1) phoning my client who had not slept; 2) phoning the new solicitor to give further details to reinforce the application to the High Court; 3) ensuring that Jo Renshaw the SWVG legal advisor was happy with my actions; 4) phoning the office of John Denham, MP to ensure that he did the maximum to obstruct removal; 5) phoning UNHCR who explained that they can do nothing. They have to receive official notification from a Government before they can act. The Scandinavian in the London office was very apologetic but rules are rules; 6) I received a call from the father of my client wanting to know the result of the court. At that point I did not know; 7) phoning the solicitors to find what had happened in Court. I received very conflicting stories and was left not knowing what had happened. From media bulletins I knew that a request to stop the flight had been made in the Commons but the request was rejected. 8) finally I received the call from the old solicitor of my client to say that the flight had left and that my client was on the plane; 9) my last actions were to phone the father of my client and the friends of my client.
The following morning I received an e-mail from the office of John Denham indicating that he had asked Teresa May to stop the departure. Unsurprisingly it had no effect. However I received the message ‘She said that there was no record that the names had been leaked.’ Given the visit to the High Commission I was staggered by the comment attributed to Teresa May. Later I received the welcome phone call from the father of my client to say that he had found his son at the airport. Later I found that my client had been interviewed for over 3 hours and in leaving the airport had been photographed so that both TV and the papers carried his photo as a returned asylum seeker. In a deeply divided country such an exposure was appalling. In retrospect I realize that a discussion with my client before his return of keeping his face away from public view would have been useful.
The next problem was how to communicate with my client. I took advice from Amnesty International. They reckoned that all landlines would probably be bugged. I have two e-mail addresses and decided to use the one I know to be better protected. I risked phoning my client on the mobile of his father and then contacted him by e-mail but asked that he change his e-mail address and that he get a new mobile. I then continued to use both without difficulties.
My client quickly indicated that walking the streets was a terrible experience. In the capital of his country he was recognized as one of the asylum seekers pictured in the papers and on TV. So he returned to a life of having to remain inside with support from members of his family. Quickly the situation became more difficult. His father had a job to do in a different part of the country. In the home area of my client white vans were out looking for him. There is a well recognized pattern of abduction followed by disappearance of those abducted. I followed some of the blogs in the press of the country of my client and the danger is summarized by the blog ‘These people will be numbered with the missing/disappeared soon or later.’ That prospect was at the top of the mind of my client.
My role had developed from a relationship with one client in Southampton to a more complicated networking with different people. For many weeks I sent an e-mail daily or initially phoned daily to my client. I know that it did not change his situation but I felt it important that he knew that at least one person cared to help him. I maintained an almost daily contact with the energetic solicitor who had two concerns. As my contact with my client was the only one of all those returned alongside my client, the solicitor was very keen to know the level of risk of my client. He had hopes that a ‘mandatory return’ might be requested for my client and others. The concept of ‘mandatory return’ exists but is very rarely requested. He felt that extreme risk and the publicity at the airport, in part due to the information extracted at interviews in the High Commission might provide a case. He also was interested in having further information in order to defend those who might soon suffer a similar fate of deportation to this country. In particular he explored the possibility of my client making a statement to be broadcast on UK TV. My client, probably wisely, declined to be involved.
I was concerned to see how we might move on the life of my client. Through Amnesty I was given the name of a ‘reliable’ solicitor. I phoned this solicitor who was prepared to take the case of my client pro bono. I passed the name on but it took some time before contact was made. I also made contact with a Centre for Human Rights but the difficulty in making any such contact is the lack of confidence concerning the integrity of those contacted. I found the London office of Amnesty helpful and authoritative. I felt their advice on a number of points was good.
John Denham continued to show an interest but his attempt to contact Teresa May failed. He transferred to attempting to contact Damian Green and after 2 months nothing has happened.
Sadly after a month the life of my client was not moving forward. His finances needed modest assistance. He was not leaving the house where he was living with some help from his extended family. He had no real plan. A return to his home area was not seen as wise because of the risk of abduction. There was no realistic hope of a return to the UK. Apparently attempting to start a new life in a different part of his home country was considered to be too risky. So at the time of writing there is now a plan A and a plan B. The favoured plan A is sanctuary as a refugee in Switzerland. A request for asylum has been made, an interview was granted and the result is awaited. Plan B is leaving his home country and getting a work permit to work in a country seeking unskilled workers.
So this is a story without an ending. Where removal takes place I suspect the story rarely has a happy ending. The experience is utterly traumatic for the person removed. Aside from issues of guilt and failure there is the ever present fear of what might happen on return. In this case the fear of abduction has prevented any meaningful life. My client dismally has written, there is little difference between the single room in Southampton and the single room where I am now. There is no easy way to progress his life.
What have been my emotions? The first is not the empathy with somebody experiencing utter misery. It is rather the fine line between having a life full of possibilities and a different life with no obvious pathway to the full life. My client was top of his class at college with the prospect of good examination results and if only the asylum claim could be successfully resolved a life at university etc. Now it is a life in a single room, hidden and he must feel forgotten except by his enemies. Because this story has involved my interacting with many people I have seen the range of human response to a person in difficulty. I have utter contempt for the Teresa Mays and Damian Greens of this world who cannot be bothered to reply effectively to perfectly reasonable requests. I admire the officials at a detention centre who go out of their way to ensure that a humble asylum seeker can take his examination just before being sent home. As for the system, I accept that for some there is no case to be allowed to have asylum in the UK. However for a person like my client, who cannot create a reasonable life because he is in fear of abduction, our system has failed.
At the time that the removal took place, I felt that my life had been taken over. Now with a little space I have no regret for having been involved. Working with SWVG can provide great joy when Leave to Remain is granted. However we need to be realistic that some stories end in removal. However painful this might be for a Visitor it is 10 times more painful for the client. And what is horrific is that the pain for the client can continue and continue.
John Mellor, 2011
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