‘I couldn’t sleep on the eve of the journey because I was imagining how I would manage to get to my destination.’
Reading this quote from a refugee newly arrived in the UK you may think it refers to their hellish flight to safety. In fact, for Eleri, one of the most traumatic journeys began once in England, as she travelled from Middlesbrough to Leeds for her asylum interview. She explained (through an interpreter): ‘I don’t speak, read nor understand English and the map that was given to me was in English. Consequently, I missed my departure train because I was standing at the wrong platform. I almost crashed as a result.’
Such logistical problems may seem trivial, but they are not. Not when getting to the right place at the right time will determine your future safety.
Like Eleri, the night before my asylum interview my sleep was disturbed as my mind was full of questions: what would it be like, how would I find my way, what kind of people would I meet and what would the outcome be? I woke up at 5am and my train departed at 7.15am. My appointment was at 9.30am and I had to do everything to be on time. Middlesbrough was my destination and it was my first time going there. Despite meticulous preparations, the journey nonetheless, was nerve-racking. I knew I had to change trains somewhere along the line. In the whirlwind of arriving in the UK alone to seek safety this small obstacle was vastly magnified.
Attentiveness was of the essence: my eyes were permanently focused on the big screen, my ears, like antennas were directed towards the sound of the announcer. If I missed my train, I would have to pay a new fare (a huge cut out of my limited asylum support of £36 a week). I would obviously miss my appointment and the rest of my schedule would be altered.
This is the tip of the iceberg in relation to what most asylum seekers in dispersed locations go through, when invited for their first interview or to attend an appeal in court. My trip was to share in the experiences of others who have made this journey from Middlesbrough for their interview in Leeds and to hear of the impact it has on their lives and the possible outcome of their asylum decisions.
Since 2000, the UK government has been dispersing new asylum seekers across the UK to relieve the housing and social pressures in London and South East England. All new applicants for asylum are transferred to disperse locations on a no choice basis. Asylum seekers sent to Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East are initially placed in West Yorkshire before being moved to places as far as Newcastle or Middlesbrough. Having been moved they are then required to return to Leeds to attend their ‘big interview’, which will determine their fate, either to be allowed to stay in the UK or be asked to leave or face forceful deportation.
Asylum seekers living in dispersed locations are usually informed of the date of their ‘big interview’ through the post. While some people have up to a few weeks before their interview, others may have just a few days from the day the invitation reaches them. In most cases, the tickets arrive a few days later or not at all.
Travel to the ‘big interview’
Interviews of this nature, which require applicants to recount in detail the experiences they have gone through, obviously require mental preparedness and stability. It is well recorded that asylum seekers encounter multiple hurdles as a result of what seems to be inappropriate interview procedures by the Home Office, stemming from a ‘culture of disbelief’. Every aspect of their account is tested for consistency and minute accuracy, with the most common reason for refusal of asylum claims being lack of credibility. Even small inconsistencies, resulting from tiredness or stress, can be used to undermine the whole of an applicant’s claim.
Preparation for any interview is crucial. Most people attending a job interview would do everything in their power to arrive in a fit state – refreshed, relaxed, and ready. Unfortunately, this is often not the case: most asylum seekers arrive at the Home Office harassed, stressed and disorientated.
Mamoud, an Iranian asylum seeker in his early 20s living in Middlesbrough gave all he could to ensure he reached his appointment for the ‘big interview’ on time, but due to mechanical problems, his journey became a nightmare. His journey was full of uncertainties: ‘I was up at 5am to get ready for my journey to Leeds. I boarded the train at the exact time indicated on my travel ticket. The train suddenly came to a stop on a bridge due to a mechanical fault. I thought of jumping out the window and find my way to Leeds, but we were on a bridge and I can’t swim. I was greatly disturbed and started sweating. By the time we got to Leeds train station; it was already 10.30am, time for my big interview. But I still needed to find my way to the UK border Agency office in Leeds which was to be another 30 minutes or more.’
Most asylum seekers will do anything within their powers to ensure they meet the demands of the Home Office. One asylum seeker told me: ‘my ticket from the Home Office was off-peak. I was worried and wanted to go earlier to make sure I arrived on time because if you are late, you will miss your appointment. I paid an extra £15 so that I could take an earlier train.’ £15 is almost half of an asylum seeker’s weekly support, leaving £21.62 for food, hygiene, over the counter medicines, travel and communication for the rest of the week.
Another person saved £3.90 out of his £36.62 weekly allowance so that he could pay for a bus ticket in Leeds. ‘The Home Office provides train tickets to Leeds but then expects you to walk the 45 minutes in an unknown city to find their offices – but the time the train arrives in Leeds there is less than 45 minutes before your interview’; ‘I was going to be late so I ran through the streets of Leeds.’
After all Elrie’s efforts to arrive on time, her case was not called up as planned. ‘For more than 4 hours my solicitor and I waited in court but my case couldn’t go on because the interpreter wasn’t available. The case was adjourned for a later date. I felt really sad and disappointed that all my efforts and challenges had been in vain, especially the fact that I had used up my weekly money on a taxi. But that was the court’s decision and I had to abide by it, after all I have no say’.
Mamoud, explained that the journey had a big impact on every aspect of his interview. ‘I mentioned things in my interview which were irrelevant due to nervousness and tiredness from the journey. For someone to enter a country and wait for 4 months to be called for an interview via a letter that stipulates that when you miss your interview your case would be dropped is incredible.’
To worsen things, some interviews last as long as 8 hours. Mamoud’s interview started at 10.45 and ended at 5pm and he wasn’t able to eat anything within this time. ‘Since everything was a rush, I got to the venue without time to buy something to eat. My interview ended at 5pm and the time from the venue to the train station was too short, so I missed the train because it was a specific time ticket. I had to borrow money from some people I met at the UKBA to get a new ticket back home. I could only afford a bus fare as the train tickets were much more expensive. So it took me a longer time on the bus and I finally arrived home at 10.30pm, totally worn-out and very hungry.’
Alisa, the coordinator of the MAP welcome to Middlesbrough project expresses concern that most asylum seekers are provided with inflexible tickets that require them to change trains along the line (even where there is a direct route) and are often give little time to find the venue: ‘The Home Office assumes it is easy but that is not the reality.’ Often people have arrived just a short time before and have had very little time to pick up basic English or adapt to the transport system in the UK.
Preparing for the interview
Matthew Neil coordinates volunteers in Leeds who believe that asylum seekers deserve better. The volunteer arranges to meet an asylum seeker at Leeds train station and escort them through the 2.2 miles to the Home Office. He explains: ‘the idea is to help people arrive at the Home Office in a calmer, and less nervous state as they go into a ‘life or death’ situation. What we offer is a friendly face in a hostile place. I hope by doing this we can turn the world into a more welcoming place.’
Matthew and his team of volunteers may appear to play a minor role in a hugely complicated system, but they make a huge difference as expressed by an asylum seeker in Leeds: ‘Thanks so much for being there for me when I felt stuck at the railway station not knowing what to do and time was running out fast.’ It is hard to overestimate the importance of these small acts of hospitality in a hostile system.
Claiming asylum in the UK is not straight-forward. It is full of difficulties and barriers, of which the journey to Leeds is one small example. The general lack of understanding, public hostility and culture of disbelief can destroy people’s self-confidence and undermine their self-worth leaving them vulnerable and lost, both literally and emotionally.