Saima was five and her sister Linda nine years old when they were trafficked from Zimbabwe to London by a woman they knew as their aunt.
Now, at the age of 28, Saima is precisely the type of ‘foreign criminal’ that the proposed UK Immigration Bill aims to ensure is immediately deported. The Bill, which is expected to receive royal assent in spring 2014, enables the UK to "deport foreign criminals first and hear their appeal later".
Saima and Linda were never registered with a GP or school – their aunt kept them locked in a flat in London where they were treated as domestic slaves, regularly beaten and not allowed to interact with anyone in the outside world. When the sisters were young teenagers, their aunt began inviting men to come to the flat and rape them for her own financial gain: in Saima’s words, “what hurt me a lot was bringing men in the house sleeping with me and my sister for getting money”.
It wasn't until ten years later, after a decade of child labour and forced prostitution, that the two sisters managed to escape.
One day their aunt accidentally left her bedroom door unlocked and the sisters found £60 and a spare key to the front door hidden there. The sisters had no idea where to go and were illiterate, having been deprived of education. Eventually, they ended up in Bradford, having been helped to get there by an unknown woman they met on a London street.
The girls were too scared to go to the police to report what had happened to them: “I used to think about it, but people used to tell me, if you go there, they’ll put you in detention, and you see it happen on the telly… they put you on the flight by force… I used to be scared a lot”. Instead, Saima and Linda's host was able to secure fake Malawian passports for them so they could to work and earn a living to survive.
Living and working in the UK using fake passports makes these young women ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘foreign criminals’. If the Immigration Bill becomes law, landlords found to rent to such migrants will face large fines, healthcare providers will have to turn them away, banks will not be allowed to let them open accounts, firms will face increased fines for employing them, and their potential grounds for appealing deportation decisions will be reduced from 17 to four.
Aside from the moral implications of such restrictions, they are also problematic by European legal standards. While EU Member States have a right to control immigration, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency states that non-compliance with migration regulations cannot deprive migrants in an irregular situation of certain basic rights to which they are entitled as human beings, including healthcare and appropriate housing.
If the UK Immigration Bill becomes law, what will be left of justice for those who are ‘illegal’ as a result of exploitation and abuse?
What happened to Saima and Linda after they escaped their trafficker throws this question into stark relief. After a year of their new-found ‘freedom’, the girls went to the doctor for the first time in their life, aged 17 and 21. Linda had been feeling very unwell for some time. Both young women were diagnosed HIV-positive, a consequence of their childhood of forced prostitution. Under the proposed Immigration Bill, the girls would have had to prove they are in Britain legally before visiting a GP or hospital.
Linda’s disease had developed into full-blown AIDS and the diagnosis was too late to be treatable. After contracting pneumonia, she died. She had been Saima’s only family member and only companion in their eleven years of imprisonment.
In 2010 the Home Office identified Saima during a random raid while she was working in a care home. Her application for leave to remain in the UK was refused. Saima was allowed to appeal the decision, but with no money or access to legal aid, she had to represent herself in court: “I said, I need to stand on my feet, I need to go by myself”. She was still illiterate with no formal education.
Having gone through the ordeal of recounting her experiences once again, the judge still did not believe Saima was telling the truth - the story was too horrific to seem possible: “I told them my story, they were not believing me. They were thinking I’m lying”. Saima’s appeal was refused on grounds of incredulity and breach of law through living and working under a false passport.
If the Immigration Bill becomes law, the UK would be able to deport someone like Saima before hearing her appeal, if indeed her grounds for appeal are deemed legitimate under the new ‘simplified’ system.
After the appeal, Saima was desperate: “Where I was staying I had no money to pay the rent. I said oh what can I do now, I’ve got nothing”.
She went to social services for help. While at first she was turned away due to her lack of status, she was finally referred to the Palm Cove Society: a specialist organisation based in Bradford and Leeds which provides accommodation and support services to migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and black minority ethnic individuals.
Saima’s support worker at the Palm Cove Society, Nicole, thought that Saima’s account was too detailed and too consistent to be made up. She decided to appeal the Home Office’s refusal on Saima’s behalf. On this third attempt to claim her fundamental rights, Saima was finally believed. She was granted temporary leave to remain for five years.
Nicole, who has been working to support people like Saima for many years, says that it was purely a stroke of luck that Saima’s second appeal was successful. From her experience, the outcome of cases depends to a large extent on the views of the particular Home Office staff member assigned to the case. In the context of the widely documented culture of disbelief and discrimination in the immigration and asylum claims system, if the Immigration Bill becomes law, will there be any chance for those whose stories are not believed in the first instance?
Saima is now working part-time and also going to College, studying Maths and English. She suffers from ongoing health issues, but is hopeful for the future: she hopes to be granted Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK when her temporary visa expires.
She also has a secret wish: to be able to visit Zimbabwe to find her relatives. Her current visa does not allow her to go to Zimbabwe: “I am praying, if they give me Indefinite Leave to Remain, I will need to go to Zimbabwe… I will find somebody there… that’s what I want to do because at the moment I’m on my own”.
Even without the Immigration Bill, Saima was twice denied permission to remain in the UK, despite the horrific circumstances which made her ‘illegal’ and ‘a criminal’, and led to her sister’s death. With no access to public or rented housing, healthcare, the labour market, social services, legal aid and with less chance of having the right to appeal deportation decisions, how are vulnerable individuals expected to prove that they have a “right to be here”?
The names in this article have been changed. It is part of Halliki Voolma's PhD research.