The never-ending journey

Caroline Moorehead
25 August 2003

On Monday 4 August 2003, K. and E. received a letter from Britain’s Home Office, the government department which deals with immigration matters. It informed them that, together with their two sons, A. and C. (12 and 8 years old), they were to be deported. After four years in Britain, they were given ten days to pack their few belongings, say goodbye to their friends and get ready to be collected early in the morning for a flight from Heathrow to Pristina.

The letter itself, though shocking, was not unexpected. K. and E. had known for some weeks that their final appeal for refugee status in the United Kingdom had been rejected, and that there was nothing now to delay their departure. In fact it had already been delayed: K. is pregnant and, having been obliged to terminate an earlier pregnancy because of a chromosome abnormality, she was permitted to remain under the care of her consultant at least until the danger moment in her new pregnancy had passed. It is what this ordinary, close, diligent family have come from, and what they will return to, that makes their situation hard.

Hard, but not unique. About half of all refugees requesting asylum in the UK are ultimately, after varying amounts of time and different legal stages, turned down. Over 100,000 people, from some 90 different countries applied for asylum in 2002, and some 50,000 of them will have their case dismissed. In such cases, the immigration officers and judges and adjudicators involved decide that their story lacks credibility, that they have in fact nothing to fear from return to their own country, or that their reason for coming to Britain is nothing other than a desire for a better life.

Many will have suffered from lazy or exploitative solicitors, poor interpreters and clerical errors. Rejection means the end of all financial help. Deportation – ticket to home country paid for – may follow immediately. But for all those who leave, collected at dawn, taken to a deportation centre and put on a flight – though not, it is said, in the mid-summer months, when the planes are full and tourists going on holiday might be troubled by the spectacle of such anguish – there are dozens more who vanish into Britain’s black economy, sleeping on friends’ floors, working for low wages in factories, farms and garages.

In time of war

It is K. who tells their story: “My family are Roma, and as such we were always persecuted in our village in southern Kosovo. We kept ourselves to ourselves but even so other children laughed at me at school and people threw stones at us. None of the women in the village ever spoke to me and they wouldn’t come to my house to have coffee with me. It didn’t get any easier when I married E., who is half-Serb and half-Albanian.

When the boys were born and went to school, E. had to go with them every morning because otherwise the other children would stone them. When E. was called to fight with the Kosovo Liberation Army, he refused. We had to run away from our village and hide. When the war was nearly over, he went to see what had happened to our house. His cousin had warned him that he would be in extreme danger if he went there, and he was in fact picked up and held for seven days and questioned about why he had refused to help his own people. When they let him go, with a warning never to show his face again, he was covered in bruises, and he could hardly move his leg where they had injured his sciatic nerve”.

With two small sons to look after, K. and E. fled to the latter’s father and asked for help. His father gave them his savings and urged the family to find safety in another country. By now, K.’s own family, her parents and brothers and sisters, had themselves fled to Greece, to escape harassment and persecution as Roma, and were living a precarious life on the edge of a small town. There was no room, nor any money, to take in four extra people. E. is a builder and had some savings of his own. Pooling these together with his father’s savings, he found that he had $16,000. Hearing that they might find a way to leave the region by travelling first to Macedonia, the family packed what they could carry and left.

“In Macedonia”, says K., “we met up with an agent who told us he would transport the four of us to France. We didn’t want to leave but by now we were terrified for our children. We sat in the back of a lorry, stopping at night. Somewhere in France, we were put out, and our first agent introduced us to a second man, who told us that there was no life for us in France, and that we should make our way on to Britain. He took the rest of our savings, and brought us here, by lorry and by bus and by ferry. C. has bad asthma and on the journey he suddenly fell ill with a fever and a high temperature. I was very scared and just prayed to God.”

A moment of hope

Before leaving the family in Dover, in England, the agent told them exactly what to do. He had taken away their passports and given them false papers, and he now explained how they should find a policeman and ask for asylum. “I had just brought two small bags, with a few clothes, some clean things for the boys” says K. “We didn’t speak a word of English. But we were very lucky. People were kind to us. We stayed for two nights in Dover, then two more nights in a hotel in Brixton. Then we were given a flat in Tottenham, north London, where we lived for two years. The boys went to school and A., who had always done badly in his school at home, now began to settle and do well.”

Because the family were asylum-seekers, waiting to hear whether they would be able to stay in Britain, E. was forbidden to work. He spent his time taking courses to be able to work as a builder again, once the permission to stay had been granted. It never really occurred to either of them that they would be forced to go home, particularly as other Albanians and Kosovars, with much the same mixed ethnic backgrounds, and much the same kind of persecution at home, were finding refuge in the UK.

As the months, and then the years, passed, they came to feel settled and optimistic. Both felt ready and prepared, when the day came, to start putting back into their new country, in terms of work and future contributions, what they felt had so generously been given to them. They were sad, but not cast down when, after a first refusal, they were moved from Tottenham to the north-east of England, where by 2001 many asylum-seekers were being sent to await the result of their appeals. Their lawyer assured them that all would yet be well.

A first house in Newcastle proved terrible. They had been forced to leave all their slowly acquired belongings in Tottenham, and were now once again without a fridge, sofa, television or even cooker. The children, who had yet again lost their friends, cried. But, slowly, things improved. They improved still more when the family was moved again, this time to Stockton-on-Tees, where they were given a small terrace house at the end of a quiet street, with pleasant neighbours and a good local school. Though it took some months for the boys to readjust, by the spring of 2003 both A. and C. were speaking good English and A. was top of his class in several subjects.

On the road to nowhere

In March 2003 the family was called for an appeal hearing in Newcastle. Not long after that they were told that their application had been turned down, for lack of credibility. E.’s story was judged full of holes, and his reason for flight suspected to have more to do with a desire for a better life than with security. Since then, an application to have the case re-examined by a tribunal has been turned down. K. cries as she describes trying to prepare the boys for departure to a country neither remembers without fear.

“The immigration officer who came to the house asked where we would go”, K. says. “The answer is that we have no idea. We can’t go to Greece to join my family because we have no documents. We can’t go back to the village, where our house has been destroyed and where we are not wanted. E.’s parents are very elderly and have nowhere to put us. We haven’t been able to save anything and the baby is due in February. We don’t even have the money to pay for a single night in Pristina. “E. has now said that when they reach Pristina he will be forced to leave again for somewhere else, as it is quite simply too dangerous for him to stay. “It is me and the boys who will suffer”, she says, when E. is not in the room. “Somehow, our journey will have to begin all over again”.

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