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The Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum

27 November 17 words: Lucy Manning

For the last seventeen years, the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum has been providing support, practical advice and friendship to the local refugee and asylum seeker population. The centre on Hungerhill Road supports those who are seeking refuge, and those who have been granted refugee status, as they try to rebuild their lives here in Nottingham.

Anike*, a doctor originally from Nigeria, came to the UK with her partner and her daughters in January 2008. Though they’ve been in England for the past nine years, the family were moved to Nottingham in February last year. “This is the best place I’ve lived since I came to the UK,” she says of Notts. “It’s a real community; people don’t care about your background and the children can play with their friends on the street.”

A survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM), extreme gender-based violence, and having been accused of witchcraft for not giving birth to a son, Anike made the journey to the UK to seek a different life for herself and her children, who were also accused of witchcraft. “My girls would have been expected to go through FGM, too. I’m dealing with the consequences of it, and I don’t want them to have to. I’m trying to protect them.”

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a person is entitled to claim asylum in the UK “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” It’s also possible for a person to apply for asylum, or for humanitarian protection, if deporting the person would result in a violation of their human rights, as set out by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights: “No one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

According to a study undertaken by the Refugee Council, 66% of initial asylum claims were refused in 2016, with 29% granted asylum. The remainder of applications were granted other forms of leave to remain, including humanitarian protection. Of those who were refused, around 76% appealed, and 40% of those appeals were granted.

Fiona Cameron, director of the Refugee Forum, says “In the UNHCR Handbook on the Procedure and Criteria for Establishing Refugee Status, a presumption is given to the truthfulness of the applicant, and there ought to be an understanding that he or she may not be able to prove the whole story and should be given ‘the benefit of the doubt’. In practice, this doesn’t always happen. The UK legal system is adversarial by nature and, because of this, many claims are refused on grounds of ‘credibility’.”

Anike’s initial claim for asylum was accepted as credible on the grounds of well-founded fear of persecution, and the threat of gender-based violence was considered very real. But the Home Office declined the family’s asylum application on the grounds that it would be possible for them to move to a different area of Nigeria.

Following the refusal, the Refugee Forum helped Anike find legal representation to help her submit a fresh claim. In the new submission, Anike and her solicitor are contesting the suggestion that relocation is a viable option for the family, with one reason being that Anike’s career as a doctor, and her partner’s profession, would make it easy for her family to be found and subjected to further abuse from their community.

The decision for Anike’s claim is still outstanding and, while being processed, Anike’s partner was placed in an immigration detention centre. Despite the judge at his bail hearing declaring that he should not be removed from the centre while the claim is still under deliberation, the Home Office deported him. It is illegal in the UK to deport someone while they are waiting on the results of an asylum claim.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to my partner,” Anike confesses. “I was strong through all the other things, but this – the forceful separation of my family – threatened to break me. I thought I was going to lose my mind, and I had to seek help.

“Now, I bottle up the emotion, but I fear that I don’t know how this is affecting my children. They’re missing a part of their life that they can never get back. They’re already so mature, but I don’t want them to be so conscious. I want them to be carefree, I want them to be children. I’m just hoping the damage is not so permanent that it cannot be reversed.”

Without refugee status, an asylum seeker in the UK is not legally allowed to work, so for the last nine years, Anike’s family has been living on £37 per person, per week. “Being in this system, you find yourself losing the person you think you are,” says Anike. “There’s no support, no clarity of where your life is going.”

Despite the narrative of the Murdoch empire, refugee and asylum seekers are not the huge societal drain they’re made out to be. “Governments all over the world use immigration as a rallying point when things are difficult economically,” says Fiona. “Since the introduction of austerity, the focus has all been on immigration rather than on the choices as to where money is spent, and unfortunately, asylum seekers have been made a part of that argument.”

In addition to the pervasive social stigma faced by refugees and asylum seekers in this country, the decision to leave the EU and the 2016 Immigration Act point towards a bleak future for those seeking sanctuary in the UK. From January 2018, bank accounts will be frozen while statuses are checked; landlords already face imprisonment and hefty fines for renting property to those without leave to remain, pointing to discriminatory vetting processes for potential tenants; rejected asylum seekers like Anike will no longer be entitled to free secondary and tertiary health care, and will only be seen if they can prove they have the money to pay for the treatment. If it’s an emergency situation, they’ll be billed. When you’re surviving on £37 a week, it’s a frightening prospect.

“Right now, it’s happening to asylum seekers, but how long until it’s happening to our other ‘least favourite’ set of people? I don’t know, say, people on benefits?” Fiona adds. “I’ve worked with refugees in Cairo and Sudan, and it can feel harder here in the UK. We have everything we need, the structures are in place, but we just cut a whole group of people out. It’s draconian and traumatic, and brutal.”

“I’m fighting for my children’s future,” says Anike. “I’m protecting them from one aspect of torture and trauma, but not the other. Do I subject them to the physical violence of FGM, or do I subject them to the psychological trauma of the Home Office’s hostile environment, and not fitting in?”

The Refugee Forum has provided some comfort to Anike in the midst of the struggle. She attends their women’s group once a week, where she’s made friends with others who understand what she’s going through. “Sometimes, if you’ve not been in it, you don’t know how to have a conversation,” she explains. “I’ve made most of my friends at the women’s group, and when I’m feeling really bad, I can call them and they sort of counsel me because they know what’s going on.”

The services offered by the Refugee Forum extend far and wide. Volunteers – of which a healthy percentage are refugees and asylum seekers – and staff provide advice surrounding benefit entitlements and assistance finding housing, as well as helping vulnerable people to access healthcare. Their Children and Families Project provides parents and youngsters with opportunities to get out into the local community and do something fun, with art workshops, theatre trips and days out to Sherwood Pines just some of the activities on the list.

“I do think that if you’re an asylum seeker in Nottingham then you’ve probably got a lot more help than other places,” says Fiona.

The future for Anike and her daughters is unknown, and too difficult for Anike to think about. When asked what her hopes are, she falters. “I want to be able to use my talents, to work and be a positive role model for my daughters, and to contribute to society by working for the NHS. I want them to see their mum being productive, more assertive. The person I’ve become is not the me that I know.”

Anike’s story can be seen repeated within the refugee and asylum seeker community across the country. Unfortunately, an increasingly ruthless system and social perception suggests that for many, things are going to get worse before they can get better. And when the government doesn’t provide, places like the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum offer an invaluable lifeline.

You can support the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum by volunteering your time, donating food or money, and becoming a member. Head to their website to find out more.

Keep your eyes peeled for a video interview with Fawad Mousawi, a refugee and interpreter at the Refugee Forum, on our website.

Donate to the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum this Christmas
Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum website

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