Thursday, 31 December 2009

Why we don't always get it right with asylum seekers

I've just been to meet someone else who made my Christmas for me. His name is *Fraser but it used to be something else before he came to Scotland and fell in love with the country. I've had some criticism for my support of asylum seekers in this country. It's rarely come directly to me, more often than not it's anonymous comments on a newspaper website. The most frequently used argument against me supporting someone whose claim has been rejected is that if the courts have not upheld their application, they are obviously not in danger.

*Fraser is the perfect answer to that argument. He comes from the Sudan in Darfur where his village (and family) was all but wiped out and he was forced into the army to fight with people he didn't know and he didn't want to fight. He escaped and when he was caught he was tortured for hours, days, weeks on end. There's more to his story including the fact that a psychologist said *Fraser suffers from "the worst case of post traumatic stress disorder that I have ever witnessed".

The point of this tale however is that he had been through all the normal channels. The home office said no, the courts said no, they all said he'd be fine to return. Nobody questioned his story, he was believed but the ruling was basically that he'd be in no danger if he went to the refugee camps and not to the area he came from. So his claim was rejected and he was told by the Angel Group (who house asylum seekers) to leave on 16 July.

There was only one option for Fraser. His lawyer had to submit a Fresh Claim with fresh evidence and once she did that he would be entitled to housing support and the measly few vouchers that he'd been getting until the claim was considered. But there has to be fresh evidence for a fresh claim and no self respecting lawyer will want to risk their professional reputation by putting in a "holding" claim in the hope that something will come up. The evidence they needed could take up to 6 months to come through.

I will never forget being on the phone to his lawyer, then the Scottish Refugee Council, then Positive Action in Housing as he sat in my office. I told him that he must have made a mistake and there must be someone who could help him and not to worry, I'd sort something out. As I listened on the telephone it gradually dawned on me that there was nobody who could help, that Fraser was right, he was homeless, with no income and no entitlement to any food or money.

He was completely destitute and I vividly remember frantically wiping away tears and struggling to speak on the phone but desperately trying to keep the other person on the line so I could put off the moment where I had to tell him he would just have to sleep on the streets. It was one of those "grown up" moments where I knew I couldn't avoid him, nor could I cushion it, I just had to look him in the eye and tell him the truth. And not cry!
Fraser has survived the last few months by sleeping on friends' floors but only for a night or two at a time because asylum seekers are not allowed to have anyone stay overnight and so everyone was scared to help for too long. He has also spent nights literally on the streets. He has had NO income, has not been allowed to work and has survived simply because one or two people have given him money when they could, because thankfully we have soup kitchens and because other asylum seekers surviving on £35 a week have shared their food with him. It must have been hell for him so to choose that above voluntarily going back to the Sudan, tells you how bad it was for him over there.

The week before Christmas his lawyer managed to lodge a fresh claim and he was told he would get a call in a couple of days about re-housing him. I phoned on Christmas Eve to check he'd got that call and of course he hadn't! So I phoned the Scottish Refugee Council to ask their advice. They got his file out and told me that the Home Office had granted him leave to remain but because he had no address for him they'd written to his lawyer who was now on holiday.

Again, I nearly cried, I was so happy for him because I know how terrified he was each time he had to sign at the Border Agency knowing each time he went he knew he could be detained and deported. He was scared witless and now I was able to tell him he was an official refugee and would be entitled to a roof over his head and, most importantly for him, would have the right to work! I let my sister who works for me and has become a friend of Fraser's break the news to him.

The point about this story however is that his case disproves the theory that just because someone has been refused asylum they must not be in danger. The reason he was granted asylum is because a couple of months ago there was a ruling that non Arab men from the Sudan could not be relocated in Darfur, even in the refugee camps, without facing danger. In other words, they realised they had got it wrong about that country.

At any point over the last few months they could have detained and deported Fraser and he would almost certainly have faced a repeat of the torture he'd suffered in his traumatic past, not to mention the possibility he would have been executed. The situation over there has not changed recently, it's simply that we got it wrong.

So please don't think if an asylum seeker has been refused leave to remain that it necessarily means they don't need it. We frequently get it wrong, we've sent people back to countries where they've subsequently been murdered and it will happen again in the future.

It's a much happier future for Fraser however. And if anyone deserves it, he does. He's a lovely guy, everyone in my office is very fond of him. He said he wants to keep us as his family and given that his were murdered or missing and he may never see any of them again, I don't think we'll have a problem with that.

I know I frequently criticise our treatment of asylum seekers but I'm also proud of the fact that the UK takes in people who desperately need our humanitarian assistance. Fraser has had a terrifying past but he has the possibility of a great future, hopefully training to be a nurse and I know he wants to give something back to the country that's given him his life back. It's a new start for him and that's why I've changed his name, to protect his privacy. Let him be known as Fraser, the nurse rather than Fraser the guy who was tortured in the most hideous ways you could think of.

He loves Scotland and wants to BE Scottish and to get into the spirit and to celebrate his new life he was planning to go to George Square tonight for Hogmanay, just to stand outside with one of his friends and try to soak up the atmosphere. However, Jennifer Dunn, his SNP councillor had 2 spare tickets to actually get in and she kindly passed them on so that's why I just met him, to give them to him. He was very happy and knowing that he will be safe now really did make my Christmas for me. As I've said before, sometimes I love my job!

*Fraser not his real name although he did change it to something very Scottish!


  1. I wish Fraser well in his new life i really do but the world is full of Frasers how many do you feel should be able to come and live in the United Kingdom.

  2. The most frequently used argument against me supporting someone whose claim has been rejected is that if the courts have not upheld their application, they are obviously not in danger.
    - Try the argument about European Jews fleeing the Nazis - they were turned away at every juncture when seeking sanctuary and asylum abroad. This was all perfectly legal and above board as well, at the time.

    All the best to you Indygal and to your pal, and now mine, 'Fraser'!

    It's a disgrace that money and buisnesses can move around the world as if borders didn't exist, but human don't have these same rights.

    Wealth and property has more rights than human beings. Some values!