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The human cost of the UK’s asylum system

News 12 August 2021

Members of Room to Heal on retreat in the UK

By Elli Free, Director, Room to Heal

On a daily basis I witness the cruelty inflicted by the UK’s asylum system upon people in Room to Heal’s community. Given that, I find it sadly ironic that the Home Office is now tendering for organisations to support asylum seekers and refugees with their mental health. 

Of course many people need support to be able to live with the trauma that comes from the unimaginable torture and extreme human rights abuses they’ve fled from. But too often it is the actions of the Home Office that have the biggest impact on a person’s mental health. 

How can people start to heal from their original trauma if they do not feel safe when they arrive in the UK? Letting people work, ending immigration detention, and having faster and better decision making on asylum applications – these are the actions that will really help asylum seekers improve their mental health.

The Home Office is a huge institution, and much of its work is subcontracted to private global companies like Serco that run detention centres. Through this privatisation and the politics of migration, it seems that this government – and previous governments before  – have forgotten that asylum seekers are human too.

I met up with Amal (pseudonym) a few months ago at one of our first face-to-face community gatherings after lockdown. He had just had his long awaited day in court at his tribunal appeal, challenging the Home Office decision that refused his asylum application.  

Amal escaped his country of origin many years ago and endured a horrific journey to the UK. He loved his country and describes his childhood as paradise, his family lived off the land and he says needed for nothing. But things changed. As an adult he was arrested and tortured more than once.  

Yet what I find most shocking about his story is that even after all he’d experienced in his home country, Amal often says how he wished he had stayed there because the way he has been treated in the UK has been so debilitating for him.

Amal – like many other people who seek protection in the UK – came with a belief that in the UK human rights are upheld. But his experiences of applying for sanctuary and protection in this country have made it very clear to him that this is not the case and he is not wanted.  

Amal is part of a community at Room to Heal where unfortunately most of the members have come to the same realisation. Amal describes someone he knows who has gone through the asylum process as:

“Like a ghost, he has lost any life in his eyes, he is so withdrawn and hopeless that it feels like he is no longer there.”

A few weeks after meeting up with Amal, he received good news: after years seeking asylum, he had won his appeal and he will be able to stay in the UK. But we were all left wondering why it needed to take so long. He has been in the UK for many years, living in limbo, not knowing if he will be removed from the UK, living with the threat of detention and loss of liberty at any moment. I can only imagine what living with these threats must feel like.

During his years of waiting and ongoing trauma, his physical health deteriorated. Amal is in his 30s, but lives with chronic pain and finds it difficult to walk unaided. He’s a kind, intelligent, beautiful human being, and is very much loved in our community. But the years waiting for a Home Office decision, of not being able to participate in society, not being able to contribute any of his many talents, have taken their toll.

I hope his physical and mental health will gradually improve now that some of the burdens have been lifted from him. But the harm that he has experienced in the UK is not easily forgotten.

The asylum process is now longer than ever. The number of people waiting for more than one year for an initial decision increased tenfold from 2010 to 2020 – from 3,588 people in 2010 to 33,016 in 2020 – and the average waiting time is between one and three years.    Mary Bulman recently wrote an article about  this.

The new Nationality and Borders Bill doesn’t recognise or deal with any of this. Under these new proposals Amal would likely be expelled to another country, unable to seek protection in the UK. The additional border restrictions will only make journeys to the UK more dangerous and increase the risk of harm. Room to Heal has joined many NGOs in expressing our serious concerns about this Bill and I urge you to do the same.

Our community stands together and supports our members through the good times and the bad. We will all celebrate Amal’s news, but these celebrations will be tinged with sadness that there are too many other people who remain living a half-life, as Amal says:

“It’s good news and a lot of relief for me, I hope all the friends in Room to Heal and all those who’ve been in the same situation for years will be able to have good news too. I wish all the best for other friends who still struggle in the same long exhausting process.”

Amal participated in group therapy at Room to Heal and continues to join our regular community gatherings and creative reading and writing groups: 

“Before I was part of Room to Heal it was almost impossible for me to speak openly to other people. I was very negative, sad and depressed. Just after one year at the group I felt a lot changing, I started to speak and express how I feel, I became less negative and having a good time within the community at Room to Heal. It gave me confidence and a feeling of being part of a community and not rejected.”

Please stand together with Room to Heal’s community of asylum seekers and refugees this summer and donate to our Standing Strong Together campaign, so we can help more people like Amal. Thank you.

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