I’m a migrant. For those who are aware of migrants – you know that we all have our own unique story. I’m going to tell you my story. However, what I’d like you to keep in mind whilst I tell you my story is that it’s not entirely about me. To be honest, my whole message has very little to do with me. It’s actually to raise awareness about young migrants and asylum seekers as a collective.
In fact, this is about the continuous systematic failures that thousands of migrants must face. Most of the time young migrants are unaware of injustice that they are facing; whilst having no recourse to public funds and having little understanding of the asylum process.
I came to the UK from Tanzania when I was three years old. I went to nursery school. I attended primary school. I’ve always been one of those people who has been able to make friends easily. Although, I did struggle a little with identity, especially when I was asked where I was from. I had this inner conflict in my mind, I was always told by family to say where I was from. I was too young to understand it so I never let any of my inner conflicts manifest.
One day, in year 5, my mum came to the school and asked if I could be taken home early. She said she had lost her job and would be unable to work; she also said that we would have to leave home and go to a hostel. I don’t think my mother understood the situation herself. I wasn’t given a choice on whether I could stay at school or not. I remember my first response was fear of what everyone at school would think. School was probably where I was most present and happy. I don’t think I wanted anything to spoil that.
That was really the first day of this whole journey and now I’m 21 almost 22 and I’m still trying to figure it out.
Initially, due to the lack of resources available and knowledge about the asylum process, my family and I really struggled. We were given a limited amount of money to spend a week which did not last long and therefore we went hungry some days and without any electric. We continued to struggle finding legal representation and funding for our visa applications. This undoubtably lead to a variety of mental stresses. I didn’t tell anyone at school what I was going through so I lied a lot.
I spent the duration of my primary and secondary school years in complete insecurity, from not knowing where my next meal would come from, to not being able to access any public funds. We would go several days without any food. I was probably the luckiest out of my family because I could get free meals from school. But then when it was time to go home there would be no electric, no heating or hot water.
During my secondary school years, I moved around Birmingham with my family. We stayed in roughly 9 different temporary accommodations. Whilst being a migrant it is normal to be moved frequently to different temporary accommodations. They can range from hostels to 3-star hotels. Home really became wherever I would lay my head at night. However, as I was leaving school to start my A-Levels, we got granted temporary leave to remain. This was for 3 years. No one really told us what this meant, so I continued with my studies – got a part time job – normal teenage stuff. Inevitably, the visa did run out. Which meant back to not working, no public funds and complete destitution.
Luckily, my mum was referred to the charity Birch (Birmingham Community Housing Network) and we were housed with a lovely family that I still live with now. For those unaware, Birch arranges for destitute asylum seekers to be housed with individuals or families that have spare space.
Due to both: not having enough money to apply for another visa and not knowing that I had to pay for another visa, I became what is known as an ‘overstayer’- at the age of 17, having spent essentially my whole lifetime in the UK. I eventually applied for a new visa a year after the expiry date, in 2016. The circumstances under which I could actually afford to pay for my visa application are, themselves, quite extraordinary.
In total the visa application including an NHS ‘surcharge’ cost me around £1,200. But if my mother had not had a car accident then I would not have been to submit my this application. My mother used the compensation from the car accident to pay for my visa application.
I completed my A-Levels in 2017 and, on the basis of my results, was offered a place at the University of Kent to study Anthropology. I actually ended up going to Uni for a short while, thinking that my student finance would come through. But it didn’t, and I was told that I would be classed as an overseas student – which not only completely alienated me, but meant that I was entirely unable to meet the £16,000 per annum tuition fees.
I left Uni, broken hearted to leave my new friends and what I thought was going to be an amazing three years, after a term and was welcomed back into the Birmingham community. I’ve been doing voluntary work ever since, which I love and find extremely rewarding.
I sent my visa application in December 2016, and by April 2019 I still hadn’t had a decision from the Home Office.
One significant thing happened to me earlier this year- I met Nas Popalzai, a young Afghani man who had recently launched a successful campaign against the Home Office’s unfair treatment of him. Listening to his story, and to the network of Birmingham people who supported him made me realise I needed to take action.
So in March, I was helped by a charity providing legal advocacy, ASIRT, to submit a complaint about the Home Office’s delay, and was finally told that my application – along with all my important documents, such as my passport had been lost. This is despite the fact that the Home Office had repeatedly assured my MP, Roger Godsiff, in writing, that the situation was in hand, that my application was still being considered, and that a response would be forthcoming.
I still don’t really know what is happening. The Home Office told my legal advisers at ASIRT that someone would be making contact about a duplicate application. They didn’t. ASIRT sent them one anyway, threatening legal action if there was no response within 28 days..
After a month, in May 2019, the Home Office replied. Not to ASIRT, but to my previous private solicitors. They sent them a residence permit granting me another three years leave to remain. No attempt, though, to compensate me for the past 3 years of waiting, the years that have essentially been stolen from me.
The solicitor has told me I can go to his office to collect this document- if I pay him £200! He knows I don’t have this money. He knows I have been living on goodwill and charity for 3 years, and he knows that the permit hasn’t been sent to his office on the basis of any action he has taken to help me.
If and when I do get this residence permit from him, what happens in 3 years? Do I have to live through this nightmare all over again? Why?
I am Esther. I am a Brummie. I have been here since I was a small child, and have had all my formative experiences here. Birmingham is my home.
And yet, the system the Home Office has put in place refuses to allow me any sense of security or stability in the one place I have ever known as home. The system insists on granting me leave to remain in limited blocks of time, on making me pay for the ‘privilege’, and on leaving me vulnerable to financial exploitation by people with no regard for my welfare.
All I can do is wait. And wait.
In the meantime, I have no recourse to public funds, no legal employment rights, and have had to forego my university education.
My life is made possible by charity: Birch feed me, and provide me with accommodation. ASIRT provides me with legal support and advocacy. It feels as though I have no rights, and that my presence in this country- my home- is ‘tolerated’.
But if I don’t belong here, where do I belong?
And, as I said before, this isn’t about me. Thousands of people are being subjected to the very same misery.
The MP, David Lammy, has recently referred the Home Office to the Equalities and Human Rights Commissioner, arguing that its policies and practices are discriminatory.
And, a year after the Windrush scandal hit the news, I think the way I have been treated shows that nothing, still, has been learned, and that nothing has changed. Our lives simply do not matter.
Enough is enough. I need the Home Office to sort this situation *now*, so that I can just get on with my life. And urgent action is needed to stop this insanity.
We exist. We have a right to be seen.