A ‘hostile climate’ or place of welcome? Seeking asylum at the Home Office: a Sister describes an unending day accompanying a trafficked woman seeking leave to remain in the UK

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By Sister Patricia Mulhall CSB

Two train journeys and a ten-minute walk from East Croydon station brought me, with a trafficked woman to Lunar House, the Home Office where immigrants, asylum-seekers or anyone wanting citizenship in the UK meets to have papers processed. It was a dreary day in October - dull, damp & grey without a hint of blue in the sky. Perhaps the dreariness of the day added to the weariness of the experience.

The first thing that struck me was the variety of faces and ages forming the long queue going through the door.  Like most people that day, we were hopeful for a good outcome or at least a pleasant experience. Weary is the only way I can describe it. The kind of outcome that would give my friend more days in the country, maybe even ‘leave to remain.’ We filed through the security with many more.  Having shown our documents, we were assigned to the second floor. Here we presented ourselves to the receptionist who told us to wait until we were called. It was about 9.30am. Our appointment was for 10am.  However, having a stated time didn’t seem to make much difference. In the waiting area, there were many of us.

Four hours passed.  Sitting waiting as patiently as humanly possible, without food (none can be eaten in the waiting area, nor can one use a mobile phone).  There are sandwiches and snacks on the third floor in the little café, but going to the third floor might risk missing the call. Best to stay put and wait. At least we had water.

To pass the time, I spoke to a young woman with two restless and tired children, 5 and 2 years ; she had travelled on the 5am train from Manchester. When we were leaving at 8.30pm, she was still there!

I befriended her children, offered to take them for a walk along the corridor, just to give this weary mother a short break. There was another young woman with a baby, waiting with her parents, hoping to relocate them from a war-torn country to live with her in the UK.  The daughter was there to translate for her parents who spoke no English. Opposite me was an African woman, on her own, there to seek asylum to join her friend, she told me. Another young woman approached me to ask for help. We used ‘Google Translate’ to talk to each other. She too was fleeing a conflict zone, hoping to be granted asylum. Because we were unable to use a phone in the waiting area, we had to go outside in the cold to hold our conversation. To get back, we had to come through the whole security process again. Two young men with whom I spoke were full of hope, as it was their second visit, they told me.

I began to put myself in the shoes of all who were waiting around me. The feeling of a ‘hostile climate’ was real now, not just mere words. If this is the way in which we ‘welcome the stranger’ into the country, I thought, then it’s a shocking state of affairs. Indeed, it is soul-destroying. It must equally be soul-destroying for Home Office staff. I’m told there is a very big ‘turn-over’ of staff. It does not surprise me. Those waiting and hoping for a sympathetic hearing, a welcome & leave to stay in the country are so often disappointed, turned away. Their hopes are dashed.  As the time dragged on, I began to feel less hopeful too.  I tried to imagine myself in the place of my young trafficked woman. Would I feel welcome?  Would I be granted status so that I could rehabilitate my life, look for work, realise my potential? As time waiting made me more weary, I was becoming less hopeful.

I reflected on the message of Jesus, “I have come so that all may have life and have it to the full.” My own life has been such a privileged one, at every turn I’ve had those opportunities to ‘live my live to the full’ and realise my dreams. Has our society moved away from that message? Have we lost our sense of human beings, each to the other as a common family,  sharing a common home?

It was now coming close to 2pm. I went to the reception desk, just to ask if by chance we had been forgotten.  No! the office was particularly busy and sorry, but we had to wait. Eventually, our name was called about 3.30pm. We responded for the ‘interview’ or so we thought. Alas! not the interview yet, but finger-printing. Another 2 hours passed. By now we were tired, in danger of falling asleep and missing the call. It was approaching 6pm. Surely the staff must finish at 5.30pm? Not knowing the procedure, I approached the desk again to ask the finishing time for staff. I was astonished to be told it could be as late at 10pm. It seems a ‘new’ set of staff come on duty in the evening.

Although we had ‘gone over’ the story of my friend’s trauma to help her English, the daunting task of retelling it to an official at the Home Office was terrifying. The longer we stayed waiting, the more nervous, even weary, we became. I could sense the feeling of dread in her. I tried to stay cheerful and positive even as I was feeling nervous myself. I didn’t know what to expect as it was my first visit. When at last the call came, she tried as best she could to tell her story. The young woman taking the notes on her computer tried her best to be accommodating and to make sure she was typing all correctly. To be fair, I thought she must have been weary too – it was late into the day and perhaps she was there from early morning? We went over the story, re-told it, made amendments where necessary. Finally, we finished. But then a further wait. When we were called again – about 2 hours later – it was to be told to ‘come back in a fortnight’ My heart sank! What, go through this all again? Seems so.

What a system! What a process! How daunting, actually intimidating, for someone fleeing danger, persecution or just wanting a better life, a new beginning in a country whose language, customs, culture, food, smells, sounds, way of life is all so new?

I feel great pain for those labelled ‘Immigrants’ (or more hostile names) who often risk their lives seeking peace and a new beginning in a country with a ‘hostile climate.’

I feel a great deal of sympathy for Home Office Staff too, who sit day after day to listen to often harrowing stories of those seeking asylum. No doubt they can feel powerless when it comes to the final decision about who gets to stay and who is turned away.

I’ve been to Lunar House many more times since that first visit. I’m wiser now but not any more hopeful!  One of the positive outcomes of these Home Office visits is to pray for the countless women and men who sit patiently waiting, hoping for the chance to live and work in this country. My experience is somewhat similar every visit, as I meet different people filled with hope of a welcome. I continue to befriend them, hear their stories, pray for a good outcome for them, pray that they be given a place to call home, a chance to breathe with dignity and peace where they can live life to the full.