seeking refuge…

Imagine you’re an 16 year-old young man from Afghanistan.
Imagine the horrendous ordeals you’ve suffered during the course of your short life after fleeing the extremely volatile and hazardous circumstances that confronted you in your homeland and on your frightening journey to the UK.
Imagine being left hugely traumatised and mentally scarred by your experiences.
Imagine being left feeling afraid that there are still people ‘out there’ that are seeking to harm you further and that your life is in danger.
Imagine yourself as a very vulnerable young man who needs support.
Imagine that the war has left you with absolutely no living relatives and that you’re completely alone in this world.

The young man is now aged 20 living in Bristol (at least for the time being) and, for the past nine months, he and I have been meeting together perhaps 3-4 times a month.
He’s personable and shy. He’s become a good friend. We share a love of cricket and I’ve endeavoured to assist him with matters such as his college language course; his consultations with his doctor/hospital appointments; providing additional help and support with the excellent Bristol Refugee Rights people; plus various issues regarding his accommodation. He clearly needs support and encouragement.
He’s also an asylum-seeker.

Although I have strong feelings about our country’s responsibilities towards refugees, this is NOT intended to be a blog post to persuade you to ‘join a crusade’ or anything like. I simply want to paint a picture of what life is like for some of these refugees and ask you to reflect on this.
This young man (we’ll call him Khan) has been in the UK for the past 18 months. Khan lives in a shared house with other individuals who find themselves in the same predicament. Khan lives a pretty primitive life, eating simply, trying to learn the language (and doing well at this)… but at least he has a roof over his head (for which he’s very grateful).

As an asylum-seeker, Khan has previously attended a formal Asylum-Seeker Hearing (in Cardiff) to secure refugee status. This hearing, conducted by the Home Office, apparently lasted three-and-a-half hours and involved 118 questions (Khan has shown me the papers verifying his answers).
His application was duly denied by the Home Office.
(note: according to Google, more than 60% of applications are denied)

So, today, I drove Khan to his Asylum-Seeker Appeal Hearing in Newport - junction 24 of the M4 (in my car-club car)… the alternative was train from Bristol to Newport, followed by a 5 minute walk, a 15 minute bus ride, and then a 20 walk at the other end… not too easy if you’re an asylum-seeker with very limited funds and little knowledge of ‘how things work’ in this country.

His appointment was set for 10am… but it was then explained to us that “everyone has a 10am appointment” (which, for some, meant a wait of up to 6 hours!). Fortunately, he was ‘on second’ – which involved a wait of only some 100 minutes. I was there for moral-support and, although the barrister said I’d be allowed into the Hearing, I wouldn’t be able to speak or contribute in any way. In event (based on the barrister’s advice), I sat in the waiting room. Khan’s solicitor (who had prepared the necessary papers) was unable to attend due to ‘other work commitments’, so Khan’s case was presented by a barrister who he’d met for the first time just 10 minutes before the scheduled start of the Appeal Hearing. Although, to my mind, this seemed unreasonable, the barrister was absolutely fine – polite, understanding and helpful. There was also an interpreter provided to assist during the Hearing.

The Appeal Hearing lasted nearly an hour and a half (the Home Office produces the case against the asylum-seeker and the Barrister acts on behalf of appellant). 
The judge will make his (in this case) decision known within 2 or 3 weeks. Both parties have a right to Appeal the Appeal decision.
I was left with a strong sense, maybe unfairly, that the Home Office is determined (obliged even?) to make the case against the vast majority of asylum-seekers… but it also left me wondering if the judge had a ‘quota or prescribed percentage’ of cases that he was allowed to grant?
On the positive side, I must stress that it’s been good to see the support that asylum-seekers like Khan do receive (legal advice, health care, language tuition, accommodation etc).

However, I was very conscious that this wasn’t just a legal case. This was actually determining an individual’s future… and it all felt very scary… especially if you’re a lonely 20 year-old who’s trying to find his way in a cruel, cruel world.
So, now imagine being in the shoes of my friend Khan… now living in the knowledge that your future is being determined by a judge… and that, within a few months, you could be returned to Afghanistan – a country from which you narrowly escaped with your life.