Destitute asylum seekers are facing challenging times on the streets of Leeds. Local democracy reporter Richard Beecham speaks to Fabrice about his harrowing story – and how lockdown could make the situation worse for asylum seekers in Leeds.
Fabrice’s story is one of tragedy, denial and hope.
As a pro-LGBT activist in Cameroon, a country where same-sex relationships can carry prison terms, he was soon arrested and put behind bars.
After eight months in prison, by his own admission being “tortured in a horrible way”, he was helped to escape the country in 2015 – but did not know where he would end up. He said:
“Being a French speaker, if I were to choose a country, I would have chosen France. It would have been easy for me to be integrated and to handle life there.
“But I found myself put in an aeroplane, without knowing where I was going. I flew to England. I arrived here with the trauma of the prison, and without knowing anyone – I had only myself on the street.”
After receiving initial support from PAFRAS – an organisation that supports destitute asylum-seekers – there then followed a harrowing five-year fight to remain in the country, during which he was denied asylum twice, forcing him onto the streets.
Fabrice believes the Home Office did not understand the dangers facing him if he returned to Cameroon, which could have led them to make the wrong calls on whether to allow him asylum.
“I submitted evidence,” he said. “I had recorded everything on a USB stick. So I submitted this along with leaflets showing I was working for an organisation [in Cameroon] wanting social change.
“But [The Home Office] tried to look at the reality in England to understand what is happening in another country – the context is completely different.”
Although asylum-seekers are allowed to make fresh claims to the Home Office, these must be accompanied by new evidence. Between losing the appeals and making fresh claims, Fabrice spent a combined total of two years and eight months living on the streets.
“My hard journey had started,” he said. “I was on the street, without knowing where I was going or what to do.
“Sometimes I would be given a sleeping bag and I would find somewhere to sleep. Sometimes I would sleep under a bridge near the University of Leeds, when it was too cold, without any food. I was starving.
“When I remember these times, it makes me feel very bad again.”
Fabrice, along with charities working with destitute asylum-seekers, fear new UK Government rules could plunge other people into similar situations.
By law, Government has a duty to put anyone who needs it applying for asylum in the UK into temporary accommodation while their applications are dealt with. If the applications and any subsequent appeal are lost, asylum-seekers are evicted from the accommodation.
Back in March, the Government had put a halt to asylum seeker evictions, as part of wider work to keep homeless people off the streets due to the public health risks associated with Covid-19. In September, the ban on evictions was lifted, which many feel will force more asylum-seekers and refugees onto the streets, making them vulnerable to criminal exploitation and increasing the Covid-19 public health risk.
Karen Pearse is a director at PAFRAS, a charity which supports destitute asylum seekers in the Leeds. She said:
“We were able to help people into housing, but that was a temporary measure, and we are worried about what will happen next.
“The shelter we were working with before now has no emergency accommodation. When we get someone presenting at PAFRAS who is homeless, we now have very few, if any, options to support them into accommodation.
“There are people who have been destitute and homeless for a long time who came back to us for support because of precarious living arrangements. During a pandemic, people might not want you to stay in their house.
“We want to see all asylum seekers supported one way or another. There is a public health aspect to it – when someone is sleeping rough and going from place-to-place every night, there is more of a risk to them and the people they come into contact with.”
Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake had sent a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel last month on the issue.
It read: “People with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) are often reliant on charitable and voluntary organisations for accommodation and those organisations currently have limited capacity to support this group. A number of the normal accommodation options for people with NRPF, such as night shelters, cannot be safely re-opened by the providers.
“Ultimately this will lead to a potential public health risk if the only option is to
return to rough sleeping. Adding to the numbers of people requiring this support locally by evicting further people from their asylum accommodation will only increase the risk to both those people and to public health at this time, therefore we urgently request that the Government consider a further hold on evicting people from asylum seeker accommodation.”
Jon Beech is director of Leeds Asylum Support Network – he said due to Covid lockdown, there are barely any options still available to homeless asylum seekers. He said:
“People used to go to the bus station, or sleep in toilets – but I don’t know if the toilets are going to be leFt open because of Covid. Some people would go on the Megabus and go somewhere far away for a quid, and come back again for a quid – at least you get shelter – but that’s not possible anymore.
“People could squat, but that’s harder than it’s ever been – and I don’t see why people should break the law to avoid being roof-less.
“If you’ve come into contact with someone who has Covid, they are required by law to isolate for 10 days. If they don’t, they are subject to fines.
“How do you self-isolate if you are roof-less?
“The Home Office has to stop making people homeless at the peak of a pandemic.”
After submitting a third claim in late 2019, during which he was put back into asylum accommodation, Fabrice was finally granted asylum this year.
But his problems are not over yet, as even with a positive asylum decision, the Home Office ceases support, and has given him 28 days to find somewhere to live.
“All the damage that they did to me, they don’t care. It was wasted time. It puts you through trauma.
“I am physically and psychologically diminished. I am frustrated because they are still putting people on the street without taking measures and making sure they are safe.
“It is not human. I am sitting here thinking ‘how will I do? where will I go?’ – my Universal Credit has not started yet, so how will I survive?
“It’s very horrible and unfair on people – it is inhuman.
“How are you going to overcome the situation? It’s really hard – this is not fair at all. They will be just like me – I was sent onto the street.
“What about those people that want that chance to sit down and go through their case again? That is my concern.”
A Home Office spokesperson said:
“Those who have received a negative asylum decision, which means they have no right to remain the UK, are given a 21 day grace period. During this time they are rightly expected to make steps to return to their country of origin while still remaining in accommodation and receiving support.
“We offer assistance to those who choose to do so by actively promoting the Home Office Voluntary Return Service.
“As the Home Secretary has said, we are determined to reform the broken asylum system to make it firm and fair – compassionate to those fleeing oppression, persecution and tyranny but tough on those who abuse our system.”