'He told me to sign a piece of paper. I never saw him again'

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The Independent Online
TRUST CAN be a wounding weakness, Bikim Gashi has learned. "They asked me to sign the document," he said. "They said it would help me with my claim. That was 18 months ago and I haven't seen them since."

Bikim Gashi is a Kosovan asylum-seeker, living with 4,000 other refugees in the Dover and Folkestone areas of Kent.

And they have many tales to tell about solicitors and their helpers who offer their services then vanish, or even force them to sign fictitious statements which hinder rather than assist their claims for asylum.

Many of those who come from Kosovo or Slovakia arrive in the backs of lorries after arduous journeys lasting up to 20 days. They land at Dover, tired, bewildered and hungry, to be greeted by "interpreters" who speak their language and offer to help them gain asylum. In such vulnerable circumstances, who would not place their trust in such welcoming figures?

Bikim did trust. "The man came to my hotel," he said. "He told me to sign a piece of paper. I never saw him again and I have no idea what the document said because it was in English. He said it would help me to make a good application to stay here and so of course I was happy to sign it.

"I was pleased because I thought that my claim was now being processed. I can truly say I have absolutely no idea who my solicitor is. I also don't know what is happening with my application and I have never received a single letter from them."

Bikim's bedsit is clean but spartan, and the main wall, covered with a red Kosovan national flag, pays homage to the Kosovo Liberation Army. He also has a small portrait of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. It is a long way from the small town north of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, where Bikim worked in his family's shop. "It was very hard to leave, I have brothers and sisters there but there was really no choice."

Bikim paid pounds 1,800 to a middle-man in Pristina who arranged for him to travel to Britain by lorry. "It was really horrible," he said. "We had little food and it took five days and I never saw daylight. I know we went through Macedonia but after that I don't know where we went."

The groups who organise the lorries to take this human cargo across Europe are almost certainly implicated in the legal aid scam, for the lorries are unerringly met en route by fixers, who contact interpreters to warn them of arrival times.

When refugees are being smuggled into Dover, there is a flurry of activity as the interpreters begin to gather at the arrivals hall, or at the police station where those who are caught are taken.

There, the refugees are delighted to meet what they are assume are friendly faces. A stack of solicitors' business cards is left handily at the immigration office reception desk.

One Kosovan who slipped through this net is Agron Arifi, a waiter from Pristina, who arrived in the United Kingdom last Thursday after a tortuous 20-day journey overland during the coldest weather of the year.

"I hated leaving. I have a brother and a sister there but it's civil war," he said in his ramshackle guesthouse across the road from the port.

"In the first lorry there were 30 of us, but we were later split up to go to different places. There were agents moving us from lorry to lorry.

"I don't know how we came to Britain. I never even knew when we passed borders. For most of the time we didn't have anything to eat or drink. We could only get out at night if the lorry stopped. It was really, really cold and claustrophobic.

"At the end I was in a lorry by myself. When we entered England I banged on the side of the lorry to make it stop. The immigration people gave me some food and fetched a doctor because I had been sick." Agron, 21, declared that he wanted to seek asylum after he entered the country, so he is in urgent need of a reliable solicitor.

"I know I have to get a solicitor," he said. "I don't how the system works and I need help to claim asylum."

Others have been hindered rather than helped by their lawyers. A Kosovan woman, Samije Berisha, signed a statement provided to her by a solicitor the day after she arrived in Britain.

Six months later, when she had picked up a little English, she discovered she had come to Britain ostensibly because her husband had been killed in Kosovo.

"My husband was actually with me in England," said Samije. "I realised the statement was insufficient to put my case across properly. It was just one sheet of paper. I withdrew it and put in a serious statement."

The victims of the legal predators are not confined to Kosovan refugees.

Katerina Valickova, a Romany woman from Slovakia who has claimed asylum, gave birth to a daughter three weeks ago. Last week, news arrived at her bedsit in Folkestone that her mother and brother had been sent back to Slovakia.

When she contacted her solicitors they said there was nothing they could do.

Gordon White, a local pastor who works closely with Slovakian Romanies, was sympathetic. "I don't know the exact circumstances of the case, but you do wonder whether the solicitors could have put up more of a fight," he said.

The Kent Refugee League, a network of volunteers who help refugees with casework and appeals, is also unhappy.

A spokesman said: "I hear about this sort of thing all the time.

"A lot of solicitors do a good job but some give the person something to sign and they never hear from them again.

"All these people want is some reassurance and to know things are okay."