Refugee fights for the 'right to life'

Heather Mills on a widow who fled jail in Zaire but is now a victim of our harsh asylum laws
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The Independent Online
THE ZAIREAN security forces came for Ms B as she mourned at the funeral of her husband, whom they had shot dead a few days earlier. His "crime" was to be at an anti-government rally in Kinshasa. When the security forces opened fire he was one of several felled by their bullets. Her offence was to be married to a member of the Unified Lumumbist Party, opposed to President Mobutu.

Ms B was thrown into jail, sharing a squalid and cramped cell with six other women, from which she was frequently taken out and raped by prison guards. Her ordeal lasted a month, before an older guard took pity on her and smuggled her out of jail in a large sack of rice.

She tells her grim story in French, through an interpreter. It doesn't get much better. She is in England now, and facing a new ordeal. While her claim for asylum is heard, she has been left alone in a strange country whose language she does not speak, still traumatised from seeing her husband shot dead and her own torture - with no official support in terms of money or shelter.

Ms B, who is too fearful to be identified, is a victim of the government's new policy towards asylum-seekers, introduced on February 5 this year, just three days before her arrival at Waterloo station in London. On that day all benefits were denied to asylum-seekers who did not claim refugee status the moment they entered the country, and all whose claims are refused, but who wish to appeal. They are not permitted to work for six months - so, short of charity, they have no means of existence.

After her escape from jail, friends hid Ms B in the suburbs of Kinshasa while her family made plans for her escape. They were put in touch with a man who provided her with a false Greek passport and documents and who accompanied her to England. The pair flew first to Brussels and then caught the Eurostar train to Waterloo. The man then took her straight to the Home Office's immigration department in Croydon, telling her how to claim political asylum. He took her false documents and left.

Ms B had fallen foul of the new restrictions, however, because even though she had gone straight to the Home Office on her arrival, that was not the moment she had entered the country. Officials maintain she should have claimed asylum either on the train or at Waterloo - even though there are immigration officials on the train, there are none at the station itself.

She was told by officials it would take some time to decide her claim, but that in the meantime she did not qualify for any kind of support. Refugee welfare workers found her food and a bed in a hostel for the homeless in central London.

But in a test case this week, which could go all the way to Strasbourg, Ms B will claim government measures are unlawful. Her lawyers will allege that Peter Lilley had no powers to introduce changes, which, in effect, deny asylum-seekers a means of existence while they try to get a fair hearing. They will claim it breaches protection afforded in the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Act and the 1951 Convention on Refugees.

"Put simply, the rules are denying Ms B the right to life," said Louise Christian, her solicitor. "She actually has no means to exist, while she tries to prove to the authorities that she is a genuine refugee."

In fact, her lawyers are lending her money to live - the equivalent of Income Support - that she will pay back, if she wins the case. She has been granted legal aid to bring the action.

Since the changes came into force four weeks ago, 300 people have found themselves destitute like Ms B, dependent upon charity, churches and welfare organisations.

At the Refugee Council in central London, feelings of helplessness are growing with the inability to find places. "We have actually sent people away from here with a blanket and food and we do not know where they have ended up. So far there has only been a handful, but there will be more," said a spokeswoman for the council.

They include Ali, 26, who fled Iran fearing for his life because of his opposition to the goverment. "In Iran we know Britain is a signatory to the UN Convention and they say they believe in human rights and justice, but the way they treat people like me is unbelievable. I had a comfortable life in Iran. I don't know how I'll survive here."

The Government maintains the move is calculated to deter bogus asylum- seekers - many of whom receive benefit until they are removed - and will save the taxpayer about pounds 200m.

Ministers pressed ahead with the plans despite condemnation from United Nations, Amnesty International, church leaders and refugee groups - and warnings from its own advisory body that they were "racially divisive". They cleverly headed off a threatened revolt in both Houses of Parliament by reprieving 13,000 would-be refugees, who would have been stripped of welfare benefits on February 5.

But in the words of Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, that simply avoided "mass destitution". "Instead, we have it on a day to day basis," he said.

To add to ministers' discomfort over the moves, two Conservative- controlled local councils have joined in next week's legal challenge.

Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham councils claim the withdrawal of benefit does not, as Ministers maintain, save money. It merely transfers the cost burden to taxpayers, because under children's and housing legislation, local authorities have a duty to give aid. The costs to the two councils is running at about pounds 100,000 a week, with lesser sums for other local authorities.

The Government will fight this double front in the High Court on Wednesday, knowing that if it wins, an embarrassing challenge in the European Court of Human Rights will follow.

But that will take years and, according to her lawyers, Ms B cannot wait. Her medical report states she is suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of her imprisonment and rape and the killing of her husband. It says: "She is very vulnerable and is desperately in need of warm, friendly housing, some reassurance of safety and sufficecient income to feed herself."

It warns: "If this is not forthcoming, I think she can be considered a suicide risk."

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