The true story of a refugee in Britain

Immigration is one of the most highly charged political issues of our time. Yet how much do we know about the lives of those arriving in Britain as refugees? In the first of a series of extraordinary personal stories, 'Dog' describes the journey that brought him here - and his struggle to survive in a cruel and indifferent world
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I I'll tell you my story, but I won't tell you my name. People say "it's a dog's life". You can call me Dog. I come from Africa. I won't say where. My father left my mother when I was very young. I don't remember him, he never took care of me. My mother did her best. She worked selling fruit in the market, but we were poor. In Africa, if you have no money, you get no schooling, so I never went to school. Sometimes my mother would go away for a long time and would leave me with friends. They didn't treat me well. Sometimes I didn't have enough to eat. I had to beg on the street. I was only five or six years old. Young.

So my life was rough from the start. Maybe God wanted to prepare me. But he prepared me well, because my mother is a good woman. She loved me and taught me good things: work hard, don't steal, trust in God. But one day she didn't come back. I asked and asked her friends, but they didn't tell me what had happened to her for a long time. Finally, they said she had died. I was about 10 years old. I don't even know where she is buried, or who paid for her grave.

I stayed with the friends, but I had to beg to survive. One day on the street a man called me to go and buy something for him. He was a black man, but French, not African - a French businessman. He asked me why I was not at school. I told him my situation. After that he employed me whenever he was in my country. He became a friend.

Two years passed. One day he told me, "You are a smart kid. You should go to school. I can send you to school, or I can take you to Europe." I had nothing in my country, so I went to Europe.

I don't know how he fixed documents for me. I never had any of my own. Maybe he said I was his son. Anyway, we had no problems. We came to France, to Paris. He took me to a friend's house, let's call him Paul. Paul's place was small. I slept on the floor. I only got to sleep in a bed when Paul was away. Every now and then the businessman would come to visit us. I asked when I could start work, when I could go to school, but nothing happened. Maybe he had problems getting papers for me. In Europe you have to have papers for everything.

I took care of Paul's place, like a servant, and he gave me food and clothes, but no money. Sometimes I went into cafés and asked people for money, and sometimes they gave it to me. But I wasn't so smart. Usually I can learn quickly, but I couldn't learn to speak French well. I don't know why, maybe I was scared. French people are very proud of their language - if you don't speak it good, they don't like you.

After a few years the businessman stopped coming to see us. Paul didn't want to keep me any more. He told me he was going away and I couldn't come with him. I stayed in his room alone. But then someone came and started asking questions. Who was I? Who did I stay with? I left the room and never went back. I was 16 years old.

****



For the next few years I slept rough on the streets, in Paris and other cities in Europe. I begged for money and food, I couldn't wash much. I slept in bus shelters, or in discos, which are free to go in after midnight. But I remembered my mother. I never committed a crime. I drank alcohol sometimes - I needed to drink sometimes - but I never touched drugs. I am not that kind of person.

By now, I was in my twenties. I knew my life might be half over and I could see the way things were going. I didn't want to be on the streets any more. I needed a proper plan for my life. I decided to go to England. I knew the language. I'd liked the English people I'd met, I like the football - the best team in the world is Man United. So I spoke to a friend of mine. He told me that England is not like the Continent, that I needed documents to get there, but once there, there would be good work. He helped me. He gave me a Netherlands ID and a plane ticket.

The ticket took me to Belfast. In Belfast they told me it was not my photograph on the ID card. I told them I wanted to claim asylum, but they told me I couldn't claim asylum in the UK. They put me in prison for four days and then sent me back to Holland.

I told my friend what had happened. He gave me a new ID card and a new ticket, train this time. This time, no problem. The UK immigration officers checked my ID on the train. They said safe journey, I said, thank you. And that was the last time I had a friendly chat with immigration. Hah!

When the train stopped I asked people where we were: London! I was happy. I didn't ask for asylum, because the Belfast man told me they didn't give it. And I didn't want asylum, I wanted work. My mission was not to go back on the streets again, but to support myself, to survive.

I went to an agency and asked for work. And it's true - there's plenty of work in England. And I'm a good worker, everywhere I worked they liked me. So, after a few weeks this company offered me a full-time job. I didn't have to sleep on the chair any more, I rented my own house and slept in my own bed. For the first time in my life, I was living on my own. Everything I had was mine alone. I couldn't believe it, I tell you. And now they were offering me full-time work. If I said no, maybe I'd lose everything. So I took the risk. I gave the job centre my ID card and asked for an NI number. They told me to come back in a week.

I went back a week later, but nothing. For four months I went back, but they told me they were still investigating my card. I worked every day, overtime, too. I bought good things, quality things, I could enjoy my life for the first time. I paid all my bills - rent, utilities, council tax - everything. The council tax was a big deal for me, but no problem. I was glad to pay it, proud to pay it. I kept all the receipts. I didn't owe a penny to anyone.

I was worried, but I figured I'm not doing any wrong. Finally, I got an appointment to collect my number. My friends told me not to go, that I might be arrested for working illegally. I didn't believe them. I didn't know that what I was doing was wrong. I didn't run away, I just waited for the appointment day. And then, that morning, the police came and arrested me. They charged me with deception, and said I had committed a crime.

****

From that day I became a criminal. But what did I do? I hadn't hurt anyone. I hadn't cheated anyone. I worked hard and paid my way. But they said I'd committed a crime.

Immigration officers came and interviewed me. One officer said I could wait at home for my trial, but I mustn't run away. I stayed at home for six weeks without going to work - lucky for me I paid my landlord a month in advance. When I reported to the officer, he was surprised. "You're a good guy," he said. "I never see people like you. I asked you not to run away and you didn't. You came."

I went to court and they sentenced me: 12 months in prison. It was hard. I don't like prison; prison spoils your record, and I knew myself I'm not a criminal. But I obeyed. I didn't fight, I didn't get into trouble. In the mornings I went to school, and studied English and computer studies. In the afternoons I worked - packing instruments and loading them in cars. When I finished my sentence I had earned £300. I worked so hard. The officers liked me and treated me well. They could see I wasn't a criminal.

In prison, a lady came from Croydon and told me to seek asylum. I said, "You won't give it to me, so why are you wasting my time?" She told me that this was the procedure. So I obeyed. I gave more interviews. Always interview, interview, interview. I swear to God I won't give another interview in my life.

I served six months; good behaviour. My sentence was done. And so it came to the day of my release. Every time I remember that day I cry. When I reached the gate they told me, "No. The Home Office says you have to go back." I asked them why? They wouldn't tell me, but later I heard it was because there was no room at the detention centre. Whose fault was that, the Home Office's or mine? Who served the extra month in prison? Home Office or me?

After a month they sent me to a detention centre. This was better. You could make phone calls, you could walk outside. But it wasn't all good. I couldn't make money there like in prison, and they took the money I had. A phone card outside cost £3.50, but they took £5. Mobile phones outside cost £15, they took £30, sometimes more. What's the difference between detention and prison? Nothing. People still monitor you, they decide for you, they take everything from you - your photographs, your fingerprints, your DNA, your independence. I had nothing left.

And some of the officers here were worse than in prison. Some were very good, kind and treated me well. But we were all foreigners there, and the British don't like foreigners. Some of the officers talked to us as though we were animals. If you are illegal, you are not a human being in Britain. That is the problem.

I stayed in the detention centre for six months. Every month I got a report from immigration. Wait for the document, wait for the document. All that changed was the date. I went a bit crazy - we all went crazy. In detention you don't know how long it will go on for; maybe you'll die there. You feel you're dying already.

And then came the worst thing. Lawyers.

****

The police had given me a lawyer already for my criminal case. He visited me in prison and I signed for legal aid. He kept saying he would come, but he didn't come. He said he would write to the Home Office for my case, that he would write to the court for bail, but I didn't hear a thing. Finally, I got a date for bail. A week before, he came and said: "I see from your case you will lose. So legal aid won't pay, and I can't represent you." I asked him why he hadn't told me before so that I could find someone else. He said if I paid him, he would represent me. That was his strategy - he told me so late, I had nowhere else to turn.

He asked for £3,000. I said, "You know my situation, how can I get £3,000?" I had a friend, maybe she could get £1,000. But he said, "No." I don't smoke, but that day I smoked nearly three packets of cigarettes. I lost hope. In fact, that day I nearly died.

When I got to the court, the lawyer didn't come, and he didn't send my friend's address, either. I spoke for myself. I could see the judge wanted to release me but without an address she couldn't. I didn't get bail.

I tried again. On that day I got up early, I showered, I dressed well. But they didn't come and pick me up. I asked them what happened, and they said, the van is gone. The van had gone without me.... Then the court wrote and asked why I hadn't shown up. What! What did they expect me to do? Should I have flown?

After that, the lawyer asked me for money again, but I finished with him. I found a new lawyer - but he was worse than the first! He came and took £200 from me, and then I heard nothing from him for a month. Every time I rang him he would say, "Hey, hey, Mr Dog, I'm a busy man, hang up the phone!" Once, I heard him tell his secretary to say he wasn't there. I could hear him on the phone. People think that if you are from Africa you don't have sense. They treat you like an idiot, but I am not an idiot. Hah!

Finally, I got a letter saying we had a court date, and that I needed £500 for a barrister. My friend got me £500, but how could I repay her? I had no choice. And then, when we got to court, no barrister. When she finally arrived she didn't know my case well at all. She spoke real quick, maybe for seven, eight minutes. That's all.

For a long time I heard nothing, and when I did, I wished I hadn't. The judge said my case was nonsense. Nonsense! He said I lived in a council house - not true! I lived privately. He said I had three bank accounts. Not true! I was fitted up. And I couldn't answer. The law abused me. Legal aid lawyers, private lawyers, they were all the same. They took £700 from me and represented me like that. I had another friend in detention, whose lawyer took £1,600 from him and didn't represent him at all. You're in detention, then you're deported, what can you do? Nothing. They know. That's what the Home Office should investigate. That's who the criminals are.

After my appeal was dismissed I had no hope, no money, nothing. But God was there for me. When I was at the very bottom he sent good people to me. I got a volunteer visitor, and I got BID - Bail for Immigration Detainees. They found a new lawyer for my case, they prepared a new bail application for me. I'll always thank them, and pray for them. I have no family. My friend, my visitor, BID - I take them as my family now.

But immigration are wicked - they try to frustrate you, they try to paralyse your life. As soon as you have a bail hearing they give you a removal date. I was nervous. I couldn't stand any more. I went to the immigration manager and told her they should release me. She told me to, "Go to Colnbrook and get a tag." I said, no, she should give me a tag from here. But she wouldn't agree. That day I was really annoyed. I was really worried. Some people were on hunger strike, and I joined them. For one day. And bang - they sent me to Colnbrook. Not for the tag - that's a lie. Because I joined the hunger strike, and they wanted to break us up.

****

I got to Colnbrook. I don't want to talk much about that. They put me in a wing you're only supposed to stay in for 72 hours max. Thinking about that room makes me cry. I could only go out for 15 minutes. Security watched me all the time. I was only allowed 10-minute phone calls... It was a punishment. But what did I do?

Colnbrook is a prison - no air, nothing. Everybody's frustrated, everybody's crazy. You remember what happened at Harmondsworth? Why you think they burnt that prison? Because of frustration. You think that someone would do that if they were in a good condition? If you put a person in a cage, you spoil his mind.

I stayed in Colnbrook for six weeks. Then came the day I never believed would arrive: I went to court with two sureties, my friend and my visitor. My lawyer sent me a good barrister, and I got released. The guards gave me my stuff in a big plastic bag. It was heavy, and it was made for criminals. But I didn't care. I was free.

****

That day was more than eight months ago. For eight months I have tried to keep up my spirits, to count my blessings. My lawyer has worked hard to get my case reviewed. I live with my friend in a nice house, I sleep in a soft bed, not on the street. She helps me a lot, and I help her with her house, with her children. I try to remember that this is good. I do remember. In fact, I take my life now as paradise, compared with before. But sometimes, I tell you - I can't help it, it's hard. I live in someone's house again, like a houseboy. I am not that type of person, but I don't have a choice. I can't work. I can't pay her back. I can't pay anything. I am dependent. Just for a bus ticket, a pint of Guinness - I have to ask her for everything. And she doesn't have much money either, sometimes she gets upset with me.

Sometimes we fight, and she says bad things to me. Then I feel she's like everybody else, she betrays me, too. Sometimes, I swear, I don't trust anyone in Britain any more - not my new lawyer, not you either - why do you want to know all this from me? Maybe you'll put me in problem, too.

I go to school, I'm learning English and maths. My teacher says I'm doing very well. But that is once a week, one hour or two. The rest of the time I am in the house. I sleep a lot. And I think about my case, about how to survive, and not to be in this mess. I think and think and think, around and around. I am not in prison any more, but this is prison, too.

I say this to the Home Office: "What are you looking for? Still, you are deporting me. Still you don't want me - what have I done? What about the things you did to me? You lied about me in a court of law, you treated me like a criminal - worse than a criminal. You treated me like a terrorist. But I am not a terrorist. I'm a foreigner, that's all. And because I am a foreigner, you can do what you like to me. Hah!"

What about the British lawyers that cheated me? What about the British company that cheated me, too? They still owe me my last salary - £1,200, £1,300. But when I was arrested they said that was not my name, and they took the money back. Who did the work, me or my name?

I say this to Home Office, and to anyone who reads my story: I was an orphan in Africa, and a street boy in France and Holland. The worst things in my life happened here. You came to my country first and took money away. I want to work and leave my money here. You can kill without a knife, without a gun. Sometimes I feel like you have killed me already.

I didn't come here for benefits, I didn't come here for a council house or a bank loan. My mission is to sweat and work and survive. If that is a crime, I've served my time for it, and more. And even now I am out, you punish me. I have to sign at that police station and every time I go I feel shame. Then you send me to sign 40 miles away. How can I get there when I don't work? Huh! Let me work! No benefit, just work. Even if you give me one year, I'll be happy. It would give me a chance. I could pay back my friend, I could be independent, I could hold up my head again.

That is the important thing I want to say. Let people work. If don't want criminals, let them work. If you stop them working, you make them criminals. What choice have they got? If you don't treat people like human beings, maybe they can't behave like human beings any more.

If you don't listen, I swear I don't know what I'll do. I am an honest person, but the way you treat people spoils their minds. If you provoke me, you'll make me do what I don't want to do... I pray hard that it won't happen. I pray hard to keep my conditions, that I won't betray anyone who has trusted me, that I won't run away. I'm prepared to die for my case, I swear. If they detain me again, I won't cooperate any more. Never in my life will I eat. Never in my life will I call anyone - no lawyers, no friends, no one. Let them kill me! But will my life end like this?

www.refugeeweek.org.uk

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