“This used to be my children’s toy room. Now all five of us sleep in here.” Ikram Ullah gestures into a room on the ground floor of a shared house in East Ham. A single and double bed wedged together cover most of the floor. His baby son’s cot, along with a wardrobe and a chest of drawers, cram into the remaining space.
The 42-year-old’s daughters, aged five and four, huddle together at the end of the bed playing games on an iPad. His four-month-old son sleeps soundly in his cot. Noreen, Ikram’s wife, perches on the edge of the bed, apologising profusely that she can’t even offer to make a cup of tea.
Just over a year ago, the family had been renting the whole house. Having lived in Britain for a decade, Ikram owned his own business selling cars and was generating an annual turnover of £160,000. His UK-born daughters had their own bedrooms. The couple were looking to buy a home, and were excited to be expecting their third child.
But their lives were transformed when, in 2018, Ikram’s application for indefinite leave to remain was refused due to minor amendments to his tax records. He was stripped of his right to work, leaving the family with no income. As the months went on, they had to sell the children’s toys, and eventually scale down to renting just a single room – just to be able to eat.
“My kids are suffering,” says Ikram. “I can’t buy food for them. I go to Tesco after 4pm and buy reduced expired food, which I’ve never done before. I used to buy a lot of things for them before 2018. But then I had to start selling. I sold all of their toys so that I could feed them.”
He added: “People who come to the UK illegally have rights. We came to this country legally; I contributed to the economy for years; my kids were born here – yet they have no rights.”
Ikram is currently appealing the decision, but the hearing isn’t until July. Noreen, a trained nutritionist, has meanwhile been told by the Home Office that in order to appeal her refusal, she must return to Pakistan – which would mean paying for an air ticket and spending an unknown period of time with her baby in a country where they have no home.
The family’s situation marks the latest in a string of cases in which highly skilled migrants have been ordered to leave the UK for making minor and legal amendments to their tax records. The Home Office is currently being challenged in court over the decisions, which are based on a section of immigration law designed to remove people who pose a threat to national security.
No longer able to access free healthcare following the refusal, Noreen started being charged by the NHS for her maternity care – a bill that has now racked up to more than £9,600. Unable to pay it, the couple is now terrified to set foot in a doctor’s surgery or hospital.
“He has eczema,” says Noreen, pointing to the dry, red patches on her son’s face and neck. “But we are scared to take him to the GP because they will increase our bill.” She signals tearily towards her child’s fabric-clad hands and adds: “I’m having to instead use socks to cover his hands, to stop him from scratching.”
Aina and Anya, the two girls, appear largely oblivious to the gravity of the situation. They prance around on the two beds and excitedly exhibit the few toys and possessions they have been able to keep, speaking in perfect English as they show off their drawings on the wall. But their father says they are beginning to understand what is happening.
The Ullah family has the support of their local MP, who has tried to raise their case with the Home Office a number of times, but received no meaningful reply. Stephen Timms, of the Labour Party, said the family’s suffering was “unquestionably” part of the government’s “hostile environment”.
“Mr Ullah has been refused leave to remain because he once made a correction to his tax affairs, which thousands of people do every year, and it’s done and it’s finished and that’s the end of it,” the MP said.
“But the Home Office has dug that out and is now using it as a basis of refusing what otherwise would be his permission to carry on living and working in the UK.
“It is a very, very hostile environment that’s been created for people who are simply earning a living, contributing to the economy, getting on with their lives.”
Ikram says the family will be eating the plain bread of what is meant to be a pizza base for dinner. He gets out a plastic bag of the flat breads, which he explains were given to him for free by the local pizza takeaway owner.
“We are not criminals. I thought the UK was known for human rights, but I look at my kids in this situation and I feel like they are treated worse than animals. It’s inhumane,” he says.
“I have been the target of this hostility and my children are paying the price each and every minute of their lives. I live with this every day and I am hopeful to get justice one day.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “An appeal has been lodged in this case and is pending. It would therefore be inappropriate to comment at this time.”
You can donate towards helping Ikram and his family here.
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