‘I wanted to forget the past – but I couldn’t’: How modern slavery victim was left in limbo for five years by Home Office

'You don’t know where your life is... You can't do anything'

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 04 February 2020 10:13
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Home Office leaves modern slavery victim ‘in limbo’ for five years

Awais Raza isn’t sure how old he is. He barely remembers anything from his early years, or perhaps he blocks it out. What the Afghan national does know is that his father, mother and sister were killed when he was very young, and he was subsequently taken to a children’s home – but what he describes sounds more like a prison.

“They would tell me to work: ‘Clean the house, take this rubbish, take this bag here,’” says Awais, wincing at the memory. “They told me to go outside and take this bag, small and big bags, and would tell me to take it somewhere. If I didn’t do it they would beat me, or burn my feet. They were treating me like this for a long time, doing these things to me.”

He parts his hair to reveal a long scar embedded into his scalp, before pushing down his socks to reveal burns on his ankles and feet.

Around 15 years on, the Afghan national sits on a bench in east London. He arrived in the UK nearly a decade ago after an “uncle” – the term he uses for older men of his nationality – helped him escape the violence, labour exploitation and sexual abuse he was subjected to for most of his childhood. He has since been saved from his exploiters, but faced a different challenge – the battle for protection from the Home Office.

When Awais arrived in Britain he was housed by an Afghan man in Luton. He was at some point given a passport which indicated that his date of birth was 1 June 1994 – making him 24. He stayed with the man for just under a year until the man left the country, then he went between various friends he had met in the UK. After two years helping with cooking and cleaning in people’s houses, he came to realise that, in order to access education and employment, he had to apply for asylum.

Awais, at this point aged 20, was invited to a Home Office interview, where he was asked to recount experiences he had learned to bury. After several hours, he was shocked to discover that he was being detained.

“I was so scared. I didn’t know where they were taking me in this small van,” he says, remembering being driven to Harmondsworth removal centre. “I had gone to the Home Office in the morning, in the evening I came out in the dark. I didn’t know what was happening. I was reminded of the past; I thought […] maybe they’ll send me to the house again. I stayed in the detention centre. They locked me in a cell all night. I was alone and I was crying.”

He was held in the detention for 13 days, during which a doctor prescribed him medication to relieve flashbacks to the abuse he had suffered as a child. It has since transpired that Awais’s detention was unlawful – forcing the Home Office to pay him £10,000 in compensation.

“I struggled to sleep in the night time,” he remembers. “It was like being in the house again. Sometimes I would sleep for five or six hours in the morning, but at night it was a big problem. I wanted to forget the past – but I couldn’t.”

Awais was released from Harmondsworth following intervention from his solicitor. A medical report was carried out into his physical and mental health which found that he was suffering from PTSD and depression, which would both “worsen significantly” were he to be threatened with return to his country of origin.

It also found that during his childhood he had been a victim of beatings, labour exploitation and child sexual abuse.

On the basis of the medical report, his solicitor had referred him to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the Home Office’s official framework for identifying victims of modern slavery. The system aims to decide on cases within 49 days – but in Awais’s case took a year to confirm that he was a victim.

During this time he was moved into asylum accommodation in Newcastle, where he was able to study English at college for two years. When this period ended though, he was left in a rut for two years, unable to work and left to wallow in the fear that his asylum claim would be refused.

“It was good when I was going to college because I was busy. But after two years they said I had to stop, and then I just stayed all day at home,” Awais says, quietly. “You don’t know where your life is. You spend all day at home. You wake up in the morning, same day, same thing. I couldn’t do anything.”

The year after a decision was made on his modern slavery case, he was invited to another asylum interview at the Home Office. “They asked me what would happen if I was sent back to Pakistan or Afghanistan,” he remembers. “I said I don’t know, maybe they’d kill me; maybe I would kill myself. I said … maybe if I go there they will make me work and beat me. They wrote it down.”

Yet Awais was refused asylum in May 2019, with the Home Office saying that it had been decided he should instead be granted temporary leave to remain for 30 months. His solicitor intervened, and in August of that year an immigration judge overturned the decision, stating that it was unlawful to reject his asylum claim.

When asked about Awais’s immigration case, the Home Office said it did not routinely comment on individual cases, but said that being referred to the NRM did not automatically result in asylum being granted or refused if an asylum claim has been made.

Gabor Nagy of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, who represented Awais, says the Home Office claimed to treat victims of trafficking as a priority in relation to their asylum claims, but that he was seeing a growing number of cases – such as that of Awais – where, despite identifying people have suffered abuse, the department continue to question and delay their right to be granted protection and support in the UK.

Why is the Home Office getting so many immigration decisions wrong?

“The whole process from start to finish took the Home Office an unacceptable five years while my client was left in limbo with his severe PTSD. The waiting around has affected him so much that he still required counselling and psychological intervention long after he had been granted refugee status in the UK,” he adds.

Mr Nagy also accused the Home Office of “disregarding” the medical report and for granting Awais “tenuous” discretionary leave when in fact the immigration judge had found him to be a refugee.

With his newly granted refugee status, Awais hopes to finally move on from the past and establish a happier life for himself.

“It’s taken five years – in 2014 I claimed asylum, in 2019 I got my status. It was a long wait. You don’t know where your life is,” says the 24-year-old, looking down at the floor. Then he looks up again: ”But now it is better than before. Every day brings something new. I want to start working. I want to only look towards my future, not my past. I’m hopeful for the future.”

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