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Hundreds of stateless people forced into hardship and exploitation in ‘Windrush-style’ scandal

Exclusive: Former Malaysian citizens languishing in Britain after being rendered stateless more than a decade ago as Home Office refuses to grant them immigration status

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 11 September 2019 12:35 BST
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Liew Teh, 38, was shocked when he was told by a job agency in 2009 that he could not be employed anywhere in the UK due to his immigration status
Liew Teh, 38, was shocked when he was told by a job agency in 2009 that he could not be employed anywhere in the UK due to his immigration status (Liew Teh)

More than 1,000 people have been forced into years of hardship in the UK after the Home Office refused to grant them any form of immigration status even when officials were made aware they have nowhere else to go after being rendered stateless.

Lawyers said the former Malaysian citizens had been languishing in Britain at the mercy of the hostile environment in what has been branded a “Windrush-style” scandal after being stateless for more than 10 years.

They were led to believe an obscure British travel document would make them UK citizens, but Home Office enforcement officers have admitted these people were effectively “trapped” because Malaysia would not allow them back into the country while the UK government was also refusing to grant them any form of status, despite having known about their predicament for years.

This has left them unable to work, driving some into exploitation as a means of survival. Others have been detained in immigration centres for weeks and then released because there was no prospect of removing them, at a cost of £85.97 per person per day in detention.

At least two people have been deported to Malaysia and then immediately returned to the UK because authorities refused them entry.

A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that in cases where someone is stateless but may be able to reacquire their former nationality, the UK government should provide them with some form of immigration status to allow them to remain there while making arrangements to move.

Yan Kit, 42, who has been stateless since 2005, said he was desperate to return to Malaysia to reunite with his wife, but that he was “stuck” in the UK, unable to work and having to report to the Home Office every month.

He said: “I’m not allowed to work. I just sit at home. The worst thing is every month I have to go and report with the UK border agency, but it means nothing because they can’t deport me. If I ask questions, they can’t tell me what’s happening. They just give me the date for my next report time.”

The issue arose when a large number of Malaysian citizens in the UK received misleading immigration advice saying that if they obtained a British overseas citizens (BOC) passport – a relic from the UK’s colonial past – and renounced their Malaysian citizenship, they would be eligible to become British citizens.

This had previously been the case, but a change to immigration law in 2002 toughened the rules by adding the requirement that they must not have voluntarily renounced another citizenship – making these people ineligible.

Campaigners said this was one of a number of post-colonial decisions made by the British government which “reduced whole classes of citizens to second-class status on racialised lines” and “continue to do irreparable harm today”.

The issue was highlighted in the media and by a number of politicians prior to 2010, but no resolution has been reached and hundreds still remain in limbo.

During a Home Office surgery meeting earlier this week, enforcement staff from the department told one man affected that he had “fallen through the cracks” along with “hundreds” of others, and that it was a “Windrush-related” situation that had been “forgotten about over the years”.

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

The enforcement officer said there had been an increase in people appealing for help about the issue in the past year, and that a Home Office team set up in the wake of the Windrush scandal was looking into it, but that it would take increased public pressure to bring about change.

“There have been individuals coming forward before, but now it’s an actual movement … There were people coming in before Windrush, but because of Windrush, I think there’s a bit more of an urgency to nip things in the bud before it goes that far,” they said.

“You’d expect there to be an easy solution and for someone to go ‘Look, this is what we’re doing’. But there’s red tape.”

Alvyn Kee, partner at Bloomsbury Law Solicitors, who said he had dealt with between 200 and 300 cases like this, accused the Home Office of treating these individuals as “numbers, not human beings”, and said there were likely to be between 1,000 and 2,000 cases.

He said he knew of one person affected by the issue, a stateless woman in her twenties, who had died of alcohol consumption several years ago after she turned to drinking because of the stress caused by the problem.

“These people have been left in limbo. The Home Office is saying this is not our problem, but it’s the Malaysian point of view that they’re viewed as traitors. The UK has become a prison to them,” Mr Kee said.

“They aren’t allowed to but they need to earn money to survive. So they’re being exploited, often doing restaurant work. You get raided by immigration officers. Sometimes they try to deport them. They are continuously subject to the hostile environment.”

Mr Kee said the situation was draining taxpayers’ money because the Home Office was “detaining and releasing” people whom it had no realistic prospect of removing, and driving many into underground work.

“These people would be contributing to the economy. You give them their two and a half years, they will be so happy to pay tax, to contribute, to pay for the extension applications. It’s a win-win situation. I don’t understand. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” he added.

“I truly believe that this is political, it’s racial in some way. It’s a colonial thing. In a way they’re saying, ‘We recognise that we were your rulers, but now we’ve withdrawn we’ll give you this little piece of documentation to show your connection’.

“I think these people deserve to stay here after what’s been this fiasco. It’s a colonial thing, and unfortunately these are the victims. This is a Windrush situation, but it’s a losing battle at the moment.”

Chai Patel, legal director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: “In the aftermath of empire, the UK reduced whole classes of citizens to second-class status on racialised lines. As the Windrush scandal showed, the wrongs of that period continue to do irreparable harm today.

“BOCs have a right to expect that their status actually means something, and must be given the right to stay in the UK just like British citizens.”

The body also said that the criteria for determining whether an individual has realistic prospects of obtaining protection elsewhere must not be left open to interpretation.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Home Office will work with Malaysian British Overseas Citizens who have concerns over their immigration status.”

The Malaysian authorities have been approached for comment.

If you have been affected by this issue and are happy to speak to a journalist please contact may.bulman@independent.co.uk.

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