The promised land: what’s it really like to arrive in London looking for safety?

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It’s 10am on a Saturday morning and there’s a flurry of activity under the clock at Waterloo station. There are awkward hellos and handshakes, compliments on a new hat, conversations in Spanish and Arabic and English. A young man called Enrique unfurls a bright blue Salvadorian flag from his backpack. As we set off for our ramble in Bushy Park, we could be any group of tourists or weekend hikers. But today I’m joining ‘Never Walk Alone’, a series of monthly walks organised in and around London for refugees and asylum-seekers.

We step off the train in Hampton Wick and I get chatting to Marjan Haghdoost, a 45-year-old teacher from Iran. She began coming on these walks in 2019, after seeing a poster on the wall of the Dulwich hostel she was living in while she was claiming asylum. ‘I had nothing, no money, no English and I knew no one,’ she says, her warm, open face suddenly turning dark. ‘The Home Office gave me a roof and food but that was it. I felt like I was in jail but without the bars. It was a very bad time. For 15 months, I was just waiting because that’s all I could do. But when I came on Never Walk Alone, I felt joy. They gave me my first Oyster card, I was treated like a person, a friend.’

‘Many of the people we work with are living through the hardest time in their life and so our activities are about giving people a bit of escape and hope and even excitement about living in London,’ says Lewis Garland, founder and chair of the charity Fences & Frontiers, which arranges these walks and also organises museum visits for migrant children. ‘For asylum-seekers, the trauma experienced before their arrival is often exacerbated by the challenges they face in the UK — the opaque asylum process, poor living conditions, the ban on work, chronic loneliness and little mental health support.’

The Government is currently facing unprecedented pressure over its management of asylum-seekers and refugees. In October, an immigration processing centre in Dover was fire-bombed by a right-wing extremist, and just a day later the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, was condemned by refugee charities for claiming asylum-seekers were engaged in an ‘invasion on our southern coast’.

In November a poll found that 73 per cent of people think Britain has not been in control of its borders since Brexit. The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has promised to cut overall migration to the UK, saying his priority is to ‘stop numbers of people coming here illegally’, and Braverman has signed a £63 million deal with France to reduce the number of people crossing the Channel in small boats. And yet more and more people are making this dangerous journey. Government figures show that more than 42,000 people have arrived in the UK this way so far this year — the highest figure since records began, compared with the total number of 28,526 in 2021.

Farzad, 45, made this crossing in December 2019, fleeing religious persecution in Iran. ‘It was horrifying, like really bad,’ he tells me via Zoom from his home in Leeds. ‘It was a huge risk, it was the middle of winter in a small dinghy, but I didn’t have any other chance to take. I was in France for a bit, but because I already spoke English, the UK was a priority for me.

Farzad was given refugee status after 18 months — ‘it was like being born again’ — and is now working at Ikea. He recently went to volunteer at a hotel he was housed in while he was seeking asylum and he says that the situation is now ‘20 times worse’. ‘Now it has become like a military camp for refugees, people are depressed, they are isolated, they have no chance to go out,’ he says. ‘All the other organisations that used to go there and help them, they don’t do that any more because of lack of funds. I think we are going in the opposite to the right way.’

It’s about giving people a bit of escape, hope or excitement about living in London

The Government’s plan back in April to give asylum-seekers a one-way ticket to Rwanda (at an upfront cost of £120m) is currently on hold, as the High Court decides whether it contravenes human rights laws. Although Braverman has said that the first flight to Rwanda by Christmas would be her ‘dream’, Farzad says he doesn’t think it would stop asylum-seekers in his situation. ‘We are actually running for our lives, so threatening to send people to Africa won’t deter anyone,’ he says. ‘We are desperate; no one is planning ahead or thinking long-term.’

If you have visited the rapidly-gentrifying seaside town of Margate recently, chances are you may have driven past the Manston refugee processing centre on your way back to London. This former RAF barracks has become a temporary holding facility for those seeking asylum. The Home Office is facing legal action over the conditions there, amid reports of overcrowding, poor sanitation, the spread of infectious diseases and guards selling drugs to asylum-seekers. Early last month, the charity Under One Sky reported that a group of asylum-seekers from Manston were left stranded at Victoria Station in flip-flops. Then on 19 November, a man who was being held at Manston died, reportedly from sepsis, and the site has now been cleared.

It’s a wet and windy day when I visit Manston and the blue tarps that cover the metal fences are flapping in the gale. The centre is designed to house around 1,500 people but in October there were claims it was holding as many as 4,100. When the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Neal, visited Manston in October he said he was left speechless by the ‘wretched conditions’. Today it seems very quiet. The Home Office has denied my request to go inside, but the white marquees are visible from the road and six guards in yellow high-vis vests stand around outside. Nearby is an RSPCA animal centre and boarding kennels, and a few damp ponies trudge through a field in someone’s farm. I can’t help wondering how the facilities for those animals compare to those inside Manston.

Adil, 42, a ‘Bidoon’ (stateless person) from Kuwait, spent seven days at Manston in early October after arriving in the UK on a small boat from France. ‘It was like a prison. The place is crowded. The filth fills the floor. There is no bed to sleep,’ he tells me on the phone, from the hotel in west London where he is now staying. ‘We had 140 people sleeping between each other’s legs. Filth fills the place and infectious diseases, and I am one of those infected now with scabies. It was indescribable. Children don’t get sleeping covers and they don’t get diapers. In the camp, everything is taken from us — our clothes, shoes, cigarettes, mobile phones.’

A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘The number of people arriving in the UK who seek asylum has reached record levels and continues to put our asylum system under incredible pressure. Staff at Manston have worked tirelessly to ensure people’s needs are met and the site’s facilities have been improved. It remains well-resourced to cope with future challenges. We are working to speed up the processing of asylum applications, having increased the number of caseworkers by 80 per cent to more than 1,000, as well as digitising the process to make sure decision-making is faster and simpler.’

The UN Refugee Agency defines an asylum seeker as someone who has applied for shelter and protection in another country, while a refugee is a person who has fled conflict or persecution in their own country. The legal rights of refugees are protected by international law. However, it is up to host countries to decide whether an asylum seeker is granted refugee status. In the year to June 2022, the UK received 63,089 asylum applications, the highest number for nearly 20 years. Of these, almost 16,000 people and their dependants were g r a nte d s ome for m of protection.

Yes, there has been a significant increase in people seeking asylum globally, but it’s important to keep it in perspective,’ says Kama Petruczenko, senior policy analyst at the Refugee Council. ‘Germany gets double the amount of claims we’re getting and the UK actually has one of the lowest rates of claims in Europe by population size, so this narrative of “invasion” is just not correct. What we need is a national strategy for integration, a minister for refugees sitting in the cabinet and a well thought-out, durable response to this global rise in forced migration.’

According to the Home Office, there are currently more than 37,000 asylum-seekers in UK hotels, costing the taxpayer £5.6m a day. Petruczenko says that the Government could reduce these costs by working with local councils to find more appropriate accommodation, providing more resources to allow claims to be processed more efficiently, and allowing asylum-seekers to work while waiting for confirmation of their status.

We need to live in reality — people are not going to stop coming here seeking our protection,’ she says. ‘Instead of penalising them, we need to treat them with humanity and we need to clear the huge backlog in claims by focusing on training and retaining staff so that they can make sound judgements more quickly. Home Office caseworkers are having to make life-or-death decisions within a system that is broken and underfunded.

Jennine Walker is an immigration and asylum lawyer and head of legal for the charity Safe Passage. She is currently helping unaccompanied children apply to reach family in the UK. ‘Before Brexit we were part of the European system for giving minors leave to remain in any country they have family in, but that’s all changed,’ she says. ‘The Nationality and Borders Bill [passed in April] and the Rwanda policy have been the biggest — and worst — changes we’ve ever seen and they are absolutely unprecedented.’ Walker says that when she started doing this work 14 years ago, cases would typically be decided within two months. Now the average time is at least six months, and cases are more often refused, which means they have to appeal, adding even more time to the process.

‘And for all that time there are these vulnerable children, often living alone in shelters, waiting to be with their families,’ she says. ‘I am working on one case at the moment where parents had to be evacuated from Afghanistan during the chaos of the Taliban takeover, and they are still waiting to be reunited with their two-year-old child.’ Walker says that the Government needs more settlement schemes, like the one set up for Ukrainians in March, so that people can apply to come to the UK safely and legally.

Back in Bushy Park, a few of us stop for selfies in front of a herd of small brown deer. The wind is bitter today and Jimi, 35, is dressed in just a black fleece and a beanie, but he tells me he doesn’t mind the cold. Since arriving from El Salvador five months ago with his wife, Brenda, he has been housed in a chain hotel in Feltham, surviving on the £8.24 a week he gets from the Government. He is a trained software engineer, but because he is seeking asylum, he is not able to work. ‘We spend most of our time in our room watching TV or going online, sometimes we go to visit a food bank,’ he says. ‘One day we got the bus to see Big Ben and The London Eye and take some pictures and that was good. But it feels like life is on hold.’

As we walk, Jimi tells me in a soft voice about his life back in El Salvador, where gangs control everything — even the police — and children as young as six are forced to become part of gang life. It’s a humbling contrast to the playground full of squealing kids that we walk past. Jimi says he misses the food at home the most, enthusiastically telling me about pupusas, a cornmeal flatbread stuffed with beans, cheese and herbs. ‘At our hotel we are given only curry to eat,’ he tells me. ‘We don’t like curry.’

Following an impromptu leaf fight and a heron spotting — ‘Is it a fisher king?’ asks Haghdoost, mistaking it for a kingfisher — it’s time for the group to disperse. Hugs and phone numbers are exchanged. Haghdoost asks Garland when the next walk will be.

After 15 months of waiting, Haghdoost had her claim for asylum approved last year, an experience she describes as ‘life-changing’. She is now living in East Acton with her husband and two children. ‘Sometimes in London, I feel much scared,’ she says, linking her arm through mine. ‘Of my neighbour, my landlord, people I pass on the street. When I come on these walks it’s the only time I truly feel safe.’