Many failed asylum seekers choose to remain in the UK and 'disappear'. Denied work or any state support, they face a life of destitution. Here, a Zimbabwean who fled Mugabe's regime describes his fight to survive in Manchester, and why he fears for his life if sent back
The Refugee Council's Tim Finch discusses asylum policy
Wednesday April 6, 2005
After my asylum case failed, I had a week to leave the hostel where I had been housed. I went to one disused factory after another in Manchester to find somewhere to sleep. I found one where a group of people like me were living; men and women from Zimbabwe, Congo and Pakistan. There were eight or nine of us; failed asylum seekers, too afraid to go home.
The factory didn't have windows. It was so cold. The wind and rain pierced our skin. We had to sleep with plastic sheets over our blankets and duvets, and hold on to each other to make us warm. Some of them screamed at night because of the horrors they had seen.
By 5am, we'd all be awake. Breakfast was some bread from a supermarket that gives away food past its sell-by date. Some people would try to find money by begging. None of us were allowed to work or to claim any benefits.
I would walk 45 minutes to the young children's project where I went every day to volunteer. The walk took me along the canal where I was able to wash my hands and feet. At the project, I received £3 for lunch; often my only hot meal of the day.
I first started volunteering when I was living at the hostel. Some people came round and asked if any of us wanted to help. I was a volunteer, through the charity Refugee Action, at three projects - one for young people and sports, another for refugees and the one with kids. It's good to do something during the day.
I love kids. My own daughter, who I had to leave behind with her mother in Zimbabwe, died last May. She was just a year old. I received the news the day before I was in court appealing against the refusal to grant me asylum. I heard two weeks later that I had lost.
The volunteer project's office closed at 5pm. I would spend the next few hours window shopping. When I got too cold, I'd go into a pub. I'd sit watching the football to keep warm. I used to smoke. Some days I'd prefer to buy cigarettes than food.
By 9pm I would be back at the factory. There was no electricity. We made lights from burning a piece of string in tin cans filled with oil. We ate at night from more supermarket cast-offs and made a fire from wood that people collected during the day. It felt like a real African fire. We'd cook in pans that someone had managed to find. We would eat quickly and go to bed. This is how I lived for weeks, but it was better than going back to Zimbabwe.
I was forced to leave my country when I was 20 to escape from the violence I faced from the army and the Green Bombers youth militia. In 2002, the army were removing white people from their farms and killing whoever refused. Young Zimbabwean men and women were taken at night by force to join the Green Bombers.
The soldiers came to my mother's house at about 4am. They woke up everyone and asked to take my niece and me. Mum refused and I refused. They beat us. Mostly they beat my mum. In the end I agreed because I didn't want to see my mum being attacked. They kept me at the break barracks for two weeks where we were trained, taught how to use a knife, how to hold a gun, how to kill. They gave us tablets and drugs to take away the fear.
Then we were sent to a farm owned by two people who were at least 70 years old. The woman was crying out: "Please. My children. This is my home and I don't have anywhere to go." She had two little grandchildren. I felt so sad and very angry, but there was nothing I could do.
I ran away. I lived in Harare for a year but faced a lot of difficulty because of the language. I'm an Ndebele and they speak Shona.
In June 2003, I went back to my home. My friends had joined the Green Bombers. They beat people who were opposition MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) supporters and who didn't have Zanu-PF (President Robert Mugabe's party) membership cards.
They asked me to join but I told them I was not interested. They came another day and took me to the police station. They beat me. To save my life, I agreed to join them. I had to start work the same night with my injuries. I worked with them for a week. They were beating people in other villages, enjoying it, but I felt they were trying to turn me into an animal.
I left but they came to my church and beat the hell out of me in front of my family. They told me if I didn't come back they would kill me next time. I didn't want to do it again. I couldn't wait until they killed me so I left Zimbabwe the same day.
I crossed the border into South Africa. I'd borrowed some money from my sister to get a false passport and a flight. I wanted to go to America, but the person who sorted out the passport said I had to go to England. The only thing I knew about England was Manchester United.
When I arrived on October 11 2003, I went to a hostel for asylum seekers near Heathrow. Two weeks later I was put on a bus to Manchester.
I didn't know much English and I didn't know anybody. I soon found out that it was hard to be accepted if I told people I was an asylum seeker. "You came here for pleasure and to make money and take money from the UK government," was some people's response. They would stare at you on the bus, in the street.
Three guys attacked me in a pub where I'd gone to watch football with a friend. We were talking about our cases and they were sitting near us. One head-butted me repeatedly. He hit me in the mouth. I tried to protect myself but he was too big. After that, I mostly stayed in my room at the hostel.
I was given a solicitor in London. I thought he was very bad. At my first interview I didn't know what to say, but he didn't ask me about my story. He didn't ask why I had run away. He didn't explain anything.
I received a letter in February 2004 telling me that my asylum application had failed. I was sad and disappointed.
My first appeal went very badly because of my daughter's death. When the second appeal date came for June 2004, my solicitor didn't show up at the court. They told me he had forgotten to put the date in his diary. The case was adjourned. Then I got a different solicitor who didn't seem to know anything about my story or the state of affairs in my country - he arrived in court with an old 1980s book about Zimbabwe.
On November 29 2004, I received the letter telling me that my final appeal had been refused. I think the court didn't believe my story because I was badly represented.
The £30 a week I had lived on was stopped, and I had a week to leave the hostel in Old Trafford where I'd been staying for 13 months. I didn't know where I was going to live, I didn't know how I was going to eat.
The idea of being taken back to Zimbabwe made me so afraid that my health deteriorated. I got headaches and I couldn't sleep at night for thinking and thinking: what I could do and where I could go? I have been diagnosed with a kidney stone.
A friend I'd met through volunteering let me stay with her for a few weeks until her landlord chased me out. That's when I ended up at the factory.
And my situation now? Luckily, I have found a new friend to live with, but for how long I don't know. Without my tablets my kidney stone is very painful but I am too afraid to try to get a prescription from the doctor.
I have had to give up volunteering because I was afraid someone would tell the authorities I was there. Now I sit indoors all day sleeping and watching the TV, sometimes I'm in such pain that I can't move. I've lost 20kg.
I feel really betrayed by white people - and this government in England - after all, I left Zimbabwe because I didn't want to kill them or anyone. Now Mugabe has been re-elected I fear for my family members who are still there. We just didn't have enough money to get us all out.
I want to go back home and live safely. Being in England, living without any rights is making me go crazy. But the minute I go back while Mugabe is in power and the Green Bombers are part of the police, everything is finished for me. I will be killed.
Desperately seeking safety
There are no figures for how many failed asylum seekers are living in Britain. "It is extremely difficult to quantify the exact number of people who have not been give permission to stay in the country who have not left," says a Home Office spokeswoman.
- · In 2003, 61,560 appeals against asylum decisions were rejected, but only 13,005 failed asylum seekers were officially removed either voluntarily or by force. The Home Office says thousands more may have left independently.
- While anyone in the process of applying for asylum is entitled to the same free medical care on the NHS as British citizens, if they are denied asylum on appeal the only free treatment they will be entitled to is emergency - but only until they are "stabilised", at which point the hospital decides when the treatment should be withdrawn.
- Asylum seekers are entitled to benefits - two-thirds of income support levels - and their accommodation is provided and paid for by the government's National Asylum Support Service. These are withdrawn if the asylum application and subsequent appeals are unsuccessful.
- There were 4,190 asylum applications from Zimbabwe in 2003. Some 3,285 were refused asylum at their first hearing. However, on appeal, 28%of decisions were overturned.
- In November, the UK government ended its temporary suspension of forced returns to Zimbabwe, despite the UN High Commission for Refugees advising against sending people back.
- Refugee Action campaigns for, and supports, legal action to alleviate the effects of destitution.
To find out more visit www.refugee-action.org.uk
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