Persecution to Punishment: The Criminalisation of Asylum Seekers in the UK

The UK’s immigration system is one of state-sanctioned hostility. From political policy to media portrayal, immigrants – asylum seekers in particular – are relentlessly criminalised in the public eye. They serve as a convenient scapegoat for political failures – a populist tool for scaremongering – while press coverage around them remains largely negative and immigration policy continues to make it harder for them to build a life in the UK.

Asylum seekers are amongst some of the most vulnerable people in society. By definition, they are people who have been forced to leave their homes in search of safety in foreign lands, escaping war and/or persecution. This is a fact that is often omitted from the publicised narrative. Rather than acknowledging it as born out of necessity, what we often hear is an argument against asylum seekers, thrown listlessly into the overriding brand of ‘migrants’ – and by association ‘illegal immigrants’ – described in alienating and fear-inducing language as a ‘swarm’ of people coming into the UK to ‘scrounge’ off the system. Yet, according to the Refugee Council, the UK is home to approximately only 1% of the 25.9 million refugees forcibly displaced across the world. People seeking asylum are often living on state support equivalent to just over £5 per day.


The right to seek asylum, additionally, is rooted in international law – those seeking asylum are simply exercising their right to do so, and the UK has a legal duty to provide refuge. More often than not, however, asylum seekers are criminalised and met with an atmosphere that is unsympathetic to their right to live free of fear and persecution. An atmosphere created by a mixture of relentless media portrayal, political scapegoating and brutal governmental policy.


‘The refugee crisis’  


Analysis of the national coverage of immigration and asylum seekers since the 2010 general election revealed a pattern that is mainly negative. The right-wing media, including the Daily Mail – read by millions, and which led a total of 122 front-pages on immigration in the years 2010-2016 – are amongst the worst culprits. Analysis by the UNHCR comparing press coverage of refugees and asylum seekers across five different European countries, between the years 2014-2015, showed the United Kingdom to be the most negative. During this time, more than 200,000 refugees and migrants were escaping war and fleeing for safety across the Mediterranean Sea. In April 2014 alone, more than 1,300 people drowned trying to do so. Rather than highlighting the extreme situations that drive people to risk their lives in trying to reach Europe, however, the largely negative portrayal of asylum seekers continues to ignore their tragedy, instead peddling a skewed narrative that distorts public perception.


This misrepresentation is perpetuated by the image of migrants ‘invading’ Britain and depicted as a threat, in the media and in politics – whether legitimised by David’s Cameron description of refugees as a ‘swarm’ of people, or used as a scaremongering tactic – for example in a billboard depicting Britain at ‘Breaking Point’ - in reality a queue of refugees in Slovenia. Immigrants are cited as the reason for Britain’s overcrowded classrooms, for the lack of jobs, for pressures on the NHS – shifting the blame for economic and societal problems away from the government’s brutal austerity regime.

A brief hiatus from this hostility came only when the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015 – only then did we pay attention to the people behind the ‘refugee crisis’. Only then was the narrative changed to a ‘human catastrophe’.


‘Hostile environment’


Beyond the media, asylum seekers face the onslaught of policy designed to make the UK’s asylum process as difficult as possible. Policies such as the ‘hostile environment’ introduced in 2012, followed by the ‘deport first, appeal later’ scheme in 2014, present those seeking asylum as criminals to be deported rather than people looking to the outside world for help. Two years into her role as Home Secretary, Theresa May in 2012 stated her aim: “to create in Britain here a really hostile environment for illegal migration” so that migrants don’t overstay because they have access to services and basic needs.


While purported as a measure to root out illegal immigration, the hostile environment policy continues to criminalise asylum seekers and propagate the stereotype of immigrants ‘exploiting’ the system. It has real-life consequences for many people. It stops people opening bank accounts, studying, renting a place to live. It seeks to turn marriage registrars, doctors and homelessness charities into border guards. It is what led to what has been labelled one of the greatest failures of public policy in modern times: the Windrush scandal. The scandal broke after a man named as Albert Thompson was denied NHS cancer care – and only last week an asylum seeker, Kelemua Mulat from Ethiopia, died after being denied cancer treatment by the Home Office. Another case showing the current aftermath and human costs of this flawed policy which forces the NHS to impose upfront charges on immigrants in need of life-saving treatment; a policy strongly opposed by the British Medical Association.


Immigration policy


Throughout the years, tighter and harsher restrictions have been set against asylum seekers, including a ban on working to support themselves. Not only does the UK take fewer refugees than other countries in Western Europe, but while their claim is assessed, some asylum seekers find themselves in detention centres likened to prisons. The UK is the only country in the EU without a limit on the period of time a person can be held in immigration detention. Added to this, refugees are only given permission to stay in the UK for five years, which makes it difficult to make decisions about their future – only after five years can they apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain and only after a year of ILR can they apply for British citizenship.

The UK asylum system is far stricter than people realise. In the year ending June 2019, only 44% of claims were accepted. Unsurprisingly, as home to some of harshest policies, the UK has been named one of the worst places in Western Europe to seek asylum.

Reform is needed


Despite all the hardships they face, public opinion is drastically swayed by the myths and persistent depiction of those seeking refuge as criminals. Hostile immigration policies continue to be implemented, aided by negative press coverage. More needs to be done to dispel these myths; to shed light on the ways in which the current system fails to protect the people claiming asylum. To overturn the unnecessary ban on working, the denial of life-saving treatment, the millions of pounds invested in increasing border security. To highlight the fact that those seeking asylum are people looking to rebuild their lives – escaping wars and violence that they are unable to control. Like everyone else, they are powerless to choose the country they are born in.  

Lubnaa Joomun is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of UK immigration lawyers providing free advice and legal support to asylum seekers and victims of abuse.

Photo from Flickr - Matthew Peoples 

A call for action and support before I face the Immigration Tribunal

*A version of this article first appeared at:


I am Bumi Thomas, a Glaswegian-born Nigerian with creative sensibilities based in London. I am female, black, single and a conduit for change.

I was born in Rutherglen in Glasgow in 1983. My umbilical cord, my very DNA is embedded in the soil and ties me firmly to the core of Scotland.

My parents Lizzy and Segun Thomas were a pioneering young Nigerian couple who made a positive imprint on the Glaswegian cultural scene, creating a hub called HairLynks for Commonwealth citizens in the Highlands in the 70s and early 80s. My older sister Kemi was born British in December 1981. We have always been inseparable.

When our family moved back to Nigeria in 1986, we had such thick Glaswegian accents that people often asked our parents what was wrong with us. Kemi and I vowed we would come back to England as soon as we were old enough. Adjusting to life in Nigeria was challenging as we were perceived as and treated as foreigners. The move was supposed to be temporary. I constantly dreamt of the day we would return to Britain.


I finally came back to the UK in 2002 when I was 18, shortly after Kemi. I was elated to be back. I was always certain it would happen one day. I was so excited about my life, my dreams, and my education. My parents believed I was British and was returning to my home country. I was keen to make the most of my independence, my crossover into adult life, opportunities to express my individuality and creativity, fall in love, make new friends, be close to my sister and to reconnect with my British roots… I was home and it felt wonderful.

Marginalisation – The Shock

I was first told that I didn’t belong when I was 25. I had finished university and was making plans to go travelling with my friends before joining the working world. It was time to get my British passport and documents in order. Like most people at the time, I had been relying on my birth certificate and driver’s license as proof of my nationality. In the 2011 census 17% of people in the UK reported that they did not have a passport.

First of all, I had to find a lawyer. I made enquiries and spoke to a trainee solicitor at an immigration law firm. She advised me my situation was a straightforward application and that it would cost a small fee to process my application for citizenship.

At first I thought the application was a mere technicality. I paid her £500 so we could start the process in September 2008. She assured me it would all be done correctly and promptly. I took in all my documents documenting my residence in the UK and we completed the application form. She told me she would submit it and keep me updated on all correspondence. After few weeks I contacted her to follow up. At this point, she stopped taking my calls or returning my emails. After a couple of months she confessed that she hadn’t submitted the application and would not be able to refund the fee. I was very disappointed by the betrayal of trust and having to begin the process again. I then entered the world of immigration applications. It has been an ongoing ordeal.

Six months later, I had worked as a market researcher, estate agent and freelance photographer. I was paying tax, volunteering and making my way as a musician. I saved up enough extra money to book a consultation with a leading law firm in 2009. It cost another 500 pounds at £250 per hour. The lawyer I met said that I was technically an overstayer and this would be used against me. They said that meant I had no grounds to make a normal application for citizenship.

Border Native
It was at this stage I was confronted with my ‘ineligibility’ and told I was technically an overstayer with no claims whatsoever to British identity. I was shocked and very confused!

I didn’t understand how I could be born in Britain, have such a strong sense of British identity but be told that I was not and could not be a citizen.

The third lawyer I saw said my case was unique and complex. I was a ‘Border Native’, and this was a legal grey area that would be covered by an application under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights based on my right to respect for my family and private life. I was given a ballpark figure of £2,000 and an application was submitted in January 2010. It seemed very promising. I gathered supporting witness statements from my family, friends, university and employers.

This application was refused on 5 May 2010 with no right of appeal. It broke me. I was inconsolable, vulnerable, lost, inexperienced and scared.

My lawyer advised me to write to the Home Office asking them to reconsider their decision and sending more supporting evidence of my private and family life. It took a further two years to get a response. During this time I was legally unable to work, rent a home or travel. I became dependent on my partner and went into a deep depression. I was constantly in a state of anxiety. It was a very difficult time.

In June 2012, I was finally granted Discretionary Leave outside of the Immigration Rules for 3 years. I was so relieved and ecstatic. I could start to rebuild my life after 3 years of stagnation.

In November 2015 I applied for renewal/extension of my leave which cost £649 for the application, another £600 for the NHS Immigration Health Surcharge Service which was introduced in 2015 and £1,500 for legal fees. Changes made to immigration policy at this time included the introduction of the Hostile Environment policy, cuts to Legal Aid for immigration cases and a 37% increase in the cost of immigration applications.

After two grants of Discretionary Leave in 2012 and 2015, I made what I thought would be a third and final application for indefinite leave to remain in November 2018. This cost £2,458. This would finally give me the right to stay permanently in the UK.

However, this application was refused in June 2019, partly due to the breakdown of my relationship with my ex-partner. The Home Office claimed that my relationship had been a key consideration in granting my status retrospectively. The change in my circumstances meant I was no longer eligible for settlement via the 6 year route.

What did this mean? How could I reconcile my sense of belonging with this glaring rejection of me? It is the long term uncertainty that has had the power to induce a somewhat paralytic state of which I am not proud. In quiet moments I have felt pangs of rage, hypersensitivity, sadness as well as hope. It is so complex to have the heritage and beliefs of a British Citizen without the formal recognition. Sometimes, it’s hard to maintain energy to fight.

Baffling Logic

There were numerous inconsistencies in the reasoning in the latest rejection, including needlessly harsh statements. These included their opinion that I was an “unexceptional” person and also basic mathematical calculations which they claimed had been considered extremely carefully even though they were completely wrong. I couldn’t understand how such basic errors of fact could be made by officials after so many years of me submitting documents and assuming that someone on the other side was properly considering the circumstances. The application system is compromised by complexity and undermined by staff cuts and outsourcing. Provisions are not in place to help officials make discretionary decisions with the dominance of the points based system acting against tenets of common decency, morality and indeed basic common sense.

I am horrified by the lack of communication and trust between the Home Office and the public. In 2019, more than 3 decades after the (1983) British Nationality Act was introduced, I still find that the majority of people I meet are still unaware and shocked to discover that birth in the UK does not translate to citizenship. Back when I was born in 1983, my parents didn’t know they had to fill out additional forms, ring the Home Office etc in order for me to become a citizen. They just went to the registry office like everyone else, in the belief that this was what was required.

The lack of knowledge of the Windrush generation in the 70s and 80s about these changes was no different from the general population at the time. Insufficient efforts were made to help inform and regularise the status of not just the incoming (invited!) generation of of doctors, nurses, transport workers and creatives but also their children, likeme. When families came to the UK they did not believe for a second that their children would inherit these identity problems decades later and that some would have to fight for the right merely to remain with their siblings born months previously.

My slightly older sister who I live with has benefited from automatic citizenship as she was born in 1981 and not in 1983. She is appalled at the arbitrary nature of that difference, which has meant that I have experienced a 10 year rollercoaster merely to try to live as a normal citizen of the United Kingdom.

The Refusal

The day I received that brown envelope with the latest decision from the Home Office I knew my life would change forever, one way or another. I read the words

“Your Claim outside the Rules and human rights claim… …is refused.”

“…If you do not appeal you must leave the country.”

“ You can be removed or banned from Returning to the UK. You have 14 calendar days from the date this decision was sent to appeal.”

My heart started racing, I felt faint and nauseous with no idea of how to deal with this impossible situation. In subsequent days, I rallied and my spirits were raised as friends and relatives at first and then members of the public began to support me in my efforts to fight the decision.

Since then my story has been covered on The Metro, Daily Mail, Clash Music, The Guardian, Glasgow Live and the BBC. Almost 25,000 people have signed a petition started by someone I’d never met: Ian Johnston a dedicated Diversity Officer with the Scottish National Party. I’ve been overwhelmed by messages of support.

The efforts of all who posted on my blogs and sent donations to help pay for my appeal have completely justified my positive view of the British public. Support has been irrespective of race, nationalism, gender. People have posted from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England. They have been Remainers and Brexiteers, Conservative, Labour, Liberal. They may be introverts, extroverts, male, female, non gender. They are professors, cleaners, politicians, journalists, carers and students. They are black, they are white and everything in between that is beautiful about humanity and they have taken the time to send messages expressing support. For this I thank you with all my heart. Oh my, it has made a difference! I want those messages to do good for others in the same situation as me so that we empower officials with the mandate to provide the clarity of a fair, compassionate and timely immigration service so justice can prevail for everyone who needs it.

I am still processing and dealing with the trauma of this experience.

The Windrush Generation

I resonate strongly with the Windrush Generation. We’ve started talking a lot about the Windrush Generation, quite rightly. But the painful and unjust citizenship and deportation issues facing Caribbean communities is mirrored in the treatment of people from across the Commonwealth, people who were invited to help the UK recover post-war. It’s broader than Windrush – the scandal extends across the 53 countries joined by their shared histories in the Commonwealth.

My grandfather arrived in the 50s from Lagos to work and study. He was a civil servant with a strong sense of service to the community.  My parents were born as British Subjects and arrived from the Commonwealth in the 1970s. They contributed to the life and the culture of the United Kingdom by creating and curating a tangible space for diversity to evolve in the psyche of  Scotland, stimulating inclusion within the community. My sister was born in 1981 as a British Citizen. Because of an accident of the timing of my birth I have had a lifetime of fighting for my right to belong.

I am a descendent of a movement that was created to better lives based on a symbiotic agreement between nations, putting their resources together to build a better future.

I marvel at how much we have forgotten about our shared history, the synergy we envisioned as a result of this commonality this common wealth – and the popular misrepresentations that cause conflict and tension between groups that should be allies. As well as the role that tension plays in suppressing the rights of people who came with goodwill and contributed so much to the wealth, infrastructure, culture and healing of this nation.

I am proud of this ongoing contribution. I am also very aware that the terms of engagement have devolved to a brutal and inhumane treatment in some areas that cannot be normalised or internalised any longer. We need a policy that truly reflects the spirit of solidarity and inclusion.

My Appeal

The 16th of October steadily approaches. On this date I will be presenting my case at the First-Tier Tribunal Immigration Court.

Success would mean reclaiming my birthright, based on my fullness as a Glaswegian born woman of colour who has real roots here and has been shaped by the essence of this land in tangible and intangible ways for over 20 years.

I would be grateful for your support. Even more than that, I need you to help to create more awareness about cases such as mine and to lobby for change.

I would really appreciate it if you could sign + share my petition and campaign #JusticeForBumi

For anyone who has listened to my music, seen a live show or interacted with my art please send a message with your full name, the piece title and what effect/impact it had on you. You can email me at and my lawyer Jamie Bell at or DM me via any social media platforms.

This will be used as evidence in my appeal hearing.

My hope for the future is to be a voice for my generation. I hope to use this experience, my art and music as a means of creating positive change. I hope to educate the public on the realities of displacement and belonging, on the way that the Windrush Scandal + immigration policy amendments affect people from across the Commonwealth. I hope to  and always emphasise the importance of community and love in the wellbeing of self and others.

Thank you so much for your ongoing support.

With Gratitude,

Bumi Thomas

Photo credit: Tatiana Gorilovsky

Working for £1 an hour: An immigration detainee’s perspective

This blog also appears in Futures of Work Issue 9 here:

My name is John[1] and I was detained under immigration powers from April 2018 until November 2018. I worked for around seven months in Brook House IRC as a cleaner and this is my story.

I was detained at Brook House IRC despite having an ongoing asylum claim because of my fear of return to Jamaica. This asylum claim is still ongoing and I am still waiting for a decision from the Home Office. After about one week of being detained at Brook House, I decided to start work as a cleaner.

Detention is a difficult place to be when you do not know how long you are going to be there so I was looking for something productive which I could do to pass the time. When you are detained for as long as I was, not knowing when or if you will be released, it is really important to have something productive to do to take your mind off your difficulties. I was also looking for ways to earn money so that I could buy essential items, such as phone credit and food. I only have my mother in the United Kingdom but she did not have very much money to send me.

I spent about £10 per month on phone credit so that I could speak to my family and solicitors. I also needed money to buy food because what we were served in the centre was not healthy or nice to eat. I would prefer to eat just a can of tuna than the food we were served. I also went to the gym so I bought energy drinks. I know this does not sound like much. However, to have the option of what to have for dinner or to be able to buy an energy drink is a small luxury which made life in detention more manageable. The Home Office would only give us 71p per day so I could not have afforded this had I not been working in detention.

When I arrived at Brook House, other detainees told me that you could work and so I went to speak to a detention officer. I explained that I had previously got qualifications for cleaning and decorating. I signed up in the library and was very quickly given a cleaning job. After a short wait for a security check from the Home Office, I started work as a cleaner.

I worked seven days a week as a cleaner in D wing. Detainees were given one floor each to clean and I was given the ground floor. I also had to clean the communal shower area and rooms when detainees moved out.

My first shift started after breakfast at 9am. I would clean the dining area including wiping the tables, sweeping the floor and emptying the rubbish bins. The area was often left in a terrible state after mealtimes with food all over the floor and dirty plates left on the table. My second and third shifts were the same as this but after lunch and dinner.

My fourth and main shift was in the evening. I had to do a full clean of the communal areas on the ground floor which took about an hour and a half to complete. I would do a full sweep of the floor, wipe all the tables and mop the floors.

On top of these shifts, I was also expected to clean throughout the day by detention staff. If there was a spillage or the bins needed emptying, detention staff would come and find me. I started to clean up throughout the day anyway in the communal areas as I knew that I would just have to do this later anyway. Sometimes, the bins needed emptying up to eight times a day. I always took pride in the fact that I did a good job and received positive feedback from detention staff about the work that I was doing.

It is hard to quantify the amount of hours which I worked. I was just told that I needed to get my job done. I was paid £4 per day for my work and I now understand that the Home Office have capped wages for paid work in detention at £1 per hour. When I raised my pay with detention staff, they told me that the Home Office only allowed them to pay us £30 per week. This is based on us working no more than 30 hours per week.

As far as I was aware, there were no external cleaners who helped the detainee workers clean. I certainly never saw any. The communal areas of the detention centre were, in my experience, cleaned solely by those of us who were being detained.

Before my detention, I worked as a specialist cleaner and decorator in the UK, where I was paid around £9 an hour for very similar work. This made me feel even more humiliated because I knew what this work was worth outside the detention walls. I felt that the Home Office were only paying me £1 an hour because they could get away with it as I was an immigration detainee.

I felt completely exploited by this situation. I was good at my job, as many detention officers told me, and deserved to be paid more for the job that I did. I know how valuable that work is for the detention centre and know how much an external cleaner would have been paid to do the same job. There was no opportunity for me to get a pay rise, no matter how good my work was. I felt that this was exploitative and can only describe what I experienced as akin to slave labour.

I think that immigration detainees should be properly remunerated for the work that we do. If I had not cleaned that detention centre wing every day, it would have been in an absolutely disgusting state. My role was critical in keeping the detention centre hygienic and safe. I think that £1 per hour wages are exploitative and that the important work detainees do should be reflected in their pay.

[1] Name changed to protect identity

Image via Flikr - Photo credit: No End

Challenge against £1/hour pay for detainees working in detention: A lawyer’s perspective

This blog also appears in Futures of Work Issue 9 here:

On 16 November 2005, Tony McNulty MP, the then Home Office Minister, stood in the House of Commons and spoke very briefly about Section 153A of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Mr McNulty said that this was an ‘interesting new clause’ which would allow detainees to carry out paid work in immigration removal centres in order to prevent boredom and frustration. The proposed clause would exempt immigration detainees from the national minimum wage because, in the Minister’s words, the minimum wage would not ‘reflect the true economic value of the work likely to be carried out, which is likely to be remedial and assistive’. A Labour government was arguing in the House of Commons that the labour of certain people in Britain was not of sufficient worth to warrant the minimum wage, solely because of their immigration status.

One Labour MP, Mr Neil Gerrard, pointed out that detention centres were often run by private contractors and therefore he was understandably concerned that detainees would ‘end up being used as cheap labour’. Mr McNulty’s response to this was that the work would either be ‘traditional custodial activities’ (such as light cleaning or gardening) or charitable activities. Contractors would not be allowed to bid for work on the basis that detainees would cover tasks and detainees would not carry out commercial work ‘of any description’. The clause was then passed to minimal fanfare.

In 2008, following a Home Office paper which raised concerns about different pay rates across the detention estate, the Home Office introduced a standardised pay rate of £1 an hour (or £1.25 for specified projects). The paper said that a 75p per hour pay rate was preferable but eventually reluctantly settled for £1 an hour as many detainees were already being paid that rate. In 2013, the £1 per hour pay rate was maintained in a new policy.

The standardised pay rate is, in effect, a maximum wage imposed by central government. It is a ceiling not a floor. The reason given for imposing this was there was a concern that detainees would not comply with transfers between detention centres if they were going to be paid less at a different centre. This was despite there being no evidence for this assertion (as was admitted by the Home Office). There was also no consideration as to the value of the work being done and the dignity of those who would be working.

In the year between April 2016 and March 2017, detainees carried out 887,073 hours of paid work within IRCs. Over 99% of this work was done at the rate of £1 per hour (the specified project rate of £1.25 is rarely used). This work includes cleaning, kitchen assistant, barber, welfare assistant and inducting new detainees. It is clear that detainee labour is on a widespread scale and absolutely critical for ensuring that the detention estate functions. The detention contracts with the private sector providers confirm that detainees cannot be ‘required’ to carry out the work required under their contracts. However, that is different from the statement of Mr McNulty above. It appears, from the evidence of detainees and independent reviews, that detainees carry out the vast majority of cleaning work of the communal areas. Plainly, if the detainees refused to do this work, then outside cleaners would have to be brought in by private providers and would have to be paid at least the national minimum wage. This was evident in 2005, as demonstrated by the Parliamentary debate, and remains evident now. The savings being made are obvious.

It is worth pausing at this stage and considering who it is we are talking about when we say ‘detainee’. I have used it as an imperfect shorthand for the purpose of this blog. However, it is always worth remembering that these people are not the tabloid caricature. They are asylum seekers from some of the harshest regimes in the world, they are torture survivors who have experienced the worst imaginable human cruelty, they are trafficking victims who have their basic human dignity stripped from them. They are facing an uncertain future, not sure how long their liberty will be withheld and not sure if they will be returned to their country with an uncertain future. Many have no support network to get hold of money which they need to, amongst other things, buy phone credit to speak to their legal representatives or buy food from the shop to make their lives slightly less intolerable. Their basic detention living allowance is only 71p per day. Is it any wonder that many of these individuals feel compelled to work?

We represent five clients who all worked in immigration detention for the maximum rate of £1 per hour. All of these clients have shown incredible bravery and strength to challenge the decision of the Home Office to pay them an exploitative rate of £1 per hour. All of our clients welcomed the opportunity to work, and took pride in the important jobs they did, and just wanted the dignity of having that job reflected by a proper wage. It has been an absolute privilege to represent them and to try to tell their story in the courts. Whilst we were dismissed by the High Court, we now have permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal and a hearing is to follow in 2020.    

This case raises serious questions about the hostile environment and the way we treat those who come to this country seeking protection or an escape from poverty. We hold them in detention even after some of them have made credible asylum claims. We lock them up even if it triggers their experience of persecution abroad. We then pay them a maximum rate of pay of £1 per hour to clean their own detention centre, in filthy conditions as is often the case for those on low pay, when we know that an outside contractor would get paid over £8 an hour for similar work. All of them have since been released from detention, where we deny them that same right to work at a proper living wage.

If our case is successful, the current pay regime in detention will be held to be unlawful. However, this will only mean that the government and Parliament have to think again. The purpose of the national minimum wage is to ensure that every worker in Britain, no matter how vulnerable their bargaining position, gets a basic standard of protection from exploitation. Why should this also not apply to those who are some of the most vulnerable people within our country? It is high time we started to treat everyone in this country with a basic level of dignity and respect at work, irrespective of their immigration status. The scandal of the £1 per hour maximum wage must be brought to an end.

Photo credit: Joshua Tabti, Flickr

UPDATE – STUDY RESTRICTIONS: Despite Home Office policy revision, student prevented from sitting end of year university exams and another loses university scholarship opportunity

Since March 2018, the Harrow Public Law team at Duncan Lewis has represented eighteen clients restricted from studying by the Home Office as part of their ‘immigration bail’ conditions. The Home Office substantially amended their policy on study restrictions in May 2018 and said that they had solved the problem. However, we still receive referrals of individuals restricted from studying, and two clients have recently been prevented from sitting their important end of year exams at college and university as a result of study restrictions.

Hostile environment enables Home Office to restrict asylum seekers’ studies

We blogged about this issue last year and you can read the background here. In summary, the Immigration Act 2016 brought in many new provisions designed to enact the ‘hostile environment’. In January 2018, provisions in the 2016 Act introducing a new regime of ‘immigration bail’ came into force. As a result, asylum seekers and other people without leave to remain in the UK were issued with new ‘Bail 201’ forms containing the conditions under which they are allowed to stay in the UK.

Prior to March 2018, under the old ‘temporary admission’ regime, these conditions had generally consisted of restrictions preventing asylum seekers from working, requiring them to report at a Home Office reporting centre, and perhaps requiring them to live in a particular address.

In March 2018, however, we started receiving many reports of asylum seekers being restricted from studying as well. This caused major disruption – we had clients unable to attend educational therapy, ESOL classes or sit their GCSE exams. In some cases, clients who were also care leavers supported by local authorities were threatened with loss of their accommodation and weekly financial support, as this support was contingent on their remaining in education.

In every single case, the Home Office conceded that the restriction should not apply to our client, and removed it. However, in eight cases, we had to issue court proceedings in order to achieve this.

Revision of Home Office guidance to reduce incidence of study restrictions

In May 2018, the Home Office revised its ‘Immigration Bail’ guidance, making significant amendments to the section on study restrictions. This new version (and the most recent version 4.0) contained a lot more detail on to whom and when a study restriction should be applied. It clarifies that asylum seekers with a pending asylum claim should not be restricted from studying. It particularly highlights care leavers as a category of people who should not be restricted. It requires the Home Office to take upcoming exams into account when deciding whether or not to restrict an individual. It established a procedure whereby decisions to restrict study would have to be signed off by a senior caseworker.

Brutal, devastating disruption continues

Despite this, we have represented two clients in the past two months whose studies have been brutally disrupted as a result of Home Office study restrictions. Both were managing to achieve academic excellence despite seemingly insurmountable challenges.

H is a care leaver supported by a local authority, but was studying an Access course and had conditional offers from four universities. He is a dependent on his parents’ pending asylum claims. During the course of applying for a scholarship to cover the cost of the course, he was informed that he did not have the right to study. He had noticed the restriction the previous year but had been told by his previous solicitors that it was an error and not to worry about it. We issued court proceedings, but the Court refused to grant an injunction to allow him to be considered for the scholarship, and as a result he lost the opportunity. Since the court proceedings were issued, the Home Office conceded that the restriction should not apply to him, and have removed it. However, the damage had been done; our client was unable to accept his university offers.

A is currently ‘appeals rights exhausted’, but has an appointment next month (July 2019) to submit further representations. Ineligible for student finance due to her lack of immigration status, A applied to and won a competitive scholarship offered by her university to cover her tuition fees and living expenses. She was on track to complete her first year of studies towards becoming a cancer researcher. Two weeks before her exams started, A’s university told her that the Home Office had said that she no longer had the right to study. No reasons were given; no one asked A whether she was studying or whether she had exams coming up. A did not even receive the form containing the restriction directly, but rather via the university. As a result, A has missed her end of year exams and has had to issue court proceedings to attempt to restore her right to study, which are still ongoing.

What has struck me most in speaking to these clients is the vital importance of their studies to their mental health, and how devastating the disruption has been to them both. Asylum seekers are forced to wait for years in uncertainty, not knowing what the outcome will be, and not knowing how long the wait will be. Living in asylum accommodation, being unable to work, being faced with hostility and discrimination, can all make people feel excluded and as though their lives are stuck on pause, making no progress. Education is a vital path to feeling included, and feeling like they are moving forward in at least one aspect of their lives. A told me her first year of university was like a ‘dream’, that it was the first time since she can remember that she felt ‘normal’ and like she was allowed to do what other young women her age were doing. H poured all his energies into his studies, the one part of his life that he feels that he can control and excel at. Having their studies taken away has devastated and overwhelmed them, triggering existing mental health conditions.

In both of these cases, the Court refused to grant interim relief to allow our clients to study, and not miss their exams and application deadlines. In refusing interim relief, the Court has focused on the fact that the Home Office has the power under the Immigration Act 2016 and its policy guidance to impose these conditions. It is deeply disappointing that the Home Office is not being held to account for its failure to consider the brutal impact on these clients when deciding whether it is necessary to restrict these clients’ studies.

Everyone who has heard about these cases has reacted with complete confusion as to why studies would be restricted. What is the point? What is the legitimate purpose being achieved? How can it be right to prohibit young people from learning? Given that the purpose of ‘immigration bail’ is to maintain contact with people without leave to remain in the UK, how does preventing them from studying achieve this?

We will continue to challenge these disproportionate, pointless and capricious restrictions; and to fight for our clients’ right to study.

Image via Flickr - GoToVan

Greece: a safe country for refugees?

Although normally a caseworker in Duncan Lewis’ Public Law team, I recently lived and worked on Lesvos island in Greece for a month, volunteering with a legal charity. My role was to prepare asylum claimants for their interview with the Greek authorities - this is a vital part of the process for those claiming asylum on Greece, as their claim is decided following an hour long interview assessing their credibility and consistency. Supporting evidence may be submitted; however, most claimants are unable to produce documents corroborating their story, and it is not unusual for claims to be decided on the interview alone.

Detention on Lesvos

Lesvos is one of the main arrival points in Europe for people fleeing conflict, persecution and extreme hardship. The flow monitoring project of the International Organization for Migration reports 1.13 million new arrivals from 1 January 2015 to 12 June 2019.  During 2015, headlines were dominated by tragic mass drownings in the Aegean, and these tragedies continue to occur. The EU Turkey deal, however, greatly reduced the numbers of new arrivals. Agreed in March 2016, the deal is aimed at reducing the number of arrivals of refugees by enabling them to be forcibly returned to Turkey, or else confining them to one of five islands in Greece to undergo the slow asylum process. Those who are assessed as vulnerable - often many months after they have arrived - may have their travel restriction lifted, and they are allowed to travel to the mainland to pursue their asylum claim there. The impact of the EU-Turkey deal was stark: practically overnight, reception facilities and temporary camps on the Greek islands were transformed into detention centres[1][2]. Refugees who had arrived before the 20 March 2016 were transferred to the islands, and subsequent arrivals were held on the islands indefinitely. Conditions, already poor, deteriorated further.

Moria camp: overcrowded, dangerous, lethal

The majority of the 8,000 refugees on Lesvos live in Moria camp. The camp, originally built for 2,000, is now accommodating around 5,000 people. A former military base, it is surrounded by razor wire. Occupants overflow the main camp into the olive grove surrounding the camp, where they live in UNCHR tents, or else makeshift huts constructed from tarpaulins and scrap wood.

Inside the camp, refugees live in tightly packed shipping containers or large tents housing hundreds of people in bunk beds (with only blankets hung between the beds for privacy). According to MSF figures, there are approximately 80 people per shower, and 60 per toilet. The camp smells like raw sewage.

In early January of this year, a young Cameroonian man was found dead in his tent during sub-zero temperatures. Sometimes people chop wood and light fires in their tents to try to keep warm; this led to accidents that killed three people in Moria last year.

New arrivals are given one blanket each; if it is lost (or more likely, stolen), they are not given a new one. Women in the camp avoid using the toilets at night due to the risk of sexual assault. There are piles of rubbish everywhere, people crammed in to shipping containers, UNCHR tents and their own tents made of whatever materials they have been able to find. The electricity is unreliable, supplied only a few hours a day. Running water is supplied only at insufficient wash stations - and cooking facilities are not provided at all.  Those who are unable to afford the bus into town to buy food must wait for hours in line to receive meals.

Desperate medical needs

Around the camp there are notices about the warning signs of hypothermia, and what people should do to prevent it (hot drinks and blankets, neither of which are readily supplied in the camp). Healthcare for those who need it is limited. People must produce evidence of their appointment to police officers outside the health clinic, or else wait outside in the hope that a member of staff passing by will spot them and invite them inside. Otherwise, they queue outside the tents occupied by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) just outside the camp, and hope that they can be seen there instead. Many of these clinics are staffed by volunteers, and there are not enough.  Needless to say, a few health clinics in tents and shipping containers cannot provide for the complex needs of over 5,000 people, many of whom are suffering from serious mental health problems and the lasting impact of torture or other violence.

When I was preparing claimants for their interview, many of them told me about their experiences of torture, imprisonment, sexual violence and forced marriage. Some presented with psychotic symptoms. Others were glazed, unable to hold a conversation. One woman pushed bits of broken metal into her hand as we spoke.

Children in appalling conditions

I was surprised by the number of children in Moria - it seemed as though half the camp were children, their mothers queuing up outside makeshift NGO offices in the camp each morning to register their children for school. Many children endure the same conditions as the adults. Although the Greek authorities have made an effort to house families in nearby towns, I saw months-old babies carried around the camp, even in the freezing cold. One day, I helped the police search for a young girl who had gone missing a few days before. There was no oversight, and no space left in the children’s areas of the camp. Many were therefore staying in the main camp or outside of it, with little adult supervision or intervention. It is worth noting that there are no child psychiatrists on Lesvos.

The impact of the EU-Turkey deal: a failure to protect

The EU-Turkey deal has done nothing to stop people putting their lives at risk to travel to Europe to seek protection. It has only meant that those who are unlucky enough to to be found insufficiently vulnerable (and isn't everyone arriving in Lesvos vulnerable, given the journey they have just made?) risk being sent back to Turkey. In Turkey, the attempted coup in 2016, and the subsequent State of Emergency has placed refugees at greater risk of refoulement[3] (i.e. being sent back to their country of origin, rather than having their claims processed in Turkey). As a result, only 64 refugees have been sent back to Turkey from January to April 2019. The rest wait on the island, sometimes for years, in squalid conditions, to have their claims processed. The minimum conditions enshrined in asylum law are just not being met. Refugees undergo the asylum process in overcrowded, inhumane living conditions, with limited access to healthcare services, exposure to violence and a lack of real protection.

A non-functional, understaffed and under resourced asylum system

The ECtHR has recognised that the conditions for asylum seekers in Greece breach their Article 3 ECHR rights as the conditions amount to inhuman and degrading treatment (see, for example, MSS v Greece). Judges in MSS heard evidence of police tricking asylum claimants into believing that they were not eligible to claim asylum, after being detained in awful conditions. Those who were eventually interviewed found themselves interviewed in the wrong language, or receiving a rejection without a formal refusal letter giving reasons for the decision.

When the asylum system does function, it is chronically understaffed and under resourced. Many claimants have their interview stopped if the interviewing officer considers the individual may be vulnerable; as they may require a psychiatric assessment to determine whether they suffer from a mental illness, as this informs the type of asylum process that applies to them. Arranging and conducting this assessment can take up to two years. In my own experience, lack of staff meant that claimants due to be assessed by a social worker (due to potential vulnerabilities such as age, illness etc) had their claims delayed indefinitely. The contracts for the social workers at Moria had ended, with no contract renewals or new employees to take their place.

After grant of status: protection only ‘on paper’

Following a grant of asylum, the conditions are not much better. According to Article 30 PD 141/2013[4], beneficiaries of international protection should enjoy the same rights as Greek citizens and receive any necessary social assistance, according to the same terms applicable to Greek citizens. However, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled on 31 July 2018 that it cannot be generally assumed that recognized beneficiaries of international protection in Greece can be returned, due to the lack of access to provisions such as shelter, healthcare and financial assistance.

A report carried out by Pro Asyl in 2018[5] reports the following:

“The current living conditions of beneficiaries of international protection  in Greece are alarming, as beneficiaries do not only suffer from the lack of integration prospects into Greek society, but they are often faced with inadequate living conditions and humanitarian standards, a precarious socio-economic situation, and even have problems in securing their very existence. Such a situation undermines the effectiveness of the provided protection in line with The 1951 Refugee Convention and European law.”

In early February 2019, the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy announced the gradual termination of accommodation to beneficiaries of international protection living in refugee camps in mainland Greece. The first group of beneficiaries of international protection required to leave their accommodation were those recognized before the end of July 2017, and the deadline for their exit was 31 March 2019.

Refugees also face near insurmountable administrative and bureaucratic barriers preventing access to benefits in Greece, The procedures make no provision to accommodate the inability of beneficiaries to submit certain documents such as family status documents, birth certificates or diplomas.

A Pro Asyl report in April 2019[6] regarding the eviction of refugees from official accommodation reports that:

“The announced eviction of recognized refugees from accommodation in ESTIA flats and official refugee camps will lead to homelessness and destitution for many as very few steps have been taken so far by the Greek authorities in practice to secure the refugees’ autonomous living and equal integration into Greek society”

Those who have nowhere to go can theoretically be accommodated in existing shelters for the homeless in Greece. However their access to these centres is not always guaranteed (as refugees are treated as third country nationals in relation to access to accommodation). Additionally, these shelters have only a limited number of places. In practice, it is almost impossible to find a place there.

In consequence, recognised refugees still have no secure and effective access to shelter, food, the labour market and healthcare including mental healthcare. International protection status in Greece does not guarantee a dignified life for beneficiaries of protection and is no more than protection “on paper”.

EU initiatives are being phased out[7], leaving asylum claimants and refugees unable to meet their basic living needs. Beneficiaries now lose access to camps, UNHCR accommodation and cash only six months after they receive refugee status or subsidiary protection. The state is unable to step in and make up for these losses, citing the high numbers of new arrivals. This results in already-traumatised individuals enduring further hardship. Despite international condemnation, conditions remain inhuman and degrading.

The “crisis” is not over; Greece is not safe for refugees.

Image - Elleanor Wilkins


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The Cliff Edge: Why we are challenging Home Office policy to limit support to victims of trafficking


Supporting victims of trafficking and modern slavery is not merely a moral imperative, but also a legal obligation. We are representing two victims, known as NN and LP, who are holding the Home Office to account to ensure that it does not shirk its responsibility to provide adequate support to victims.

The National Crime Agency reported that, in 2018, nationals from 130 different countries were referred as potential victims of human trafficking or slavery to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the United Kingdom’s framework for identifying victims. The number of victims referred is growing: in 2018, it was nearly 7,000, compared to just over 5,000 in 2017. In 2016, it was under 4,000. This dramatic rise may be in part due to increased awareness of the scale of the problem and increased reporting of incidents of exploitation. These victims are trafficked from all over the world, and often have very little in common other than their shared characteristic of having been exploited at the hands of traffickers or enslavers.


NN was trafficked from Vietnam and forced to cultivate cannabis, while LP was trafficked from Albania and subjected to sexual exploitation. NN tried to escape, but was badly beaten and had some of his teeth knocked out. He was subsequently arrested and imprisoned as a criminal offender for his involvement in cannabis cultivation. LP was helped to escape from her traffickers after arriving in the United Kingdom and shortly thereafter gave birth to a daughter. NN has since been diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Both NN and LP were then required to prove their experiences to the Home Office, in order to be officially recognised as victims of trafficking.

Victims of trafficking and slavery are some of the most vulnerable people in society, and both NN and LP have intensive support needs. The Home Office is obliged to provide support to victims under the Trafficking Convention, and by its own policies, and outsources responsibility for its provision to the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army, in turn, has a number of subcontractors who support victims – through limited financial support, access to safe house accommodation and contact with a support worker. Both NN and LP have support workers who regularly visit them in their asylum accommodation to help with their day-to-day needs.

In early 2019, both NN and LP were conclusively recognised as victims of trafficking under the NRM. This should have been the moment when they were able to breathe a sigh of relief; when, finally, they knew that the Home Office recognised that their traumatising experiences had happened. But there was no such respite. In fact, days after being told that they had been recognised as victims, they were advised that the support they had been receiving had to stop.


It is Home Office policy to end support to victims of trafficking and slavery only 45 days after they have been conclusively identified as victims. Victims are told that the support that they have come to rely upon to go about their daily lives, to assist in their recovery and access necessary services, must end abruptly. Many victims have complex mental health needs, have suffered lives of trauma that will take years to recover from. Despite this they are told: yes, we accept that you are victims, but now you are on your own. This drop-off in support has been termed a “sharp cliff edge” by those in the charitable sector who are left to try to fill the gap and support these vulnerable individuals.

NN and LP both sought to challenge the Home Office’s decision to end their support. But, more than this, they sought to challenge the underlying policy ending their support, arguing that it is in breach of the United Kingdom’s obligations to support victims of human trafficking and slavery.

Challenging the lawfulness of a policy takes a long time, however. And neither NN nor LP had time to spare – they would be stripped of their support arrangements after 45 days. They therefore sought an order from the Court that, while the lawfulness of the policy was being considered by the Courts, neither their support, nor the support of any other victims of trafficking or slavery in the United Kingdom, could be stopped simply owing to this policy – given that is potentially unlawful.


At a hearing on 10 April, the Court found that there was a “serious risk of irreparable harm to a significant number of vulnerable victims of slavery and trafficking if their support were to end after 45 days”. In witness statements from support providers before the Court, the negative effect that the ‘cliff-edge’ drop in support can have on victims was outlined:

"The 45-day deadline for support ending can be very daunting for victims. Having built a relationship with their key worker, having felt safe and secure. Having received support to access the care that is needed, the prospect of that support no longer being there is a blow…The knowledge to victims that the one-to-one relationship that they have built with their support [worker] is coming to an end often causes great anxiety."

                Rachel Collins-White of Unseen UK, in her witness statement before the Court

The Home Office had argued that there was a policy by which support workers could request a brief extension of support for victims, and therefore this meant that there was little risk of harm. However, the Judge rejected this assertion, finding that there is no published policy regarding these extensions, that in practice few extensions were requested and there is little transparency about how such requests are decided by the Home Office. In LP’s case, an extension request had already been rejected.


Owing to the serious risk of irreparable harm to a significant number of victims of trafficking and slavery, the Court ordered that the Home Office cannot rely purely on its ‘45-day rule’ policy to cease the support that a victim is receiving, for the time being. This is to be the case until the lawfulness of the policy is decided in a hearing in July, when the Court will decide whether the Home Office has an ongoing obligation to support victims, as NN and LP argue.

In the meantime, victims who are receiving support will continue to receive it, unless either they or their support worker decide that they no longer require it. This means that, for the time being, a barrier has been put before the cliff-edge.



The Claimants are represented by Director, Ahmed Aydeed and Caseworkers Karen Staunton and Harvey Slade of the Birmingham Public Law department at Duncan Lewis, who have instructed Chris Buttler and Zoe McCallum of Matrix Chambers, and Miranda Butler of Garden Court Chambers.

Image via Flikr – Gramicidin

Limiting the Time Limit for Immigration Detention: The Danger of the ‘Foreign National Offender’ Exemption

Limiting the Time Limit for Immigration Detention: The Danger of the ‘Foreign National Offender’ Exemption

If a time limit for immigration detention is implemented, excluding people with previous convictions, then that time limit is fundamentally unfair and sets a dangerous precedent.

Prisoners of history: how a village in Nepal became a hostile environment

Prisoners of history: how a village in Nepal became a hostile environment

The dust is still settling in Nepal but the country is, arguably, on the road to stable peace. Yet, the case of Thawang shows how wars can continue to claim victims. A persisting fear of this tiny minority group, rooted in misperceptions of their extremist views, sees them continue to be labelled by narratives informed by war.

Safe but not free: how the UK has capped the dignity of people seeking asylum

Safe but not free: how the UK has capped the dignity of people seeking asylum

Without any alternatives, living on just over £5 a day puts people in poverty, where they are unable to support themselves and are forced to use food banks. The Lift the Ban campaign estimates an economic gain of £42.4million as a result of additional tax revenues and savings, if those seeking asylum are allowed to work.

Home Office restricting asylum seekers from studying in the UK

Home Office restricting asylum seekers from studying in the UK

The study restriction saga is a prime example of the effects of the UK government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy. It shows how statutory powers, granted for a specific and restricted purpose, can take on a life of their own in the hands of a government which has vowed to make life difficult for those without legal status in the UK, blind to the consequences for asylum seekers and vulnerable individuals.

Reflections on Volunteering in the Refugee Squats in Athens

Reflections on Volunteering in the Refugee Squats in Athens

Cooperation and collaboration between small ground-level non-profit services is fundamental to improving outreach and increasing awareness, propelling innovation and growth, reducing duplication, building resilience, cutting costs and increasing funding opportunities; all allowing a sustainable long-term future.

The Anatomy of the Hostile Environment: A Weekend with Birkbeck School of Law

The Anatomy of the Hostile Environment: A Weekend with Birkbeck School of Law

The talks were bold indictments of a state that has conscripted all areas of society into enforcing its racialised immigration control system, a state that has turned bankers, landlords, teachers, nurses, doctors and even NGO workers into border guards. A state that speaks of humans as ‘illegals’.

Mishka: The Shaw Review 2 is finally here, let’s use this opportunity for immigration detention reform.

Mishka: The Shaw Review 2 is finally here, let’s use this opportunity for immigration detention reform.

Effective detention campaigning is not merely about sentimental hashtags. We must continue to follow solution-based advocacy, with meaningful policy proposals aimed at the changes we expect from the government.

72 hours too many: how pregnant women are let down in immigration detention

72 hours too many: how pregnant women are let down in immigration detention

Two years ago on 12 July, a time limit of 72 hours was placed on how long a pregnant woman could be detained under immigration powers in the UK. This is 72 hours too many.