Dear Priti Patel,
I am writing to you about my friend Mohammed*. He is an asylum seeker from Sudan and is currently experiencing the indignity of the British asylum system.
I first met Mohammed in France. I was a volunteer in Calais, so I saw first-hand what you described in your recent Conservative Party Conference speech as:
“vast camps outside Calais, mainly of male economic migrants”.
There are no “vast camps”, the French police branch Compagnies républicaines de sécurité (CRS) perform regular and complete evictions of all the places that people try to sleep.
Roots - an organisation working on the ground - reported a mass eviction on 23rd September this year, stating that evictions are an “almost daily occurrence”.
To describe most of the people there as “economic migrants” is also incorrect. Everyone I met in the 12 weeks that I was there would qualify for asylum.
One of my friends is from Afghanistan. The Taliban tried to recruit him so that he could put his business and finance skills in their hands. He fled to save his life.
Another of my friends is from Iraqi Kurdistan. Decades of conflict and continuing discrimination mean that it is no place to have a future.
Sudan is a country haunted by the end of British colonial rule, which resulted in a North/South divide, with violent militias fighting for power. Normal people are displaced from their towns and villages to avoid being caught up in the fighting. Mohammed lived in a refugee camp from the age of 5 years old. With virtually no education, no employment opportunities and even limited access to nutritious food, he had no choice but to leave. His early life and the circumstances of his country undoubtedly fit the description of an asylum seeker.
Mohammed arrived in the UK in August 2020. He came via a small, flimsy boat. His life in France had become so unbearable that he knew he was risking his life, but dying in the Channel was a better option than staying where he was.
On arriving in the UK, he was placed into a hotel. We both understood the need for compliance to COVID restrictions, and of course a hotel room is better than a tent on some wasteland, but the conditions were poor. The GP practice nearest the hotel made a complaint to the Home Office on behalf of the residents. The standard of the food was below an acceptable level, and the treatment of residents was often rude and demeaning.
Whilst these conditions would have had little long-term effect had they been endured for a brief time, Mohammed was there for more than 9 months. 9 months of being fed the same food, 9 months of being isolated from other people without the ability to do anything for himself, 9 months of wondering if tomorrow would be the day to move somewhere better. He couldn’t cook, go shopping, or buy clothes or toiletries.
We rejoiced on the day he was notified of leaving. He was one of the last people to be moved from the hotel. Again, we could both appreciate that families with children were prioritised, but plenty of single people who arrived after him were moved before him. With only a day’s notice, he was sent to a shared house in a northern city. Mohammed was disappointed not to be in London, but excited to get to know a new city. The city where his future could finally begin. The disappointment at the state of this shared house fell especially heavily after such optimism. It was unclean, there were no curtains at the window, no table or chairs. Just a bed in a room that didn’t lock.
Thanks to volunteers and organisations, he now has curtains and more furniture, but three weeks ago he called Migrant Help (the charity assigned to handle accommodation logistics on behalf of the Home Office) to report a problem. There were biting insects (probably bed bugs) in the furniture. He spent some of his own weekly allowance on attempting to treat this problem, but his request went unanswered for more than three weeks. He’s still waiting.
The effects on Mohammad’s mental and physical health are visible. He is depressed by his living circumstances, he looks tired from lack of sleep and thinner than I’ve seen him. He goes days without eating in order to save some of his £39.63 weekly allowance. The perpetual waiting for a date for his asylum interview is interminable. Whilst he has all but given up hope, he feels like he can’t travel to visit friends in case a letter arrives while he is absent.
Whilst I have no doubt about the economic benefit to the UK of “welcoming brilliant scientists, the finest academics and leading people in their fields,” as you mention in your speech, the current petrol crisis and problems with the food supply-chain could be eased by allowing asylum seekers to work. This would allow people like Mohammed to pay tax and contribute to society. It would also save the government £39.63 each week for each person plus housing costs. Healthcare costs would also be reduced. Mental and physical health would be improved by being active and useful in a job which is essential to the life of all people in Britain.
Besides the clear monetary gain of allowing asylum seekers to work, don’t we value dignity and kindness in this country? Giving opportunities to vulnerable people shouldn’t solely be motivated by greed and profit-margins. Mohammed has faced unspeakably awful events in his life during his search for a safe place. Yet despite that, his bright smile welcomes me when I visit, he extends his hospitality to me in whatever form he is able to at that moment. He cooks delicious meals, we discuss football results and important religious questions. I only wish that my country would extend the same hospitality to him.
I strongly request that you change the rules to allow asylum seekers to work, that you reduce the time the people have to wait, and that you help to enable British people to extend a hand of hospitality and friendship to those who are here. For the sake of my friend, for the sake of all those who are waiting and for the sake of our country.
*For the sake of privacy, Mohammed’s name has been changed.