‘Because you are an asylum seeker they can do anything to you.’ So speaks Nene (name changed), a mother and fashion designer from Democratic Republic of Congo, who has come to this conclusion through painful experience. ‘They say the UK is a safe place but I don’t think so. I am always under pressure. I always have to think. I can’t relax. My head is so busy, always thinking.’
Before arriving in the UK, Nene was imprisoned in her home country for taking part in political campaigning. Whilst she has not faced detention here, she explains how the asylum system alone can be suffocating at times. ‘Back home when I was in prison they could do anything bad to you. But at least when I was released I had power to shout again. Here, you are in a prison in your mind. It wastes time and it is another kind of torture. Immigration don’t see how much they make you like a mad person. Our blood is the same. Yours and mine, we could not tell them apart. We are all humans but we are not treated like humans.’
Ever since she had her first claim for asylum refused and lost her right to appeal, Nene has battled with periods of having no recourse to public funds (NRPF). She is one of thousands who find themselves in this debilitating and terrifying position because of the way the asylum system operates. Having NRPF means a lack of housing, benefits or asylum support and no right to work. It requires a reliance on others, sometimes for months or even years, until a pathway back towards support and status can be found.
NACCOM, the No Accommodation Network, is a national charity resourcing member projects to prevent homelessness amongst people with NRPF by providing bed-spaces and support, and to call for an end to destitution. Last year its members accommodated nearly 2,000 destitute refused asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants through night shelters, hosting schemes and housing projects.
It was a housing charity within the network that Nene reached out to when she became homeless in 2016. From then until recently, she stayed in a shared house with four other women with NRPF. Whilst accessing the charity’s financial and practical support, she was assisted to gather the evidence required for a fresh asylum claim. ‘They are very helpful,’ she says about the volunteers and caseworkers that have stood with her during this time.
Earlier this month, Nene’s further submission of evidence was accepted, so she could access Home Office accommodation and support (called Section 4). This was a step forward in many ways, yet it still caused chaos and confusion. After receiving the news, she was moved to another town, a two-hour train journey from where her friends, her church, and her counselling service were located, to share a room with another asylum-seeking woman she had never met before. They had an undignified and cramped environment to live in with no kitchen to speak of, just a microwave at the end of her bed. This, Nene’s thirteenth move in seven years, represents yet another example of how the asylum system robs people of dignity and freedom.
The good news is that after several days of advocacy work by the organisations that have supported her since 2016, Nene learns that she is going to be relocated back to Section 4 accommodation closer to her community networks. She is excited, and explains how much time and effort it has taken to control her anxieties and negative thoughts over the years, and how unhelpful the move away had been. To help keep her thoughts calm, Nene likes to remember her children and their life back home, and she finds comfort in prayer. But she cannot imagine what the days ahead will bring, explaining; ‘I don’t know what will happen next. If I had power I could say, ‘I am going to do this or do that’. But I don’t have any power’.
Nene is not alone in feeling like this. Her voice chimes with thousands of others who have had their lives ruined by a system that routinely strips away the most important of tools, agency and hope. That is why All Women Count is such an important opportunity. Because the people who have the power to change the system, and ensure safety and dignity and liberty for all, are going to hear from all of us, standing together, calling for change, on the 8th March.