Study in limbo, afraid of that knock on the door

January 23, 2004

Ideas can travel the world instantly, but the movements of those who develop them are being restricted: Refugee scholars in the UK live in fear of the immigration authorities' arbitrary power over them, says Chris Bunting.

Peter, a third-year chemistry student at a university in the London area and a refugee, was put in a police cell in October because the immigration authorities had lost his address. He had given it to them months before, but they couldn't find it, so he was locked up. He was released after a day. When he asked for an explanation, he was told it was the police, not him, who asked the questions.

A month later, reporting as usual to the police, he was arrested again.

"They shut me up in a cell. There were four of us. In the evening, the people from Group 4 security came and took us in a van with no windows to the detention centre. It is dirty and foul there. They kept me in detention for ten days. Then, one day, they let me go. There was no real explanation again," he says.

"I was supposed to be getting ready for my exams this term. How do they expect me to think straight when they are just shutting me up for their own reasons without telling me?"

Talk to asylum seekers about the conditions in their own countries that have forced them to seek refugee status and a surprising number are often willing to be interviewed on the record. Based on such brave testimony, I have written articles about conditions under the murderous regimes of Iraq, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia while those regimes were still in power.

But ask an asylum seeker about the asylum authorities in Britain and almost all will insist on anonymity. It is an indictment of that system that all the students and academics interviewed for this article not only asked not to be named but also often wanted their countries of origin and universities to be concealed. Their fear was not of the torturers and killers they have fled but of the immigration officers who most believe hold arbitrary power over them.

"I am really scared of these people, really scared. If they find out I am talking to a newspaper, they will pick me up again and put me in a cell or on a plane home," says Peter, who asked for his nationality, name, age and university to be concealed.

John Akker, executive secretary of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, describes the treatment of many of the academics and students he deals with as "appalling". "They are held in limbo. The quality of the decision-making by the immigration authorities can be appalling and, although the government is trying to deal with this, we have people we are working with who have waited five or six years for their cases to be decided and are still waiting. In the meantime, everything is done to stop these people getting on with their lives."

Akker describes the case of a "leading medical academic" from a north African country who fled to Britain in 1999 after getting caught up in anti-government protests. Following years of legal battles, during which time he was not allowed to practice, he won an appeal at the end of 2003.

The Home Office was given ten days to contest the decision but failed to respond. "For months, even though they had lost the case, they refused to give him his papers. It wasn't until last week that he was given his indefinite leave to remain. He was living in limbo for five years," Akker says.

Akker also cites the case of a postgraduate at Surrey University. He had been awarded a research council grant but had to stop his work halfway through his first year because the research council discovered that he was an asylum seeker.

The obstacles put in the way of prospective undergraduates are just as prohibitive. There are hundreds of asylum seekers on courses in the college sector, but it is relatively rare for a student to make it into higher education. The possibility of being deported discourages many from investing in three and four-year courses, but it is the size of the financial investment required that is the biggest hurdle. Most universities, in line with government guidelines, charge asylum seekers full international student fees and, for the vast majority of them, bills of £6,000 or £7,000 a year are impossible to meet.

"It is like being put in the freezer," says Peter, whose university is unusual in charging refugees a special rate of only £3,500, twice what home students pay rather than four or five times. "They want you to sit and do nothing and just report to the police station when they tell you. But there are people like me who want to contribute to this society, who want to make something of ourselves. They don't seem to like that."

Andre, in the second year of a computer studies course at another London university, fled from a central African country in the late 1990s after the collapse of its regime put him in danger. He has spent nearly five years battling with the asylum authorities to get an education. "I went to college to learn English and I did well. They said I should do the Cambridge First Certificate. But I had to go to be interviewed by the asylum people on the day of the exam. My college said I should do the exam, but I said they had to ask the asylum people to get their interview moved.

They did, but there was no reply from the asylum people. When I went for the interview, they casually said they had received the letter but didn't reply. It is like they are always wanting to put you in a situation where you can fall into a trap so they can take you out of the country."

Andre was repeatedly told that it would be impossible for him to enter higher education even though he held a baccalaureate from his home country.

He couldn't attend his local college in Bolton, Lancashire, because of prohibitively high student fees, and he had to travel 50 miles to take computer courses.

In 2001, after a college tutor told him he belonged in higher education, he was accepted onto an information technology course at Salford University, only to be told he would be charged more than £7,000 a year for the course. He had to drop his place. Last year, after completing a higher national certificate and a higher national diploma in computer studies, he found a London university willing to take a reduced fee.

"The fee stops you getting onto the courses, but there is a psychological battle, too. It is difficult to study when at any minute they can pick you up and deport you, when they are calling you in for interviews, when they are making you report at all times. Other asylum seekers have told me I am crazy in trying to do this. I might not be able to finish the course, but I know there is value in studying. No one can give me back my years spent waiting without being able to get on with my life, but I am just trying to make the most of it," he says.

Walid, a refugee from Libya studying at London Metropolitan University, received indefinite leave to remain last year, an official recognition of his refugee status. But he found his six-year battle to establish his status, during which he spent four months in prison, so traumatising that he too wanted to remain anonymous: "I didn't choose to leave my country. I had to. My situation was better in my country than here. I have lost my family, I have lost my country and now I have lost six years of my life.

"If someone mentions the Home Office, I feel funny inside. I can't describe it. You live in complete insecurity, and to get on with your studies is so difficult. It is only something inside, that you want to make something of yourself, that gets you through."

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