No benefits, no right to a home – Redbridge charity chief on the truth about asylum seeking

Great British institutions such as the Mini, M&S and fish and chips would never have been part of our culture if it wasn’t for refugees seeking sanctuary in the UK.

Many are forced from their homes due to war, political and religious persecution or genocide.

This week is National Refugee Week, which celebrates the contribution refugees have made to our society and aims to counter the often negative perception people have.

Rita Chadha, 39, has worked as the chief executive of the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London (RAMFEL), in Ilford, for the past six years.

During that time she has helped thousands of people, whether by providing legal support or by giving out food parcels at the centre’s food bank.

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She said: “People tend to group everyone together and say that asylum seekers are scrounging and sponging off the state – legally that cannot happen.”

On arrival in the UK they are classed as asylum seekers, have their passport taken away by the Home Office and are not allowed to claim any type of state benefits. If their application to stay in the UK is approved, they are then classed as a refugee.

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It is not uncommon for a decision on an application to take 10 years and during that time they cannot work, get free hospital treatment or have access to housing.

“As they are not allowed to work or claim benefits, they rely on charity or friends,” Ms Chada said.

“One of the biggest problems at the moment is lots of these friends are losing their jobs and cannot afford to continue supporting them.”

The long process and the continual court appearances put applicants under huge pressure, often breaking up families in the process.

One married couple from Algeria sought asylum in the UK after being targeted by political militia. After the husband’s brother was killed, the couple received threats saying that they were next.

Ms Chadha said: “The couple waited 14 years for a decision on their case. Sometimes the solicitors from the Home Office didn’t turn up at court so the case had to be abandoned. In two years they had been to court eight times.”

They visited the food bank for six years and during that time Rita saw the relationship become strained.

“They were close to breaking point and were living separately. Then we got the phone call from the Home Office asking for passport pictures of them,” added Ms Chadha.

This is usually a good sign that a positive decision has been made on a case.

“We didn’t tell them what we suspected as we didn’t want to get their hopes up.

“When we told this 6ft strapping guy that they could stay he collapsed on the floor crying and couldn’t even call his wife to tell her, so we had to do it for him.”

The centre at the Cardinal Heenan Centre, High Road – which opened in 1998 – has 150-200 people visit every week for some sort of support.

The centre has one full time member of staff, with a part-time solicitor and three legal advisers. Between them they are dealing with 50 live cases.

Many of the cases are referred either by the council or the NHS.

Ms Chadha said: “We had a worker call up from social services saying he had a woman from Ghana with him.

“She started having a fit due to the pressure she was under and he kept asking me what to do down the phone. She wasn’t having a different type of fit because of her immigration status. A fit is a fit.”

Overcoming people’s negative perception of asylum seekers and refugees is something that the centre frequently has to confront.

“It’s really difficult to change common perceptions. When you explain the facts people say they didn’t realise how the situation was,” said Ms Chadha.

“It’s a difficult, complex subject for professionals to understand and communicating that to members of the public is really complex.”

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