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Inside the UK Asylum System: From Eritrea to Northern England

VICE News has stayed in touch with some of the migrants and refugees we met during various visits to France's 'Jungle' camp in Calais. Here, we catch up with one man who finally made it to England.

by Sally Hayden
Feb 19 2016, 12:00pm

Photo par Sally Hayden/VICE News

VICE News is traveling around the UK to catch up with some of the migrants we met in 2015 in Calais, France, who ultimately made it across the Channel.

* * *

It was twilight in the port town of Calais, France, when I last saw Birhan. As we spoke, his eyes darted from side to side. His brown hoodie smelled of tear gas. He had just eaten his only meal of the day.

"To live or die, it's the same for us," he told me at the time, explaining his determination to get to England, risking his life on the way.

Several days after I returned to London, Birhan messaged me saying he had made it through the Channel Tunnel. Now, two months later, I had taken the train 250 miles up to Middlesbrough to meet him.

When I arrived, it was raining. The train station seemed like a place that is permanently damp. A nurse smoked outside.

Once Birhan arrived we got a taxi to his current accommodation. In Calais we couldn't get in a car together — anyone who transports migrants can be accused of human trafficking.

Our Scottish driver asked how we know each other. "We met in France," I answered.

At Birhan's house — situated in the middle of a plain, terraced row, though its red door branded it as likely inhabited by asylum seekers — he made me tea and pizza. The place was like a student's: minimal possessions and a large, broken TV in the living room. Six asylum seekers were living there, all Eritrean. The pizza was thick; while I ate slices, Birhan tore small pieces off the crust. He offered me sugar for my tea from a mayonnaise jar.

Birhan's next door neighbors are Iraqis who have been here since 2003.

* * *

Middlesbrough, a town in England's northeast, is the only place in the UK that breaks government guidelines stating no more than one in 200 people in a given local population should be asylum seekers. In Middlesbrough, it's now reported to be one in 173 people. Figures from June — before the majority of last year's arrivals — showed Middlesbrough was already housing 746 adult asylum seekers in a town of around 140,000.

In 2015, European Union member states received the highest number of asylum applications since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia more than 20 years before, as the planet experienced its biggest migration crisis since World War Two. Between January and September last year, 698,055 asylum seekers applied for asylum with Europe, 21,340 of whom came from Eritrea.

Related: 'Everyone Will Make It One Day': Meeting the Calais Migrants Who Dream of England

Eritreans are the most common nationality applying for asylum in the UK, with 3,726 claiming asylum in the UK in the year ending September 2015, according to government figures

What are they fleeing from? In June, a United Nations human rights report was explicit in its condemnation of the Horn of Africa dictatorship, sometimes referred to disparagingly by critics as "Africa's North Korea." 

"The government of Eritrea is responsible for systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations that have created a climate of fear in which dissent is stifled, [and] a large proportion of the population is subjected to forced labour and imprisonment," the report said. Some of these violations may constitute "crimes against humanity," it argued, citing "an array of human rights violations on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere... It is not law that rules Eritreans — but fear."

Most young Eritreans are forced into indefinite army conscription as teenagers, justified by the government because of the country's tense relations with Ethiopia.

Those seen as a threat to the Eritrean regime are arbitrarily detained, while Eritrean officials have also admitted torture may happen in some prisons, though they claim it's not "systematic." 

* * *

When Birhan arrived in the UK, he immediately called his family — who were audibly relieved because they know many people have died trying to get through the Euro Tunnel which runs under the English Channel from France into Britain. "And they know if I enter here I will be safe from everything, that no danger will affect me in England because this country is a peaceful country," he said.

Birhan changed his sim card after he left Calais, discarding numbers and mentally detangling himself from the fellow migrants and refugees he met there. However, 20 days after he got to Middlesbrough he was walking through the town's center when he came across another Eritrean acquaintance from Calais. The two greeted each other joyously.

Then they compared details of how they made it through: for Birhan it had followed weeks of attempts. "As before, we tried to enter the train station and we stayed under the train," he recounted. "It is so dangerous but we had to do that. We stayed like 10 minutes or 15 minutes under the train." When the train began to move, Birhan said they jumped on board. "At that time we knew that no one would [catch] us."

Middlesbrough train station in northern England. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Once they arrived in Dover, a coastal town in England's southeast, Birhan and his companions handed themselves over to police. "They accepted us and they asked us how we came."

"We asked them to be concerned about us, to save our life. They asked do we want asylum support, we said yes. They gave us a screening and an ID card and then they put us in London. We stayed five days, or seven days." Then Birhan began his first tour of England: he was taken to Wakefield in west Yorkshire, where he stayed less than three weeks, before being moved on to Middlesbrough. 

"Everything is going well," he said — but he's still scared. Without papers, you can do very little. "You eat, you sleep, the life is meaningless."

Now he was readying himself for his asylum interview. Birhan had spoken to a lawyer for just 15 minutes, but was told he should be fine. There will be two main questions, the lawyer said: "What is the main point that led you to leave your country? And what will happen to you if you return?"

In the meantime, he was receiving 35 pounds ($53) each week, which was enough to buy food in a local budget food store, and to save a very small amount.

* * *

When we met in Calais, Birhan described Eritrea in one word: "dark." 

"Most of the European Union, they say that there is no problem in Eritrea. But they don't know," he stated.

In Eritrea, Birhan said, fear "grows with us from childhood." For Birhan, the spectre of what could happen to him hung on a loss: when he was just three years old, in 1992, both his 23-year-old brother and his uncle suddenly disappeared without explanation. Years later, when Birhan was 19, his community was asked to attend a meeting with the local authorities. Frustrated after coming of age with no answers, he publicly asked: 'Where is my brother? I want to know where he is. If he did a crime also, I want to know what happened to him, I want to know where he is."

"Then they were silent and they came in the night time," he recounted. "They covered my eyes and put me in a jail for nine months. I don't know which jail they put me in. Nine months, even they will never allow you to go to the toilet, they will give you [a bottle to pee in]… You are beaten every day."

"What is happening in Eritrea, it is not happening even in Syria, because what is happening in Syria all the people know and at last they will [find] a solution for that," Birhan continued, his voice shaking.

"Eritrea is not a country. It is like a group of people leading without any rule, without any rights of the people."

Related: 'This Is the Jungle': Calais Migrant Camp Now Includes a Church, a School, and a Nightclub

Birhan — whose name has been changed at his own request — doesn't fit the characteristics of an "economic migrant." He said with some pride that his father owns 150 orange trees. He rarely went hungry while living at home. Instead, he left to escape repression.

"No one wants to die. No one wants to throw [their] life in the sea. No one needs that, but the life and the death becomes the same for us," he said.

Birhan accused Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki — who has led the country since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 — of inciting hatred among citizens, encouraging them to distrust each other and even to inform on each other. "[Eritreans used to] live together, eat together, pray together. Now… they fight each other."

"What will happen to the new generation?" he continued. "What will happen to our country? we have to think about a better life for them."

Beyond this, Birhan spoke fondly of Eritrean culture, speaking about the Tigre language, their music, showing photos of the traditional wedding he and his wife had. He then noted that polygamy is often accepted in Eritrea, and he believes it even serves a purpose — evening out the noticeable gender imbalance that was a hangover of the war for independence. I said polygamy wasn't legal in the UK, but gay marriage is. The slight, gaunt man looked confused, before laughing. "See, there is so much freedom here." 

Meanwhile, Eritrea — a country of less than 6 million people — seems to be steadily emptying. The global refugee population of Eritreans is in the 100,000s. Hundreds more cross the border to Ethiopia every day.

Girmay Abraha, the national counselling supervisor for international non-profit the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) — which works with Eritreans in refugee camps in Ethiopia's north — told VICE News he is fighting a losing battle. Though many new arrivals bear scars of torture after they cross the border, it is often impossible to make them stay in camps for the duration of a 10-week program aimed at combatting trauma. Quickly, they move on. Their destination is usually Europe.

* * *

After Birhan escaped Eritrea he walked thousands of miles through the Sahara Desert. It took 16 days. He was with a group of around 70 others led by smugglers. "When anyone asked for water they will show you the gun," Birhan said.

"If you say anything they will shoot you, they don't care about you."

One woman traveling with him injured her neck. "They told us to leave her there. We left her in the desert… She wasn't able to move so they told the driver to leave her there. [They said] 'If she dies she will die, no matter.' So we left her."

Other Eritreans have told VICE News similar stories. Many claim that the much-highlighted disparity between the numbers of men versus women who make it to Europe is something that happens en route: that the numbers escaping Eritrea are roughly equal, but more women perish or are kidnapped along the journey. One Eritrean man said by the time he made it to Italy the ratio of women had gone down from 50 percent to 25 percent — in Calais women made up about 10 percent.

After Libya, where migrants face imprisonment and torture by smugglers and militias, there is the perilous journey across the sea. Birhan's voyage across the Mediterranean to Italy took three days. "It was a small boat… in the water we are moving like a small thing. So I was thinking that today is the last day of my life."

* * *

The main reason Birhan wanted to come to England is because his wife is here. They've been married six years — they met while studying. After their marriage, she traveled to Saudi Arabia to take up a job as a domestic worker, but was abused by her employers. Eventually engineering an escape, she fled to the UK and has been here a year. They've only seen each other once since he arrived — spending just two hours in London together, when she visited with a relative.

Birhan's wife — who VICE News agreed not to name — is now living in Birmingham, Britain's second city. She shares an apartment with two others, attends English classes, and receives 39 pounds ($60) each week from the government while she is waiting to find a job. If Birhan discloses to the Home Office that he is married to her, he believes he will lose his own meager income, but he said that once he gets his papers the two will decide which city is best for them to live in.

Eritrean asylum seeker Birhan in Middlesbrough, a town in the northeast of England. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Birhan repeatedly referred to Middlesbrough as "our city," but also said he feels empathy with British citizens who feel threatened by the flux of migrants and asylum seekers. "Many people they don't have work, they are [job]seeking," he said. "I am looking with my eyes, many people are without a job in England… Maybe it is difficult for them also…" he trailed off.

"They have charity here, if you want anything you can ask them, they will give you. The [British] people, they help the immigrants."

For him, Middlesbrough is incomparable to the grim conditions in France. "In Calais maybe you can eat [just] one time a day."

Related: What We Witnessed at a French Migrant Camp Allegedly Controlled by People Smugglers

Birhan claimed he has been told by British authorities that he must wait six months before he can study. He tried to attend English classes, but was turned away because they said his English was too good. Now it's getting worse with each passing week.

The wait is dragging on him, but for the first time in his life, he said, he and his companions have begun to think about the future. "Before everyone only thought about themselves: What would happen to them? Will I die tomorrow or today? Now if we get a chance I know we will study and will create things for ourselves and for all the world."

* * *

Two of Birhan's Eritrean housemates in Middlesbrough have recently had their applications rejected, with a ruling that — as long as they had an income — they could live decent lives in Eritrea. They must now wait several months for a court date and the chance of a second hearing; for some the cycle of appeals, rejections, and occasionally detention in immigration removal centers can go on for years.

This reflects a greater trend: many Eritreans are facing deportation after the British Home Office updated its country advice and declared Eritrea to be generally safe, information said to be based on a discredited Danish report which campaigners are fighting to have reevaluated. This saw the acceptance rate drop from 73 percent to 34 percent in the first half of 2015.

Questioned by VICE News, a Home Office spokesperson refused to rule out the possibility that an Eritrean asylum seeker could be deported directly to Eritrea. Instead, he pointed to the following standard guidance: "All claims for asylum are considered on their individual merits. Where people establish a genuine need for protection, or a well founded fear of persecution, refuge will be granted. If someone is found not to need our protection, we expect them to leave the country voluntarily. Where they do not, we will seek to enforce their departure."

As we walked back to the Middlesbrough train station together, coat hoods up against the cold, a white van drove past us. "That car is the same one that the police had in Calais," Birhan said, starting and pointing.

He nodded at a couple walking across the street. "Those are Nigerians. All the black people in Middlesbrough, the Africans, we all say hi to each other. That is our culture. Even though the locals don't say hi to each other, we always say hi."

Then an English man with a thick accent, stooped, weathered, and slightly slurring, approached us to ask for spare change.

Birhan said he had seen many beggars around the city and was told they were addicts. He said he found the contrast between his position and theirs confusing. "We are immigrants, we are getting by on our 35 pounds a week," he said. "This man is a national, he is taking money for drugs."

Then Birhan's words began to come out in a rush. He said he's losing weight. He's not sleeping at night — "maybe because of anxiety." He asked for help at the local hospital but they hadn't given him any diagnosis or medication.

As we parted, I asked him whether how he would spend the evening. Birhan said he would listen to Eritrean Tigre music and watch YouTube movies about the Eritrean struggle for independence.

I asked him whether he has nightmares about the horrors he experienced on his journey to Europe.

"I don't sleep long enough to dream," he replied.

* * *

Birhan kept VICE News updated on his asylum progress. Several weeks after we met in Middlesbrough, he told me he had finally gone through the asylum interview. It lasted three hours but they were "very nice" to him, he said — he was given a break, food and water, and could answer all 135 questions. He felt relatively confident, though still incredibly nervous.

A week later, he messaged again. "They gave me a rejection," he wrote.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

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