The Home Office has kept disabled people in the dark about their rights to asylum in Britain for nearly three years, BuzzFeed News has learned.
In an unreported ruling in 2015, the Home Office conceded that having a disability could make you part of a particular social group that faced persecution. But almost three years later, it has still failed to update its published asylum policy to reflect this.
The situation has left disabled people vulnerable to deportation to countries where they're persecuted without even realising they're eligible for sanctuary in Britain.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott told BuzzFeed News that the situation was “shocking” and that Labour would be raising the issue in parliament.
Abbott said: “The Home Office under both Amber Rudd and Theresa May has failed a wide range of detainees, including people with disabilities.
“It is shocking but not surprising that immigration policy on disabilities has not been updated even after a legal ruling. This government has sought to create a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants and has presided over chaos at the Home Office.
“Labour will be raising this issue at the first opportunity. We need a fair and humane immigration system, and no one should ever be deported who will then be subject to persecution.”
The Home Office accepted in 2015 that a Zimbabwean woman known as “W” faced persecution and harm in her home country because of her impairment. Previous asylum claims involving disability had only been successful for those who argued that a lack of available medical treatment threatened their right to life.
The judge said the woman had “a well-founded fear” of “harsh societal discrimination and exclusion as a result of her disability” and that she “would not be able to obtain employment because of her disability and local attitudes to it”, leaving her at risk of “persecution and a real risk of suffering serious harm”.
The case was heard at an immigration tribunal in Newport, South Wales, and since cases rarely get national press attention unless they make it to the High Court, it was never reported in the media.
Despite this case law being established almost three years ago, the Home Office has still failed to update its guidance. This means many lawyers – as well as disabled migrants in Britain trying to navigate the system without a lawyer – have no idea this is an option.
S Chelvan, the barrister at No5 Chambers who represented W, has been pushing the Home Office to make it clear that this is an asylum route. “They accept that [disabled people] are a particular social group but they don’t have a published policy,” he said.
“I think a lot of people, including those working in the disability sector, don’t know that it’s a basis to claim asylum. They always think it’s a medical treatment case.
“There’s an urgent need for policy guidance to be published because there are people who have genuine claims for asylum who don’t even know that this is a route available to them. The Home Office has to have published policy.”
While a specific policy update has been given on the issue of sexual orientation making people part of a “Particular Social Group”, there is no evidence the policy has been updated to reflect that this category can apply to disability. The general asylum policy does not deal with disabled people as a Particular Social Group.
Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, said: “We’re appalled that the Home Office has failed to update its guidance for disabled people claiming asylum.
“It’s horrifying to think that the claims of disabled people at risk of persecution are being wrongly rejected because decision-makers have been left in the dark about this life-changing ruling.
“The Home Office must take swift action to address this. Like lengthy delays, poor decision-making, and routinely detaining people, including women and torture survivors, this is yet another symptom of an asylum system that too often disempowers, dehumanises, and damages those who need it.”
The Home Office did not deny the points put to them by BuzzFeed News. A spokesperson said: “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection. Someone who faces serious harm on return to their country on account of their disability is not expected to return there.”
Because there are lawyers aware of the precedent set in 2015, there have been some asylum cases using this route over the last three years. The brutality of the claimants’ experiences reveals the importance of the Home Office publishing a policy on the issue.
“Mohammed”, a 17-year-old boy from West Africa whose impairment means he is unable to walk without help, is claiming asylum on the basis that disabled people in his country are subject to discrimination and persecution. He is very aware of what being sent home could mean.
Mohammed said he was kidnapped twice as a young boy, and abused multiple times, because he is disabled. Because of his ongoing asylum claim – and fear of persecution from an abusive relative if the family are forced to go back – he asked for his real name not to be published.
The London sixth-former told BuzzFeed News: “I don’t want to die. I’m really, really scared. I’m just hoping that the Home Office understands why I don’t want to go back.”
Mohammed has been waiting for almost a year to find out if he can have sanctuary in Britain.
Talking to BuzzFeed News in the small London flat he shares with his family, Mohammed said: “Living in my country was very, very hard. I was always the one student that all the teachers and students would forget about. I was always last. I was always condemned and mocked at due to having a disability and I remember also I was very isolated. My brother was my only friend. People would laugh at me and try to do bad things to me. I was often called an evil boy...
“I remember people calling me names. I was always called handicapped. It was very hard. I have some razor blade marks on my legs and I remember always asking my mum what those black marks were. She didn’t want to tell me and I begged her really hard and she later explained to me that when I was 2 I got kidnapped and that when I was 4 I got kidnapped again.”
The family first came to the UK in 2012 and claimed asylum because of fear of persecution from an abusive, powerful relative in their home country. Shortly before that initial asylum claim was refused by the Home Office, Mohammed said he wanted to kill himself. He had already attempted suicide once before, when it looked like they would never escape the West African country he grew up in.
He now has mental health support at his school in London, where he is a star pupil. When he won a school award he donated the £250 prize to buy a water fountain for the school garden he volunteered in. He has five offers from top British universities, but he is scared all that will be taken away if his asylum claim is rejected.
“Since coming here my life has changed. It’s been six years now. Since being in the UK the acceptance and love I felt is amazing. People in the UK don’t even make me realise that I have a disability, but back home people made me realise it every day. But here in the UK I love going to school.”
His mother is proud of his achievements. “I went to Mohammed’s parents’ evening a few days back and they said, ‘There’s nothing I can say about Mohammed; he’s the best student in school.’ I started crying and they said, ‘Believe me, Mohammed is going higher.’”
But she and all the family know that assurance may prove hollow if his future is not in Britain.
Mohammed said: “I just don’t want to go back. I feel like I’m going to lose everything. I’m going to die and I’m really scared.”
Refugee Action believes his experience shows the importance of publishing a policy on this asylum route, so that people in similar circumstances aren’t sent back to persecution.
Its chief executive, Hale, said: “Personal stories like Mohammed’s show why the Home Office must urgently update its asylum policy on disability. It’s heart-breaking to hear a young person talk about being so frightened for their future. But sadly this is the reality for many vulnerable families in the asylum system.
“No disabled person should have to live in fear of being returned to a country where their lives are in danger because of their impairment.”
Emily Dugan is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Dugan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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