A young man with severe learning disabilities has "volunteered" to return to the country that failed to adequately safeguard him after he was allegedly trafficked to the UK two years ago – prompting concern from charities.
The 27-year-old, who BuzzFeed News is not naming, was born in Romania and has severe learning disabilities. Raised in an orphanage, he has no family in the country and his care workers have no idea if there is any support plan in place for his arrival.
Three years ago, the vulnerable adult was allegedly trafficked to the UK and forced to work in a car wash, according to documents seen by BuzzFeed News, before being rescued by British authorities, placed in a safe house, and moved to supported housing in Southampton. Gradually – with the assistance of his social workers and the charity Southampton Mencap – he has recovered from his traumatic upbringing.
But all of that has been placed in doubt after he was verbally told last Thursday by a representative from Southampton city council that he will be returning to Romania by "voluntary return" on Wednesday.
“We are horrified. We are doing everything that we can think of in order to prevent this from happening," Southampton Mencap's Elly Iles told BuzzFeed News. "The big problem really is that he doesn’t understand what is happening. He has a very limited understanding, and now he is saying that ‘I go back to Romania’."
As a European citizen, he has a right to remain in the UK as long as he finds work. However, as Iles points out, he "obviously isn't in a position to find work because of his learning disability."
A Mencap London spokesperson explained that as a vulnerable adult, he should be safeguarded by the local authority so the decision to issue a voluntary removal notice would come down to them, not the Home Office.
An immigration lawyer who met the young man on Monday said she was unable to act in his defence as he does not have the capacity to instruct them, Mencap told BuzzFeed News.
The charity is now attempting to locate what is known as a litigation friend, who would be able to act on his behalf and challenge the decision from the council.
Iles continued: "It feels like the council has made this decision on his behalf, but haven’t given any form of appeal because they are the ones that have made the decision, acting in his capacity. Who can challenge the decision made on his behalf?"
She went on to state they had "real concerns" about what was in store for him in Romania. "We know that people with learning disabilities do face discrimination in Romania, and most importantly we know that this is a country that failed it in the first place."
There is significant discrimination against disabled individuals in Romania, with stigma particularly attached to children who are born or become disabled. Despite anti-discrimination laws anti-disability attitudes persist, a 2017 European Commission report found.
An Al Jazeera investigation in 2014 found that many disabled children and adults were kept in state facilities reminiscent of the worst orphanages discovered in the 1990s that shocked much of the western world following the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Stuart Tayler, a Mencap volunteer who has worked with the young man for two and a half years, expressed his "complete shock" at the council's actions.
“I don’t know what level of trauma he will experience,” he said. “Is it fair? No."
"This has happened so quickly. How can someone with his learning difficulties just adjust to that, that quickly," he told BuzzFeed News over the phone. "One of the problems with someone with learning difficulties is that they are very eager to please. If someone says, ‘this is going to happen’, they will accept that, without knowing or understanding what the implications might be."
"When someone has communication difficulties, you go to the people who know them, who work with them. And they haven’t," Taylor said, adding that no one in Mencap knew about the decision until they rang the local authority.
Since coming to Southampton, he had made "tremendous progress", Taylor said. “He could be quite brittle,” he said, “if he was rushed or his equipment was moved. But over time we have noticed that has happened much less frequently. He’s opened up emotionally. Those moments of anger, there was really a lot of sadness underneath. There’s humour now, there’s cheekiness.”
He was "mad about Christmas," he continued, and loved joining in the singing. "The council run an adult learner award, and in the category of outstanding adult learner, and all our guys work really hard, but I nominated him this year just because of the journey he’s been on. He’s done so incredibly well, and he’s just so, so, pleased, and the size of the smile across his face…”
Contacted by BuzzFeed News, the Home Office said they did not comment on individual cases, and that the duty of care rested with the local authority.
Southampton city council also told BuzzFeed News they did not comment on individual cases.
However, a spokesperson continued, "where individuals who have no local connection come to the city and without having any recourse to public funds, we carry out a full human rights assessment to determine whether any care and support is needed to maintain their safety and ensure human rights are met.
"We work with the Home Office, under the Government’s voluntary returns scheme, and other agencies and countries to support individuals to return home to be reunited with their families wherever appropriate.”
Rose Troup Buchanan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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