“When I was 16 someone asked me if I wanted to go to the UK and just work in a coffee shop. Obviously, I didn’t know nothing – I was only 16, what could you know?”
Katy – whose real name cannot be used due to a court anonymity order – is small, and her long fake eyelashes top off a very careful, intricate, full face of makeup. “So, I had been sold for £5,000,” she says in a composed and matter-of-fact tone at the café where we meet. “I got raped by these Albanian guys for, like, two days. I don’t remember…everything.”
Now, on Wednesday, the High Court will decide whether the refusal to grant her – a victim of trafficking – leave to remain in the UK was unlawful.
She managed to get away from her captors after several weeks – she doesn’t remember exactly how long – and one unsuccessful attempt. She worked in cafés, met her violent ex-partner, and had two children with him.
“At that point I was very vulnerable. I didn’t have no support, no family, I had no one. That’s why I keep living with him,” she says, plucking a paper napkin from the table. The violence was extreme. She shrugs. She has “scars everywhere” from his assaults. “I have been stabbed by him, I have been bitten by him, I have been raped by him so many times.”
Shortly before the end of the relationship, in 2014, she was convicted and sentenced of eight counts of dishonestly making false statements, and two counts of owning a dangerous dog.
“He wants me to do things,” she says, folding the napkin over and over, smaller and smaller, on the table. “He says to me this is what I have to do, but if I don’t do this then he’ll rip my head off, he’s going to do this to me, he’s going to do that to me.”
The sentencing judge said her actions were partly due to her abusive partner, commenting: “Domestic violence is always a high concern and I do take account of the domestic violence in mitigating the penalty in this case.”
But her imprisonment voided her right to remain in the country as an EEA (European Economic Area) citizen. Leave to remain is granted only if you are working, looking for work, or are married to someone with leave to remain.
A later judge, ruling on Katy’s right to remain in the country, would go further and state that “such abuse, without a shadow of a doubt, permeated the appellant’s thinking and functioning processes in the United Kingdom over a number of years”.
It didn’t matter. She was convicted, sentenced, and locked up in October 2014 – saying goodbye to her children for two years.
But one of the things she says about being sent first to HMP Holloway, and then to Downview prison, was that she felt “safe” for the first time in her life. “I was very, very lucky to end up there,” she says. Katy engaged with prison life, opening up to a prison counsellor after several months' imprisonment. “She had a hard job,” Katy smiles. “I didn’t trust anyone, because everything was used against me when I tried to be open.”
At the beginning of May 2015, Katy signed a voluntary removal scheme disclaimer agreeing to return to Lithuania. She hadn’t seen her two children in almost a year, and says she was desperate to do anything that might secure her release and see her children – so signed the voluntary agreement believing they had been taken out of the country by her ex-partner.
But they hadn’t. She knew then she had to stay in the UK. “I thought, This time I am not giving up, I am fighting to the end,” she says, her eyes focused, framed by long lashes. She reneged on the disclaimer, but the pressure to deport her continued, and the Home Office served her with a deportation order on 9 October 2015.
Two weeks later the AIRE centre, a specialist charity that campaigns on the legal rights of marginalised European citizens, submitted an appeal after having been contacted by Katy from Holloway prison. In documents seen by BuzzFeed News and faxed to the Home Office in November that year, AIRE said it believed she was a victim of domestic abuse.
Meanwhile, the case to get rights to see her children – who were at that stage with their father, her abusive ex-partner – was proceeding through the courts.
AIRE also informed the Home Office that Katy was considered to be at serious risk of self-harm.
Documentation filed in August 2015 shows she was placed on an ACCT (Assessment, Care in Custody, and Teamwork) procedure used by prison authorities to monitor individuals who are believed to be at serious risk of self-harm and suicide. She was at breaking point, struggling to deal with the countless disappointments. “I was going crazy, self-harming, I tried to kill myself. I couldn’t handle it. I ended up [with] depression,” she says, “very, very bad.”
But outside Holloway, her lawyers, and women’s groups who represent marginalised survivors, were marshalling paperwork – and it looked like there was light at the end of the tunnel. On 22 July 2016, after she had been moved from Holloway to Downview, a Positive Reasonable Grounds decision was made that she was a victim of trafficking.
This decision, basically a formal recognition of her trauma, kicked into gear a “recovery and reflection” period, established under law, where a EEA national and a victim of trafficking can seek discretionary leave to remain after 45 days.
Yet despite this acknowledgement, she was moved again, from Downview, a category C prison, to a category A institution. “It’s filled with serial killers, terrorists,” she said. “I got one lesbian serial killer ... who [fell] in love with me. It’s very hard. She was sending me letters telling me how she eats someone’s heart, was killing people, was working for the [local] mafia.
“You never know what can happen to you. Things like that... It was very scary.”
Shortly afterwards, on 24 August, she completed her prison term, but officials continued to detain her under immigration powers. “I was asking why I was in prison, I’m a detainee, I’m not even a prisoner,” she said. “But no one [had] any answers for me.”
The authorities partly justified her detention because of previous theft and robbery convictions in Lithuania, apparently committed before her crimes in the UK, that they said meant she was considered a high risk to the public. But these crimes were not committed by her.
“When I was [allegedly] committing a crime, I was giving birth in a hospital to my child, so ... it was just ridiculous,” she says, gesticulating with her long fingernails.
Despite this error, first acknowledged as such by the Home Office computer system on 30 August and then later stated in the High Court appeal defence’s argument, the false information was used to justify her continued imprisonment.
“Then they were like, oh no, we are not going to release you, because you have committed these previous crimes so you are going [on the] run. I was like, my kids are here, why am I going to run?”
Meanwhile, prison officers in the category A prison advised the Home Office that she was desperate to go back to Lithuania. In response, UK authorities said prison officials should tell Katy to withdraw her trafficked status – allowing her to be released, and deported. “They asked me to… They said I was a victim of trafficking, but they said I had to write a letter saying that I’m not. 'That you lied…' I was like, how could I do that?”
She knew if she signed she could go free, but that she might never get back to the UK, and her ex-partner would do everything to keep her children from her. “I was supposed to choose between my freedom and my children,” she said.
“My kids are more important than anything else. I thought, You know what, I am just going to stay in prison, do my time, pay everything I have to pay, and then, like…” This little woman, so composed so far, sitting wrapped in a big chequered shawl, covers her face when she thinks about this moment.
The Home Office acknowledged on 15 September that she was a victim of trafficking – but refused to allow her to remain in the UK on that basis.
EEA nationals who are confirmed as victims of trafficking, under government guidelines, can be granted a discretionary right to remain in the UK. But on 6 October, the Home Office instead issued a directive to transfer her to an immigration removal centre.
By this point, she had been inside a category A prison, despite having served the time for her criminal convictions, for 63 days. Then, on 10 October, her appeal against the deportation order was allowed, but she wasn’t released and eight days afterwards she was transferred to Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. She doesn’t really remember those last few weeks, or what was happening around her.
Several days later, on 25 October, the removal directions were cancelled. However, it took till November for her to be released from Yarl’s Wood. In total, her lawyer states in the argument set out for her later appeal, she was unlawfully detained for 72 days.
The first thing she did when she got out, Katy says, was charge her phone and demand to be moved from a safehouse in the north of England to one in the same city as her children.
She has seen her kids six times since then. “I was trying to stay strong, they give me a hug, and I was just like, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry in front of them. As soon as they come to the door my eyes kept crying, I couldn’t stop crying, I was crying, crying, crying, I couldn’t stop.”
Katy is hopeful she can begin to rebuild her life with them, being the mother to them that she never had growing up: “If I win my case with immigration I want to study something, and give my kids a future.” But so much remains in doubt.
Although as an EEA national she has the right to leave to remain in the country, it is dependent on her either holding a job or establishing proof that she is actively job-seeking. Unless she can do that – never mind that she was trafficked into the country, and endured sexual abuse and assault – the government could again try to remove her.
On Wednesday she will appear in the High Court, fighting to be granted leave to remain as a victim of trafficking.
“The system is very broken,” she says, “it’s just like, my children are the most important thing. If my children weren’t here, I would be leaving this country today, probably. Seriously. And I would never come back.
“This country has taken everything from me. I came when I was 16. They took my kids away, they took my freedom, they took everything from me.”
But, she continues, “I have to stay here. My children are here – how can you get me out if my children are here? That’s just insane. How could they just take someone’s mother away?”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We do not comment on ongoing legal cases.”
Katy's legal status means she could theoretically be removed, rather than deported, from the UK as she does not have leave to remain. A previous version of this article misstated her circumstances.
Rose Troup Buchanan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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