Falling Off the Map: Migrants in UK by Radhika Bhatnagar

To mark the Refugee Week 2015  we are publishing a series of excellent articles by students taking an MA in International Journalism at City University. We are very grateful  to students for sharing their work and to Professor John Owen for inspiring and guiding them to take up the challenge of telling refugee and migrants’ stories at the highest professional standards. 

Radhika Bhatnagar is a freelance journalist and Chevening Scholar based in London. She has worked for five years in two of India’s leading English dailies- Hindustan Times and Daily News and Analysis. Though she is passionate about human rights, a strong focus of her work has been on highlighting women’s rights in the Indian subcontinent.  She has a masters in International journalism from City University and a Bachelors in Economics (Hons.) from the University Of Delhi.

Twitter:  @bh_radhika

Falling off the map: Migrants in UK

Over the past two years, the UK government made two significant changes that adversely affect migrants in the country today. In April 2012, it changed the Overseas Domestic Worker visa rules removing their right to change employers and exactly a year later it cut legal aid for immigration. Two migrants from different parts of the world directly impacted by these changes narrate their individual stories of alienation and abuse. Is the UK reaping what it has sown?

To the point of no return

For most of us, the ride on the tube is the least favourite part of our day, something we wish we could erase from our daily routine. But not for Lata Patel*, a 43-year-old Gujarati woman from India, who counts the hour-long commute from her home in Hounslow to Central London as the best part of her day.

“I find the large crowds comforting; I don’t have to be anyone but myself. I feel safe,” Lata reasons.

Lata, now a cleaning lady at a youth hostel near Holborn, was once one of the 15,000-16,000 Migrant Domestic Workers who accompany their employers into the UK each year from different parts of the globe. It was a long journey two years ago, not nearly as comforting as Lata’s daily outings on the tube, which brought her here to London.

An agent contacted her husband in Ahmedabad in November 2012 with a job for workers in Saudi Arabia. But when that fell through, he suggested an opening for Lata as a nanny/housekeeper with a Gujarati business family that was migrating to the UK.

“They were going to pay me £80 (8000 Indian rupees) per week, which is four times what I was earning back home. Although I knew I would have to leave my three children behind, I kept thinking that I could use the money to send them to an English-medium school,” Lata recalls.

However upon arrival in the UK, Lata soon learnt the harsh reality. “I was never once paid the full amount; they would deduct money for random things like if I let the light on by mistake or broke a cup. Even the cost of phones calls to her village was calculated and subtracted from her income.”
She was not given a separate room of her own and shared with the two children.

“They put a mattress on the floor and when I complained that it was cold they put rundown sofa for me to sleep on,” Lata says. “My food was measured and  if they thought I had eaten too much, money was deducted from my salary.”

“I remember one particular day they didn’t give me any food at all; I ate the food the children had leftover.”

But even though she was miserable, Lata never once thought of leaving because she was still making more money than she had ever made in India. “I would feel suffocated; they locked me in the house when they went out and told me that they did it because people in London did not like Indians.”

The fact that she did not speak English meant that she was always at the mercy of her employers.
Through her period of trauma, it was only thoughts of her children back home that kept her going. “I felt so strange taking care of these Indian children in a faraway land, with no idea whether my own children were being looked after in India. I prayed that I was doing the right thing,” Lata continues.

But her tolerance levels ran out when her employers refused to let her speak to her children twice in the same week. “My husband told me my son was ill and I wanted to check on his health in a few days time but they just wouldn’t let me use their phone.”

Not sure of where she would go, Lata escaped from the house while the children were napping and walked for two hours in circles. “I was afraid of going too far away; I didn’t know anyone else.” Finally she ended up at the corner grocery store owned by a Bangladeshi couple that understood her language. They gave her a temporary place to stay and put her in touch with some NGOs who helped distressed migrant workers like herself.

Lata now works two shifts, the second as a masseuse and waxing lady for students, mostly from the Indian subcontinent. Her day begins at the crack of dawn, when she cooks a meal for herself and for the family with whom she shares the house at Hounslow. “I am exhausted by the time I return, “ Lata says, “That’s good because it helps me fall asleep easily at night.”

“I don’t want to go back; I need the money,” Lata says when asked about her visa status. “I know I am here illegally…Once I leave I will never come back.”

The invisible chains

Lata’s case is not in isolation; migrant domestic workers, predominantly women from poor backgrounds who move to support their families, are widely recognised as being vulnerable to abuse. Matters have been worse since 2012, when the UK changed visa conditions now effectively tying these workers to their employers and dramatically increasing their vulnerability to exploitation.

Hidden Away, a Human Rights Watch report published earlier this year documents the exploitation faced by migrant domestic workers like Lata who travel to the UK with their employers.

These findings have been also observed firsthand by Kalayaan, an organisation that works for the rights of migrant workers in the UK.

Kate Roberts, Community Advocate for Kalayaan reports, “In the first two years since the tied visa was implemented, Kalayaan registered 402 new migrant domestic workers. 120 of these workers were tied to their employers. It is noticeable that those who entered on a visa which tied them to their employers reported worse conditions and less freedom.”

Recently, the Global Slavery Index 2014 estimated that there are approximately 35.8 million modern slaves in the world today of which 8.3K are in the United Kingdom.

In response to this growing crisis, the UK introduced The Modern Slavery Bill in June this year. While the bill itself is being touted as a ‘historic bill to stamp out modern slavery’, specifically on the issue of tied migrant workers, it contains insufficient measures to protect victims.

Not surprisingly, the bill has received significant media coverage especially over the last few weeks when it was tabled in the House of Lords. However the peg of the majority of the articles was the data released by the Home Office which stated that there were 13,000 victims of slavery in the UK (as opposed to the figure released by the Global Slavery Index). The Independent, The BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph and all major publications reported this figure along with a mention of the Bill as a solution to the problem.

Only a handful of media outlets examined the issue on a deeper level. The Guardian in the article ‘Modern slavery bill is ‘lost opportunity’, says human trafficking adviser’ criticises the bill for not focusing on the victims but makes no specific mention of the need to revisit the visa rules for the tied migrant workers.

Sally Hayden of Vice News is one of the few journalists who alludes to the failure of the Bill to address the problem of the tied migrant domestic workers.

“….the rules for migrant domestic workers in the UK were changed during an attempt to tighten immigration laws, and they were banned from changing employers. At the time, Theresa May said that this would stop unskilled workers from gaining permanent access to Britain. This tied visa system, along with workers’ desperation to send money home, means that they are less likely to approach authorities or report abuse,” Hayden writes.

Facing the unknown

Berko Jamal* remembers his first day in London as though it were yesterday.

“I was at the airport in a long queue..when finally my turn came, I was very nervous as I told the officer I wanted to surrender my passport,” Jamal says, narrating the beginning of his long journey as an asylum seeker from Africa. “I was really surprised that he didn’t ask me why; he simply took my passport and asked me to remain silent,” he continues.

Berko was allowed to leave the airport with a document that said he was an asylum seeker and was granted permission to enter the country. He recalls being very optimistic. However, more than a month after his arrival, Berko was asked to appear at the Home Office for a six-hour-long grueling interview. At the end of the tedious affair, he was informed that his application for seeking asylum had been turned down.

“I was broken and did not know what to do because at the time I did not have a solicitor,” Berko says. That was only the beginning of his woes; each time he approached a solicitor to represent him, Berko was turned down.

“I was told that because of the recent cuts in legal aid for immigration, no lawyer would represent me as taking on my case would not guarantee payment,” he explains. But Berko had not come all the way from Africa only to be turned down by some lawyers. He decided that he would represent himself. “The library became my favourite place; I was the first to go in and the last to go out. It was like a crash course on immigration laws,” Berko says.

After two weeks of studying, he felt he was ready and appeared before the judge. However to his disappointment, Berko was rejected again. Soon enough, Berko was detained. “I used to have to travel all the way from the detention center to sign some documents as part of the application as an asylum seeker. Those were some of the loneliest moments of my life.”

But the tide was soon to turn in Berko’s favour; an activist working for migrants helped him find a solicitor who fought tooth-and-nail for Berko’s case and helped him eventually receive asylum.
Berko still needs to report to a job centre every week and it always reminds him of his lonely journeys as an asylum seeker to and fro from the detention center.

“But I know the difference; then I had no rights. Now I do,” Berko says.

A lonely battle

Berko represents one of the many asylum seekers who have been adversely affected by the cuts in legal aid that came into force in April 2013, with the passing of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo). The act, that aimed at cutting the civil legal aid budget by a quarter (£320m) within a year, means that for asylum seekers and other immigrants might eventually have to do what Berko did: represent themselves.

One of the few journalists to write about the impact of the move on vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers, Samira Shackle writes in the New Statesman…
“Legal reforms – even when they have potentially devastating consequences – are not headline news, perhaps because of the complexity and wide scope of the issue.”

Save Justice, which has been campaigning against the cuts in legal aid points out that the issue will be made worse when the government’s proposal to introduce a residence test for legal aid is enforced. “The overwhelming number of migrants who need legal advice no longer qualify for legal aid,” says Isaac Shaffer, immigration solicitor and founding member of the Save Justice campaign in a press release. “It is not politically unpopular to cut funds for migrants, but according civil rights to one set of people but not another seems like a retrograde move, away from the principle of human rights.”

With nowhere to go and few platforms to tell their stories, migrants such as Berko are turning to various creative avenues to narrate their tales. A blog titled the New Londoners acts as a mouthpiece for various communities of migrants in the country.

Last year, Berko made an audio presentation of his story and participated in a collaborative exhibition where other migrants had also presented their stories in audio, visual and digital formats.

Connecting the dots

It’s hard to use the word immigrant in Britain today without evoking strong emotions, irrespective of which side of the debate they might come from. Dr. Anna Rosso of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research summarises, “There is a lot of populism and nationalism and a need to find someone responsible. Majority of the media panders to this Xenophobic tendency. We need to see how we got here, not just what the situation is.”

Zrinka Balo, executive director of the Migrant and Refugees Community Forum, while commenting on the reportage of migrants in the British Media concluded, “As a result of the press sensationalism of stories of immigrants, publications have reported a 21% increase in their sales. Authentic voices of immigrants; stories with compassion, complexity and context are missing.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Forum.  For re-publishing and other inquires please contact Radhika Bhatnagar via Twitter @bh_radhika

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