Veecca Smith Uka is the 2018 Winner of the Women on the Move Awards, she is an organiser and tireless campaigner for the rights of migrants and refugees. In her speech at the annual general meeting of Sisters United, the organisation in Halifax, she co-founded with her co-winner Florence Khauro, as she calls for the Right to Work to be reinstated for people seeking asylum, she shares her story of being forced into destitution and prevented from working, which is one of the measures of the Hostile Environment immigration policy. To find our more have a look at the Lift the Ban campaign coalition resources.
I am Veecca Smith Uka, originally from Nigeria, a mother of 3 I am also chairperson and coordinator of Sisters United. I am also a person seeking asylum and protection in the UK since 2012.
Back at home, I was head of operations in a big corporate organisation, working in marketing. I was also an entrepreneur and developed other businesses.When I first came in here it was to do masters degree in Marketing.
I was supporting myself and studying. I was working in events management and Hospitality Company and in my spare hours I was a hair stylist and beautician, paying and contributing my tax and NI as well helping my family.
But then my circumstances changed, and I could not go back safely. I had to leave behind everything I have worked for and built my entire life.
When I applied for Asylum, I was stopped from working.I became homeless and began to sell off all my personal belongings to sustain my children. I went to the social services and asked for help. I had to start moving from B&Bs with my children.
Despite the homelessness and destitution, my son had his GCSE and passed with high grades.
We eventually got the NASS Support and we were dispersed from London first to Birmingham, and then to Halifax. We are not able work, and unable to study too as we have no access to student finance because we’re seeking Asylum.
Again, despite all this hardship, my son passed A levels with all As.I began to skip meals to save from the NASS money. I started selling off all my pieces of jewellery, borrowing money off my friends and I even set up a gofundme page to send my son to university so that at least he would not waste his life in this limbo.
He is studying Architecture at the University of Manchester and his work has just made it to University Gallery exhibition with the final year students. My children are all very good students and yet they have to rely on hand outs from charities to survive.
I could be earning to support my family if allowed to work, but I am not. Instead I volunteer and support others too, because I don’t want to just sit in my NASS accommodation and feel depressed.
These are not easy things for me to share. But I am sharing my experience and experience of my children because I would like you to know and understand how does it feel when your dignity is taken away from you. .
Imagine that you are not able to work. Imagine now that you are prevented from working by the state for years.
Then imagine that you have to survive on £5 per day. That you have to live where they tell you to live. You have no say about the town they send you to. That you have no possessions left. And when they come of age, you cannot even borrow money to send your children to university, no matter how good their grades are. Imagine being a single mother and having to tell this to your A star son who worked very hard and wants to be an architect.
This is the reality, not just for me but for many people in this room and many thousands of people seeking asylum in the UK and who have to wait for their decision from the Home Office sometimes as long as 15 years
This is not by chance. It is by design. This is part of the so-called Hostile Environment policy aimed at isolating people seeking asylum from other people in the community.
As I mentioned, part of this policy means that people seeking asylum are not allowed to work in the UK whilst their asylum application is on-going. If anyone is caught working, they face jail terms of up to 12 months.
As part of the Home Office official hostile environment immigration policy, anyone that has served a prison sentence of 12 months is subject to automatic deportation.
I have come across people seeking asylum who are qualified doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses, and managers. Many people fleeing their countries are highly skilled and educated.
Refugee Survival Trust worked with 50 people seeking asylum in Glasgow and carried out research with them as reported in The National newspaper. The research found that:
- 1 in 3 of the participants are educated to college or university levels;
- a further 40% have high school diplomas;
- 90% identified skills which are relevant to the UK job market, such as marketing and administrative skills;
- The interviewees also had a range of specialist expertise they were unable to use as a result of the ban on working, including an anaesthetist, an electrical technician, an illustrator, hairdressers and a mosaic art worker.
It beggars belief that these talents are wasted whilst waiting for the Home Office decisions. But it does not have to be that way. And there is something we can all do about it.
In August 2018 a coalition of 150 NGOs launched Lift the Ban campaign asking the government to allow people seeking asylum in the UK to work. Sisters United is a member of that coalition.
People seeking asylum, members of Sisters United, are forced to live on £35 per week. This amount is supposed to cover food, transport, clothing, and toiletries. Women have to skip meals to afford tampons.
Having financial security and independence is the key condition for basic human dignity. That is why Lift the Ban campaign is so important to Sisters United. And it should be important to all of us – because everyone benefits from people seeking asylum being able to work and contribute.
Some of the benefits of extending the right to work to people seeking asylum as highlighted in the survey carried out by the Lift The Ban coalition include:
- Strengthen people’s chances of being able to integrate into their new communities;
- Allow people seeking asylum to live in dignity and to provide for themselves and their families;
- Give people the opportunity to use their skills and make the most of their potential;
- Improve the mental health of people in the asylum system;
- Benefit the UK economy by allowing people seeking asylum to contribute, as well as reducing the costs associated with asylum support;
- Deliver evidence-based, popular and pragmatic policy change
In a question to Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary in parliament last week about progress of the Government’s review of right of people seeking asylum to work by Labour MP Catherine West; the Home Secretary said
“We continue to look at how we can change this and how we can expand those rights potentially. That work is under review and we will report to the House in due course.”
We welcome the engagements at all levels about Lift The Ban however, we need more than just words.
WE NEED ACTION! It’s time to lift the ban so that people seeking asylum can give back to the society that supports them.
I would like to ask you to organise an event in your local community and ask your MP to support the Lift The Ban campaign. The campaign has many resources to help you to do that
And we would like to help you too, so please contact us if you wish to join the campaign.