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What does Kelechi Chioba’s case say about the UK’s asylum system?


17 Dec 2015

In 2014 24,914 individuals sought asylum in the UK with only 59 per cent of these claims being successful. For the individuals who appealed the decision, 28 per cent were successful, raising fundamental questions about how credibility assessments in UK asylum claims operate.

Take disabled student activist Kelechi Chioba who fled Nigeria, seeking protection in the UK. Kelechi has described how in Nigeria her condition is seen as a “curse” – yet she could be deported this Christmas, after the Home Office rejected her plea to remain in the UK.

More than 1,000 people have signed a petition demanding Kelechi be allowed to remain in the country. The 35-year-old, who originally moved to Britain as a postgraduate student in 2011, has polio which means she has to use a wheelchair, and suffers from mental health problems.

But the she has been told by the Home Office there was “nothing sufficiently serious in the family or private life circumstances that could possibly outweigh the need for immigration controls to be enforced”.

Through the duration of Kelechi’s battle, she’s been forced to live on a meagre budget of £31 per week, after her allowance was slashed by National Asylum Seeker Service. The lack of rights afforded to individuals seeking asylum in the UK during a liminal period is deplorable. These people are afforded no social status and essentially remain invisible, the psychological and physical distress experienced by individuals in limbo should be classified as inhumane. They are othered and demonised for exercising their fundamental right to seek protection.

Tasmia Salim, education officer at the University of Central Lancashire and a friend of Ms Chioba, said: “Kelechi is always championing other people, and it’s really hard to see her go through all of this.

“You have to ask, are these British values? We take the moral high ground with other governments but people right here in our country are suffering. Who are we to turn our backs?”

Cases like Kelechi’s are not unique; she embodies the experience of thousands of asylum seekers in the UK who have had their claims rejected, are waiting, or appealing rejections.

Another case in which an individual’s claim for asylum was rejected, saw the woman successfully prosecute her traffickers under criminal law. Clearly we must shift our political discourse toward the examination of how guidelines designed in the protection of individuals are being implemented, and David Cameron’s hyperbolic statements about “floods of refugees” are dangerous.

The UK offers significantly less support to asylum seekers than their European counterparts and our borders are not easily circumvented. We should be supporting individuals who have made treacherous journeys to get here, after all the West has usually had a role to play in the political instability in their home countries.

As writers and political activists such as Gary Younge have pointed out, we must look past what is enshrined in law and scrutinise implementation and outcomes. It seems as though decisions in regards to asylum claims are driven by multiple factors, including the attitudes and opinions of individual UKBA staff who are products of a society which frames asylum as a “problem”. This problem of asylum being a divisive political move, rigorously reinforcing pejorative labels such as bogus/innocent or good/bad are which become deeply embedded in policy, practice and political discourse.

The starting point in assessing asylum claims becomes an interrogation, and in the case of oral testimonies a cross examination where the starting point is disbelief. How often do we hear the term economic migrant and ‘genuine’ asylum seeker jumbled up together? The assumption being that ‘economic migrants’ circumvent borders and attempt to gain status as asylum seekers as an easy way in. I must say, I’m yet to discover an asylum seeker battling the UK’s system for the hell of it. 

The implications of such rhetoric is that,  a diversion away from the real issue at hand is created,  enabling politicians who advocate for stricter border controls to frame their actions in the public interest. In the case of many women’s claims for asylum, they do not possess documentation in support of their claim and thus, end up giving oral testimony, a process which can only be described as excruciating, confusing and intrusive.

In a recent video, produced by Asylum Aid, asylum seeker Princess highlights how “every single question is like digging in a knife… Each question is like it getting deeper”. This uncomfortable and unfamiliar environment, not to mention the undue amounts of stress and pressure these women are under may lead to inconsistencies in their answers. Inconsistencies which may render ones fear of persecution obsolete, and therefore undeserving of state support and dignity.

Kelechi deserves more than this. A fundraising website has been started for her, which organisers say will fund her legal costs and go towards her food and medicine.