Thursday, November 02, 2006

Another world - welcome to Lunar House

Today I meet a young lady, pale and shivering with the cold of the first day of winter, and her first day in Manchester. Someone brought her in to the chuch hall where we do our best to make asylum-seekers feel not completely unwelcome in this country.

"Lucy" arrived from Africa last week, claimed asylum at the airport, and was sent off to a hotel on the South coast until accommodation could be sorted. Yesterday, she was sent to her new accommodation in Manchester, an all day coach trip, with some dried up sandwiches to keep her going.

So far so good, she was received into the accommodation, had to sign all sorts of forms, some translated some not, given information she didn't understand, and crucially got to the post office for the first currency to be put in her hand, £50 for ten days.

Just one problem. Among the ever growing bundle of forms and papers, most of which I know to be meaningless, she has a notice form the Home Office. She has been summoned to complete her "screening" process on Tuesday at 8 am - in Croydon.

Now that she is NASS supported, she is expected to fund the travel herself, and overnight accommodation if she needs it. Speaking not a word of English, she will have to negotiate London's public transport. Failure to attend is likely to mean automatic refusal.

The obvious answer is to switch her screening to Liverpool. So I embark on a long, frustrating series of calls to various outposts of the Immigration "estate". Liverpool say that I must phone Croydon, but the number I have doesn't seem to work. I call Liverpool back, they give me more numbers for Croydon - none of them work. A third call, and I am told to call the information line. After listening to a tedious recorded message, I get to a human; after long deliberations and referrals, I am given the number of Liverpool, and told that they are not allowed to give any Croydon numbers out to the public.

I try the local Immigration Centre - all numbers I ring go to answering machines or ring dead. I try Liverpool a fourth time - where someone remembers hearing that all Croydon numbers have been changed. They go away and find me a number. It works!

I am passed on to various departments; someone will call back later (they don't). They say it's all the fault of NASS, who "disperse" people before screening is complete. They don't really understand why it might be more difficult for Lucy to get to Croydon than for them to change it to Liverpool. They explain that 8am doesn't really mean 8am; any time before 11:30, or twelve, or two or four, depending who you speak to, will be OK.

Her solicitor's office is closed for lunch; Refugee Action turns out to be closed for the day for a staff conference. NASS local office - someone informs me that "no-one will take the call". The drop-in closes at two o'clock, and so I go home, promising to keep Lucy informed via the person that brought her in, who speaks a little English.

From home I speak to the solicitor - he wants a fax of the screening letter. I'm grateful to the local shopkeeper for not charging me for using his knackered fax. I try NASS again, and get to talk to someone pleasantly cynical. He confirms that NASS won't pay for travel, though he suggests Lucy write to them for reimbursement "just in case". I ask if it's worth it, he says, "well I wouldn't go to any real trouble with it".

He cheerfully tells me about some lad who had to travel down from Blackburn to Croydon four times at his own expense, because they kept cancelling the screening after he got there. I can't be cheerful about it; I joke about it, but it's a black humour laced with bitterness. At his suggestion, I try Croydon again, and talk to someone more sympathetic. They'll get back to me.

The solicitor calls back; he advises that she should make every effort to go, rather than jeopardise her case; if she gets there too late - but when is too late? - they'll make representations to have her given another chance.

So there we have it. I will buy a coach ticket for her, and am not heartless enough to make her pay me for it. I will try to make her understand her journey, getting the first bus to the city centre around 5:30 am, taking the coach about 6:30, arriving London maybe 11:30, finding a train to Croydon, finding Lunar House, a concrete block identifiable by the miserable queues shuffling outside in the bitter cold, maybe by 1:00, maybe out by 3:00, maybe back home around ten or eleven.

It's no big deal really, who cares?

Well, I care actually. I care that this woman will be scared, cold, exhausted, totally reliant on the goodwill and helpfulness of strangers and overworked public transport staff. I care that I wasted three hours on the phone, not to mention the coach fare. I care about the message of uncaring incomprehension that the system sends relentlessly to the most vulnerable members of society. I care that most people not only don't recognise they way asylum-seekers are abused, but on the contrary think they are privileged. I care that endless abuse by the system changes the hope in people's hearts to bitterness. I care.

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