Out of the frying pan ... how Britain lets down its most vulnerable migrants

Alan White details the failure of the UK Border Agency to help Margaret Nambi, and many others like her.

Margaret Nambi tells me why she left Uganda. She was at home with her husband and children when the soldiers burst in.

My husband was a soldier. He wanted to leave the Government army. He resigned. Then they attacked us in our house. They asked him where he was getting his money from, and claimed that he was in the pay of Joseph Kony. They kicked him to the floor. My children were shouting. They put a mattress over the children.

The writer Jane Bussmann has talked about how, when she heard a Ugandan describe the atrocities he had suffered, the subtle differences in how he used the English language brought the horror into sharper relief.

A soldier cut me with a knife. He raped me. Then another one joined in. He kept hitting me until I gave up. I was raped again. But this time at the back. I saw my husband on the floor. I thought he was dead. They saw him and panicked. They told me, you, lady, we’ll come back tomorrow to deal with you. You knew your husband was supporting the Kony group and you didn’t tell us. I was scared.

At 5am the next morning, she sent her children to their grandmother’s village.

I covered my face in traditional dress and went to friend’s house. My friend went to a doctor. I had treatment on an open wound on my chin. At the back there was another wound, which he treated with a cream.

I contacted a friend who was living in London. She phoned people who could help me get to England. My husband had given me money so I used that to escape.

Nambi arrived in England. At her initial interview with Border Agency (UKBA) officials, she didn’t speak about being raped.

[In my screening interview] I was put in front of two men – I felt guilty. Now, I realise from the people I see around me that it’s common, that I could have talked about it.

Her initial application was refused. She appealed, but her lawyers dropped her case. This was due to the new merits test, which allows them to pre-judge a case before a judge does. If you’re deemed to have a less than 50 per cent chance of winning at appeal, you’re not deemed to be entitled to legal aid. She had told the lawyer she was raped, but they chose not to gather any extra psychiatric evidence, so this was never considered at her hearing. 

The woman who had purportedly helped Nambi escape to England expected her to do domestic work for her. Once her claim was dismissed, the woman was threatening to have Nambi deported. She told her to have sex with men, from whom she was taking money. Nambi managed to escape that situation only when the woman died in a car accident, and later went to the organisation Women Against Rape.

As Sian Evans from the organisation tells me:

Her asylum claim is closed, partly because of poor legal representation, which is quite typical.  Cases of women not mentioning rape at the first time of asking are common, but instead of the difficulties they have about talking about this being taken into account, they’re actually used against them.  Women like Ms Nambi end up destitute, vulnerable to further rape and other exploitation by others.

With Women Against Rape’s help, Nambi’s new fresh claim for asylum was lodged on October 8th. It included evidence from a psychiatrist that corroborated the fact she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of rape, and documented evidence of the physical injuries she suffered. She was asked to report to the Border Agency the following day, and was taken into detention at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. 

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Yarl’s Wood holds 900 inmates: at the time it was opened in 2001, it was the biggest in Europe. It is operated by the private contractor Serco. Since it opened, it has been dogged by controversy – most recently, on 11 January 2011, the High Court ruled that the continued detention of the children of failed asylum seekers at Yarl's Wood is unlawful.

In 2010, a hunger strike began when a number of women protested their indefinite detention. The hunger strike was escalated when, according to a Guardian report:

Seventy women taking part in a protest were locked in an airless corridor without water or toilet facilities.

Oddly enough, Crystel Amiss, from Black Women’s Rape Action, has a similar story to tell me about what happened this week; a story which until now has gone barely reported.

Amiss claims that on Monday, one of the women with whom she was working was dragged out of the isolation centre naked, in order to force her removal. The other women were upset. They immediately reacted, and held a peaceful protest to demonstrate. Hundreds of them immediately began to refuse their food at lunchtime, and again at evening. They demanded to meet directly with the UKBA. 

Serco’s management told them UKBA wouldn’t meet with them unless it was one-by-one. The women refused, saying that these were divide-and-rule tactics. A stand-off continued into the second day. According to Amiss the women followed a manager, and they were immediately locked in the corridor that leads to the UKBA offices – exactly as happened two years ago. They were held there without food and water, and were let out a few at a time. There was a mix of women with illnesses and disabilities there. The stand-off continued for eight hours. Amiss says the centre was then placed on lockdown.

She says:

They just watched the women get more and more distressed and then picked out the ones they’d release. Now internet access has been blocked, and access to legal teams has been blocked. It can affect cases where women are on what’s called the detained fast track – where the case can be decided within days. They’re losing valuable time to research the information they require from the Internet or send paperwork to courts. The healthcare services are also on lockdown, and one woman has told us she hasn’t been able to get the medication she requires for her PTSD.

When asked about the protests, a spokesman for UKBA said:

Detention is only ever used as a last resort after all attempts to encourage individuals to leave voluntarily have failed. No-one is detained for any longer than necessary, however there are those who prolong detention because of their attempts to frustrate the removal process. They must take responsibility for that. All detainees are treated with dignity and respect.

The agency also gave a very different description of the protest: it claims that the corridor was unlocked, and that the women were asked to return to their rooms but all declined. This description is a long way from the multiple reports coming in to Amiss. One wonders how long it will take for the truth to emerge. 

Other worrying details have recently come out of Yarl’s Wood. Only last week Private Eye ran a story about a Serco job ad from the detention centre seeking a “laundry assistant” – a job that pays £1.50 a day. As the magazine noted:

Not only does this provide the company with captive cheap labour, it can then make paltry savings on the toiletries and the other small necessities that the detainees, desperate for any income, will spend their money on. . . Not only does it flout minimum wage law for those who have a right to work, but it also breaches the Government’s own punitive policy of not allowing failed asylum seekers the right to work.

According to Amiss, any women who’ve taken part in these protests have been sacked from this work. 

In 2010, the journalist Melanie McFadyean visited the centre, in what she called a PR exercise on behalf of the centre which backfired. It seems the underlying issues haven’t ever gone away. As she said at the time:

It's done in our name, paid for by our taxes, creating profits for private companies and their shareholders.

She then quoted Christopher Hyman, Chief Executive of Serco Group plc, which runs Yarl's Wood, announced on publication of profits last year:

We were awarded record level of contracts, entered a number of important new markets, and delivered a strong financial performance.

Research has found that 70 per cent of the women in the centre are rape survivors. That’s why Amiss’s organisation is so keen to see the Border Agency adheres to the guideline whereby victims of torture with independent expert evidence to back up their claim are not detained. 

Evans says:

The Home Office said Ms Nambi was being detained because they’re expecting to remove her imminently, but they hadn’t even made a decision on her fresh asylum claim. It suggested they pre-judged the case. Another woman told us that a UKBA case worker summoned her in and told her ‘It doesn’t matter what your lawyer puts in – I’m going to turn you down.’ It seems to me that they’re only prepared to pay lip service to the law.

In Nambi’s case, the law appears to have been flouted. How long would she be locked up in this centre for “immediate removal”? It was hard to say: Amiss’s charity has several long-term detainees on its books, including one whose incarceration stretches back to May.

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In fact, it wasn’t so long. Yesterday she received a decision: she will be flown back to Uganda on Thursday. UKBA say that nothing has been added to her case – even though they accept that she is reporting rape for the first time:

The fact that she may not be able to access the same support in Uganda is not a sufficiently compelling reason to justify allowing her to remain.

Evans says:

Whilst UKBA challenge some aspects of Ms Nambi’s case it doesn’t deny that she was raped. But it rejects expert evidence, including from us, about how severely traumatised Ms Nambi is and her inability to survive if sent back. We are helping Ms Nambi to fight on in the courts and stop her removal.

Yarl's Wood detention centre. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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“I'm very much out on my ear”: what it's like becoming an ex-MP

Returning to normal life isn't that simple.

The week after June's snap election, Theresa May faced the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs. Her eagerness to appease those angered by the loss of the party's majority worked wonders, with Boris Johnson describing her performance as “stonking”.

It helped that she acknowledged the personal cost of the election for MPs who had lost their seats. The Guardian quotes one MP as saying: “The party is going to help them, some of them are in dire financial situations. She did say sorry, several times. She apologised for colleagues losing their seats, for making the call about the early election.”

Elections are based on numbers: swing; votes; majority; seats – but there is a human toll to losing. Jobless overnight, often without experience directly applicable to another career, many ex-MPs struggle in the weeks following defeat.

While May was referring to her Conservative peers, losing a seat is an experience also familiar to Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney. The former MP for Richmond Park made headlines by overturning Zac Goldsmith’s 23,015 majority in the December 2016 by-election – only to lose the seat by 45 votes six months later.

“I don't get any money at all,” she says. “I got paid up to 8 June and then nothing. I don't qualify for loss of office allowance or statutory redundancy because I wasn't there for long enough. You have to have been there for at least two years.”

Olney, who intends to look for a new job after the summer holidays, describes herself as a “little bit cheated” by the snap election. “I was expecting – especially when we had a Fixed-term Parliaments Act – that parliament was going to last until 2020. So to suddenly find that it's changed means that you don't qualify for anything.”

Even if her situation isn’t “dire” as was alluded to by May and the 1922 Committee, she still finds herself without financial security.

“For me personally, it does mean being without any money at all,” says Olney, who left her job in accountancy to stand as an MP. “I have a mortgage to pay and children to feed and I'm lucky that I've got my husband and he's earning and we've got savings to live off, but I'm very much out on my ear unexpectedly. It's not quite the terms you sign up to, but equally you have to accept that it's not a normal employment either.”

Returning to “normal employment” is not always a painless process. Dr Edmund Marshall, Labour MP for Goole from 1971 until the seat’s abolition in 1983, describes a “widespread suspicion” from potential employers that ex-MPs would be seeking to re-enter parliament at the earliest opportunity.

He also bemoans the nature of the career change itself. “An ex-MP has, in the nature of that role, been a generalist – especially if he or she had long service in parliament – and so is in a weak position when applying for any specialised job, for which there will usually be many other applicants with more up-to-date relevant experience,” says Dr Marshall, who went into lecturing and Church of England policy after leaving parliament.

Another downside for Olney is that the legitimate scrutiny MPs are exposed to will continue even after leaving the Commons. “Every single thing I've done has been under scrutiny and has been reported negatively, even though there's very little to say,” she says. “I'm pretty squeaky clean – I have no skeletons in my closet. Anything people could use, they would. So anything I do from now on would be treated the same. It's one thing to be under that scrutiny when you're running for public office, but it's entirely another when you're just trying to earn a living.”

Most of the “relentless” criticism that she has faced on Twitter has faded, but she remains sceptical of the reaction to a new position. “It might well be that I could take a job and people just won't notice or care,” she says, “but it's been my experience ever since I got selected that anything I did was criticised, so I would expect that to continue I guess.”

When it comes to jobs, Olney remains unsure of her direction, describing herself as being at a “crossroads”. “I'm conscious I might face criticism for anything I might do that uses my political experience,” she explains. “Given that I'm now just a private individual trying to earn a salary, I don't want to have to answer for that.” She laughs: “But I think equally my political experience sits rather strangely on my accountant's CV.”

Olney’s defeat on 8 June left more than just one career affected. She describes the “frustration” of having to lay off her newly appointed staff. “I think one of the things I didn't realise – and I wonder if most people don't realise about being an MP – is you're pretty much almost like a sole trader, and you have to set up everything from scratch,” she says. “You have to hire your own staff and you have to find your own office premises. There's a lot of work involved in doing all of that, and I was only just getting to the end of that set-up phase.

“And then all of a sudden, a general election comes along and having just hired all these staff, the next thing I'm doing is sending them all redundancy letters.

“So that for me was a huge frustration that we never really got started, never really got going, never really got to do all the things that I would have liked to get done.”

Despite saying that there was a lack of support for the transition period after her by-election win, Olney says that, from her experience, the infrastructure for leaving parliament is “pretty good”.

Yet as Olney has experienced, the financial support from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) has been cut back following the expenses scandal of 2009. Many MPs, if they have not served long enough to receive a pension, rely on IPSA’s payout to tide them over until re-employment. In 2015, this was capped at £33,530, made up of one month’s pay for every year in parliament. Now, the figure is capped at £29,340, and is calculated from both the number of years served and the former MP’s age.

And then there's actually finding a new job. Keith Best, the Conservative MP for Anglesey (renamed Ynys Môn in 1983) between 1979 to 1987, claims to have made “over 400 applications” after a conviction for fraud forced him to leave parliament.

Dr Marshall recalls a similar, if less extreme, application process. “In 1983, it took me six months to find good, alternative employment,” he says. “I made an application for 56 specific, advertised jobs, and was interviewed for 14 of them. In the end I was offered two good posts, so at least at that stage I was able to make a choice!

“I think the good rate of getting interviews, 25 per cent, was because the selectors were curious to see what an ex-MP looked like. So that curiosity factor is a small advantage that the ex-MP has.”

Meanwhile, Michael Meadowcroft, Liberal MP for Leeds from 1983 to 1987, describes having “survived through journalism”, writing for a number of different outlets before eventually chairing the Electoral Reform Committee.

While the experience of former MPs appears largely consistent across party lines, two former Labour MPs argue that Conservative politicians face advantages when it comes to gaining re-employment. Tony McWalter held Hemel Hempstead for Labour from the seat’s creation in 1997 until 2005. He cites “two advantages” for former Tory MPs.

“On the one hand,” he says, “their party thinks that to be an MP is not a full-time job, so frequently they keep paid positions while they are MPs without incurring the wrath of their constituency members. This makes the transition to being a former MP much smoother.

“Secondly, many Conservative MPs have close friendships with those who run companies, and that in turn means there are likely to be people in positions of considerable [influence] to whom they can turn when the electoral axe falls.”

Dr Marshall agrees it is easier for Conservatives, but attributes this to political bias rather than connections. “All ex-MPs, when job-hunting, are likely to encounter some party political prejudice among the selectorate,” he says, “but I think this poses particular difficulty for Labour ex-MPs, because the Tories probably have a majority among the selectorate. For instance, it appears easier for ex-Tory MPs to land positions on boards of directors.”

Keith Best and his 400 unsuccessful applications may disagree.

Yet losing a seat is not all doom and gloom. Sir Hugh Bayley, the former Labour MP for York Central, writes of the personal and professional opportunities afforded by stepping down in 2015 after 23 years’ service. “My wife, Fenella Jeffers, had had enough of a spouse who was rarely at home, and focused mainly on politics even when there,” he explains. 

“Fenella was born abroad, in Nevis in the Caribbean, and said she was going home, to live there much of the time. We decided it was her turn to set the ground rules for our lives.

“I now spend a few months a year in Nevis. I draw a parliamentary pension but work (pro bono) as a member of the UK/Europe Board of the International Rescue Committee (the New York-based humanitarian NGO led by David Miliband), and (paid, part-time) as a lay member of the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

“Fenella spends a few months a year in the UK so we spend roughly half our time together, which is far more than we did when I was an MP, and it is allowing us to rebuild the relationship which nearly collapsed because of the pressure of all those years when I was in Parliament.”

Olney echoes those sentiments. Speaking over the phone before going to play football with her son, she says: “The up-side of only having been there six months is that I had a normal life before, and it's been an opportunity to reconnect with that normal life, so spending more time with my children.

“It's been an opportunity to catch up with people and rediscover some of the other things I used to do before I became an MP.”

And yet, the call to the Commons is persistent. When asked if it was in her plans to re-stand for election, Olney was emphatic. “Yes. Yes, absolutely it is. It definitely is.” Referring to Goldsmith, she says: “He had a majority of 23,000 two years ago and now he's got a majority of 45. That's just the momentum that we've got going on here locally and I don't want to spoil that, I want to get over the line next time.

“For me, it's not so much personal. I am now out of work, but I will find another job reasonably easily and I will get back the life I had before. I just don't feel Zac Goldsmith is the best person to represent this constituency and I'm just really annoyed he's our MP again.”

Olney’s point that being an MP is no “normal employment” was also part of the appeal for her predecessors. “It is an absolutely marvellous job,” writes McWalter over email, emphasis his own. “You might be able to help, not dozens of people who are victims of injustice or callous indifference, but thousands of them.

“You will get opportunities to expand your knowledge to be able to do the job, and I found my placements with police service and with the Royal Navy during my time in parliament of extraordinary value.

“You will find the job has dazzling variety, so you need to become knowledgeable about a huge range of matters – from war to warts, and you have to employ the knowledge so gained to improve the lot sometimes of people throughout the country.

“Just to serve on a select committee, [as] I did [on] Northern Ireland at a crucial time, and then science and technology, is to be faced with challenges every bit as demanding as those faced by those who stay in the academic world.

“Most people who have been Members of Parliament have found the experience wonderful. It is sad, however, that the skills you acquire are redundant the moment you lose your seat. Those who seek to get into Parliament are often rational and altruistic, for they are applying for one of the best jobs you could do. But it would be a service to our democracy if their offer to serve were to be put into proper context."

McWalter does realise that not every aspect of the job, and the consequences of losing it, are positive. “Some have to pay for their time of service by having a quality of life a lot worse than they had before they were successful in an election,” he says. “That is the price to be paid by many, and the subsequent strains on mental health, on marriage, and on financial security, are sometimes such that those who are the family and friends of former MPs wish they had never been elected.”

Best concluded on a similar note: “Being an MP these days is so risky that I fear that it will deter many, if not in their own interests at least in those of their families.”

Nevertheless, for many MPs, working in the Commons is not a career that can be simply left behind. For them, the price of entry – and exit – is worth it.