People in Yemen love the UK, Ali* tells me. After over 100 years of British colonial occupation in southern Yemen, a complex shared history connects the nations. “My father and my mother had a British passport, the big black one,” Ali recalls. His parents used to work for the British government in South Yemen in the Sixties. He still carries his father’s British passport with him; worn from age but still thick with its hard protective cover.
War has crippled the Yemeni population for over five years. Since the fighting began, 80 per cent of the population now depend on aid to survive, while 14.5 million people have no access to clean water. It is one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has seen in over a hundred years. Despite this, Yemenis make up a small portion of asylum applications to the UK.
According to official government statistics, last year 345 applications from Yemeni nationals were sent to the Home Office; Ali, 47, was among them. “When people in Yemen are asked where they want to go, they say the UK, almost immediately,” Ali says, “I guess they associate it with democracy”.
In 2019, there were 35,099 asylum applications sent to the Home Office, 11 per cent more than in 2018. In 2020, despite the pandemic posing even greater threat to human life, these numbers are still high.
This year, more than 7,400 people have arrived in Britain via small boats, according to analysis by PA Media. That is nearly four times as many as in 2019, with a record number of 416 arriving on a single day in September. The Channel crossing remains treacherous, with families risking their lives in the hope of escaping dangerous refugee camps. On 27 October, a family of four, including two children aged five and eight died in the Channel in an unsuitable boat while being smuggled to the UK.
With a degree in biochemistry, working in the UAE, Ali was one of the lucky ones. But out of the blue, his visa to work in the Gulf state was terminated and he was forced out of the country, unable to return to Yemen. “Some families come and they have lost everything in the war. They have no money and no English,” he says.
It was clear to Ali that many people looking for asylum in the UK didn’t understand the asylum process they were entering into. “They arrive by boat and get placed in a deportation centre. Many don’t know they have to apply for status. When you know the law and what your rights are, you can use it. A lot of asylum seekers don’t know what their rights are,” Ali says.
After arriving in the UK in 2019 by plane, Ali set out to fill these gaps in support. “I am in the same situation, you know, when you’re sick, and someone has had the same sickness, you can feel what he’s suffering. I felt like I needed to do something.”
“Before July, we were in lockdown and I didn’t hear anything about refugees or asylum seekers, then suddenly I heard about Yemenis crossing the channel,” he says.
So in July 2020, Ali set up the first asylum seeker led database recording the arrival of unregistered Yemeni people to the UK. The database is not techy: it is a simple Google Doc, which Ali and several other asylum seekers share with the new Yemeni arrivals they come across. Each person fills out their name, their situation and why they left Yemen. “This way people are counted,” Ali says, “and we can support them”.
“We want to know, who’s here? What do you need? Did you apply for asylum or not?”, he says. “We don’t want people to just waste time sitting here, illegally. We wanted to encourage Yemenis to apply for asylum at least and file that to the Home Office.”
Once names are recorded, Ali and other asylum seekers get to work helping new arrivals understand the legal system and providing them with free ESOL lessons. Out of the 46 asylum applications Ali’s network has supported so far, 42 avoided deportation. “This is much more than other nationalities because they have our support,” he says. For asylum seekers, the legal support they are given is limited: “They can’t communicate easily to solicitors the mental trauma they have experienced, or why they must come to the UK.”
After arriving a year ago, like many others, Ali is still waiting for his interview with the Home Office. While he waits, he does not have the right to work. “Just imagine some people are waiting for one year or two years with no interview. I urge the UK government to give out settlement interviews within the first month of application,” he says. During this wait, asylum seekers are given £5 a day to live on. “Some people have lost everything and have no money. Why don’t they let asylum seekers temporarily work?”
During the height of the pandemic, several of Ali’s network were arrested and deported. “At that time people were being deported every day, two, three or five people, sometimes 15 people a day. It was crazy.”
“They say we have come to the UK illegally, but there is no legal option for coming to the UK,” he says. “The UK is surrounded by oceans so refugees have to go to Calais. There they are easy targets for smugglers who will charge them thousands of euros, then they will borrow money from their friends or relatives. We don’t know if they will make Dover, maybe they will just drown. So why do the UK government give them this choice?” Ali says.
“Why would they give the option for smugglers to get money from thousands of asylum seekers? Why not create safe paths, legally with the United Nations?” To obtain a refugee visa, asylum seekers must first be already in the UK. “Instead of making asylum seekers have their interview here, they should do it via video call with any legal office in any allied safe country like Turkey or Egypt or Jordan,” says Ali. “This could save many lives.”
As the number of people crossing the Channel becomes increasingly desperate, tragically it falls on the work of asylum seekers like Ali to provide the emotional and legal support that the anonymous asylum process cannot. In recent months, several of Ali’s friends have been deported by the Home Office, including three friends that helped build the database that so many Yemenis are relying on. But he continues undeterred: “I’m trying to give my maximum effort day by day.”
For now, Ali is still waiting for his status to be approved. “l have so many plans for the future. I want to say, give me the chance. Give me the status,” he says, “I am between earth and sky”.
*Ali asked to remain anonymous as his asylum application is still pending.