Xiu’s story (Refugee Week 2016)

Yesterday, you heard about Sami’s journey from Iraqi Kurdistan to the UK. Today, it’s the turn of Xiu, a young Chinese woman.

I met Xiu for the first (and only) time during a busy four hours on a summer’s evening. Xiu was with a rather panicked Chinese man, who explained to me that she was pregnant. Xiu herself spoke no English at all and was in a lot of discomfort, meaning that her situation was largely relayed to me through a very patient intepreter and the man that came with her, Zhang.

The kindness of (Chinese) strangers

Xiu had initially been staying with a Chinese family locally. This family had seen Xiu on the streets and, out of kindness, offered her somewhere to stay. As Xiu had come closer to childbirth, the family had made the difficult decision that she would have to move out, as they could not support a mother and her newborn baby. This was when Zhang had come across Xiu looking rather disoriented on the city streets. Naturally, he was concerned that a young pregnant woman was alone on the street, so he spoke to her and discovered she was homeless. Zhang is incredibly selfless. In fact, I initially assumed he was the father of Xiu’s baby, but it soon emerged that he’d only met her hours earlier. Nonetheless, he stayed with her well into the evening and offered her comfort and support while she was surrounded by people speaking a foreign tongue.

An uncertain past

But back to Xiu. Through a series of phonecalls to the Home Office, an interpreter and other organisations, it became apparent that Xiu was not staying in the UK on a visa and did not have a claim for NASS asylum support. This meant that there was no immediate solution to where she might stay until she went into labour. By doing some more detective work, we figured out that Xiu had first entered the UK to work for someone she was connected with in China. It seems that this individual had encouraged her to claim asylum, but state that she had accomodation and finances to support herself. At this point, I have to speculate, as Xiu understandably did not want to talk too much about her prior experiences. However, I would imagine that Xiu was involved in exploitative illegal work and had been trafficked into the country, perhaps as a ‘modern slave’. The fact that Xiu became pregnant may give some indication to the work she was doing and also explains why she was then kicked out on to the streets by her ’employer’.

An unkind system?

If Xiu had been able to speak English, she might have been able to contact the relevant authorities and receive the necessary support once she was made homeless. Unfortunately, this was simply not an option for Xiu and it made her life considerably more difficult. In order to be sorted with some sort of emergency accomodation from the Home Office, Xiu would have needed to account for how she was financially supported up to that point. This would have entailed signed letters from the people she had stayed with, which was impossible in the few hours we had. Consequently, we made the decision to contact the local authority. Owing to various rules and regulations, the local authority also had no immediate obligations to help Xiu. Luckily, I spoke to a very sympathetic clerk, who, with a bit of convincing, was able to provide temporary shelter in a hotel, alongside a social worker and interpreter.

Asylum claims are rarely black and white

The point of this story then, is to highlight the inherent complexities within the asylum system. Xiu was unable to receive direct support from the Home Office, even though she should have been eligible for it at this incredibly vulnerable time. However, as I hope you can understand, Xiu’s mistake was completely unintentional and hardly her fault. If Xiu had known how to claim asylum properly, she would have been in a much more comfortable situation.

In fact, Xiu’s inability to make a proper claim may in part be related to the austerity cuts made recently to a number of services. With legal aid largely slashed and funding for English classes heavily diminished, it’s hardly surprising that Xiu was unable to equip herself with the required skills to negotiate our asylum system. Which makes it all the more laughable when David Cameron claims that migrants, and not his government, are at fault for a lack of integration in British society.

‘Xiu’ and ‘Zhang’ are pseudonyms – their names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

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