Tesfay’s story (Refugee Week 2016)

Yesterday, I told you about Xiu and on Tuesday you heard about Sami. Today, I’ll share the story of Tesfay, a young man from Eritrea.

Tesfay’s story differs from those of Sami and Xiu, in that he had already been granted leave to remain when I first met him. On the whole, Tesfay was getting on fine. He had experienced the usual uncertainty that follows the imminent loss of accomodation and financial support after receiving refugee status. However, with the help of local organisations, he’d received his biometric residence permit and National Insurance number relatively quickly. Luckily for Tesfay, he’d made friends with some other Eritrean men when he’d initially arrived and was living in private accomodation with them. Even better, Tesfay’s English was coming along well and he’d also managed to find some casual employment. So far, so good.

An unexpected visit

Unfortunately for Tesfay, things took a sudden downwards turn when he returned from work one day to find the police searching his house. Tesfay had no idea what was going on here – he hadn’t committed any crimes – and was naturally shocked by this. Matters were made worse when Tesfay and his housemates were all arrested and taken down to the police station. Disgracefully, the police had neglected to explain what was happening to any of the guys they had just arrested. Instead, they decided to explain this to the boys’ solicitor. While, in principle, a solicitor is best placed to understand her clients’ legal situation, this was understandably distressing for Tesfay and his housemates. They had no idea what they were being implicated in and feared the worst. To add to their woes, the police also confiscated the mobile phones of all arrested individuals, pending a court hearing.

Paranoia and despair

This was the extent of Tesfay’s understanding when he explained all of this to me. After talking to his solicitor, it transpired that a woman had alleged that one of the housemates was harrassing her. For reasons unknown, this meant that the privacy of each of the housemates was violated – all rooms searched, all guys arrested and all mobile phones locked away. Apparently this was all a formality and normality would resume if the innocent parties attended their court hearings, where their innocence would be confirmed. If that sounds a bit Kafkaesque, it gets even better. Tesfay’s bail conditions stated that he could not contact or see the victim. The only problem here though, was that Tesfay had no idea who the victim was.

This is where the story becomes seriously fucked-up. Tesfay explained to me that he was terrified of unwittingly seeing the victim and being arrested again. What if she knocked at the door and he answered? Would he end up in prison permanently? Tesfay also explained to me that the whole incident had made him very anxious about his job. How could he sign-up for shifts if he couldn’t contact his employer on the confiscated phone? And worst of all, Tesfay was experiencing an overwhelming sense of paranoia. His room had been searched by uniformed strangers. Those same uniformed strangers had then arrested him without explaining what was going on. As a result, Tesfay was experiencing insomnia and pangs of fear whenever a car pulled-up close to him outside of the house.

Third-class citizens

In my opinion, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that violating the privacy and civil rights of a refugee may have deeper repercussions for that person. I don’t know the details of Tesfay’s asylum case, but a precondition of a successful claim is that the individual was being persecuted. As Tesfay spoke to me and explained what had happened, I looked into his eyes and saw the dark chasm of someone who had lost their soul and was terrified of existence.

The point here is not that the police should have given Tesfay and his housemates preferential treatment. Instead, they should have treated them as they would have anyone else – with a respectful explanation of what was happening prior to the solicitor’s involvement. More broadly, Tesfay had been recently granted refugee status and was, by all accounts, integrating well into UK life. Although there were no criminal implications for him, Tesfay’s mental health may have been seriously affected by this episode. Unfortunately, this will most certainly affect how he continues to settle and is deeply unjust for a vulnerable man who had done nothing wrong.

‘Tesfay’ is a pseudonym – his name has been changed to preserve his anonymity.




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