• Post category:Stories

I am from Ivory Coast, in West Africa, but my nationality is not important. Immigrants or asylum seekers can be Syrian, Iranian, Somalian, American or English. An asylum seeker is just a human being who has had to flee their own country to avoid persecution, war, all sorts of difficult situations, to try to find safety, freedom, a peaceful life, a better life, and security. That is my case.

In my country I had been in charge of the Financial Department, as well as working for ten years as personal assistant to the First Lady. In November 2010 civil war broke out, and my government and my politicians were defeated. On 11th April, the rebels took over; I was arrested and taken to prison with the President and his family. After a few days the UN army moved us to a village and left us without any protection. To avoid being arrested again, tortured, or even killed, I fled the country.

In 1997 I came to the UK with an official group of secretaries, to visit the country and to improve our English. I made friends here, and enjoyed my time here. In fact in 2002 I sent my children to study in the UK.

So when it was time to flee, I could have gone to the USA, but decided to choose the UK. I had high expectations of being received with empathy and understanding, and generosity.

I arrived in the UK on 26th April 2011. Fortunately, I had friends in Portsmouth, in the south of England, with whom I could stay for a few months until my visa ran out, and also they had needs of their own and couldn’t keep me any longer. Since I couldn’t go back to my country to reapply, with death threats hanging over me, I was advised by the Home Office that they couldn’t extend my visa, so I should apply for asylum. At this point I was confident of being treated well.

This, however, started a long and difficult journey of 7 years and 4 months through the labyrinth of Home Office procedures. The Home Office Officials were anything but sympathetic, and I was at that point homeless and destitute. I discovered that the effect of applying for asylum and asking for support was to put yourself into your own prison. The Home Office treats people as liars despite the fact that all the evidence for my situation was freely available on line. This was when I experienced extreme frustration and disappointment.

In March 2012, nearly a year after my arrival in this country, the Home Office arrested me and I was physically locked up. I was kept in Yarlswood Detention Centre for 4 months, the country where I had come to find freedom. You can be called in to the Home Office to wait for hours, and told to come back or you will be arrested. There was no further discussion, or any trial. I had thought that Europe countries practiced what they call Human Rights. But asylum seekers are seen as numbers, things, not human beings. This was both depressing and stressful. I suppose I was lucky because some people stayed there longer.

At Yarlswood you are given no information. They will come to your room at 4 am and pick you up, telling you you are to be deported on a plane that departs at 8pm, then they drive you to another city to pick up another passenger. At the airport I refused to go. That happened twice to me. When you are at the airport you are kept in a special waiting room separate from the other passengers. The second time I went I was handcuffed like a criminal, a convict. Once they woke me up at 4 am and took me to the police station, where I stayed for maybe 15 hours, with no food. The third time I still refused and they drove me back to Yarlswood. The atmosphere there was one of fear.

Eventually I was told by an organisation called Bail for Immigrant Detainees that legally I could not be kept at Yarlswood for longer than three months. So I was finally let loose on the streets. Eventually with the help of BID I was dispersed to Bolton near Manchester in the north, 5 hours away from my friends. This was when I experienced loneliness. I had no status. But I suppose I was lucky: some people had been there for eight months or longer.

I had no accommodation, no recourse to public funds. This was when I experienced destitution. Because of my faith I didn’t despair. Fortunately the Red Cross was there for me, and through them I found my way to the Hope Project.

My crime was to ask for protection, safety, security from a Human Rights country. This is unfair, and that is the reason why I became involved in campaigning for freedom. We must speak out so people can hear us, hear our supplication, and resolve to end the detention of women, tol give lives and happiness to families. Women are the backbone, the cornerstone, of the family.

Anytime I can find a voice, it is to say thank you to all the people who care for and about Asylum Seekers, because we are humans. No one chooses to be an Asylum Seeker. I never thought it would happen to me.

Agnes Tanoh
January 2021