Zain Hafeez struggled with his mental health as he navigated the asylum system. Image: Supplied
Zain Hafeez was 12 when he first landed in the UK for what was meant to be a family holiday. He remembers noticing there was no dust in the air as he had grown so used to in Pakistan. He was blissfully unaware a storm was lurking back home. His father was receiving death threats when the political party he worked for turned on him. Their home was destroyed. Their lives were at risk. They had to seek asylum.
Hafeez’s father engaged a solicitor who could help them in the UK, and he handed over £3,000 for the reassurance that their family would be granted settlement after seven years of living in the country. They would not be allowed to work until then.
“It was hard, but my dad thought that as long as his wife and kids are safe, that’s all that matters,” Hafeez says. Even now, the 27-year-old remains hazy about that time in his life, worried that more details could impact the family’s safety. “We put our heads down, and my brother and I went to school.”
He worked hard throughout school and, when he was about to turn 19, he had unconditional offers from a number of universities. But his immigration status as an asylum seeker meant he was not eligible for student finance and he could not afford to go without it. So he returned to the solicitor, as they had lived in the country for seven years and should have been on the path to securing a more settled status.
“We found out that his office had been shut down and he had run away with our money,” Hafeez says, “and he had never actually applied for any application for us. For all those seven years, we were actually living in the UK illegally. It tarnished our credibility and they put the blame on my dad saying he should have known better.
“But my dad didn’t have good English so he spoke to someone in Urdu and they won his trust and they took advantage of his vulnerability. So then we had to apply for asylum again. And it dragged on way longer than it needed to. I personally gave up and went through a mental health crisis.”
For Hafeez, it was difficult to cope with attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. Tabloid media cried “migrants rob young Britons of jobs!”, conveniently forgetting to mention that asylum seekers are not allowed to work.
“You’ve got this anger, resentment, rage in you. I was suffering from a cultural shock. You already have a fragile self-esteem. You’re in a new country and then you hear a politician talking about sending asylum seekers to a volcanic island,” Hafeez says, referring to reports that Priti Patel considered dispatching asylum seekers to the South Atlantic for processing when she was home secretary.
“It hits you on a subconscious level. It makes you feel like you don’t have any worth,” he adds. “The only value you have is to benefit the economy, and you don’t have much value as an asylum seeker. It is a very isolating and lonely journey. I wasn’t even able to share my experiences, not even with my friends, because I was very insecure about being judged because of all the myths and stereotypes that are amplified in the news and media.”
A government spokesperson claims: “Asylum seekers have access to health and social care services from point of arrival in the UK and we work closely with the NHS, local authorities and contractors to ensure that asylum seekers can access the support they need. We also work with local and national organisations to facilitate the donation of digital devices.”
But Hafeez found mental health support was limited for asylum seekers. “There’s a massive queue, and there isn’t enough sensitivity to understanding the struggles of asylum seekers or someone who is going through the migration process,” he remarks. “It was a very isolating and lonely time. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Hafeez turned his rage into a positive force. “The system is structured to isolate and marginalise people like me,” he says. “I was not going to be a victim of that. It was important to me not to get caught in this toxic narrative and find ways to channel my anger.
“So I joined the Red Cross and started volunteering and helping other people suffering from homelessness migration issues, and I did some interpreting, and that led me to do some public speaking at different universities talking about my experience.”
He was then told about sanctuary scholarships, a grant that can be worth around £40,000, which allows asylum seekers to go to university. He completed his degree in philosophy and graduated with first-class honours from Nottingham Trent. But his life was still on hold, and he was not allowed to work, drive or travel.
“I felt suffocated,” he says, remembering how he had to survive on £36.95 a week granted to asylum seekers at the time. The current rate is slightly higher, at £45, but charities warn it is still not enough to live on. An average person needs around £120 every week to afford just the bare essentials, according to estimates from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust.
“I worked on my English. I tried to integrate with the culture but I was not allowed to work,” Hafeez adds. “I really wanted to work. I wanted to contribute and pay tax. I wanted to support my family. I was forced to stay in the system. And then people would say people like me are a burden to the economy and the country. It made me feel helpless.”
He escalated his case to his MP Liz Kendall and is now on the 10-year route to settlement. Having lived in the UK for 12 and a half years already, he has to pay around £2,500 each year to renew his status and he will only get indefinite leave to remain after 10 years.
Since then, he has campaigned for the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. He is a community organiser and he is engaging with MPs and wants to share his experience and make his voice heard to try to make sure that others don’t have to go through the suffering he has faced.
It is perhaps more important than ever as the Home Secretary Suella Braverman takes her Illegal Migration Bill to the next stage. “Stopping the boats is one of the Prime Minister’s five priorities,” a Home Office spokesperson told the Big Issue. “We are delivering for the British people by bringing forward the Illegal Migration Bill, taking forward our world-leading Migration and Economic Partnership with Rwanda and working to fix our broken asylum system.”
“People in power are fuelling this,” Hafeez says. “What really fuels it is our politicians talking about it and that normalises it, and makes it seem OK to demonise these people and use them as a scapegoat.
“It’s very sad to be honest. When I was an asylum seeker, it made me feel really helpless because I couldn’t raise my voice because I was insecure about how I was going to get demonised. As an asylum seeker, you can’t speak your truth. You have to suppress it all.”
He believes, instead of this bill, the government should include people with lived experience in decision making, lift the ban on asylum seekers working and evaluate the no recourse to public funds policy and how it is having a detrimental impact on marginalised people.
“With no recourse to public funds, asylum seekers and refugees are not able to access the benefits they need. Some of them might have mental health issues or disabilities, but because they’re not eligible for benefits to help them feed their kids and provide for their everyday needs, they’re becoming destitute and homeless. Their kids are being born and they’re stuck in that vicious cycle.”
Hafeez is determined to fight for a better future so others don’t have to struggle through those harrowing experiences he did. “The trauma transformed me and motivated me to go back in the trenches and use my experiences so I can make sure others don’t have to go through the unnecessary suffering I went through,” he says.
“It made me more empathetic and sensitive to the different issues the British population is facing, and it inspired me to do more charity work and contribute to this country. Despite the negativity and the obstacles, it refined me into the person I’ve become so I’ll be forever grateful.”
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