Trafficked – A Sri Lankan refugee, Kumar, tells a Refugee Tale
Refugee Tales is a project, started in 2014, whose impulse came largely from the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. They had grown increasingly frustrated that the stories of those they were visiting were not known by the wider public. Many people were unaware that the UK is the only country in Europe in which people who have sought asylum can be detained indefinitely. And many had no knowledge of the shocking conditions in which they are held (if you are feeling robust, Google Panorama’s BAFTA-winning exposé of Brook House Immigration Removal Centre in the grounds of Gatwick Airport).
The Group, led by Anna Pincus, met with representatives from Kent Refugee Help, among them poet and critic David Herd. Together they planned a journey, from Dover via Canterbury to Crawley, during which those who had been released from detention – but whose futures remained uncertain – would walk with friends and supporters, sharing their stories along the way. Poets and novelists – including Marina Warner, Ali Smith, Abdulrazak Gurnah and Patience Agbabi – swelled their ranks, helping to write up the stories in what now form two volumes of Refugee Tales, used to lobby MPs on the question of detention. At the last election, all parties in opposition made it a manifesto pledge that they would end indefinite detention. ‘And now,’ says David, ‘we are working away at Tory MPs.’
Meantime, that first walk developed what he calls ‘a momentum of its own – a community grew around it’. In 2016, there was a second walk, from Canterbury to Westminster; last year, the walkers travelled from Runnymede (invoking the Magna Carta) to Westminster. As this issue of the Review goes to press, a walk from St Albans, through east London to Westminster, should just have ended. One man who has been involved from the start, and has been on all four walks, is 25-year-old Kumar. This is his story.
I was born in Sri Lanka in 1993. Two years after the end of the civil war, in 2011, my younger brother was abducted by the military. We never saw him again. My father, worried for my safety, decided to send me to the UK, where he thought I would be safe. I was eighteen. I arrived at Heathrow Airport on a student visa with £300.
In London, I met three Sri Lankan men who advised me to go to France to seek asylum. The men, who subsequently turned out to be members of an international trafficking gang, told me that if I sought asylum in the UK I’d be sent home. They gave me false papers to go to France, but the French police caught me. I was sent back to the UK, and spent six months in prison. Then I went to the immigration removal centre at Brook House. I was there for a year and a half. The nights were very, very hard. The officers slammed the doors shut, and then, even when I slept, I dreamed. You can’t stop the dreams.
In 2013, the police came and asked for my help in convicting the men who had given me the forged documents. I asked if they could promise to protect my anonymity, and they said that they would, and that they’d grant me asylum. So I was released by the Home Office in 2013. But when it came to the trial, there was no attempt to hide my identity, and the men, who got ten years each, were shouting at me in Tamil that they’d kill me as soon as they were free. Even though the police wrote to thank me and commend me for my bravery and service in helping to convict the traffickers, I received a letter from the Home Office refusing me asylum.
I am still waiting, hoping that one day I’ll be granted refugee status. On one of the walks, I met Paul George, father of the Labour MP Ruth George. She has since told my story in the House of Commons. The Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has promised to review my case but, so far, nothing has happened. At least in the UK you can fight with the government. In Sri Lanka you can’t do that. And most people in the UK are so nice. My dream is to get status from the Home Office, and then to work as a carer in a hospital. And, of course, one day, to see my family again.
Kumar’s name has been changed to protect his identity.