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Here to stay

08/17/2018

 

A follow-up to a piece I wrote back in the summer of 2016 (Hey, we beat you guys) about a good friend of mine, and former work colleague, who had migrated, on her own, to the UK from Bangladesh in 2008.

A few weeks ago on one of those beautiful warm, cloudless summer mornings when anything feels possible we met at a South London tube station and wheeled Chisty’s large wheelie suitcase down the road. She could have been dashing off to the airport on her summer holidays but was instead heading for an appointment at an organisation that offers advice on immigration issues about applying for indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Chisty was by now approaching her tenth anniversary of arriving in England so was eligible to apply for ILR on the grounds of “long residence” and thus attain the right to stay in the country indefinitely, something not afforded by the time constrained student and tier 2 visas that she had held to date. It’s a potentially huge step that would allow much greater freedom to work and travel, access to public funds and provide an opportunity after a further twelve months of settled residency to apply for British citizenship, something that Chisty is very keen to do. Things that we take for granted such as the ability to move jobs (the tier 2 visa which Chisty held required an employer to sponsor her and any move to a different employer meant that a new visa had to be acquired) and the right to free hospital treatment without having to pay an annual charge for using the NHS would now be accessible to Chisty too.

I’d come along to provide some support (two pairs of eyes and ears are usually better than one in situations like this) but it was already apparent that Chisty’s preparation had been meticulous. Instead of holiday clothes, hair products and make-up her suitcase was full of papers from her ten years in the UK – it weighed a ton. She’d collected every scrap of paper that related to previous visa applications or interactions with the Home Office, pay slips, tax records, bank statements, any correspondence relating to the numerous rented properties that she’d lived in, college and university certificates and letters relating to her years of studying – all filed neatly in plastic wallets. Even details of every trip abroad during the last ten years (there are limits to the amount of time that someone applying for ILR is allowed to have been out of the UK during the qualifying period) – literally anything that would support what she had been doing and where she had been doing it for what amounts to almost her entire adult life. She explained that she’d assembled this paper mountain in the knowledge that, at some point, it would be needed and that day was nearly here.

We were greeted by an elderly gentleman who smiled warmly and explained that he’d been helping people with visa applications for more than forty years but added, apologetically, that the organisation used to offer advice for free but the creation of a “hostile environment” for immigrants over the last decade had meant that funding streams had dried up thus forcing them to charge for providing advice. Legal and other assistance available to migrants tends to be slashed when politicians want to be seen to be tough on immigration.

Chisty had downloaded a copy of the form for applying for indefinite leave to remain in the UK from the Home Office website and begun to fill it out and we spent an hour and a half going through it page by page discussing the best way to answer each question and provide the necessary supporting documentation – Chisty regularly rooting through the contents of her suitcase for the latter. The form, all thirty two pages of it, demands careful attention – a missing detail or something entered incorrectly or in the wrong box could render the whole application invalid thus sending you back to square one like a game of bureaucratic snakes and ladders. Worse still it could lead to an application being refused and possible deportation. Two years ago when she successfully applied for a job with another NHS organisation Chisty’s application for a new tier 2 visa was refused, through no fault of her own, as her potential new employer took too long to issue a certificate of sponsorship (they were not a registered tier 2 sponsor at that point) and quoted incorrect salary details. Although this did not affect her existing visa she was still sent a letter by the Home Office informing her that she “may have to leave the country” if she did not have any other legal basis to remain here. Simple administrative errors like this can change peoples’ lives and cause untold worry; the sleepless nights and the fear that migrants live with that, at any time, the rules could change and they could be sent home are rarely factored into the immigration debate.

So it pays to get some advice on how best to fill out an ILR application especially when you’re going to be forking out more than two thousand pounds simply to apply for the right to stay in the country. Chisty intended to use the premium same day service which costs a whopping £2,999 but even the basic service, which takes a few months before you find out if your application has been successful, costs £2,389. As recently as 2003 applying for ILR was free and the first charge introduced in April of that year was a mere £155. The fees have trebled since 2010 resulting in charges that are now ridiculously disproportionate to the administrative cost incurred in processing an ILR application (a typical premium service appointment takes no more than three hours) and simply add to the worry of an already stressful situation; another hefty obstacle thrown in the way of would-be residents.

A few weeks later in July and Chisty was leaping another immigration hurdle as she sat her Life in the UK Test at an exam centre in west London. The computerised test consists of 24 multiple choice questions about life in the UK (anything from medieval monarchs and tea drinking etiquette to Olympic gold medal winners) with a score of at least 18 being required to pass. Various websites offer trial runs of the test (there are hundreds of possible questions with 24 selected at random) and curious to have a go I scored 21 on my first attempt. Chisty, whose knowledge of the British royal family and popular culture definitely surpasses mine, passed first time taking only ten minutes to rattle through the two dozen questions. ILR applicants must also have sufficient knowledge of the English language but as Chisty had already gained a degree taught entirely in her second language there was no need for her to attend an English for Speakers of Other Languages course.

…seriously if ever you’ve thought that this country is a soft touch when it comes to immigration, that we basically let anyone in, that we’re being “swamped” by immigrants believe me you haven’t got a clue…

And so to D-day. It’s not often that good news emerges from the drab tower block in Croydon that is home to the UK’s immigration service but after years of grafting to build a new life in a foreign country; years of studying and working to be able to afford to study; years of not going out because she’s too knackered and couldn’t afford to anyway; years of gruelling bus and tube journeys from the arse end of town to work spirit crushing shifts in city centre fast food takeaways; years of sacrifice to try to ensure a better future for herself and her family; years of not being able to move jobs due to the restrictions of her visa; years of snotty letters from faceless Home Office bureaucrats; years of filling in forms and forking out thousands of pounds on visa applications, health surcharges and legal advice; years of uncertainty of not quite knowing whether she would be allowed to build her future in the UK or not Chisty emerged from Lunar House on a Friday afternoon earlier this month having been granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK – almost exactly ten years to the day since arriving in England from Bangladesh as a nineteen year old accompanied only by a wheelie suitcase, a scholarship to study business and finance at a London college and hopes of building a better life.

A Whatsapp message stating simply “#HereToStay” brought a smile to my face as I ate lunch. At times, over the last few years, it has felt like Chisty’s been trying to climb a mountain in a pair of high heeled shoes but, at last, the summit has been reached and a new horizon has opened up. She’s finally free to stay in the country and live her life as a Londoner, as an NHS worker, as a graduate, as a finance professional, as a friend, as a daughter, as a sister and as a young Muslim woman unencumbered by visa requirements and arbitrary lines drawn on maps.

“It feels like I’ve just come out of prison” she said when I asked Chisty how she felt now that she was free to stay in the country indefinitely. She said that it was a relief to know that she would no longer have to answer the question “do you have the right to work in the UK?” on job application forms by ticking the box marked “no” and that this would all being well, finally, enable her to make progress in her chosen career in finance. “A great weight has been lifted off my shoulders mentally and financially” she added and said that she particularly looked forward to not having to worry about having to pay two or three thousand pounds on visa applications every few years – perhaps she could “start saving money to buy a home of her own”. And, erm, maybe some clothes and make-up too!

Next week a small group of us will meet to celebrate this momentous occasion at a Bengali restaurant in Whitechapel in east London which is home to Britain’s largest Bangladeshi population and close to Altab Ali Park, the only park in London named after a Bengali – Ali was a young Bangladeshi textile worker who was murdered by racists in a nearby street in 1978. Along a path at the centre of the small park is a beautiful line from a poem by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore – “the shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly”. Several decades after those words were written, a young Bengali woman will now have the opportunity to set down some roots in the UK and come and go as she pleases.

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