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Last Updated: Friday, 15 February 2008, 10:19 GMT
Asylum stories behind the headlines
By Jackie Storer
BBC News Political reporter, Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, London

Asylum seekers in Calais
Asylum seekers still come to the UK in search of a better life

The dark haired widow closes her eyes and clasps her hands together under the desk in front of her in silent prayer.

She seems oblivious to the judge, who describes how she fled Egypt for the UK in June, last year, or the suited solicitor who represents her.

She speaks no English, but those of us in the stuffy, pastel blue courtroom for the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal session who do, hear that she is a Christian, from a small village, under persecution for her faith and for preaching.


We hear that she has suffered attacks, seen her family farm burned down and been hauled in by the police for allegedly proselytizing.

Momentarily she blinks from her reverie and turns to her friend, a Sudanese-born widower. He smiles back reassuringly.

She has said if they reject her she would kill herself - she came here to save her life

She is one of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers in the UK, often seeking a better life than the one they have escaped.

Many have heart-wrenching reasons for why they should stay and most whose applications are rejected by the Home Office find themselves in the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal system hoping their appeals will be accepted.

In 2006, there were 23,610 applications for asylum, down 8% from 2005 levels. An estimated 6,225 of these resulted in grants of asylum, humanitarian protection or discretionary leave.

About 20,700 people, including dependants, were failed asylum seekers.

Luckily for this Egyptian widow, the senior immigration judge, Judge Waumsley, believes her asylum application deserves a re-hearing and he adjourns the case for six to eight weeks.

When this is explained to her, she looks visibly relieved.

Teaching Christians

"She feels that there is hope," says her friend, outside court seven. "Jesus will stand by her."

But he adds, almost gravely: "She has said if they reject her she would kill herself - she came here to save her life."

Like many before her the 47-year-old made her asylum application on arrival in the UK, but it was rejected and she was kept at Yarls Wood Immigration Removal Centre.

Demonstration against asylum seekers in Margate, Kent
The asylum issue has sparked protests in some parts of the UK

The friend and fellow Christian, who is supporting her, says they met through family connections: "She's a widow who was living in her brother's house. His farm was burned down.

"She's been attacked and the police told her to stop preaching. She was just teaching Christians. The police said 'we can't protect you'.

"She has lost everything because she was a teacher. She was in church, working in church."


According to official estimates, 90% of the Egyptian population are Muslim and 8% to 10% are Christian, with the Coptic Orthodox Church being the largest Christian denomination.

The issue of Christians being persecuted there has even come to the attention of the European Parliament.

Last year it passed a resolution asking governments, including Egypt, to protect the rights of all citizens and combat acts of discrimination and intolerance.

To some, she is one of the lucky ones. She is staying with a friend in Northolt, London, and has the support of the orthodox church.

But not everyone who appears before Field House, off London's Chancery Lane - one of 17 Asylum and Immigration Tribunals dotted across the UK - is so fortunate.

Ikea furniture?

The purpose of the system is to hear and decide appeals against decisions made by the Home Office in matters of asylum, immigration and nationality.

In 2006/07 the AIT disposed of 166,191 applications, up from the previous year's 114,692 cases.

The case is complicated and involves a lot of assumed knowledge about the factions within Sri Lanka and its multi-ethnic population

Unlike crown courts, the counsel and judges do not wear wigs. The atmosphere is slightly less austere, and at Field House, which is an oasis amidst a street of building works, the furnishings could easily come from Ikea.

But like their criminal law counterparts, the workload is certainly heavy and varied.

Downstairs, in court 82, a much larger, sunnier, more airy courtroom, lawyers are struggling with the case of a Sri Lankan asylum seeker who has connections with the Tamil Tigers.

He is not in court, but his application is being reconsidered following an initial rejection by the Home Office and the dismissal of an appeal.

He has mental health issues and the home secretary has conceded that to return him to Sri Lanka would breach his rights under article 3 of the European Court of Human Rights.

Tamil Tigers

However, there is a question mark over whether he should be considered a refugee.

This is because of the potential risks to him caused by his connections to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers.

Jenni Richards, counsel for the home secretary, tries to explain that most of the attacks and violent incidents in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo, appear to be focused on well known individuals and military installations.

While most are attributed to the LTTE, few, if any of the incidents, are targeted towards low profile citizens, she says.

"There is nothing in the secretary of state's submission to suggest that Tamils, who may come to the adverse attention of the LTTE, would be at real risk in Colombo or that those who have engaged in low level activity in the past ... are likely to be at any real risk," she said.

The case is complicated and involves a lot of assumed knowledge about the factions within Sri Lanka and its multi-ethnic population.

Tiring process?

There is a different case now in court seven, where a solicitor is trying to prove an error of law in connection with an application made by a young Chinese-born family.

As the solicitor comes under pressure to explain to Judge Waumsley where his predecessor has allegedly gone wrong in her judgement, the mother, accompanied by her husband, tries to amuse their child.

The youngster, finding the whole process quite boring, opts to fall asleep on her lap. His dad gently rests a coat over him.

The case seems to depend on how much contact the parents have had with their family back in China and proof of phone calls made.

Unluckily for them, the judge finds in his colleague's favour and upholds her decision. The boy, all flushed from his slumber, gets woken up and the trio troop out to face an uncertain future.

Asylum is so often in the news - and asylum seekers so often demonized - that it is a sobering experience to spend a day listening to the personal stories of some of those individuals who are, whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue, ultimately guilty of nothing more than seeking a better life for themselves.

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