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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 July 2003, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Escape to uncertainty
By John Brunsdon
BBC News Online

Beto
Beto now helps out at the Refugee Council
Beto, a refugee from Angola, who was granted asylum in the UK in 1998 after a two year legal battle tells BBC News Online of his struggle to escape his war-torn homeland and to be allowed to stay in Britain.

When Beto was handed his false passport and airline ticket at Brazzaville airport he had no idea where he was flying to, nor at that moment did he care.

Sick from months of torture and neglect in an Angolan prison, he was only concerned to get away from a regime that had seen him imprisoned twice and which had claimed the life of his father just months before.

Beto - who did not want his full name given as he still has family in Africa - was a lucky man. He had escaped from prison when his illness became so bad he was allowed to go to hospital.

BBC ASYLUM DAY
On Wednesday 23 July the BBC examines the issue of asylum and immigration in a special series of programmes and coverage on TV, radio and the web.

He was fortunate to have friends who smuggled him out of the hospital and across the border into DR Congo, and to have a contact there who could provide him with false travel papers.

But his luck almost ran out when he discovered the methods which facilitated his escape from a potentially murderous situation almost cost him his chance to stay in the country chosen as his refuge.

"When I arrived at Heathrow they looked at my passport photo and they said it wasn't me, I have scars above my eyes but in the picture I did not have any."

Faced with sceptical immigration officers, Beto was in no mood to hang around and left the airport with the intention of applying for asylum at the Home Office, as he had been instructed before he left Africa.

But the offices were closed for a bank holiday weekend, and his application was only posted after he had been in the UK, sleeping rough, for four days.

I did not know about the rules because we do not get the BBC in Cabinda
It was only later that he found this was a mistake.

"For the first month I got about 30 benefits, but in the second month it was cut off - I got food and board in a shared room but I had no money.

"They said I should have applied at the airport when I got there, but because I had applied late I didn't get benefit. I couldn't do anything, I couldn't get a job.

"At the airport it was too risky, I had two different ID's and I thought if they saw that I would not be allowed in.

"I did not know about the rules because we do not get the BBC in Cabinda."

No reply

Staying in hostels, eating a monotonous and alien diet, Beto's illness worsened and he rapidly lost weight - his condition not helped by occasional periods spent sleeping rough when no room could be found.

To make matters worse, his application to for asylum appeared to be going nowhere. Several times he had written to the Home Office to check on its progress, but he had received no reply.

After eight months he asked his solicitor - provided through the Refugee Council - to find out what was happening.

He contacted the Home Office, who told him they thought Beto had left the country as they had no address for him - unsurprising, he said, as he had no address.

The process dragged on for another 10 months until Beto finally got an answer - he had to return to Angola.

They didn't believe I had been in prison, everything I said they didn't believe me
"They didn't believe what I had told them, they said there was now a ceasefire in Angola and they told me everything was alright in my country.

"They didn't believe I had been in prison, everything I said they didn't believe me."

Concerned that his case had not been looked at properly - he had been imprisoned because he was a member of a party that did not recognise Cabinda as part of Angola - Beto checked with another refugee from Angola who had also had his application turned down.

"The statement they had given him was just the same as mine - only the name had changed. I found they had given the same reasons to two or three others."

He took his case to appeal, but was again turned down - this time because he had not registered in DR Congo after slipping across the border and because he had no proof that his life would be in danger if he returned.

Appeal success

He pointed out that if someone wanted to kill you, they would not necessarily write to tell you first.

He expected no better from his second appeal, but just days before it was due to be heard, hostilities broke out in Angola again.

With the change in circumstances, Beto was finally granted leave to stay in the UK, but he has no doubt what would have happened if he had been returned before fighting started again.

"I would be dead," he said.

Since being granted asylum, Beto has learned English and studied IT. He now helps out at the Refugee Council one-stop centre in Brixton, acting as an interpreter and giving advice to others who are facing the same situation as he went through.

He says since being in the UK he has found most people he speaks to are welcoming, but many do not understand why he came here.

"I have to explain what a refugee is. People ask what the problem is back home, they don't seem to know what is going on - that I didn't just come here because I was a hungry man."




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