Page last updated at 16:28 GMT, Friday, 23 January 2009

'Seeking asylum is not a crime'

A government watchdog says the backlog of asylum cases has doubled in the last year. Here, one man tells the BBC what it is like to be in the system.

Alfonsus Okafor-Mefor
He was an hour from being deported when an injunction was granted

It took two applications, two appeals and two years for Nigerian Alfonsus Okafor-Mefor, 36, to be granted refugee status.

He arrived in the UK in 2005 after the Nigerian government started a crackdown on an organisation calling for the independence for the country's Biafra region.

Mr Okafor-Mefor belongs to the group, which is called the Movement for the Actualisation of a Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob).

Some members of Massob have been detained without trial for long periods, most prominently its leader Ralph Uwazurike who was jailed without trial for five years and still faces charges of treason, along with several others.

Mr Okafor-Mefor travelled to the UK to campaign to bring the situation to the attention of the international community - then, believing it was not safe to return, claimed asylum.

Looking back at his time in the asylum system he says: "It was traumatic. You lived in a state of not knowing what was going to happen to you at the next meeting. You don't have your life in your own hands; they're deciding your future for you."

'Little hope'

After an initial interview he was sent to Liverpool under the dispersal system to a hostel, while the claim was processed. Applicants are given 41 a week to pay for food and transport to register daily at the Home Office centre.

"It was a strange environment for me, depressing. It didn't give me much hope for the future. But I was consoled because so many people there were also in my situation," he says.

While in Liverpool he became a leading figure in the campaign group Asylum Voice, which campaigns for the rights of asylum seekers.

His first application was rejected - the Home Office said he was not in danger as it was unlikely the Nigerian government would be looking for him.

Following two failed appeals, Mr Okafor-Mefor was detained in February 2007 and moved to the Colnbrook detention centre near Heathrow for removal the following day.

They call it a detention and removal centre, but it is a prison.
Mr Okafor-Mefor

"It was the lowest point in my life so far. I was in a situation of despair and breakdown. I didn't know what was happening, I didn't know what I was going to face," he recalls.

His case had gathered unprecedented support from the trade union movement and asylum organisations, and his lawyers managed to get a High Court injunction an hour before he was to board a plane at Heathrow airport.

He was then taken to Tinsley House, near Gatwick airport.

"They call it a detention and removal centre, but it is a prison. You are in your cell with strict times when you can come out for prayer or time in the common room," he says.

"This is the situation for someone who hasn't committed a crime."

While his second application for asylum went through he was put on Section Four, which means he was given vouchers, not money.

These can only be used in a limited range of shops and not for transport, so he had to walk three miles and back daily to sign in at the Home Office.

'Serious depression'

"It doesn't give you any hope for the future. You have a lack of self-worth and you don't know what is waiting for you. Most asylum seekers fall into a serious depression. Most people in this situation degenerate until they have mental health problems," he said.

How did he cope? "I was lucky, I had friends and a lot of support from the community and asylum support groups," he stresses.

Following his second claim he was given refugee status, after more evidence was produced to prove his life was in danger.

"I broke down, couldn't believe it. That period of my life had come to an end and I was going to remain in this country. It was amazing," he insists.

Mr Okafor-Mefor is still working to highlight the cause of Massob and now is also working to improve the rights of asylum seekers in the UK.

He is currently working with Citizens for Sanctuary, which is training people like him to lobby on the issue.

Following his experience in the system, he says the entire asylum process needs an overhaul.

"Asylum seekers need to be given access to proper legal representation, the right to work, the right of access to education and proper healthcare. Section Four should be abolished.

"Asylum is not a crime, but a universal process."

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