Challenges remain despite UK’s fast-tracking of Iranian asylum-seekers

Challenges remain despite UK’s fast-tracking of Iranian asylum-seekers

The director of an organisation that supports refugees in the UK, including Iranian Christians, has spoken to Article18 about the challenges they continue to face, despite Iran recently being added to the list of countries of origin whose asylum claims are fast-tracked.

Maria Wilby (Photo: RAMA)

Maria Wilby, who runs Colchester-based Refugee, Asylum seeker & Migrant Action (RAMA), said the claims of around half of all Iranian asylum-seekers centre on their professed conversion to Christianity.

But even though the UK’s official guidelines recognise that Iranian Christians face a “real risk” of persecution, Ms Wilby said asylum claims involving a purported religious conversion often prove more complicated.

“They’re harder than some other claims because the proof is much more related to how you live your life now, whereas for people who are fleeing because of war, that’s not so relevant,” she explained.

“There’s the same kind of burden of evidence as with LGBTQ+ clients. You have to prove that you’re members of groups here in the UK; you have to prove that you might also have been in your own country, which obviously is largely impossible.

“And say you’re from Iran, and you’re LGBTQ+, you have 36% chance of success in your first claim, compared to 86% chance for other claims. And there’s a similar figure for if you’re basing it on religion, so there’s less chance than if you were Muslim from that country.”

Ms Wilby said the claims of Iranian Christian asylum-seekers are “very much about proving a continuing faith”, and claimants receive “quite an interrogation”.

“They will test you absolutely in your interview on your Bible knowledge,” she said. “They make it very, very clear that they don’t take your word for it. You actually will be asked, ‘Who is Christ?’ What were the names of the disciples? Can you tell me a verse? Can you point me to which part of the Bible I might find this part?’ It’s quite an interrogation, just around Christianity in general, and then quite a lot around their current practices. Are they attending church? Can they have somebody verify that? What does their faith mean in their day to day life?”

One factor that has helped Iranian Christians in their claims, Ms Wilby said, is the testimony of local church leaders or members, especially those who have taken the trouble to go to court to testify in person.

“We had a client recently who was able to get his [refugee] status because the pastor actually went to court for him and stood as a face to face witness,” she explained. “Any pastor who’s a decent person will write you a letter, but it probably doesn’t mean an awful lot; whereas somebody coming to London, choosing to stay overnight and be there and support you, is quite different.”

“They’re experts in their field, aren’t they?” Ms Wilby added, though as Article18 has reported previously, not every judge shares that opinion.

And even though Iran has now been added to the fast-track list – due to the high percentage of claims accepted – an unfortunate consequence, Ms Wilby explained, is that many asylum-seekers find that any support they were receiving is then swiftly removed.

“It’s tragic,” she said, “because what is happening is that we are getting between five and eight people a week who are getting their [refugee] status and then becoming homeless and destitute, because their letters are coming through with only a week’s notice now that they have to be out of their accommodation.

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“You need a minimum of five weeks to get your Universal Credit [financial support]; you may not have had your BRP [document] already to prove that you have the right to Universal Credit; or worse still, you get it and it’s got a mistake on it, so you have to send it back, and then it could be a couple of months before you get it again in the right way. And so you’re left homeless, without any benefits, your asylum support has stopped, and there is no move on accommodation at all.”

And while RAMA continues to try to support refugees even after their claims are processed, the reality, RAMA caseworker Colm McDonald told Article18, is that their resources are finite.

“It is very difficult, to be honest,” he said. “Often our best advice is to ask them if they’ve got friends’ sofas they can sleep on, because the council won’t provide accommodation unless you’re a priority, or what they deem to be a priority, which is vulnerable people with children or illnesses.” 

“Or if you’ve had a successful NRM conclusive grounds decision under trafficking or modern slavery, that might count,” Ms Wilby added. “If you’ve got a mental health diagnosis or physical health diagnosis, that might help. But even then it is a battle every single time. We’ve had people leaving hospital who have been in for months and are clearly too unwell to be on the streets, and even then it’s been a battle. 

“So it is very difficult. We are just getting hopefully a new partnership with our local council, where they’re prepared to put a little bit of money in for something creative, which will hopefully help the most vulnerable among those people. But we’ll never be able to help the numbers that are coming through now; not all of them.

“We do everything from rooms for refugees; we have volunteers who’ve taken people in; we’ve got lovely relationships with all sorts of people who will provide emergency support, but it’s not really working.”

One person who has benefitted from RAMA’s support is Iranian Christian convert Mehdi Jalalaghdamian, whose talent as a rug-maker was noticed during a RAMA visit to a local art gallery in 2021.

A year later, Mehdi’s rugs were themselves being displayed in the gallery, as Article18 reported earlier this month, but he is still waiting on a final decision in his case.

Mehdi at the launch of his exhibition (Photo: Firstsite)

And while there are hopes that Mehdi’s rugs may even go on to be displayed at a national museum, Ms Wilby says that Mehdi’s story is not only a “good news” story.

“It’s a wonderful thing that he has done, and even more so when you understand that he is still trapped in the asylum system at a frightening time in history, where human rights breaches are at an all-time high, and the hostile environment policy of our current government is bringing many clients to their knees,” she said. “Good news stories are always needed, but I would love to think we could take this opportunity to raise some of the dreadful issues facing people like Mehdi – and what talent is being wasted.

“And he still doesn’t feel that sense of freedom and liberty that that we had hoped he would feel. And that’s because he’s not a free man; until he gets his decision he’s not a free man. He is a second-status person, and that’s how the Home Office wants it to be. And they spend an awful lot of time and energy making sure that everybody’s very, very clear about that.”

The UK is currently in the process of introducing new legislation – the so-called ‘Illegal Migration Act’ – to further clamp down on the influx of asylum-seekers arriving via the English Channel, many of whom end up being supported by organisations like RAMA.

And Ms Wilby warned: “If the Illegal Migration Bill goes through, then nobody will be a legal asylum-seeker. There won’t be any. They’ll all be illegal migrants.”

Ms Wilby is also critical of the tendency to portray so-called “economic migrants” as less deserving of help, saying: “If you were in the UK, and you had nothing to feed your children or grandchildren, what would you do? You’d go to the next country and ask them to feed them. And that’s what it means to be an economic migrant. It’s not about, ‘Oh, I’ve got a nice car, but I want a nicer car.’ These are people who are literally starving, and feel so disadvantaged that they think that the next generation will also be equally disadvantaged. And of course then you try and move.

“And back in the day, it used to be that if you had a child in another country, they would basically be a native of that country. We’ve changed the rules to mean that migration and borders grow and grow. And actually, we’ve created this system – all of us have created this system by standing by and letting it happen – and it’s not right. If I believed in God, God certainly didn’t intend there to be borders. Nobody would. Why would you? It’s an unnatural concept. We are one world, and we should share it.”

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