REFUGEE TALES III: The Stateless Person’s Tale

Refugee Tales III (ed. David Herd and Anna Pincus) is published 11th July 2019 by Comma Press. Refugee Tales is an outreach project of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, and all proceeds from the books go to GDWG and Kent Refugee Help. You can preorder(/order) the book here. In the run-up to its publication, the Glasgow Review of Books will be publishing extracts from the book. This is the first extract.


The Stateless Person’s Tale 

as told to 

Abdulrazak Gurnah 

You ask how long I have been here. This is now my twelfth year, and sometimes I have to count more than once to be sure I have the right number. It is so long. I have been coming and going between the Home Office and one office after another in all that time. When I say Home Office, I don’t mean I go there or meet anyone, I just receive letters. Do this, do that, otherwise. They don’t like it if you don’t cooperate, let alone if you dare to disobey. Everyone knows that behind the letters there is a list of threats, withdrawal of privileges, detention, deportation. 

That is what they are waiting to do, to deport me. They have been wanting to do that for the last nine years, ever since my arrest in 2009. I was sentenced to over a year in prison which meant I was liable for automatic deportation upon release. The courts do that deliberately, give sentences of just over a year to make it possible for the Home Office to deport us if they can. The reason they do not always succeed is because there are laws and there are lawyers with good hearts who stop them, or at least delay them. Also they cannot deport me unless the country they intend to send me to is safe for me and is willing to accept me. As you know, my country is G___ and I fled from there because my life was in danger, but the Home Office say that it’s not so dangerous any more, and I can return safely. I don’t think so. Whatever they say, G___ will not accept me because I have no papers to prove that I am from G___. 

I have applied to be recognised as a stateless person. If I was stateless, then I would have residence, I could work and contribute to the country, and after a length of time even apply for citizenship. But even that is confused. Although the law required me to apply to be recognised as stateless, the Home Office keep sending me back to the embassy for travel documents so they can deport me. I have been to the embassy three times now and each time they turn me away because I have no documents that prove my nationality. The woman there laughed at me this last time. ‘You’re still here,’ she said. ‘The Home Office are wasting your time sending you to us. How many times have you come to us? The answer will always be the same until you come with papers to show you are from G___.’ 

I have no choice but to go to the embassy when the Home Office ask me to, otherwise they will say I am not cooperating, and they will put me in detention. I am liable for detention at any time, that is my status. I don’t want to complain. They tell me to go, I go. 

Why do I not have papers? I am laughing at my ignorance and because of my bad luck. 

When I was in G___, and in hiding from those people who wanted to kill me because of my Christian work against cutting women, there was an English man who helped me, Bernard. He worked for the Christian NGO which employed me. He knew that my life was in danger because the people who were looking for me came to the office several times to ask for me. I was desperate to get away, and it was my English friend Bernard who advised me to come here. He took my passport from me and a week later he gave it back with a visa stamped in it. I asked him how he did that as usually it is very difficult to get a visa: you have to attend an interview, pay a lot of money and send the passport to another country for authorisation and it all takes a long time. He said don’t ask, so I didn’t. Somehow friends and relatives helped me raise the fare, and my English friend Bernard and I travelled together to London. 

I was so grateful to him for everything he had done for me, and for also accompanying me. I had not travelled to Europe before and it was reassuring to have him sitting beside me. The airport officials asked me some questions and I answered as well as I could without really understanding why they were asking those questions. I must have given the right answers because they let me in as a visitor. When we were through the gate and in that crowd of arrivers in the terminal, my English friend Bernard asked for my passport. He said it was safer for him to keep it and that I was to go to the Home Office and say I have come for asylum. I gave him my passport and he gave me a piece of paper with the address: Home Office, Lunar House, 1st Floor, 40 Wellesley Road, Croydon CR9 2BY. In a moment he was gone, and I have not seen him since. 

I don’t know why I gave my passport away so easily. I trusted him because he had helped me so much already. I don’t know why he took my passport. Perhaps it was out of good intentions, to help me. Or perhaps it was to protect himself, because I don’t know how he obtained the visa for me, but it was probably not done in the proper way. Perhaps it was to protect whoever had helped him. It was soon after he disappeared into the crowd that I realised that I did not know how to find him again. I realised that I did not have any money, and that it was a weekend day and the Home Office in Croydon would not open until Monday morning. Even then, I had no idea of the long journey I was about to embark upon. As the office was closed, a security guard gave me the address of a place I could stay overnight. Then the following day I went back to Croydon where I was questioned and interviewed and sent to temporary accommodation. It took me several weeks to understand that the officials did not like me, that they intended to get rid of me if they could, that perhaps they did not believe my life was in danger in G___. They turned down my application to stay and the refugee advisers told me to appeal. I was turned down again and appealed again. It took months between application and rejection and appeal. By this time, I was living in Glasgow and was becoming slowly defeated by my idleness. I had to stay at the address I was allocated. I had no money, just a card for my basic necessities. I could not travel and worst of all, I could not work to earn a little extra for myself and to keep my mind and body healthy. 

Yes, it was looking for work that led to my arrest. I went to register for work using false documents. I used false documents because I have no documents to prove my nationality. The papers belonged to someone who was in the same congregation as me in Glasgow. He had permission to stay and could take a job, but urgent family affairs meant he had to go back home. His family were going to lose their land if he was not there to contest. If he went back to his home country, he would lose his refugee status and would not be able to return, but he had no choice. I borrowed his papers and went to register for work at an Agency. I don’t know how the agency worker knew that the documents were not mine. He did not give any sign or challenge me. He asked me questions about myself and what work experience I had and what work I was looking for. Then he said he had to go and fetch a form or something like that and would be right back. 

The police turned up within minutes, two cars with four men who were happy in their work. They took me away and locked me up, and the next morning I was in court. They were in such a hurry to get everything over with that they did not allow me to call anyone or speak to a lawyer. I was not charged with attempting to register myself for work as someone else, but for being illegally in employment. I don’t know why. Maybe it made their case stronger. There was no evidence, no discussion, no defence. It was all over within minutes and I was sentenced to fourteen months in prison, and liable for deportation on release. I was sent to prison; no, I don’t want to talk about that. I was given early release after a few months, and was sent to the Dungavel Detention Centre in Strathaven. It is where they hold people waiting to be deported. From Dungavel, I was sent to another Immigration Removal Centre and after several months there I was sent to S___ where I still live now, back to the round of application, rejection, appeal. I have been living in that house so long now that I feel in charge of the others who come and go. I make sure everyone does their share of cleaning and clearing up. No one makes a fuss. There are two men from Eritrea, just boys really, a man from Ivory Coast and a Russian. Yes, a white man… Russian, not a Chechen or a Tartar or one of those other kinds of Russians. Sometimes I think he must wonder what he has done to be put among an African rabble like us. 

When the police arrested me and the court sentenced me in such haste, there was no time for me to collect any of my belongings or my documents. I asked about my papers and I was told there was nothing there. Everything was cleared out after my arrest, the photograph of my wife and children, my school certificate, my birth certificate, my address book. They must have thrown them all in the bin. So when the Home Office advised me to go to the embassy to get travel papers so they could deport me, and even paid my fare to London, I had no papers of any kind to prove I was from G___. As you know, this did not stop them from sending me again, and again. Perhaps they did not think I was trying hard enough, or perhaps there is no thinking behind it, just a machine which is programmed to be cruel. 

I have been here now for twelve years as I told you. I am still not allowed to work. I help at my church and volunteer for an organisation that visits and counsels hostel dwellers. Many of them are alcoholics or ex-offenders. I was given eighteen weeks training for this work, so I am a qualified counsellor. I registered for an Access course, but I couldn’t get a student loan because of my status. I also did an Adult Social Care course which a refugee organisation paid for. I do what I can to try and stay sane, but it is hard when I have so much time on my hands and so many sad memories of my children who are so far away and have grown up now. I am 59 years old and I feel the time going away from me. I have constant headaches, high blood pressure and just recently I was diagnosed with diabetes. The doctor said I am depressed and prescribed me medication for it. I said I don’t need medication for depression or stress, I want my freedom. Many days I don’t even go out. 

I know that my only chance now is to be reclassified as a Stateless Person, to have an opportunity to start again, but I have been waiting for years for a decision on that. My last application was a year ago, as a result of which I was sent once again to the embassy where I was told what I was told before. No papers, no G___ travel papers. I don’t want to go to G___. My life will be in danger there. I need to be reclassified as a Stateless person so I can have the right to work and contribute something to this country. 

Why is the Home Office so wicked? Is this what the English people want them to be like? They can’t all be wicked like this. Many of them have been so good. Perhaps after all this time someone in the Home Office will say let us end this poor African man’s torment and let him work. What have I done that they are treating me like this? If they turn me down this time, I’ll pack my bag and go to the Home Office and tell them to send me where they want, even if it is only to dump me in the middle of the ocean. 

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