Feature: The journey to refuge is longer than you think

By Ben Egginton

Britain has a rich history of serving as a haven for refugees: Dutch Protestants fled there in the 16th century to avoid persecution from their Spanish overlords; members of the ousted French aristocracy made the island their home after the French Revolution of 1789-99; and prominent socialist revolutionaries found safety there in the mid-19th century.

The situation for asylum seekers hasn’t improved in the 21st century. With only 41% of the world’s countries classified as ‘developed’ by the World Bank and only 39% classified as ‘democracies’ by the Democracy Index, the number of people being forced to flee their homes is higher than ever.

The sociologist Karl Marx sought political asylum in London in 1849, where he lived for the remainder of his life.

Meli Tati, 48, who hails from the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, is one of the UK’s 121,837 refugees as of 2018. And the experience they have in Britain differs from person to person.

Like many who’ve gone before her, Meli initially fled to neighbouring Angola before boarding a flight to the UK.

She arrived in London in February 2015 and after applying for asylum with the Home Office, was moved from town to town.

As a former political science student she cited persecution from her government as a key reason for her decision to leave.

She said: “I wasn’t secure. I wasn’t protected. I was exposed to danger, especially death, and I was obliged to run away.

“I got support from the Home Office when I arrived in England and am grateful towards them, but at one stage I was in detention for about three weeks.

“I didn’t like that they chose only me to put in detention, while other people in the same situation were in sharing accommodation. I was scared and frustrated.

“And at the end of this story, they didn’t specify why they put me in detention.”

But the biggest challenge of all was coping with being separated from her loved ones.

“I miss my family,” she said, “especially my mom, who I miss a lot”.

Meli Tati (centre), with Ashley Housing representatives Laura Maton (left) and Rose Adderley (right).

Shortly after being detained, Meli settled in Wolverhampton where RMC helped her secure a place at City of Wolverhampton College to improve her English.

Her journey with Ashley Housing started when she was granted refugee status, which ended her National Asylum Support Service (NASS) support.

Meli did not know what to do or where to go, and was directed by the RMC to Ashley Housing. And that was the beginning of her story with the ACH Community.

“They support me in all aspects of life,” she said. “Ashley Housing has shown me how helping people can be rewarding.”

ACH – founded in 2008 – is a social enterprise, specialising in supporting, housing and integrating refugees.

It has offices in Bristol, Birmingham and Wolverhampton, and helps some 2,500 people each year.

Rose Adderley, Marketing and Communication Assistant at ACH, said: “Everyone’s really positive about ACH.

“I went to Birmingham the other day and spoke to learners on one of the courses and one of them actually cried to me because ACH had helped her so much.”

Meli added without the opportunity to volunteer with ACH and gain experience, she’d still be struggling to get into work now.

Map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Like Meli, the majority of the 9,000 Congolese-born people residing in the UK arrived as political refugees.

Since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960 the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been plagued by political power struggles and rebellions – and none of its governments have willingly ceded power to their successors.

The incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, has been blamed for losing control of the country, allowing its territorial integrity to be undermined by neighbouring countries.

Mr Kabila’s second term in office expired on 20 December 2016, but elections still haven’t been held to elect a successor.

And that is just one country from which people feel they have to flee. Asylum seekers also come to Britain from Eritrea for reasons such as military conscription and poverty, and from Syria as a result of the ongoing civil war.

UK asylum applications and grant rates top ten (June 2017 – June 2018)

Looking to the future, Meli has secured a place on a French language course at a university and aspires to become a French teacher.

To read more about Meli’s story, click here. And for more about Ashley Housing click here.