Father left homeless with young children says UK asylum system is 'dystopian'
A FATHER seeking asylum in Scotland with his young family has condemned the UK's "dystopian" immigration system as "dangerous" following a 12 hour cross-country ordeal in freezing temperatures.
The Herald detailed last week how Dr Henry Okwo, his wife and three children were forced to leave their rented flat in North Lanarkshire and were then picked up by police before being taken through the night to Newcastle and then York by the Home Office.
Their case was picked up by the charity Positive Action in Housing (PAIH), which put them up temporarily in a hotel.
Now the Okwos are living with a volunteer for the refugee and asylum seeker charity but their situation remains precarious as they wait for the Home Office to make a decision on housing and whether Okwo may work.
Okwo, a Masters student at the University of Strathclyde, said: "When we arrived in Newcastle and found there was no plan there, no one knew we were coming, it was bad, it was just so bad.
"I do not think that if we knew this was the system we would have come here. This is not what we perceived the system to be like.
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"When I think what happened I want to think it was just a mistake and nothing is perfect, we are not in utopia but we're not in dystopia at the end of the day.
"Though what happened in those two days was dystopian, I must say."
He arrived in the UK from Nigeria on a student visa, which gives him the right to work, but when he claimed asylum he was told - his lawyers believe wrongly - that this right was rescinded.
Okwo said he feels for politicians who have to take decisions on migration and "stop people trying to take advantage of the system" but that a system hostile to everyone is "dangerous".
The 35-year-old said: "On my visa it clearly states I have the right to work but they didn't even take the time to go through the paperwork.
"It feels like those who are taking the decisions can't see the effect of what they are doing is not just contradictory it is also dangerous.
"They are creating an environment for those who facilitate illegal migration because you don't have to do the right thing; you can go by small boat or take some illegal route, they will treat you badly anyway."
The family is currently being hosted by charity volunteer Mary Child, in her home just outside Glasgow.
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The children, Ferdinand, four, and Beauty, two, have clearly settled in well and Child, a retired teacher, entertains them with colouring in while Okwo is interviewed.
It is Okwo's hope that the two older children retain no memory of the night spent out in the cold and travelling across country.
He said: "I do not want the children to be affected by what happened. We used to use the police to scare them - we'd say, 'If you don't behave I'll call the police'. That night the police came.
"We felt so bad and we don't joke any more because I don't want them to think dad called the police.
"That has been the worst thing, that they might have these memories and be scared. I can only hope that they don't remember this, I hope they do not think about it."
Okwo appreciates the extent of Mary's generosity in opening her home, particularly with two young children and a babe-in-arms.
He added: "I feel for Mary because when I'm with [the children] I know how difficult it gets so I can only imagine for a person they have not lived with, it can just be overbearing.
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"So I feel for her but she and their mum are doing one hell of a job.
"Women are just magical really. What would the world be like without women like them?"
Owko says the help received so far - from PAIH, lawyers, the public and the media - has been "overwhelming" but it has been difficult to see his family's story in the press.
A public fundraiser set up by PAIH for the family generated more than £15,000 in 48 hours following the coverage in this paper.
He said: "The only time I've been published has been academic article but the press but the last two weeks has been enough publicity to last a lifetime really."
Some of the below the line comments and social media posts have been unpleasant but Okwo believes it was important to show the reality of the asylum system for people trapped within it.
He added: "When I got to Migrant Help and they just weren't listening, I understand that they've got their hands really full and everybody has got some kind of story and it could be really difficult for them to micromanage everybody's situation.
"But these are human beings, real human beings yet they see that a person is trying to cry out for help but nobody listens."
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Okwo believes the family would still be stranded in York if Mary hadn't stepped in, which would have meant him dropping out of his university course and losing connections they had built in the local community.
PAIH is making representations to local authorities to apply for housing and has organised lawyers to act for the family.
Okwo added: "We are complicating the lives of people who didn't sign up for this. We are putting people through difficult moments that they shouldn't have because the people with the ultimate responsibility and not fulfilling that responsibility."
Child has been volunteering with PAIH for a number of years and, through the home for refugees scheme, has made lifelong friends - and gained a daughter.
She and one of the young women who was placed with her forged such an intimate bond that they now view one another as mother and daughter.
Child said: "You don't do this with the expectation of gaining a family member but that has certainly been a major benefit.
"Various friends say to me, 'Are you not worried about security?' but I never have. Why would I?
"No one has ever been anything but careful with my house.
"It's really hard to say goodbye to people and the last person I hosted was with me for eight months with her toddler so I really missed her when she went but she's flying now, moving on so I'm missing them more than they're missing me."
Child's main concern now is keeping her home warm enough for the Okwo family in the cost of living crisis; the Nigerians are feeling the cold but it's impossibly expensive to keep the heating on.
Her community, in Rutherglen, South Lanarkshire, has made her "proud", she said, with the overwhelming practical and moral support they provide.
She added: "People rally round and support me, no matter who is in my house. My last person she came with nothing and then her daughter three weeks later came with nothing and we got everything given.
"At one point I was shutting the door saying no more in this house please. When she got a flat it was fully furnished with donations from this community."
Child is, however, infuriated by government policy and the way refugees and asylum seekers are treated as political pawns.
She added: "The stories I tell do not make sense because none of it makes sense. Everything is such a bureaucratic mess, such a muddle so it's hard to explain it except in very cynical terms.
"It's aim is to make people go away. It's really sad that politicians use immigration when they don't need to."
Okwo and his family have high hopes for the future and for putting their ordeal behind them.
He said: "I hope ultimately that this is not what people know me for. I hope they will eventually know me for being a better person who is giving back to society.
"I can't wait to graduate and get on."