Refugee who works on NHS front line hits out at Priti Patel’s immigration plans

An NHS worker who has spent the pandemic helping save lives on a Covid-19 ward says Priti Patel’s immigration plans will see refugees like her turned away from the UK.

Mariam, from Eritrea, is determined to help people and has been working exhausting 12-hour shifts in a Leeds hospital assisting coronavirus patients, sometimes four days in a row.

But figures released on Tuesday suggest that two in every three women and children who the UK would accept as refugees now would be turned away in future under proposed new Government rules, campaigners say.

Coalition group Together With Refugees is calling for a more effective, fair and humane approach to the UK’s asylum system.

The Home Office said the figures released by the group “wrongly conflate” refugees with people arriving via an “illegal route”.

Mariam joined the health service after coming to Britain in the back of a lorry in 2009, fleeing persecution and imprisonment in Eritrea.

However, Home Office plans to overhaul the immigration system may well have seen her application rejected because of her method of arrival, she said.

Mariam told the PA news agency: “When I left Eritrea, I didn’t know if I was going to live or die.

“I just knew I had to get out. Every day, I thank God for bringing me here, and secondly I thank the people of the UK who saved me.

“Because I am alive and because I am in a safe country I promise to God that I will help anyone.”

Mariam, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was granted asylum after her arrival in the UK and works as a clinical support worker, battling on the front line of the health crisis.

When she contracted Covid-19, she thought “I am dying” as she struggled to breathe, but she recovered and returned to her work, driven to help people after seeing so many die in Eritrea.

She said: “The UK gave me an opportunity and now I’m working. I don’t want to be dependent on the Government.

“I’m working and if I’m asked to help, I will help.”

Mariam said “the world knows what is happening” in places like Eritrea and called on the Government not to deport people claiming asylum.

Outlining her plans for immigration reform in March, Home Secretary Ms Patel said: “For the first time, whether people enter the UK legally or illegally will have an impact on how their asylum claim progresses, and on their status in the UK if that claim is successful.

“We will deem their claim as inadmissible, and make every effort to remove those who enter the UK illegally having travelled through a safe country first in which they could and should have claimed asylum.”

The Government’s New Plan for Immigration document claimed that, for the year ending September 2019, more than 60% of asylum claims were from people who are thought to have entered the UK “illegally”.

Sabir Zazai, Together With Refugees spokesman and a refugee himself, said: “Abandoning people fleeing war and persecution, including women and children, is not who we are in the UK.

“These are people in fear of their lives. These are people like me.

“These are also people like you, people who want to live in safety and dignity.”

Together With Refugees is a coalition of more than 200 organisations, founded by Asylum Matters, British Red Cross, Freedom from Torture, Refugee Action, Refugee Council and Scottish Refugee Council.

A Home Office spokesman said the current asylum system is “broken” and the new plan would help people based on need.

They added: “People should be reassured by our track record – since 2015 we have resettled over 25,000 vulnerable refugees, many women and children so they can rebuild their lives here.

“We make no apology for seeking to fix a system which is being exploited by human traffickers, who are encouraging women and children to risk their lives crossing the Channel.”

Immigration plans
Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Shabnam Nasimi, founder of the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan group (Shabnam Nasimi/PA)

Prominent Conservative voice Shabnam Nasimi says the Home Secretary’s plans risks punishing refugees.

Ms Nasimi, who was born in Afghanistan and founded the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan group, told PA: “I think putting refugees in the same box as European economic migrants punishes refugees, people who are fleeing war-torn countries such as Afghanistan for security and a safe life.

“If we close our doors what does it say about Britain, particularly global Britain after Brexit?”

She said Britain has a “responsibility” towards all those seeking refuge, including people from Afghanistan who still face persecution.

Actor Joanna Lumley self-filmed a video, saying: “I’m supporting Together With Refugees because how we treat refugees reflects who we are. Together With Refugees is calling for a better approach that is kinder, fairer and more effective.”