One man’s ordeal reveals depth of Britain's immigration failures
Victor Michael became one of hundreds foreign nationals trapped in Britain’s nightmarish immigration system
When Victor Michael signed an official immigration form on behalf of his wife, he never imagined it would lead to 15 months in prison, five months in a removal centre, the collapse of his personal and professional life and the beginning of an existence at the margins of British society.
Mr Michael, 33, has lived in Britain since 2001, having arrived on a student visa from Nigeria to live with his mother, uncle and cousins when he was a teenager.
In February 2016, when Home Office representatives showed up at his work place, his life was on track. He held a post as clinical researcher in an academic institution, he was married a British woman and had a toddler son, Victor Angel.
When he was taken into custody he soon realised that signing the immigration forms – his wife had agreed to sponsor him but was abroad at the time – had been a gross miscalculation. He was charged with fraud for falsifying legal documents and became one of hundreds foreign nationals trapped in Britain’s nightmarish immigration system.
Nick Beales, a legal manager with the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees (BiD), told The National this case was remarkable for the harshness with which Mr Michael was handled, but also turned out to be representative of the numerous abuses that plague the country’s hardening immigration system.
“Foreign national offenders invariably are released effectively into detention. They go from being detained under criminal powers to being detained under immigration powers,” Mr Beales said.
Britain is the only country in the EU without a statutory time limit for administrative detention, meaning that a person does not know how long they will be detained for under immigration charges.
The UK Borders Act of 2007 made provision for the automatic deportation of foreign criminals. If administrative detention follows a criminal sentence, the Home Office’s own guidelines state that the foreign national can be detained up to 14 days only if deportation is imminent.
This rule, however, is often not applied. In Mr Michael’s case, Mr Beales said “it was clear deportation was never imminent.”
The National was unable to access the criminal court files but BiD confirmed Mr Michael had been convicted of a non-violent crime and later assessed by probation officers as posing a low risk of harm to the public and a low risk of re-conviction.
This assessment – and his status as a father – should have merited bail. But Mr Beals, who filed the claim, said Home Office representatives did not abide to their own rules and immigration judges let it slide.
Discarding the evidence presented by probation officers and ignoring Home Office regulations on child welfare, three different immigration judges refused to grant bail.
Mr Beales believes Mr Michael’s Nigerian nationality influenced the court. From 2009 to 2017, white offenders were consistently given the shortest custodial sentences on average, while Asian or Black offenders were given the longest, according to a report by the Home Office.
Mr Michael was eventually released when the hardships of detention – compounded by verbal abuse on the part of his Home Office caseworker documented by BiD – had deteriorated his mental health to the point of making his release compulsory.
Freedom of Information (FOI) requests have revealed that more than one person a day needs medical treatment for self-harming in UK detention centres. Brook House, where Mr Michael was held, has since been exposed by a BBC Panorama investigation as a brutal environment.
“[A detention centre] is the worst place in the world a human being can step foot in” Mr Michael told The National. “You’ve got people killing themselves, slashing themselves, because there is no clarity. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.”
The worst part, he said, is not knowing when you will be released and never having the assurance that you will not be detained again. “Just because you are out it doesn’t guarantee freedom. That’s the worst feeling – the deception of it,” he said.
A highly critical report released on Thursday by the UK’s Joint Committee on Human Rights described the UK’s immigration system as “slow, unfair and expensive to run” and called for a detention limit of 28 days. A cross-party group of MPs is currently trying to push for an amendment to the immigration bill in parliament.
Sixteen months since his release, Mr Michael’s case is still unresolved. He has asked The National to refrain from using his real surname as his legal proceedings are still ongoing.
Every Wednesday afternoon, he must report at Eaton House – an immigration centre in the capital’s suburbs – and make a trip that takes him around five hours and costs nearly £20. He has no right to work and is financially dependent on his current wife – a Bulgarian national he met after his first marriage floundered.
Outside Eaton House, other foreign nationals complain of financial difficulties and messy administrative rules.
Some are new to the system and have little understanding of what is happening to them. Ray Ramon, an 80-year-old former US military official, said he has been living between Britain and the US for the past 58 years with his British wife and is now facing deportation for failing to renew his visa.
Legislative measures regulating immigration have been toughened in 2016, when the current government of Prime Minister Theresa May launched its “hostile environment policy”.
Organisations working in the field say this is making Britain less safe for everyone.
According to the Migrants Research Centre, which provides legal advice and other services, foreign nationals who have been victims of heinous crimes including rape have refrained from reporting the incident in fear of incurring into trouble with immigration authorities.
“This is enforcement gone absolutely mad,” Ciaran Price, a spokesperson for the organization, told The National.
According to Mr Price, rather than making British society safer, this system is producing people who are destitute, mentally vulnerable and alienated from British society and its institutions.
The Home Office failed to respond to requests for comment in response to the allegations. However, the government acknowledged it paid £3 million to 118 people unlawfully detained in the 2017-18 financial year.
The number of people entering detention every year fluctuates between 27,000 and 33,000 and over half are released back into the community – which means their detention did not serve its stated purpose of being for removal or deportation.
Mr Michael’s application to obtain an indefinite right to remain is now complicated by his criminal conviction. He said he still takes tablets and has flashbacks of trauma, but is grateful for having a family that materially and morally supports him.
“If I didn’t have them and a little bit of that support… there is no way you can survive. You can’t get a house, you can’t get money, you can’t work. You can’t do nothing,” he said. “We are X men: we just exist.”
The 33-year-old is now working on drafting a book about his experience to “turn it into something positive.”
“I make a conscious effort to stay positive,” he said. “I just try not to remain idle. Because as they say: idle mind is the devil's workshop.”
Updated: February 7, 2019 07:24 PM