The Blood of a woman
THE EVENING began like every other. Mirela was driven to the hotel near the station by one of his men. To room 13, at the end of the corridor.
It was March and still cold in Tirana. Even in her thick green coat, she shivered as she walked from his car to the lobby. Her driver nodded at the receptionist, took the key and led her silently upstairs. Once in the room, he told her to get ready – the first client would arrive shortly.
The room was small, dirty and cold. The furnishings were sparse: a bed, a side table with a lamp and a basic bathroom with a mirror that she did her make-up in. No chair, no desk, not even a wardrobe. Her visitors would not be staying long.
This was Mirela’s routine now. For two years she had existed like this – the property of a violent gang leader, a slave in Albania’s sex trade. If she complained she was beaten, or worse. Her captor took pleasure in showing her the pistol he carried, to remind her what would happen if she tried to run.
Her days were spent locked in his house on the outskirts of the city, often left without food. Her nights were here in Room 13.
She knew that no one would come to her rescue. Her family wanted her dead and the police were among her customers. She had lost all hope. This was her destiny, she told herself. This was what she deserved.
It was shortly after midnight, while she was with a client, that they heard a confrontation downstairs. Shouting, heavy footsteps running, doors slamming. Her visitor hurriedly dressed and left to see what was going on. He did not return.
Then there were fists hammering at her door, voices demanding that she open it, yelling that they were the police. Terrified, she complied.
Four uniformed men pushed past her into the room, checked the bathroom then started to bombard her with questions. They wanted to know what she was doing there, and whether she knew a man whose name she had never heard before. She was convinced she would be arrested if she told them the truth, so she stuck to her cover story.
They showed her a photograph of the man they were looking for. It was him, of course – but the name was not what she knew him as. She said she’d never seen him before. They left and moved on to the next room.
The sounds of the raid reverberated through the building for some time, until eventually the commotion began to subside. Voices, no longer raised, became increasingly distant. Then it was silent.
She paced the tiny room, not knowing what to do. Hours went by like this. The building remained quiet, offering no clues. At any moment she expected her captor or one of his men to come for her. And so she waited.
The sun began to rise. Hesitantly, she gathered the few personal items she had with her – clothes, make-up, a hair brush and a small bundle of tattered Lek and Euros, tips from clients hidden in the lining of her bag – and opened the door.
The hallway was empty, the doors to the other rooms all closed.
Nauseous with fear and overwhelmingly conscious of the sound of each footstep, she somehow made it to the stairs. Nothing. No-one. Tentatively, she followed the steps down to the lobby. It was deserted.
Finally, she pushed open the front door and stepped out into the chilly, grey morning. It was the first time in over two years that she had been outside by herself.
She didn’t know where to go, but she was certain there wouldn’t be another chance like this. If they caught her now, trying to escape, it would all be over for her anyway.
Instinctively, she hurried the short distance to Rinia Park in the city centre and sat, heart pounding at her temples, on a bench outside the tourist restaurant. Commuters walked past her without a second glance. Her thoughts were a blur.
She knew from bitter experience that she could trust no-one with what had happened to her. She was disgraced, without a family to turn to. In Albania that meant she was utterly alone. But she had to do something. Even now, he might be looking for her – and Tirana is a small city.
It was in south London, 1,000 miles away, that I first met Mirela. This was January 2016, and at that point she had already been in the UK for six years. She had just lost her asylum appeal and was facing the prospect of being sent back to the horrors she had risked everything to flee – to where she would likely be killed by her family or re-enslaved by traffickers.
I was running a photography workshop for the South London Refugee Association, a charity I had just started volunteering for, and she was one of the participants. She was angry at the way asylum seekers were portrayed in the media and wanted people to understand what she had been through. A few months later we began working together to tell her story.
For her safety, I can’t describe her escape from Tirana, her journey to the UK or the violence she suffered when she first arrived here. I have talked about it extensively with her and discussed it with her lawyer, her therapist and staff at some of the organisations that have taken on her harrowing case. I’ve read about it in statements from expert witnesses, police reports and in other legal documents, and have heard it detailed at the asylum tribunal at which I eventually testified.
The circumstances are so specific and unusual that it would be too easy for those who would harm her, both in Albania and here in the UK, to identify her from it. Mirela, of course, is not her real name.
She came to the UK just wanting to get away. To be somewhere – anywhere – that was safe. She escaped a lifetime of unspeakable traumas and violations, only to suffer more abuse and encounter a brutal immigration system designed to make the UK a hostile environment for those who make it to our shores.
What I can say about her journey is that she found herself on a quiet suburban street on the outskirts of London in 2010, once again not knowing where to go or who to trust.
This is Mirela’s story – but it is also the story of countless asylum seekers like her, and the reality they face when they come to the UK.
Puka is a small town, buried in the foothills of the Dukagjin Mountains in northern Albania. It is just 80km north of the capital, and yet it exists as if in a different age.
This is a neglected region, ignored by politicians, mocked by southern elites – but simultaneously feared for the fierce independence of its people, who for hundreds of years have violently resisted invaders, foreign and domestic.
It is also the land of the Kanun, an ancient set of laws dictating how life must be lived. It was in this remote corner of the Balkan Peninsula that these blood-soaked commandments were first laid down. Some historians suggest they date back more than two millennia to the time of Illyria.
For countless generations they passed down through communities orally. In the 15th Century an Albanian nobleman called Leke Dukagjini formally codified the Kanun, but it was not until the late 1800s that it was committed to the page, updated to contain references to modern weaponry.
Today, especially in the north, it still wields considerable influence over Albanian society, informing attitudes towards women, honour, hospitality and property. As Leonard Fox wrote in his 1989 translation, “The importance of the Kanun in the history of the Albanian people can scarcely be overestimated, and its precepts continue to exercise a very significant influence over Albanians living in Albania and Kosovo, as well as in other countries to which they have emigrated.”
The Kanun has much to say about women. It states that: “The blood of a woman is not equal to the blood of a man” and adds: “The Kanun considers a woman as a superfluity in the household.”
A woman has no right to make decisions for herself, and she can inherit nothing. If she refuses to marry the man agreed by her father, then “she should be handed over to him by force, together with a cartridge, and if the girl tries to flee, her husband may kill her with her parents’ cartridge.”
Other passages discuss the occasions on which it is acceptable to shoot a woman in the back, when she can be beaten and when she can be thrown out of the house, naked, whipped and even burnt alive.
Here, in the mountains, attitudes may have changed over the years, but aspects of these medieval notions nonetheless persist. Indeed, they saw a resurgence in the 1990s. In Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, author and academic Siddharth Kara notes that “though the Kanun lost influence during five decades of communist rule, after the fall of communism in 1992 and subsequent socioeconomic strife that engulfed the country, many rural Albanians returned to the Kanun as a trusted guide to their daily lives.”
It was in a small village not far from here that Mirela grew up, the eldest daughter of an impoverished farmer. In 1985 it was not a good place to be born a girl.
Hers was not a happy childhood. When she was just nine months old her father sent her to live with his wife’s family in a distant village, because they could not afford to care for a girl. For the first six years of her life she believed that her aunt and uncle were her parents.
To them, she was a nuisance, another mouth to feed. They either beat her or ignored her. Her grandfather, who lived with them, was the only person to show her any kindness. He died just after her sixth birthday.
When she was seven, her parents decided she was old enough to be useful and so had her brought back. She did not know them, and could not believe they were really her parents. She was terrified. The day she arrived she could not stop crying, so her father beat her until blood stained the wall of their house.
She was a stranger in this place, in her own family. It is something she says she never came to terms with, but grew to accept.
At once, she was put to work.
The Kanun states: “The mistress of the house has the right… to order the women of the house to fetch water and wood, to bring bread to the workers, to wash, to dispose of the slops, to reap, to hoe, or to clean.” Her mother took a liberal interpretation of the term “women”.
Each morning, the seven-year-old Mirela had to rise before dawn to prepare breakfast for her parents and brothers, wash their clothes, bake bread, clean the house and go out into the fields to tend to the livestock.
Her mother found fault with everything she did. She beat her almost every day and encouraged her father to do the same.
When she was old enough, her parents begrudgingly sent her to school, as the law required. It was a 40-minute walk away through the forest and every day she was an hour late because of the tasks she had to perform first. Despite this, she excelled. For her, books were a merciful escape, offering a tantalising glimpse of a future beyond her village.
She read at every opportunity – although opportunities were scarce. At home, she wasn’t allowed to so much as look at a book or she would be beaten. Books were not for girls. The only time she could do her homework was when she was out looking after the cows, where her parents couldn’t see her. Even in heavy rain or snow she would find shelter beneath a tree or in a cave so that she could use what time she had to herself to read and to learn.
Mirela was a fiercely independent child – much to her parents’ dismay. When she was told she could not do something, she demanded to know why. If she was unsatisfied with the answer she would argue, despite the inevitable violence it would provoke. And if she felt it was unjust – as with her schoolwork – she would find a way to do it in secret.
This was not how young girls were supposed to behave.
These small acts of rebellion kept her sane, she says. She hated the drab, ill-fitting clothes her conservative parents forced on her – so she hid a pair of jeans and some colourful tops in the forest, wrapped up in a dozen plastic bags. They had been donated to her school by an international NGO – she took them, but never brought them home. Every day, on her way to school, she would change into them in the forest, and then change back on the return journey.
Once, her father caught her and beat her so badly she was knocked unconscious – but it did not deter her. As she grew older, she collected innumerable bruises for hiding make-up. She would not be defeated.
Then, in 1997, when she was 12, the country descended into chaos. The post-communist government was so corrupt that a pyramid scheme involving most of the population’s personal savings collapsed. Half of Albania’s GDP disappeared overnight. Violence engulfed the country. This was not a civil war, but total, nationwide anarchy.
Looted guns flooded the black market as police and military structures fell apart. Criminal gangs used the opportunity to build private armies and establish personal fiefdoms. While order and democracy have since been restored and much done to try to curb the power of the mafia, Albania has struggled with organised crime ever since. The UN estimates that there could be as many as 210,000 illegally owned firearms in circulation today.
It was a dangerous time, and many women and children were kidnapped and trafficked. Mirela was pretty, and her grandmother and uncle persuaded her father to stop her from going to school, supposedly for her own protection. No kidnappings had occurred in their isolated district, however, and no other parents took their daughters out of her class. Mirela believes their motives had more to do with a conviction that girls should not go to school than to the country’s troubles.
This was a blow from which she has still not recovered. School was freedom, hope, her only source of happiness. The day her father broke the news to her she took her school books and burnt them on the grass outside their house, then climbed onto the roof and threw herself off it.
She did not die that day – but it changed her. In the months that followed she barely spoke. When her parents beat her, she no longer cried. She performed her tasks without complaint and never mentioned school. She could no longer bear to even see a book. If she came across one she would become upset and need to be alone.
More than a year went by like this, as if in a coma. The fight had been knocked out of her. Her parents had won, and yet even they could see this was not much of a victory. Eventually, despite the protestations of her mother, her father relented and told her that she could start secondary school. She shocked him by refusing. That part of her had died.
Not knowing what else to do with this catatonic child, he forced the issue, and packed her off to a state boarding school. There she would spend six weeks at a time without having to come home. Finally, at 14, her domestic shackles had been removed.
It should have been a joyous time – and she does have some happy memories. She made friends and worked hard. But her love of reading and learning had been extinguished. Indeed, she found that if she read for more than ten minutes at a time she would be struck by crippling headaches. This remains the case today.
She passed her exams, but knew her marks were not what she was capable of. For a while, however, life was better.
Mirela was 17 when she was raped for the first time.
It was while she was at boarding school. A friend persuaded her to sneak off campus because she wanted to meet a boy in the nearby town and needed Mirela as a chaperone.
To this day, she does not know whether her friend was involved in the plan or not, but she is certain that it was a trap. They met the boy in a café for lunch, but as the afternoon wore on, her friend delayed their departure, claiming she’d seen her cousin walking outside and insisting that they could not leave.
By the time the coast was clear it was dark. An older man appeared, who knew the boy. Apparently he was to drive Mirela back to school, while the friend and her beau walked together. She did not want to go with him but, under pressure from all three, she agreed.
Instead of driving her to the school, he took her to some nearby woods. He parked, produced a gun, and then raped her there in the car. He was 50 years old – older than her father. She was a virgin, and had never even kissed a boy.
If anybody knew that she had been raped, she would be blamed. Irrespective of the circumstances, the woman was always culpable, even if the attacker was judged to be guilty also. The consequences of anyone knowing what had happened to her would be terrible – possibly fatal.
So she told no one. She buried the feelings of disgust and shame deep inside her, but she says that the memory still torments her today.
There was one wedding tradition in her village of which she was now painfully aware. It did not come directly from the Kanun – it was a local adaptation.
The Kanun states that a groom may shoot his new bride with her father’s cartridge, should she try to flee. In her village, on the wedding night, the father would give the groom a bullet – but for a different reason.
If, when the marriage was consummated, the groom believed the bride was not intact, he had permission to use the bullet to kill her. If he did not want to shoot her, he could send her back to her father, who would do the deed himself. Thus the family honour would be restored.
When she was 18, she left school and returned home. She dreamed of going to university and getting a job as a nurse. Her parents had other ideas, however. They had found her a husband. It was common then for girls to marry as young as 14, so she would soon be too old to find a suitable match. And the Kanun was very clear that she should have no say in the matter.
She knew it was a death sentence – it was only a question of time before her disgrace would be uncovered. In desperation, she approached a Kosovan friend she’d met through her school. She knew he liked her, although she didn’t think of him in that way. He was older, but had no money, so was not in a position to be picky. She told him she did not want to marry the man who had been chosen for her, and that she wanted to marry him instead.
Delighted, he asked her parents’ permission – but as a poor prospect they naturally refused.
Seeing no alternative, they eloped to Kosovo, to a small town called Rahovec where his family lived. They were married at once.
For the first two months they were happy together. But then his drinking began to get out of control. She did not know it when she married him, but he was an alcoholic. And when he drank, she says, he became a beast.
Like many men in the town, he had no job, so spent his days supping vodka with what money he could beg or borrow. Each night, he would come home drunk, beat her and frequently rape her.
She was not allowed to leave the house. His sister would bring her food and other basic supplies. She was kind, but could do nothing about her brother. He left no money in the house for fear she would use it to escape. His brothers lived either side of them, and their wives would raise the alarm if she tried to leave.
After a few months she became pregnant. She was 19. The unborn child became everything to her. He would treat her better when it was born. He would stop drinking. They would be happy. She would give the child everything her parents had withheld from her. She hoped desperately that it would be a girl.
The fact that she was carrying their baby did not deter him from his nightly violence. One evening, when she was five months pregnant, he came home and kicked her so hard in the abdomen that she miscarried.
She took tablets to try to kill herself. Her sister-in-law found her and she was taken to hospital where they pumped her stomach. They kept her there for two months because they thought she had lost her mind.
The police came to ask what had happened, but her sister-in-law begged her not to report her brother, and she did not. It would likely have made little difference. Even today marital rape is not a crime in Kosovo and back then domestic violence of any sort was seen as a private matter for the family.
She has little recollection of the months that followed. Her husband claimed to be overwhelmed by guilt, but it didn’t stop him drinking and it didn’t stop him beating her. He told her that he’d buried the foetus in the graveyard opposite their house. She didn’t believe him, but she would spend all day staring out of the window at the cemetery nonetheless.
When she turned 21, she realised that she had to get away. The beatings were getting worse. If she didn’t leave soon, he would kill her.
And so one September morning in 2006, while he lay catatonic, she packed a small bag and left. She waited until her in-laws were busy preparing breakfast and walked to the bus stop near the centre of town. She had no money, but she begged the bus driver to take her back to Albania in return for her wedding ring – the only item of value in their house. Seeing her bruised, swollen face, he let her on board, and did not take the ring.
When she arrived in her village, her little sisters were overjoyed to see her. But when her father returned home, he was enraged. She told him what had happened, but he didn’t care – it was her own fault, he said. She had disgraced them. He told her to get out, to never come back – or he would kill her with his bare hands. It was not an idle threat.
And so it was that Mirela ended up in Tirana. Not knowing where to go or who to turn to, she remembered that one of her friends from school had moved to the city. She let Mirela stay in her apartment, and helped her to find a job in a coffee shop.
Tirana is a small city of less than half a million people – but to the young farmer’s daughter it was overwhelming, thrilling.
She wanted to get her own place and go to university, but her job didn’t pay enough for either to be an option. Her living arrangement was only temporary – she was sleeping on a sofa – so she had to find a better job, and soon.
One regular customer took a shine to her. He was from the same district and would come in regularly to talk to her. He was thoughtful and handsome and made her laugh. As time went by they started dating. Eventually, she opened up to him, revealing some of what had happened to her.
This was a grave error. She was naïve, she says, and was simply not used to kindness and flattery. She did not understand then quite how dangerous it was in Tirana for a young woman to admit that she was alone and unprotected.
He offered to lend her money so that she could enrol at the university. Gratefully, she accepted. When he asked her to move in with him she was overjoyed. She says this was the happiest time of her life. She was falling in love.
It did not last, of course. Suddenly, he needed the money back, urgently. She had just paid the university and was in no position to get hold of that kind of money quickly, as he well knew. He told her not to worry – he had found her a new, better-paid job. She was excited. She still believed he was trying to help her.
He told her he would drive her to the new job – it was a surprise. They arrived at a cheap looking hotel near the train station. She was confused. Was it a cleaning job? By the time she realised what was going on, it was too late. Like countless young women before her, she had been tricked into debt and sold into slavery.
Her new masters proved to be extraordinarily dangerous, violent people. There was no element of choice, no possibility of escape. No police would help her. And her debt would never be paid off.
They began her apprenticeship at once. In this way the next two years passed.
In Albania, support for women who have been trafficked or suffered domestic abuse is limited. Legislation has improved, but the practical application is often lacking, as Brikena Puka, executive director of Qendra Vatra, a local NGO that works with victims of trafficking and abuse, explains.
“Yes, we have laws now, but the law is not functioning as it should,” she says. “There is no budget to implement or enforce these laws. Victims don’t have status as victims, they are just witnesses. Often, they have to face their pimps and traffickers in court.”
In some cases police and prosecutors have themselves been implicated in trafficking, she says, and the attitude of law enforcement generally to women who have been forced into prostitution is extremely negative. There is very little trust in the legal system from victims as a result.
The Home Office’s guidelines for assessors considering asylum applications from trafficked women claim that “Albania has made great efforts to improve its response to trafficking… and there is, in general, a sufficient standard of protection available.”
Brikena agrees that progress has been made – and her own organisation offers support for a number of victims each year. But the number of women affected by trafficking and domestic violence dwarfs the capacity of Qendra Vatra and the handful of other NGOs that work in this sector.
In 2015 the Albanian Government finally agreed to contribute some funding to these organisations, but recent political changes mean that this support is now at risk and the few shelters that exist may be forced to close.
The prognosis for women such as Mirela if they return to Albania is not good, particularly if they do not have the support of their family. The Home Office’s guidelines conclude that “the challenges she will face will be significant, and will include… stigma, isolation, financial hardship and uncertainty, a sense of physical insecurity and the subjective fear of being found either by their families or their former traffickers.”
It is particularly hard for women from northern Albania, Brikena says. “We have had many situations where husbands and fathers have killed women because of honour [in cases like this]. It is a very real risk for women from these areas. Men see women as their property still.”
Elida Motro Iljazi volunteers for another Tirana-based NGO, Useful for Albanian Women. She has previously run an anti-trafficking project in Albania for the United States Agency for International Development and has two decades of experience in the sector. She says the Kanun continues to play a major role in stories like Mirela’s.
“It is a way of life in some parts of the north,” she says. “It is a code from where the blood feuds come. The treatment of women comes from this. Even trafficking. According to the Kanun, to sell your daughter is to clean your house.”
“It is not about ethnicity,” she adds. “It is not about religion. It is more ancient even than this. It is about power and the desire for control over women.”
An asylum applicant is someone who travels to the UK hoping to be granted refugee status. A refugee is someone who has escaped persecution in their home country and cannot safely return.
The UK has signed up to UN and EU agreements on refugees and human rights and so cannot legally deport asylum seekers to a country where they are likely to be tortured, persecuted or killed.
In 2016, according to Home Office figures, 30,747 people applied for asylum in the UK. This accounted for just 6% of net migration into the country that year. Of those applications, 66% were initially refused – and of the applicants that appealed, only a quarter were successful. Asylum is not the significant contributor to UK immigration we are often told it is.
It is true, however, that asylum applications slowly grew between 2011 and 2015, mainly due to the civil war in Syria and instability in the surrounding regions. The last two years have seen numbers decline, however, and they remain significantly below where they sat in the early 2000s. This was before UK border controls were introduced in France and Belgium and at a time when the war in Afghanistan was displacing thousands of people. In 2002, asylum applications peaked at 84,000.
In theory, asylum applications should be made to an immigration official as soon as you arrive at the UK border. In reality, around 90% of applications are made by people who are already living in the UK. Often, it is at Lunar House in Croydon, the offices of UK Visas and Immigration – formerly the UK Border Agency.
The longer you leave it, the worse the chances for your application. Applying once you’re already in the UK can also affect your ability to claim what few benefits are available while your case is being assessed.
The process begins with a screening interview, where basic details are taken and you’re given a reference number. At this point, some applicants are taken to immigration removal centres – privately run prisons, essentially – where they will be held while a fast track decision is made. If this happens, the entire decision-making and appeals process can happen within nine days. This is most commonly the case with convicted criminals.
For those not detained at this point, they will next attend what is known as a “first reporting event” where they meet the person who will deal with their case. This should happen within a few days.
Then comes a “substantive interview”, which is when the full details of the applicant’s story, and why returning to their home country would put them at risk, will be heard.
Where cases are not fast-tracked, decisions can take weeks, months or years. “It’s a horribly drawn out process with very little security,” says Celia Sands, director of the South London Refugee Association, an organisation that has been supporting Mirela since 2014. “It can go on for 10 years or more.”
During this time, applicants will have to regularly report to the Home Office – usually every two weeks. At any one of these appointments they may be detained without warning, imprisoned at a removal centre and then deported.
Even if a case ends up taking ten years to be decided, the prospect of imminent deportation will always be hanging over the applicant’s head, and they will never know how long the process is going to take.
While you await a decision, you are not allowed to work. If you’re lucky, you may be able to claim Section 95 support – an allowance of £37.75 a week. If you’re very lucky, usually if you have children, you may be temporarily housed – although you will not normally be offered anywhere in London, or close to your friends, family or lawyer, if you have representation.
Legal Aid no longer supports immigration claims – it was cut back in 2013 as part of a significant reduction in the Civil Legal Aid budget – but asylum cases are still eligible for support. The difficulty, however, is finding a solicitor to take your case. As funding has become scarce, so the number of respectable firms who take on this work has shrunk. In their place, unscrupulous practitioners have sprung up, taking advantage of refugees and vulnerable migrants who do not understand the system.
While an initial application can be made in Croydon, or at the UK border, if you need to submit additional evidence, or make a fresh claim for asylum, then you must now do so, in person, in Liverpool. You cannot hand over your new evidence at any other location, online, or by post.
If you do make it to Liverpool, you may then be cross-questioned to find out how you were able to afford to get there. Translators are not provided. If you cannot speak English, you will have to find someone who does and pay for them to travel with you. Many people in this position will not only be unable to work, but also not be in receipt of any benefits, so they have to somehow borrow the money.
This system was introduced under Theresa May while she was Home Secretary, one of several measures designed to make the process as arduous as possible. As she said in a 2012 interview, “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.”
One of May’s last acts as Home Secretary was to push the 2016 Immigration Bill through parliament. This has toughened up our immigration law in a number of ways – but, in particular, it extends the so-called “deport first, appeal later” scheme for human rights cases, where people are sent back to their own country while their application is considered. This approach had previously only applied to convicted criminals, but the act will in future allow it to be used much more liberally.
Life for asylum seekers in the UK today has been made very difficult indeed, and yet we continue to be barraged with headlines and rhetoric that claim the opposite.
“These people are being pushed to the margins,” Celia says. “They won’t in most cases be eligible for benefits, contrary to the usual picture that’s painted in the media of people coming here and instantly getting houses and vast amounts of money for doing nothing. I never thought I’d be saying to parents with small children that we’ve had some donations of Oyster cards, so they can just stay on the night bus for the night, or advising families to sleep in A&E waiting rooms. People really are struggling just to survive.”
Mirela finally began the asylum process in 2011. That year she was one of 19,804 migrants, including 391 Albanians, to claim asylum here.
Not speaking much English, she initially found an Albanian lawyer in London to represent her. He sounded positive and agreed to take on her case – but then stopped returning her calls. He submitted an application for her, which failed. There was an appeal, but this too was rejected. She had very little involvement in either submission and was totally unprepared when she was called to testify at the tribunal.
Only later, when her case was taken on by a reputable lawyer, did it emerge quite what a shoddy job her original counsel had done. He had submitted almost none of the most important evidence that could have helped her case – psychologists’ reports, character references and police documents. He did the minimum required to receive Legal Aid payments, but nothing more.
Once an appeal has been turned down, that’s it – deportation is normally the next step. The only way a fresh asylum claim can be made is if there is substantial additional evidence and the Home Office can be persuaded that it amounts to a new application.
In Mirela’s case there was additional evidence – a mountain of it. The problem was the precedence the system would give to the original ruling.
Roberta Haslam, her new lawyer, explained the situation to me at the time. “Fresh claims are difficult. It's already been looked at once and gone through the courts. The starting point with the Home Office will be the decision of the judge in her last appeal. We have to show that judgement was wrong and try to discount it – and that's not straightforward.”
Roberta was effectively starting from scratch, and while she painstakingly gathered all the evidence necessary to build the case – a proper case – Mirela was in limbo.
She had to report regularly to the Home Office in Croydon, knowing that at any point she could be detained and deported. And she could neither work nor claim benefits. The £37 a week she had been receiving stopped as soon as she lost the appeal.
It is only thanks to a number of small charities, and the kindness of a handful of individuals, that she was not sleeping on the streets.
One of the benefits Mirela could access when she first claimed asylum were English classes, and it was at college that a teacher suggested she contact the South London Refugee Association.
She visited their weekly drop-in session in Balham, and there met Celia and her team. Through Positive Action in Housing’s Room for Refugees scheme they were able to introduce her to a couple in Streatham who let her stay in their spare room for six months. Four further families have since hosted her, and they are the only reason she has not been homeless.
She has only been able to eat because of the generosity of her hosts and through vouchers for the Norwood and Brixton Foodbank. She has only been able to travel to her various appointments thanks to a £20 a week hardship payment, which she received from Positive Action in Housing when her Section 95 support stopped.
Imagine, for a moment, trying to survive in London on £20 a week. The vast majority of asylum seekers who have been denied access to public funds do not even get this.
When Celia heard that her appeal had been turned down, and knowing what she had been through, she referred her to the Helen Bamber Foundation, a charity that supports victims of torture and trafficking. They agreed to take on her case and brought in Roberta to represent her.
Mirela suffers from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and has twice attempted suicide. She could not access therapy through the NHS, but the Women’s Project at the Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network offered her weekly counselling sessions. She says these were a lifeline.
In this sense, Mirela is lucky. These are tiny charities that can only help a fraction of the refugees and asylum seekers that need their services.
These organisations, and the few others like them that remain, are the only safety net that exists for people like Mirela. Cuts to Legal Aid in 2010 and 2013 saw many such charities shut down, including Refugee and Migrant Justice and the Northern Refugee Centre. Eaves, an organisation in south London that helped victims of trafficking, closed in 2015.
Many of the NGOs that have survived are hanging on by a thread, and offer a tiny proportion of the services they once did. More are likely to close.
In November 2016, I travelled to Liverpool with Mirela and Pete, her former Room for Refugees host and now a good friend, to hand in her new application.
Roberta warned us that while she could get a decision within six weeks, in her experience six months or longer was more common. To our surprise, the response arrived 10 days later. It was negative.
The Home Office accepted that there was enough new evidence for it to constitute a fresh claim – but had rejected it. Roberta began the appeals process immediately, but it was a devastating blow for Mirela.
The response was so quick that she felt there couldn’t have been time for all the evidence and expert testimony to have been considered. And once again she was being told that she had made it all up, that the atrocities she had experienced were a fiction.
This, and the prospect of imminent detention, were almost too much for her. Her mental health deteriorated and she later told me that she began to have suicidal thoughts.
Initially things moved quickly. Roberta submitted an appeal within the allotted two weeks and a date to appear at the Hatton Cross Tribunal Hearing Centre arrived soon after.
In February 2017 a small group of us travelled to the tribunal, on an industrial estate near Heathrow Airport, including two of her former Room for Refugees hosts, her therapist from the Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network, Celia from the South London Refugee Association and Professor Cornelius Katona, the author of her psychiatric report and a leading authority on the mental health of asylum seekers and refugees.
We waited for several tense hours before her case was finally called by the judge – only for him to refuse to hear it, claiming it was too complex and that he hadn’t had enough time to consider all the documents. He wouldn’t even make eye contact with her as he delivered the bad news.
It was another false start. Another delay. Mirela travelled home distraught. An agonising three month pause followed.
Finally, a new tribunal date arrived. In May her band of witnesses and supporters reconvened and made the journey back to west London.
Navita, Mirela's barrister, met us with positive news - we had been assigned a judge. For four hours we sat in the waiting room, drinking coffee and trying to distract Mirela with small talk. Finally, at 2pm, we were summoned. The case would be heard.
The judge apologised for keeping us waiting. He explained that he would not make his decision that day, but would do so as quickly as possible, knowing how long the process had taken already.
Over the next few hours each witness was called in to face questions from Navita, the judge and the Home Office representative. Mirela and Professor Katona were questioned at the greatest length. It was rare, Navita told me, for someone of the professor’s stature to give evidence in person.
When Mirela came out, she said it had not been as long or harsh as she had been bracing herself for. The judge had apparently been sensitive and patient.
Time passed quickly as we waited nervously in the corridor outside, making hushed conversation. Then, suddenly, it was all over and the judge was summing up. Mirela couldn’t face going back in, so we sat outside with her.
What happened next was initially confusing. Navita came out and told us that the appeal had been allowed. There was a pause while we processed this. None of us were quite sure what that meant. It sounded good, and Navita was smiling, but we’d been told there wouldn’t be a decision today and no one wanted to get too excited.
But the judge had made a decision. He had found in Mirela’s favour. She had won. Navita told us that he said he had been deeply moved by Mirela’s testimony and was full of praise for the case Roberta had built.
As the news sank in, the atmosphere became jubilant, emotional, and not a little surreal. Mirela was in tears, she couldn’t believe it was real. Stranger still, the Home Office counsel came over to congratulate her. She explained that she would recommend to her superiors not to appeal the decision. She seemed pleased for Mirela – and, if anything, embarrassed.
This wasn’t quite the end of the road. Despite the recommendation, the Home Office could still decide to appeal. A lot hung on how strongly the judge worded his written judgement.
When it came through a few days later it was 17 pages long. Navita was delighted with how unequivocal, detailed and thoughtfully argued it was. He answered each point made by the Home Office at length. Perhaps most importantly for Mirela, however, he explicitly stated that he believed every aspect of her testimony.
“I accept that [her] experiences of brutalisation over a long period of time have made her vulnerable to being preyed on by [abusive men],” he wrote. “I accept… that her father was abusive. I accept she was raped while she was a teenager… I accept she ran away from her family and entered into a traditional marriage… I accept she suffered physical abuse from this man… I accept her family rejected her and she moved to Tirana where she met [her captor]… I accept that he forced the appellant into prostitution.” So the judgement carried on.
“What is starkly apparent,” he concluded, “is that the appellant is a highly vulnerable individual, without a support network to turn to. She would not be able to access protection from the authorities and is… likely once again to fall victim to abusive men and traffickers.
“It does not matter whether the risk to her is posed by her previous traffickers… angry family members or others. The point is that the appellant’s vulnerability, lack of support network and complete absence of resources would inevitably place her in a situation that there is a real risk that she becomes a victim of re-trafficking.”
The Home Office did not appeal.
Mirela has now been granted leave to remain in the UK for five years. It means she can work, claim benefits, access education and apply for a permit to travel. It means she no longer has to report at Lunar House in Croydon.
After five years, she will have to apply again, this time for indefinite leave to remain. This, Roberta says, is usually a less torturous process – but she cautions that as political winds shift that could change. For now, however, she is secure.
When she was a girl, Mirela says she dreamed of escaping domesticity to study, to become a nurse or a lawyer. When she was 23 she would find a kind man and get married. They would have four children – two boys and two girls, so that each would have a brother and a sister. She would be happy.
She hasn’t allowed herself such ambitious dreams for a long time now. She hasn’t been able to plan beyond the next few weeks or months.
After all that she’s been through, she’s still only 32. She says she feels much older, that she’s been watching life slip through her fingers as she’s waited, in limbo, for so long.
Her wait may be over, but many challenges remain. She’s still in temporary accommodation, struggling to be securely housed. She’s still at risk of violence in this country. And her mental health continues to suffer.
Nonetheless, thanks to her counsellor, and the intensive psychotherapy she is now receiving through the Helen Bamber Foundation, she is finally starting to process some of what she has endured. For the first time in many years, she is daring to think about the future – about what to do with the rest of her life.
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