One of our clients was featured in an article by Ros Wynne Jones in the Daily Mirror:
Ruth Asmah was working on the till at Tesco when the letter came from her bosses. It said: “Please bring your passport to work on the next shift for an immigration check”.
Ruth immediately went home and started packing her two-year-old daughter’s few belongings into plastic bags.
“I don’t have a passport,” she says. “I knew I would be deported. I had to leave my job, and with no job I couldn’t pay my rent, so we would lose our home.
“We went to a charity but they couldn’t help us. We couldn’t go to social services in case the authorities caught up with us. We would have been homeless without the kindness of a friend.”
Ruth and her young daughter Dyanna (not their real names) are illegal immigrants. Since Ruth was trafficked from Ghana at the age of 14 by her aunt, who abandoned her to work as a domestic slave, she has lived beneath the radar of British life without any official documentation.
As political rhetoric around immigration reaches fever pitch with still a year to go before a general election, Ruth, 25, has to constantly look over her shoulder.
“This is how you live when you are undocumented,” she tells me. “You are constantly moving. I don’t take anything – no benefits, not even free school meals for Dyanna.”
Just two of an estimated 660,000 undocumented people living in the UK, Ruth and Dyanna’s life without papers is one of fear, poverty and broken dreams.
There is no access to the welfare state. Ruth has a national insurance number lent to her by a friend and now works in a fast- food chain. A tall, shy young woman, her uniform name badge says “Sheila” and she has to remember to answer to it.
Otherwise, Ruth and Dyanna live law-abiding lives in a Lancashire suburb, going to church, living quietly. Ruth tries to give Dyanna a normal childhood but they regularly move house to evade the authorities, vulnerable to the whims and abuses of landlords who ask no questions.
“Moving is a part of me now,” she says.
With no access to benefits that could top up their income, even child benefit, sometimes Ruth and Dyanna are malnourished. Ruth recently had to turn down a new and better-paid job because again she would need to provide her passport.
Soon they may not even be able to see a doctor if they are sick. The Government wants patients to have to prove their immigration status. It’s already hard for them to be registered with a GP because they don’t have proof of address.
“I understand why people want to send me home,” Ruth says quietly, sitting in a faded roadside cafe in Manchester. “They say Britain is full up. If I was a British person I would be worried too.”
Ruth didn’t choose to come to the UK. She was trafficked here by her aunt, who brought her in on a visitor’s visa when she was 14. She believed she was coming on holiday, but instead the aunt left her with a family who used her as a domestic slave.
Passed from family to family in and around London, she didn’t know her papers were not in order and naively trusted the aunt to come back for her.
“In Ghana, I lived by the seaside with my grandmother,” she says. “We used to sell peppers and kerosene door to door, simple things. We had food to eat. I lived in a compound. But my grandmother died when I was 14 and my auntie took me to London saying that we were going for a holiday.”
In England, Ruth yearned to go to school like the children she looked after but she just had to cook, clean and be an unpaid nanny.
“It was very hard work,” she says. She had nowhere of her own. She slept on the floor in the children’s room and ate their leftovers. “I would like to ask my aunt why she did it.” Her eyes fill with tears. “So many things I have to block out of my mind.”
Still, Ruth dreamed of becoming British. When she was 20 she ran away to live with a friend in Manchester. At the local church she fell in love with an undocumented Ghanaian man called Thomas. They moved in together and had a child. But then Thomas was arrested and deported.
When Ruth traced him in Ghana, she found out he was married. “After that I stopped getting in touch with my family,” she says. “I was too ashamed.” Dyanna is now five years old and has started school.
“She has very good school reports,” Ruth says. Her face grows animated. “Dyanna is good at music. They say she is very friendly, she participates in everything. They really miss her when she’s not there because she brings everybody together.”
She doesn’t think Dyanna would survive in the Ghana she came from. “I’m scared to take her,” she says. “If I was on my own I could fend for myself. But I have no qualifications and I wouldn’t be able to afford the school fees. She doesn’t speak Ga – the language. I have no family there now. She is so happy here at school.”
Meanwhile, she has fallen in love with misty, rainy Manchester. “It is so beautiful here. I have a lot of friends. I feel like I belong to Manchester. This is my home.”
Ruth works as a cleaner while Dyanna is at school and pays a childminder to look after her daughter while she works in the evenings. “I earn £125 a week to pay for everything. I have to find £10 a week for school dinners. I pay rent, gas, electric. At the moment I am sub-letting from someone. It’s not a place I would choose to live.”
Sometimes she goes hungry for days at a time so Dyanna can eat. At other times she has had to rely on the foodbank at her local church. “They are very kind,” she says.
If she can spare any money, she tries to give back with small donations to charities like Children in Need. When she worked at Tesco, she even had a direct debit to Water Aid.
For the past year, her story has been told anonymously on the lifewithoutpapers blog, as part of an attempt to show the reality of life for undocumented people in the UK. Now Ruth is watching the immigration debate unfold on her flatmate’s television. She says she was terrified last year by the images of the government’s “immigrants go home” vans talking of “arrests in your area”.
Fears of a tidal wave of Bulgarians and Romanians coming to the UK turned out to be unfounded. But the immigration rhetoric remains turned up high.
At times in the past Ruth has considered taking not just her own life but Dyanna’s too so they would no longer be a “burden” on Britain.
Only her Christian faith stopped her. “It’s very frightening,” Ruth says. “But I always hope, if I am a good person maybe they can let me stay?”
Because Dyanna was born in Britain Ruth hopes that eventually she can use the provisions of the the European Convention of Human Rights which guarantee the right to a family life.
Perhaps a court might decide it is in the best interests of the child for both her and her mother to remain in the UK. Ruth says it’s her only hope and she aims to sit quietly under the radar until then.
“I am so tired of hiding,” Ruth says. “I don’t want to claim any benefits. I will take care of myself – just let me work.
“People think all kinds of things about immigrants – that we are like terrorists. But we don’t mean any harm. We are just trying to do what’s best for our families, for our kids. We are just people after all.”