This-grim-nation: The fight for 'leave to remain'

2020. Whether you believe that time is a social construct or not, this year has been one of extortionate despair. We’ve seen Australia in flames, US-Iranian tensions raise fear of nuclear warfare and controversies with countless public figures. Most recently, the outbreak of COVID-19 stopped the planet and the death of George Flloyd sparked uprisings against systemic racism. Before the year’s out, I may also remind everyone that the US presidential elections are imminent (you’re welcome)…

Why then, has 2020 been ‘my year’? Amidst all the chaos – which I’ve not been immune to – 2020 is the year things have started to go right for my family and I. 

A little context. It’s a socio-economic advantage in Pakistan (where I was born) for the middle class patriarch to venture abroad to seek finance for their families. My dad was a successful artist in Pakistan. He came here as a student to study at an art school in Surrey for career advancement. Later, he hoped to bring his wife and children to the land of the free (different country, same dreams – no, fallacies?). This finally worked out…albeit seven years later. My brother, mum and I came on dependent visas and all lived in a single room in a house with two other families. “Privacy?! Fire hazards?! Claustrophobia?!” I hear you say. For me, I was finally with my dad in a ‘first world country’. That was enough. 

Sohaib Surrey image

Illustration: Sohaib Hassan

Fast forward to 11th March, 2020. My older brother, mum and I were granted ‘leave to remain’ in the UK. This is a preliminary visa all non-British, EU and EEA nationals must have to live and work in the UK- even though we all came here in 2008. My brother was 8, I was 7. Now 19 at the time of writing this, none of my family have been to Pakistan or anywhere outside of the UK since. So why was I still having to pay to be here? 

This is the result of a series of immigration policies beginning in 2012. The Home Secretary at the time, Thatcher 2.0, theresa may (no capitalisation—that’s my small act of rebellion for the day), declared Britain a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented residents of the UK. Unfortunately for us, my dad experienced legal negligence as he applied to renew our visas in 2011. This would have set us up for a settlement route in the UK. By the time we could apply to renew our visas with a different solicitor, the hostile environment had already emerged. 

The aim of these policies was to achieve the Conservative Party’s 2010 manifesto pledge of reducing annual migration from around 200,000 to mere tens of thousands —despite the nation’s reliance on migrants for the labour economy — and to encourage ‘voluntary leave’. The ethos was draconian. Its influence inhumane. 

Since part of the laws denied ‘leave to remain’ to the dependants of the applicant (my father), we were denied stay in the UK based on one person’s immigration history. Cue a decade long odyssey of visa rejections, court appeals, relative poverty, brief homelessness (which forced my family to relocate to Wales in 2017) and one heck of an identity crisis.

Sohaib plane imageIllustration: Sohaib Hassan

The hostile laws implemented a gratuitous system where freedom to work, rent, obtain free health care, possess national insurance, open a bank account, attend higher education and drive (amongst countless other faculties) have been denied to people not considered ‘British enough’. A job. A home. Access to banking. The very constitutional necessities to navigate the modern world have been commodified by the Home Office and its administrators tasked with regulating immigration..

Of course, I appreciate that to ensure any country’s stability, immigration must be supervised. But when a government exceeds extremities by limiting human rights – at one point my family’s immigration application raised issues relating to the European Conventions on Human Rights – they have failed democracy. Indeed, the very country who built its successive power from the remnants of colonialism has failed the people it promised to accommodate. The Windrush Scandal of 2018 epitomises this. This is no procedure — this is systemic discrimination designed to suffocate ‘foreigners’ and force them ‘back where they came from’, in which authorities “can deport first and hear appeals later”. The latter quote is from May’s 2013 speech to the House of Commons. I wish it was hyperbole. 

I couldn’t attend university after A-Levels because I had no leave to remain and was forced to take a year out. Far from being the ‘gap yar’ UnJaded Jade had us aching for, I had no plan. I was inundated with cries of “Work!” “Save up money!” “Travel!” “Learn to drive!” from friends and was forced to lie and make excuses. That’s what living as an immigrant does. We have to make excuses all the time in order to blend in. 

We take our ‘class of 2017 Berlin trip’ letters home, only imagining what it would be like to go. We say we can’t get jobs because school work is too intense, knowing we can’t have National Insurance numbers sent to us. We say driving lessons are too expensive so won’t be learning. “Get a provisional at least?!”, I heard every day (On the day of writing this, I am pleased to say my provisional license arrived). We suggest Belfast as a group holiday because it wouldn’t require a valid passport, suppressing all desire to roam the hills of Tuscany or the beaches of Southern Spain. We take ‘gap years’ because we’re ‘not ready for uni’ and scour the internet after rejecting our dream universities for free online courses and virtual work experiences. We accept defeat and deterioration because we weren’t born on England’s pleasant pastures green. May’s aims were successful — hostile it was. 

Things changed however when I was accepted into Oxford. I got in touch with our Conservative MP, detailing my family’s story. We requested a letter of support to be sent to the Home Office. We knew our Dad’s immigration history was a hindrance, and to reduce the costs of the fees (£1,033 per person, excluding NHS, legal and biometrics fees), only myself, my older brother and mum were part of the successful application. But this is seldom the end.

Sohaib protestsIllustration: Sohaib Hassan

For the government, we are ‘new’ economically exploitable migrants. The Times reported that the Home Office made “£500m from immigration fees” in 2018. Before granting us permanent residency, we must complete a 10 year period in the UK undisturbed by a maximum of 540 days abroad, renewing the visas every 30 months, before applying for an ‘indefinite leave to remain’. If we want to apply for British citizenship, that’s another year’s wait and fees. This is the true cost of being British. What we pay in capital is also paid for in compliance against a truly ‘forked up’ system. 

But the future is far from bleak. Growing up I was deeply insecure of being found that I wasn’t born in this country let alone that I was living without documentation. Growing up in a diverse area of Surrey, absurdly, it was the other BME students I was afraid of being ‘confronted’ by. They could decipher my situation and the severity of it. I couldn’t hide my lies even if I tried, whereas the ‘born and bred’ kids were oblivious and their ignorance was much easier to bear. 

So why confront the issue now? A few things have helped me to accept my confused identity as a ‘British-but not really-Pakistani Muslim’. The book ‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith is starkly authentic in portraying the degeneration of an immigrant in the UK through which I felt heard and my experiences shared. Learning that YouTubers like David Dobrik and Jo of ‘DamonAndJo’ have been undocumented immigrants gave me such hope and inspiration. 

As the world joins in the fight against oppressive white supremacy and its many facets, I desired a platform to share my experience of something I believe to be so unscrupulous and in need of desperate scrutiny and reform. There exists a sub-society of undocumented immigrants in the UK who, like my family, are suffering greatly without much public or administrative attention. I write for us.

Finally, to address the all too often expressed question, “Why don’t you just go back?”. If we all went ‘back’, no one would stay to move society – and our country – forward.