‘Every day was like a horror film’ – York hears refugee’s shocking asylum story

Refugee Jonah Mesgarnezhad. Photographs: Hogan Salim

A man fleeing persecution from Iran told a York conference his shocking story about seeking asylum in UK.

Jonah Mesgarnezhad attended the Ending Migrant Homelessness Conference at the Principal Hotel, alongside housing associations and charities, to help delegates have a greater understanding of the problems facing people claiming asylum in the UK.

Over 10 years ago, Jonah fled his home country of Iran, having been persecuted for being a Christian convert. The Iranian government have strong views on Muslims converting to Christianity, which left Jonah feeling very anxious for his safety.

Jonah arrived in the UK to seek asylum in 2009 where he was questioned by the Home Office for more than six hours on his knowledge of the bible and what happened to him in Iran.

The Home Office refused Jonah’s asylum case in 2010, over not believing he was a Christian, stopping his support after only six months of him arriving in Britain. Jonah was shocked: “They refused my case and told me they can help me return back to my country, despite years of being persecuted.”

Anxious, Jonah was now a destitute asylum seeker. “This country was meant to be safe but now every day was like a horror film.”

Left homeless

David Bogle and Hazel Williams 

Worried, Jonah was left street homeless.

Jonah luckily was given hope, after speaking with Paul Catterall who was then leading Open Door North East, a charity serving asylum seekers and refugees in the Tees Valley region. “I suddenly felt valued by people,” Jonah told the York conference.

Jonah was initially housed in a shared house before later being accommodated through a hosting scheme, both projects managed by Open Door North East to tackle migrant homelessness while individuals are supported to overturn poor Home Office decisions.

In 2011 Jonah was granted refugee status. Protection for refugees is usually initially only granted for a limited period of five years. They are entitled to mainstream benefits such as universal credit, housing and are entitled to work.

But refugees face a new challenge and are at risk of homelessness even after being given a positive decision. This is because they are only given 28 days to leave their Home Office accommodation, find somewhere to live, apply for universal credit or find a job.

This is nearly impossible to do which means the majority of people become homeless.

Joint solution needed

NACCOM, (the No Accommodation Network) produced a report in May 2018 called “Mind the Gap” highlighting homelessness amongst newly recognised refugees like Jonah and asking for the move-on period to be extended to 56 days.

After being granted asylum Jonah moved to Newcastle with his fiancé to study. But unsure where to live, he was directed to Action Foundation, a charity and NACCOM member based in Newcastle helping refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants, who provided him a room.

Jonah now works at Action Foundation, a charity based in Newcastle helping refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants providing him the opportunity to support those who have been in a similar situation to him.

David Bogle, CEO of Hightown Housing Association and Hazel Williams, National Director of NACCOM (the No Accommodation Network) both emphasised the importance of using the conference to provide opportunities to learn how the mainstream and charitable housing sectors can act together to bring about change to migrant homelessness.

David exclaimed, “Migrant homelessness is a massive issue and housing associations and local authorities need to be a part of the solution.”

Seeking asylum

An asylum seeker, someone who is seeking a place of safety under the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, can seek asylum for a variety of reasons owing to a person’s well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of: race, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Those seeking asylum in the UK ask the government for protection and register a claim while waiting for a decision that can take anywhere from 6 months to several years. 55% of applicants are ultimately successful in making an asylum application although around 30% are initially rejected and win on appeal.

Once an asylum application has been made the applicant is dispersed anywhere in the UK on a no-choice basis, they are given the support of £37.75 per person week plus housing with bills paid for. But they are not allowed to work or claim mainstream benefits such a universal credit or council housing.