I didn’t know I was an undocumented immigrant until I was refused re-entry to the UK

sat in the immigration office in Gare du Nord station in Paris in December 2009, as the immigration officer handed me back my passport with a bold ‘cancelled’ stamp in red on the visa I had.

She then explained that the visa had expired a year ago and all this time – unknown to me – I was undocumented.

I was in France for work but my world came crashing down as I realised that I could not go back to London and return to my six-year-old daughter.

In tears, I tried to reason with the immigration officer and all she said to me was to go and come back with a valid visa. I felt helpless and devastated.

It’s a sad truth that many women on spouse visas like me are left vulnerable to losing their status. This is because it is often the main applicant – most commonly a male partner – who is in correspondence with the immigration department.

If there is marriage breakdown, deception or abuse in a relationship, the main applicant can choose not to include them in the visa renewal without them knowing, leaving them undocumented and vulnerable to arrest, detention and removal from the UK. This is what happened to me.

When I think back to my childhood, I could have never imagined I would be left in such dire circumstances. Growing up in Zimbabwe was wonderful and I get nostalgic all the time as I reminisce about my early life there.

I came from a family that was full of love and I remember how much we used to celebrate everything from birthdays to weddings and all things in between. The family would gather and then food, drinks, dancing and laughter would be in abundance.

It was at the time when Zimbabwe was the jewel of Africa and the country was newly prosperous in the early 80s and late 90s. We had some of the best education, health and agriculture systems in Africa.

However, Zimbabwe was brought to the brink of economic collapse in the early 00s, so I came to Britain in 2002 to work and pursue greener pastures. Most of my family members were here already – like my mother’s siblings – and it felt like it was a promising place for a career-minded young lady to study and flourish.

My first impression of London was of slight surprise and disappointment because of the way everything felt squashed. I had never seen these lines of terraced houses before – it was very different to what I was used to.

Everything was also at a very fast pace, but as time went on, I got accustomed to the lifestyle.

Within three months, I had met Gerard*.

I was already in college studying IT and working part time at a furniture store. Our relationship moved fast and within nine months we were married. This included Gerard sending his family back home in Zimbabwe to go to my family to carry out the traditional dowry marriage process, which is equivalent to engagement.

I was numb to everything as I thought of my six-year-old daughter who was in London staying with her father

I was still on a student visa at the time, and he advised me to join him on a spouse visa and I accepted – not fully aware of the implications that he was the only person who was in communication with the immigration department.

We went to the Home Office to apply together, as I was required to be present so that I could confirm that I consent to the change. However, on renewals, he was the one making the application – I never looked into when they happened as he handled everything.

We had our daughter the following year in 2004 and life seemed promising.

But as the years went by, our marriage broke down. We separated in 2006 but were on and off and at times, I was under the impression that things were working out. Unfortunately, that was far from the truth.

In 2009, I was working for a reputable cosmetic company and my work colleagues and I used to travel to Paris frequently.

Gerard had applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR), which ended up cancelling the spouse visa we shared.

Essentially, even though the stamp in my passport still said I had a year left before my visa expired, Gerard applying for ILR automatically voided my right to work. It seemed like I was documented as my passport still had the work permit attached but the visa was now invalid.

He had made it clear earlier that year that I had to make my own visa application but he assured me that I still had time as the stamp in my passport had about a year to expire. This was not the case.

So I was in Gare du Nord station in France and the very visa I relied on to come back to London had been cancelled. The immigration officer had called a policeman to escort me from their office to the streets of Paris.

It was in December – just before Christmas so the atmosphere was charged up with celebrations – and there I was, feeling lost, invisible, alone and homeless.

I was numb to everything as I thought of my six-year-old daughter who was in London staying with her father – and I was to pick her up from school the following day when I got back from Paris – waiting for me to come back home and take her for Christmas shopping.

My body was in so much shock that I could not even cry. I walked down the Paris streets looking for a reasonably-priced motel to stay overnight near the train station. I felt like I was in a dream.

When I was denied entry back into the UK, I called Gerard to ask why he didn’t tell me my visa wouldn’t be valid but he said he thought that it would be. He sounded remorseful but there was now nothing he could do.

My job was understanding at the time and said they’d tried to keep me on until I sorted out my visa – something they were able to do until March, just three months later.

I will never forget what I went through, and it’s since become a mission of mine to raise awareness of the vulnerabilities women on spouse visas face

I sought refuge at the Zimbabwean embassy and thankfully they were an answer to a prayer. One of the employees and his family took me in.

They helped me to try and reapply for a new visa – family reunification – and I was beyond grateful for their support as I would have been completely lost without them.

I spent Christmas in Paris waiting for the result of my application and when the response came a week later, it was denied. I didn’t qualify for this type of visa and it felt like I was sinking into a dark hole of tangible pain.

The pain of separation from my daughter was taking its toll and after being rejected for the visa, I felt more inconsolable than ever.

In the first week of January, I had to go back to Zimbabwe to re-apply to come back. It was a painful trip back as I was moving further away from my daughter, not knowing when I would ever be reunited with her.

My daughter had to move in with her dad and occasionally went to my aunt’s house for weekends. She was in tears when she realised I would be separated from her for many more months.

I spent five months waiting for a decision and it was a heart-wrenching long wait.

By the time the Access to Child visa was approved, I had lost my job, all my savings were gone, and I had been plunged into serious debt.

When I got back to the UK in May 2010, I had no recourse to public funds, meaning that I could not receive any form of housing support or social security.

I had to find a new job to pay my bills, balance caring responsibilities for my daughter and also save money to make an application for ILR in a year. At the time it felt like an impossibility.

However, slowly, I managed to get my life back on track again. I am now a British Citizen as of March this year, living with my new partner and six-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter.

But I will never forget what I went through, and it’s since become a mission of mine to raise awareness of the vulnerabilities women on spouse visas face.

Women should be aware of their status and check that they are still documented. If they’ve fallen out of status, they should know that they can ring charities like JCWI or the Citizens Advice Bureau for help.

At the time, I was not aware of JCWI and I did not know that Citizen Advice Bureau help immigrants. There was a fear of being deported if you approached any support services.

I believe our immigration rules also need to change – many women suffer ‘visa abuse’ – with their partners using their dependent immigration status as a way to threaten them and coerce them.

Women are scared to come forward if they lose status because of the hostile environment, which makes them fear arrest or removal from the UK.

Our immigration system must ensure women are safe to get support, continue living and working in the UK, and give them affordable routes back to status if they fall through the gaps.

No one should have to fear removal or forced separation from their family because of their relationship status.

*Name has been changed

 

 

 

 

 

Source:https://metro.co.uk/2021/06/01/i-found-out-i-was-undocumented-when-i-was-refused-re-entry-to-the-uk-14684917/?ito=newsnow-feed

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