On International Women’s Day, I wish to pay tribute to a former client named ‘Maria’ who overcame a childhood of abuse and trafficking to take control of her life. She could have been a victim but chose to be a survivor. This is her remarkable tale.
Maria first came to see me in 2010 when I was working in Birmingham. She was 24 years old at the time.
She had travelled up from London and was in a somewhat dishevelled state.
She had with her a plastic Tesco bag containing dozens of pages relating to her immigration status.
They were not in any order and she could not make heads or tails of them.
When I asked her about her background, her responses were extremely vague.
She knew very little about how she arrived in the UK or who her parents were.
All she knew was that was born in Nigeria and was taken to the UK when she was 14 years old.
She did not know who took her here.
After many months of lengthy meetings with Maria, securing her files from the Home Office and the Social Services, and having her assessed by a consultant psychiatrist, we managed to piece together her life story.
The psychiatrist said that she had deliberately blocked out much of it, so traumatic had her experiences been.
As a young child, Maria was sexually abused by her father.
When her mother found out about the abuse, she sent Maria to live with extended family members in another part of Nigeria.
She was 8 years old at the time.
She never saw her parents again.
Maria was made a domestic slave having to do all the household chores, cooking and caring for the younger children.
She was mentally and physically abused.
Around 2000, when she about 14 years old, Maria was trafficked by these relatives to the UK on the understanding that she would enjoy a better life.
Instead, she found herself exploited as a domestic slave in the household of complete strangers.
She was prevented from going to school.
For the next three years, this family emotionally and physically abused her.
It was only after she was severely beaten with a belt that she mustered up the courage to call the police.
As she was still a minor, she was taken into care by the Social Services.
Maria became pregnant the following year and gave birth to a daughter.
Unsure what to do and with no support from the father of the child, she immediately acquiesced to the Social Services suggestion that she place the child for adoption.
Tragically, she has never seen her daughter since then.
In 2007, a friend helped her to make an application for humanitarian protection to the Home Office.
The Home Office refused the application stating that she was now an adult capable of forging her own life in Nigeria without family assistance.
They added that the problems she experienced were mainly in the UK and not Nigeria.
Taking Back Control
By the time she came to see me, Maria was trying to move forward with her life but had no evidence of her legal status and appeared to be in complete limbo.
We made a fresh asylum and human rights claim for Maria providing a detailed background to her case.
We obtained expert reports from a consultant psychiatrist and from Afruca, a charity dealing with child abuse and trafficking in Africa.
The psychiatric report found that Maria suffered from a severe personality disorder and suicidal tendencies as a result of her experiences.
Maria had tried to commit suicide on three previous occasions by taking an overdose of paracetamol.
The psychiatrist believed that Maria’s mental health was so fragile that if she was to be removed to Nigeria, there would be a serious deterioration in her psychiatric state.
He also found that she would be extremely vulnerable and unable to protect herself and that she would be easy prey to abuse by others.
The detailed report by Afruca found Maria’s account of her abuse and trafficking to be plausible and consistent with their knowledge of the practice in Nigeria.
It concluded that if Maria was returned to Nigeria, she would become homeless and destitute and would be prone to further exploitation as a domestic slave, begging on the streets, a sex worker or in other ways.
It took 18 months for the Home Office to finally make a decision on her case and even then, only after judicial review proceedings were issued challenging the lengthy delay.
The Home Office failed to make any decision on the asylum claim but simply issued Maria with discretionary leave to remain for a period of 3 years.
For the first time in her life, Maria was legal in the UK and finally able to move on with her life.
However, we agreed that we should appeal the decision to the Tribunal as it appeared that no decision had been made on her asylum case, which would have given her leave to remain for 5 years.
The judge who heard the appeal was very critical of the Home Office who not only failed to file any evidence to support its case but also failed to send a Presenting Officer to court.
The judge considered all the evidence and allowed the appeal on humanitarian protection grounds, as a result of which Maria was granted five years leave to remain.
Towards the end of last year, Maria was granted indefinite leave to remain.
She could not have looked more different than she had 7 years earlier when we first met.
She now presented as a confident yet humble woman who had taken control of her life back from those who had sought to destroy her.
Her only wish was to somehow be able to see the daughter she felt pressured to give up so many years earlier.
I am not sure if this can ever happen and it may be something Maria has to come to terms with.
Maria has now graduated with honours with a degree in hotel and hospitality management and was due to be interviewed in relation to her first job.
Whenever I think of Maria, what she suffered and how she picked herself up, it fills me with hope.
She is a symbol of how courage can overcome fear, how dignity can overcome humiliation and how truth can overcome falsehood.
She is a truly inspiring woman.
Maria refused to be a victim; she chose to be a survivor.
Visadreams.com, Diary of an Immigration Lawyer, is a blog run by Fahad Ansari, the director and principal solicitor of Riverway Law, a niche UK immigration and nationality law practice based in London. If you would like any advice or assistance in relation to your immigration matter, please do not hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit your details here.