Trigger Warnings: Suicide Attempt, Self-Harm, Home Office
Almost exactly a month ago, my 12-year-old sister was refused entry by UK border control and put on a flight back to Guangzhou from London. A month prior to that her application for a dependant visa had been denied on the grounds that I was not her sole surviving parent, which I am not. Her sole surviving parent is our father who works until 2am every single night – not that the Home Office would know that. In their letter of refusal, they confused our father with our late mother and thought that it was our mum who was the last remaining parent. It was strange seeing our mum referred to as if she was alive; it was bizarre and jarring and, of course, beside the point. What was most disturbing was the fact that whoever issued the decision had clearly not taken the care to go through our visa application carefully.
As I sat down to write this column, the Guardian just broke the story on Furaha Asani, the young academic who was liable to be deported to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country she’d never visited before. This followed several accounts of academics and doctors being deported or separated from their families over minor errors in their visa application or strict visa policy. Professor Amber Murrey and Dr Wesam Hassan were victims of the latter. The children of both academics were prevented from reuniting with them because their fathers were not in the UK. Even though the parents supplied joint written consent for the children to join their mothers, the Home Office clearly didn’t think they knew what was best for their family.
Their stories sounded awfully familiar to me. Shortly before we made the visa application, our father appointed me as the legal guardian of my sister and together we wrote a joint consent letter for her to join me in the UK. Not knowing any better, I only included the required documents listed on the government website in the application and did not explain in detail the circumstances surrounding her temporary move. There was also no evidence they would take it into account if we did.
For the last year or so, my sister had been suffering from anxiety and depression. It first came to our attention when her teachers noticed the marks on her arms. She had been struggling with a host of different issues: a rough transition to secondary school, alienation from her previous friends, judgement and slights from our father – who is, by no fault of his own, not the most sensitive man alive – and miscommunications with our aunt, who lives with us and helps to take care of both my sister and my uncle, who is in recovery from a stroke. Towards the end of April, my sister was vehemently refusing to go to school and often expressed suicidal thoughts.
All of these brought us to the conclusion that I might be ever so slightly better positioned to take care of my sister. For much of the summer, we rented a flat in a different city away from her old life in our hometown and her therapist was seeing significant improvement in her condition. She’d stopped her self-harm almost completely even though suicidal thoughts still came back once in a while. Over the course of the next month, these began to go away, too. I was starting to feel hopeful. I believed we were on the right path. I thought if I looked after her whilst we applied for a new school, I could keep an eye on her before I went back home for Christmas and maybe help in her recovery.
Now, I am sure the officials working on visa applications have a ton on their hands, especially close to September, when all the international students are applying to enter the UK. I would hate to take it out on a worker who was probably only doing their job following orders to create a hostile environment, but I couldn’t help feeling a sense of despair when I saw no visa vignette on my sister’s passport.
Because we hold passports that in theory grant us visa-free entry into the UK for six months, I decided to push ahead with our travel plans. I sometimes wonder if I had done the wrong thing by applying for a dependant visa. It’s a notoriously difficult visa to get, I know now, but I thought it might be safer to get a visa than risk being turned back at the border. It turned out this decision significantly raised the difficulty of entering visa-free and convincing Border Control of our intention to leave at the end of her shortened visit. We took the option to leave voluntarily. With the earliest flight back only a few days away, my sister was released on immigration bail and allowed to stay with me for two days in Glasgow.
It still gives me the shivers to think back on the documents they gave us. Printed on recycled paper, one of them says my sister was ‘liable to be detained,’ and another claims that if we broke our immigration bail, ‘reasonable force [would] be used’. Naturally I did not intend to break the immigration bail, but it was chilling to see such threatening language used on a child. I did not know what the Border Agency considered to be ‘reasonable force,’ only that some form of restraint has reportedly been used on many deportees.
When I did a course on contemporary migration last year, I found it hard to identify with the righteous outrage expressed by the lecturers. As a guest in this country, I often wonder if I am being too entitled, or overstepping, or taking the warm welcome and acceptance I’ve received for granted. Even writing this article, I wonder if I have just portrayed a reckless and insistent immigrant with no regard for the law.
As a sociology student, I think there is value in being entitled. I think we need the conviction and belief in our own rights to fight for dignified lives. But as an immigrant I find it hard to feel that. I know I was only hoping to take care of my sister. I know it had nothing to do with borders, countries, or states. The second day after our flight back to China, an unhappy encounter with our father ended with my sister trying to overdose on her own medication in her locked bedroom (I should have taken better care of the pills, I admit). As I sat in the Emergency Room with her bent over a bucket, I didn’t think any of it had anything to do with the UK. When I read the line ‘I am not convinced there is no intention to settle,’ however, it felt as if it was all about borders, that every move I made had been a sly attempt to circumvent a respectable institution and exploit the affluence of Great Britannia.
Every morning I wake up dreading bad news from home, but, fortunately, her condition seems to have stabilised for now. Still, the fact that I have decided to leave my sister behind and finish my degree fills me with unease and regret. I feel as though my previous position doesn’t have a leg to stand on now. Does this mean I am placing my own future above my sister’s welfare? Should I have abandoned the degree I’ve worked hard for and ‘gone back to my own country’ if I wanted to take care of her so badly? Does the fact that she has survived apart from me thus far prove she did not need to join me after all? Do I even deserve to be angry?
[Ka Leung – she/her]