For the past six months, we have had an asylum seeker living with us. She was quiet, polite and friendly, becoming very much a member of the family during the time she was with us. Yesterday, she left the house to make the fortnightly trip to 'sign on' (basically, a way of making sure she did not give the authorities the slip) and she never returned. Around the time I was expecting her home, the phone rang and a hysterical voice I barely recognised sobbed: "They've turned down my case! They're taking me away!"
"Just a minute, what about your right to appeal?" I asked, trying to remain calm.
"They said I can appeal, but there is so little time, and I can't reach my lawyer."
"All right, keep calm. Come home and I'll try to get hold of him myself." In my mind, I was already sitting her down with a cup of tea whilst we talked everything through.
More crying. "I can't come home, they're taking me away." I heard the sound of a woman's voice in the background talking to her in a cold, detached tone that made my flesh creep. "They say they are taking me somewhere tonight and tomorrow to a detention centre. They won't let me come home."
And that is apparently that. There is nobody I can talk to on her behalf, nobody I can ask what on earth is going on or plead to let her remain in the supportive environment of a family home until her appeal is heard. Her emotional state - like many in her position - is very fragile. I know that the experience of being detained and separated from her friends so abruptly has left her frightened and distressed, but the most I can do is try to find encouraging things to say to her over the phone.
Her room is exactly as she left it, the bed unmade, her English language text books piled up on her desk because she was halfway through an ESOL course. She may well never enter my house again. I can't bear the thought of her having to deal with this all alone, but there are many things I can't bear to think of at the moment. I know a country has the right to turn down a person's asylum application after due process if they see fit, but I cannot get over the brutality of a system that can simply detain a person without charge, trial or the most cursory of explanations. When I consider the compassion with which my family were treated when we came to this country as refugees, I cannot stop myself from weeping. I do not recognise this country any longer. What happened to justice? What happened to common decency? For that matter, what happened to compassion?