Transgender asylum seeker ‘left in limbo’ two years after landing in the UK

  • london
  • March 23, 2023
  • Comments Off on Transgender asylum seeker ‘left in limbo’ two years after landing in the UK
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Volunteering on the filmset of Matar gave Hiba Noor ‘another life’ after two years of waiting for a decision from the Home Office about her asylum claim.

Back in Pakistan, she worked on the set of a popular television morning show, and on music videos and documentaries.

But being part of the transgender community put a visible target on the 26-year-old’s back.

After an attack on her family, in which her brother was killed, she took the difficult decision to flee her homeland, she told

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Moving to Britain and seeking asylum, Hiba hoped to return to filmmaking, but is still ‘living in limbo’ while waiting for a decision on her case from the government.

Ahead of a new bill formalising asylum seekers’ right to work in the country set to undergo a second reading in Parliament on Friday, she described how this would change her life.

‘As asylum seekers, we do not need anything but encouragement to live,’ she said.

‘We are not happy to leave our countries, and it feels as we leave our souls. I can’t go back to see my mum’s and my brother’s graves.

‘There are many asylum seekers that came from countries ravaged by war. We are not here to enjoy the London weather and delicious food, but to seek freedom.

‘Working on the set of Matar triggered a lot of old trauma for me, but this was my chance to stand up for myself and others like me, and heal. I found a love letter in the shape of this project and the people I worked with.

‘It gave me another life and made me stronger. I had lost hope I will ever work in film again.’

Hiba is waiting for her second interview with the Home Office. Meanwhile, she still has to rely on the £45 weekly allowance from the government and assistance from charities.

Because more than 12 months have passed since making her claim, she is allowed to take a job on the shortage occupation list.

This includes work in education and healthcare, but Hiba cannot be employed as a freelancer in film and television, which she hailed as ‘a joke’.

Her life in London has not been easy as well, having to face several transphobic attacks on the streets and on public transport.

Hassan Akkad, the director of Matar – a short film examining the plight of asylum seekers in the country – wanted to have Hiba co-direct it with him, but could not as she is still not allowed to work.

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As a BAFTA and Emmy-winning director and producer behind Netflix’s film The Swimmers, he has been working in the industry for years.

But when he arrived in the country as a refugee from Syria in 2015, his fate was unclear.

Like Hiba, Hassan was not allowed to work, and instead was given the weekly cash support granted to all asylum seekers – money he says he never received.

To survive, he had to rely on the generosity of friends and family for six months while awaiting for a decision on his claim.

Hassan spoke with from the border between Turkey and Syria, where he was visiting communities devastated by the earthquakes in February on behalf of Choose Love.

He said about the bill: ‘Allowing asylum seekers to work is something I personally would celebrate, and have been calling for for a very long time.

‘People can be living in limbo for two, tree, even four years, without the right to work, all while staying in hotel rooms and relying on £5 or £6 pounds a day.

‘It is not sustainable. People are not able to kickstart their lives or integrate, and are being economically dependent on British taxpayers.

‘Allowing them to work, especially in a market where many sectors would benefit, would help them move out of these hotels, pay their bills and boost the economy.

‘They will not rely on taxpayers. Hopefully, this bill goes through. Nobody can disagree with that – it is not something that should be polarising, it simply makes sense.’

Hassan wanted to work and hated being ‘dependent’ on the taxpayers. On arrival, he already had the English language skills and the experience to take on work but was delayed because of the government’s restrictions.

He knew that he wanted to progress in film and television, and as soon as he got his asylum papers, he found a job as a researcher on a documentary.

Working in an office in Old Street, Shoreditch, alongside other creatives, he found it easy to make friends and immediately feel like he ‘belonged’.

The filmmaker said: ‘This is what it should be like – it benefits everybody. It helped with my faster integration in the country.

‘You are meeting people, making friends, going to dinners, events, parties, and are slowly creating a new circle. This really reduces the risk of isolation, which can lead to a number of mental health problems.’

Hassan also stressed he would not be at the same point in his career if he had not started work so soon after arriving. 

‘I am not a burden. I am not dependent. On the contrary – I am paying my taxes and contributing,’ he added.

But not everyone is as ‘fortunate’ as him. Hassan acknowledged his experience is rare.

Given that the Home Office has only been making around 18,000 decisions every year – with the backlog only growing – many remain ‘destitute’ for years.

Hassan said: ‘Many people do not have the support I had, and end up homeless and/ or exploited. This is the direct result of unfair policies.’

At last week’s premiere of Matar at the Curzon Soho, Hiba and Hassan reflected on their experiences as asylum seekers in the UK and how waiting to receive the right to work affected their mental health.

Their comments were echoed by Ayman Alhussein, a camera operator, who lent his lived experiences of working as a delivery driver for the script.

He was granted asylum in 2019, two and a half years after arriving in the country from Calais.

Fleeing the war in Syria at the age of 18, he spent several years in Turkey where he graduated from a dental prosthetics course, but was not allowed to work.

In the UK, Ayman encountered similar restrictions, and has joined others in calling on Parliament to expand asylum seekers’ employment rights.

He said: ‘People wait for months or years to be granted asylum. They do not have the right to work and travel, have no access to television or internet, and have no money to top up their phone and speak to their families.

‘This makes it really easy to fall into the modern slavery system. I know people who have been working cash-in-hand jobs for years.

‘But they do not have any other option and they cannot go to the government because they will get deported.

‘This bill would make it easier for asylum seekers to start a new life here. And the government would no have to spend money on them staying hotels.’

Like Hiba, Ayman was at the mercy of relatives while waiting for his claim to be approved.

Without the work of charities, he stressed most asylum seekers would ‘starve’ on the cash support provided by the government.

‘You are put under so much pressure and nothing to survive on,’ Ayman added.

He also opened up about ‘almost losing his mind’ while living in the government-provided accommodation.

‘In the two and a half years I waited for my papers, if I had the right to work and integrate, it would have improved my mental health so much,’ the filmmaker said.

‘Your mind starts playing games with you and you just start remembering all the old traumas because you are not keeping busy. It is the same for my friends.

‘Before getting their papers, they would be very depressed and visibly struggling.

‘And then you can see the sparkle return in their eyes. It is like being born again.’

People can watch Matar for free on WaterBear.

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at [email protected].

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