'Refugees just want to be treated with human dignity' says Sheffield asylum seeker as campaigners protest outside Home Office reporting centre
An asylum seeker from South Yorkshire has spoken of how a practice of getting refugees to 'report' to the Home Office in-person can be intimidating and traumatic.
Boucka Koffi has lived in the UK since 1994 but, under rules requiring refugees to 'report' to immigration officials, faced mandatory meetings with Home Officials for 17 years.
Having fled the Ivory Coast as a student protesting against the Houphouët-Boigny regime, he has since resettled in the UK and had children who he says are also "treated like refugees".
Mr Koffi, 50, was among a number of protesters outside Vulcan House in Sheffield on Friday demanding permanent changes to how refugees report back to the Home Office
Face-to-face meetings are a regular requirement in the UK, although last year were switched to telephone appointments due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many refugees and asylum seekers say the change has had a positive impact on their mental health after claims that in-person meetings leave them feeling like criminals and can stoke traumatic memories of persecution in their home countries, while some refugees' appointments have reportedly resulted in them being detained.
They are now calling on Home Secretary Priti Patel to consider keeping the current method of telephone appointments, and also demanded changes to her 'New Plan for Immigration' which is considered to be one of the biggest overhauls to the asylum system in decades.
"At the end of the day, it's about human dignity," said Mr Koffi.
"We need to get away from the narrative that creates feelings of 'us versus them'. We are all human beings and all have aspirations to make life better for ourselves and our children."
Mr Koffi said that regular visits to Vulcan House in Sheffield had left him feeling "re-traumatised".
"My children had to come with me which was very intimidating for them as well.
"For asylum seekers, just going in and being surrounded by people in uniform can be very difficult if you have PTSD and have escaped certain situations."
Rosie Huzzard, from the campaign group These Walls Must Fall, said: "The language the Home office has used with regards to immigration has left a lot of people feeling like criminals. Since 2014, people without past criminal convictions who come into the UK to find themselves a better life are still described as being under 'bail conditions'.
"Lockdown changed these mandatory meetings to telephone appointments instead and that has improved many people's anxieties."
Reporting to the Home Office was paused for several months during the first lockdown in March last year.
Charity Right to Remain said some reporting centres had now re-opened and some people were being asked to report. This remained the Home Office position during the January 2021 lockdown.
A Home Office spokesperson, said: "We have not been provided with sufficient information to look into these allegations, but we have not received any complaints regarding the Vulcan House reporting centre, formal or otherwise. We take all complaints very seriously and expect all our staff to treat those reporting to the Home Office with respect.
“Our policy remains unchanged – we only ask people to physically report where absolutely necessary. The vast majority of people on immigration bail are currently not required to report in person and remain in contact via telephone.”