‘They don’t tell you why’: threatened with removal after 52 years in the UK

Anthony Bryan at home in north London
 Anthony Bryan … he has a legal right to stay in the UK but has struggled to gather enough documents about his childhood. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

After 52 years in the UK, Anthony Bryan was shocked to be told he was in the country illegally and faced forced removal. Earlier this month he was sent to an immigration detention center and booked by Home Office staff on a flight back to Jamaica, a country he left when he was eight and has not visited since.

The case is the latest in an emerging scandal over the Home Office’s brutal treatment of a number of long-settled, retirement-age UK residents who are being aggressively pursued their immigration status. Bryan’s MP, Kate Osamor, said these cases were just “the tip of the iceberg” and described the situation as barbaric.

The first and last time Bryan, 60, flew on a plane was in September 1965 when he left Jamaica to join his mother who was working as a seamstress in London. He has lived continuously here since then, attending London primary and secondary schools, working and paying taxes as a painter and decorator, helping to bring up his children and seven grandchildren.

A last-minute intervention by an immigration lawyer meant his seat on the BA flight to Kingston last Wednesday was cancelled, and Bryan was released from detention on Monday, but his status in the UK remains precarious. He has to report again to the Home Office on Tuesday and is worried that he could be rearrested.

Bryan’s position is very similar to that of Paulette Wilson, who was detained and dispatched to an immigration removal center at Heathrow in late October. Wilson, 61, had been in Britain for 50 years and had not been back to Jamaica since she left at the age of 10. Forced removal from the country was prevented by her MP, but the Home Office has said she remains “liable to detention or removal” until her status is “regularised”.

Following publicity around her case, more instances have emerged of other long-term residents who have lived here for more than 50 years and who have faced deportation threats. Most were unaware that their papers were not in order.

Bryan at home in north London with his wife and son
 Bryan at home in north London with his wife and son. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Since being elected in 2015, Osamor, Labour MP for Edmonton, has encountered at least 10 similar cases of older people being sent to detention after decades in Britain. “People are left wondering: how can someone who has done so much for the community be treated like a piece of rubbish? It is barbaric. Why send people to detention when they have done nothing wrong?”

Bryan has a legal right to stay in the UK because the 1971 Immigration Act gave people who had already settled in Britain indefinite leave to remain, but he has struggled to gather enough documents to convince the Home Office that he arrived in the 1960s. Shoreditch secondary school has become an academy and destroyed its records. Northwold primary school only keeps records for 20 years. Last week the office manager found his name in the archives and wrote confirming that he started school there in November 1965. A photocopy of the handwritten admissions register was sent to the Home Office earlier this week.

Bryan remembers being excited at arriving in London. His mother had left him with his grandmother in Jamaica for three years while she saved up enough money to pay for him to join her. “London had so many lights; I remember I thought all the houses were factories because they had chimneys on the top, smoke coming out like mad,” he said.

Because he was so young he travelled on his older brother’s passport and had no documentation of his own, which has helped to complicate his situation. Bryan left school at 16 and began work in Austin’s furniture factory, assembling wardrobes and cabinets. Since then he has worked as a painter and decorator for more than 40 years and has national insurance records to prove he was in regular employment.

He was forced to stop work in 2015 when he applied for a British passport and the Home Office’s immigration enforcement contractor, Capita, wrote to him informing him that he had no right to stay in the UK and would be removed. This letter warned that his employer could face a £10,000 fine if they continued to employ him as an “illegal worker”. Apologetically, his boss had to let him go (although he has promised he will take him on again once this problem is resolved).

Bryan’s situation is compounded by the fact that he has struggled with reading all his life, and has avoided form-filling. “It’s a stigma. It’s hard to tell people that you need help,” he said. As a result, he has very few documents. He has avoided registering with a GP for that reason and never opened a bank account, initially receiving his wage packet in cash (with tax deductions already made) and latterly having money paid into his partner’s account.

He has never claimed benefits because on the one occasion when he was briefly out of work, the job center asked for more identity documents, and he was unable to give anything other than his national insurance number; his Jamaican birth certificate had been misplaced somehow during his childhood moves.

Last year police and immigration officials arrived early on a Sunday morning with a battering ram, ready to knock down his front door (he opened it); he was held for two-and-a-half weeks in the Verne immigration detention center and told he would be sent back to Jamaica. He was only released that time, he thinks because officials seemed to have mixed up his case with another person who had a similar name. “I’ve never been in any trouble and that person had gun crime on their file,” he said.

“They think that I am lying about everything. I told them I haven’t been to Jamaica since I was eight. They didn’t believe me,” he said. There was very little clarity about why he was released. “They don’t tell you why they are holding you and they don’t tell you why they let you out. You feel so depressed.”

He was taken to Campsfield detention center in November after an appeal was rejected. His son, Sean Gordon, said his father has been devastated by the experience of detention. “I can’t describe how it feels: your dad being taken away and you don’t know when you’re going to see him again.”

While it was relatively easy to work and survive without a passport until a decade ago, Theresa May’s announcement of a “hostile environment” for immigrants in 2012 has made it harder to get a job, medical treatment, bank account and pension without one.

“I have at least three friends from secondary school in the same position, frightened to get a passport. They are worried that once they apply to any documents, the same thing is going to happen to them,” Bryan said. “I feel they could have treated me better than this after I’ve been here 52 years.”

The Home Office said Bryan was “not currently subject to removal action”, adding that he had failed so far to provide the necessary evidence to show a lawful right to remain here.

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