I've made a film called Leave to Remain - an odd title that displays the absurdly English wordplay that describes the 'permission' that the home office grants asylum seekers to give them 'leave' to 'remain' in this country either definitely or indefinitely. It's a fitting title for the wilfully confusing system that determines worthiness for refugee status.
My film specifically focuses on the largely unreported world of what the home office terms Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC). That is, children (under the age of 18) who arrive in the UK without parents or guardians. I was determined to draw a distinction between those that arguably have the choice to come here and those whose choice is made by others. I never met a child or teenager that wanted to be here - they would rather have stayed in a familiar place where they understood the language than enter an adversarial system that's psychologically brutal forcing them to be an adult before their time.
I started to research this film four years ago when the official figures (which are incredibly hard to pin down) estimated that roughly 4000 kids applied for asylum (and that there are likely 4000 more that entered with 'guardians' or trafficked who have been sold into some kind of domestic or sexual slavery). It appeared that most of these children were here largely because of our military incursion into Iraq and Afghanistan and had lost family, so were compelled to come here (at a price of roughly $7000k - to a smuggler euphemistically called an 'agent' - which is roughly 3 times the yearly average wage). So, following the trauma of losing family, having to leave a familiar culture and friends behind. For some, travelling a punishing four month journey across land and sea expecting to reach paradise - the UK, where they are treated no better than a criminal. The prejudice being that if they left their country illegally, their following 'story' must also be suspect. Hence how the 'culture of disbelief' is then grown.
Don't get me wrong I'm no blinkered liberal only seeing a poor brown eyed child in need of help - I KNOW that many of these kids are compelled to lie, and usually for good reason. Which is the main theme of my film.
I came from a background of documentary film making and this is my debut feature and I'm often asked why I didn't make this as a documentary. My process was to never ask the kids anything about their past (as the authorities do) instead I focussed on their experience of arrival and the process of trying to gain Leave to Remain. There were some truly shocking moments. I went undercover as a 'responsible adult' to witness first hand what these teenagers endured to 'get their British'. I attended meetings with Social workers, doctors, psychiatrists, solicitors and most pointedly the moments of reckoning. Home Office determination interviews and the inevitable court appeals that followed. Inevitable because only roughly 1 in 10 (and these are favourable odds) on first application get Leave to Remain the remainder are refused and then have to appeal their stay. Meanwhile they are given temporary leave to remain of a few months during which time they have shared accommodation, access to education and health service. But NOTHING can assuage the terrible feeling that at any moment they could get sent back, and although its rare for anyone that's deemed under 18 to be sent back - this is cold comfort. It unimaginable thinking that as a 16 year old I'd be prepared for cross examination by a 'learned' lawyer or Home Office Protection Officer (basically the prosecution) in a court of law. Pardon my French - I'd be shitting it. When your life is in the balance, in any culture this feels like a human rights abuse....it blew my mind to watch this brutal charade in a British court.
But seemingly it took Nick Farage (or NF) to give my film a more prominent place in the hierarchy of newsworthy films. He has single handedly been brave enough to be upfront about his views on immigration ("lets close the doors") - where the other parties are pretty covert and mealy mouth in their rhetoric preferring more subtle means to create xenophobia. For his bluntness I admire NF, its meant that people are now drawn to films like mine that shows a very personal and individual experience of what asylum really means and who it impacts upon. What's scary is that NF has found a platform to be blunt.
Leave to Remain is in cinemas 20 June, check http://www.leave2remainthefilm.com/ for details.