Home Office backs down over travel costs for Eritrean refugee sitting GCSEs

The Home Office has backed down part way through a high court hearing after an orphaned teenage asylum seeker from Eritrea feared she would be unable to sit her GCSE exams next week due to not being accommodated close to her college.

During Tuesday’s hearing the department agreed to pay for travel until her exams finish next month – a sum of about £300. The ongoing court proceedings are likely to have already cost many thousands of pounds. Officials also guaranteed her a bedroom to herself so she can study in peace and quiet.

The court was told the 18-year-old, who has been diagnosed with PTSD and fled her country in January 2021 to escape compulsory military conscription, experienced the trauma of witnessing sexual abuse while locked in a warehouse in Sudan. She could not attend Tuesday’s hearing because she was at school. A court order prevents her identification.

She arrived in the UK in June 2021 on a small boat and was first accommodated in Kent. The Home Office then moved her to Bethnal Green in east London, where she built up a support network and started to study for GCSEs at a local college. But with almost no notice the Home Office first told her she was being moved to Hounslow in west London and then put her in a taxi with three men and sent her to Hemel Hempstead, a two-hour journey on public transport to her college.

She began high court proceedings so she could return to her college and support network in east London.

Four different high court judges have considered her case during the last few months.

On 14 March the Home Office told the high court she would be moved back to Bethnal Green by 28 March, but this did not happen. A few weeks later on 21 April she was taken to an address there but when she arrived she had to wait outside for two hours as there was no mattress at the accommodation for her to sleep on.

She was then taken away from that address and placed in her current accommodation. Her bedroom has space for two people but the Home Office has agreed not to move a second person in for the time being.

She is struggling to pay for food and other essentials because it costs her £18 a week to travel to college, almost half of her weekly support payment of £40 from the Home Office. Her GCSEs are on a different site from her college further away from her accommodation and it will cost her more than £20 a week to travel there. The alternative is an eight-mile daily round trip on foot to her exams.

In the course of the hearing Home Office officials contacted by phone agreed to immediately transfer a payment of £14.50 a week into the teenager’s account so she can pay for food and also travel to her exams.

Benjamin Douglas-Jones QC, sitting as a deputy high court judge, said: “This particular claimant has endured a lot, particularly with the Hemel Hempstead fiasco.”

He said that the way the teenager was moved around between two of the different accommodation sites “should not have happened”.

The teenager’s solicitor – Jamie Bell, of Duncan Lewis solicitors – said: “It is truly absurd how hard our 18-year-old client has had to fight just to access the basic rights of education. We are delighted that she should now have the opportunity to take her GCSEs after her case had to be considered by four judges.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Despite dealing with unprecedented pressures on the asylum system, we continue to provide safe, comfortable and secure accommodation for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute.

“Asylum accommodation is offered on a no-choice basis and we always aim to keep asylum seeker moves to a minimum. There are occasions however where such moves are necessary but, in such instances, asylum seekers are always given sufficient notice ahead of their move.”

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