'It’s better to die here than go there': Asylum seekers say Rwanda bill causing mental health crisis

They claim they were held as slaves in Libya, endured days without food or water, suffered sexual violence by illegal smugglers and were even stripped naked by border forces to escape to what they saw as a better life.

Three asylum seekers had fled to the UK in the hopes of finding safety and starting a new life. They were instead met with chants of "stop the boats", toxic debates about asylum seekers, and threats of being sent back to where their journey started.

Fitsum, 23, 24-year-old Moges and 23-year-old Amara* are all at risk of being put on a flight and taken 4,000 miles away to Rwanda.

They say their community is not sleeping and not eating. They recounted trying to prevent suicides among their friends, with refugees trying to "jump from the windows" and they've told us of rising cases of addiction due to the threat of the Rwanda bill passing.

Many, they say, are living in confusion - unclear if the bill has already passed or not.

Our report comes as the National Audit Office revealed the Rwanda asylum scheme cost could soar to £500m.

The Prime Minister said on Wednesday (28th February) that small boat crossings were down by a third, but the asylum seekers we spoke to say they would still make that journey again, despite the mental and physical toll it has taken on them.

Care4Calais are sceptical about the Prime Ministers claims, adding "It is too early to say whether numbers will continue to reduce in 2024. Crossings tend to pick up from May onwards, and weather conditions can have a significant preventative effect.

"However, it is clear that the much-vaunted deterrent effect of the Rwanda plan is negligible."

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill aims to respond to a Supreme Court ruling which stopped flights taking asylum seekers to Rwanda last year and attempts to prove that the country is safe and that individuals can be moved there.

It's currently being debated in the House of Lords and has come under intense scrutiny by campaigners and public organisations, including the UN, who claim it "undercuts human rights" - but no date is certain for when the first flights will take off.

These three asylum seekers could potentially be sent over 4,000 miles, just a three hour flight from where they started

Fitsum, Moges and Amara could be be among those asylum seekers who will be removed to Rwanda and they claim the effect it's having on their mental health is increasing.

They all fled Eritrea, at a young age, to Ethiopia and then made their journey to Europe with "a plan to live a better life".

Fitsum and Moges claim they were held as slaves in Libya for eight months, working to earn their freedom as they watched their friends tortured.

"Many of our friends died there," Fitsum told us.

"We don’t have food, we only ate once a day, they would give us one plate for seven people".

Moges said they were eventually able to take a boat to Europe, loaded with 110 people, and they were without food or water for days.

"They had lost the location so we had to stay for three days in the ocean. It was extremely cold and stormy," he said.

Amara says she "fled for [her] daughter's life" because of her experiences after leaving Eritrea.

She says she didn't want her daughter to live the life she has had. She gave birth at 14-years-old as a result of a sexual assault in Ethiopia.

Amara says she was raped again by an agent transporting her to Europe before her party was "caught by the Greek police" who, she says, "would take all our belongings and send us back naked to Turkey".

Ultimately, like thousands of other asylum seekers, they ended up in Calais.

All three of them say that was worse than where they had started.

Fitsum said they "witnessed a lot of homeless [people] get stabbed and die. So the place was not inevitable to live in.

"It was not a better place compared to where we fled from," he said. "We took all the risks to live in a better place".

Amara claims while they were in Calais "there was disagreement among different agents, which involved a gun shooting. We were extremely terrified at that time".

It's well documented that these journeys alone have a profound effect on the mental health of refugees arriving in the UK, but what is only now starting to emerge is how the threat of the Rwanda plan is exacerbating those already existing problems.

All three asylum seekers echoed the concerns of many public bodies.

Fistum, Moges and Amara all say they have had to stop others from taking their own lives and are living among dozens of people who are not eating or sleeping due to the anxiety over the potential of being sent to Rwanda.

Fitsum said: "It's better to die here than go over there [...] not only me but most of my friends in the hotel have the same thought. It’s better to die here than go over there.

"A man in our hotel tried to end his life several times, though we saved him, he still has a plan to commit suicide if he has to go to Rwanda. Everyone is stressed".

Moges says that when a police car drives near where they are staying they assume it's coming for them.

He said they always think "they had made a decision [to take them to Rwanda] and the police were coming to collect [them], and some people wished to jump out of the window”

Amara said if the Rwanda plan was signed in: "I believe this would be the end of my life"

"When you don’t have any hope, that’s it - that’s even difficult for me to understand”

The British Refugee Council has previously expressed concerns that if the act passed it will have a "damaging impact' on refugees, with the Mental Health Foundation's latest report calling for the government to "create a humane asylum system".

Oliver Chantler, Head of Policy at the Mental Health Foundation, said; "Sadly the negative mental health impact of fleeing danger and persecution does not end when people reach the supposed sanctuary of the UK.

"Our current asylum system is actively harming people’s mental health and putting people’s lives in danger...."We hope that our governments pay attention and take action to create a humane asylum system of which we can all be proud. "If asylum seekers and refugees are supported to integrate to UK society, we all benefit".

Welfare of asylum seekers was brought into sharp focus late last year after a man took his own life on the Bibby Stockholm, an accommodation barge used to house asylum seekers off the coast of Dorset.

A Home Office spokesperson said, “We take the welfare of those in our care extremely seriously and at every stage in the asylum process – from initial arrival, to any potential relocations – our approach is to ensure that the needs and vulnerabilities of asylum seekers are identified and considered including those related to mental health and trauma.

"Rwanda is a safe country that cares deeply about supporting refugees. They stand ready to receive relocated people and help them rebuild their lives.”

*We have changed these names to protect their identities

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