A hot topic in the news this week has been Gamu. For those of you who don’t know, Gamu Nhengu was a contestant on the TV talent show, the X Factor. Whilst she got down to the final 32 contestants, she didn’t make it to the live shows, much to the shock of many. Anyway, the story in the news isn’t about her surprising exit from the programme, but more about her/her mother’s visa troubles. Her family originally come from Zimbabwe, but have been living in Scotland for the past 8 years. Whilst I don’t know the exact specifics, I feel that, after reading a stream of bigoted comments on Twitter (where Gamu remains a trending topic), I need to write something on it or I’ll scream. Whilst I normally hate anything X Factor-related, this is one of those stories that’s especially close to my heart.
As someone who has gone through the whole visa process, I feel I’m better equipped to understand her predicament than most. There are two sides to every story, and without knowing this family, I cannot make a completely valid judgement on their case, but she has experienced many of the things I did when dealing with the UK Border Agency (albeit with a very different outcome). The similarities are too difficult to ignore.
Let’s face it. The UK’s immigration system is severely broken. So many people slip through the cracks every year, and too many people receive services they aren’t entitled to. That being said, some of that blame has to rest on the authorities – overworked, underpaid, etc. Newspapers and various other media sources are reporting that Nokuthula Ngazana (Gamu’s mother) had her visa rejected because she claimed working tax credit and child tax credit when she wasn’t entitled to it. Again, whilst I don’t know the exact specifics, some of that problem has to do with the Inland Revenue officials who processed her application for tax credits not checking if she had recourse to public funds on her visa.
Zimbabwe, where Gamu’s from, has not been part of the Commonwealth since 2003, if I remember correctly. Things get a little iffy in the UK if you come from outside the Commonwealth or EU. In my case (I still remain a Thai citizen), I have right of abode, but cannot vote, join the army or work in a government agency. I could be entitled to some tax credits, but I find the system too confusing to see if that is the case.
A logical person would assume that if they pay taxes, they’re entitled to the same rights and benefits as everyone else who contributes to the economy, right? Alas, this is not so. In some respect, I’ve been lucky that Thailand has never been part of the Commonwealth, so I’ve always known I wouldn’t receive the same benefits as everyone else. Gamu’s family have not had that same luxury; they came to the UK in 2002 as Commonwealth citizens, but a year later, they suddenly weren’t part of the Commonwealth any more. Many of their rights were taken away from them, maybe even without them knowing it.
The awkward situation she now faces is that she is now 18, and a legal adult in the eyes of the law. Although newspapers report that for some reason she has no right of appeal, even if she did, it wouldn’t help much, as she would have to reapply as an adult/her appeal would be treated like an adult’s. For obvious reasons, countries across the world treat children in regards to immigration much more leniently than adults. There used to be this piece of law called the Seven Year Concession, where you were automatically given residency if you were a minor and had stayed in this country for seven years or more. Sadly, this was withdrawn on the 9th of December 2008 by Phil Woolas (Labour), then Home Secretary. I still think it makes sense, though. I first came to the UK when I was 4 years old, and Gamu came to the UK when she was about 10. In the years/decades that have passed since we first came here, we’ve adopted the language, the culture, and most importantly, the lifestyle. For all intents and purposes, we are now British. We talk like the British, we act like the British, and I swear like the British. The only difference is that we’re genetically different. I have no memory of what life in Thailand was like, and I bet she only has vague, distant memories of her life in Zimbabwe, too.
The last thing I want to say on this matter deeply personal. I’ve never told anyone this before, but I know how stressful a visa application is, and how heartbreaking it is to have it turned down through no fault of your own. When my family applied for indefinite leave to remain many years ago, I was much younger, and was able to apply as a dependent of my mother. Although my mother and grandmother had completely successful applications, mine was rejected because the case worker felt I was too old to be a dependent, even though the only clause for being a dependent was that you had to be under 18, which I was. Thus, I had to reapply on my own, and the irony of it was that whilst my first application was rejected because I was deemed to be too old to apply as a dependent by the case worker, the documents for my own separate application still said I was still too young to sign my own forms.
Although my first application was rejected because of a stupid admin, not technical matter, and everything was resolved for me in the end, the emotions you feel upon discovering the rejection are the same. Unlike Gamu, however, I had full right of appeal and/or the option to reapply. I still had hope then, and I hope for her now – her dignity and strength is amazing during this time of trouble.
Gamu is going about this the right way, gaining the support of MPs – the only people who can speak on her behalf to Theresa May, the Home Secretary – and getting as much publicity for her cause as much as possible.
Cases like hers will hopefully help the new coalition government realise that there are too many problems with our immigration system. Both authorities and immigrants have no clear idea of the rules. Additionally, there is not enough manpower to make sure everyone is adhering to them, whatever they may be – people haven’t been checked thoroughly enough for much too long.
Next year, I will take the useless Life in the UK Test so I can get a British passport, and regain the things that any other inhabitant of this country my age should have, like the ability to get onto the electoral roll.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I believe that everyone who comes to this country to work and live here for an extended period of time or permanently should be given most of the same rights and benefits as everyone else. It’s just unfair that Nokuthula Ngazana, Gamu Nhengu and the rest of their family are being penalised for taking something anyone else in their position – working, single parent family – would be entitled to.
With all the corruption and controversy, not to mention a vicious dictator like Mugabe in power, Zimbabwe is an extremely scary country to be in right now. Due to the whole visa issue, Gamu’s family will eventually face deportation back there. I honestly fear for their safety should they return there, and hope that our government see sense and resolve this issue soon.