By Grainne Cuffe Local Democracy Reporter – Lewisham, Southwark and Lambeth
Lewisham News Shoppers, 5th Feb 2021
Lewisham Council told a rape survivor it was housing to either go back to her home country or she would have to find somewhere else to stay.
Marian Okeibunor, a mum of two who left Nigeria in 2010, said she is fearful of being killed if sent back and that attempts have been made on the lives of family members.
Lewisham is in the process of becoming a Borough of Sanctuary, with the aim of “welcoming those fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries and protecting the rights of all migrants, asylum seekers and refugees”.
Lewisham social services started supporting Ms Okeibunor in November 2019 under Section 17 of the Children’s Act, which states that it is the duty of every local authority to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need.
But as her immigration application to the Home Office was rejected, Lewisham Council carried out a human rights assessment and on December 16, 2020 decided Ms Okeibunor was not in danger in her home country.
The council offered to help her return to Nigeria, but told her if she was not willing to do so, she would have to leave her housing.
Ms Okeibunor left her housing after a senior resettlement officer said he would raise ‘safeguarding concerns’, which she believed was a threat to take her children away.
Ms Okeibunor said: “Lewisham council put me and my two little children in such a terrible and horrified state that words cannot explain how we felt the night we were evicted.
“We are still to recover from the trauma we received.”
Women Against Rape (WAR), an organisation that offers support to women and girls who have been raped or sexually assaulted, is supporting Ms Okeibunor and has launched a campaign to get her into emergency housing.
When WAR initially protested about her eviction, they said the council’s senior resettlement officer wrote to say that social workers assessed Ms Okeibunor’s situation and made her an offer which would prevent her from being homeless.
A spokesperson said: “This offer was to be returned to Nigeria – under the so-called Voluntary Return scheme – where she and the children would be in danger.
“This vicious treatment is more shocking considering the pandemic when evictions are supposed to be on hold and when public health is supposed to be paramount.
“Do the government regulations to Stay Home, Protect the NHS and Save Lives not apply to a woman seeking asylum from persecution in her home country?
“Considering that Ms Okeibunor is a woman of colour, is this a racist double standard?”
Ms Okeibunor is now seeking asylum in the UK, but the Home Office said she needs to do so in person.
This would mean travelling two hours each way by bus with her children, which WAR says will put her health and the health of the community at risk.
The spokesperson said: “As a rape victim suffering trauma, Ms Okeibunor needs time and specialist help from WAR to speak about all that she has suffered.
“She shouldn’t be pushed into speaking at an asylum screening interview in order to be entitled to asylum support, especially as these interviews can be a trap where hostile immigration officials look for reasons to refuse and deport people.”
WAR says the eviction is “completely at odds with the council’s new Sanctuary Strategy and more in accordance with the hostile environment regime it replaced, when Home Office staff were embedded in the council’s social services”.
Ms Okeibunor’s son, who goes to school in Lewisham, has also become unwell after having an allergic reaction to food he ate after the family was evicted.
The spokesperson said: “Despite explaining this to the Home Office when they called yesterday they still insisted she must bring the family to the screening appointment in person before getting any help.
“The family are living in very overcrowded conditions without any income at all and relying for food on a couple of supermarket vouchers that were donated to WAR.”
WAR is calling on Lewisham residents to contact the mayor of Lewisham to demand it provide housing for Ms Okeibunor’s family.
They said: “Cllr Alan Hall has kindly offered Ms Okeibunor his full support. He has written to the Mayor of Lewisham to request an urgent review.”
The organisation is also asking that people outside Lewisham contact the Home Office to ask that the family is put in emergency accommodation.
WAR has written to the council explaining Ms Okeibunor has asylum grounds because of the sexual violence she suffered and that she should not be evicted, particularly amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
A council spokesperson said: “We understand that this has been a distressing period of time for Ms Okeibunor and her family.
“The council has worked closely with her to provide housing and financial support to her and her two children since November 2019.
“During this time Ms Okeibunor had an immigration application with the Home Office, and Lewisham Council continued to support the family until a decision could be made.
“This application was subsequently dismissed and the council was legally obliged to carry out a Human Rights Assessment in order to determine whether Ms Okeibunor could safely return to her country of origin.
“This involves a comprehensive social workers assessment.
“As a result, and in line with our legal obligations under the Nationality and Immigration Asylum Act 2002, the council is no longer able to provide housing support to the family. We would encourage the Home Office to provide emergency support whilst an application for asylum is made.
“Lewisham Council has a proud history of supporting refugees and migrants, welcoming those fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries and protecting the rights of all migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees.”
The Home Office has not responded to a request for comment.