‘I will help you,’ he said. Then he asked for sex
Tanya is just 18. Raped in Zimbabwe and rejected by her husband in the UK, she fled the marriage and sought asylum. Then she faced a new ordeal. The official handling her case said he would help her claim. But he also wanted sex. Jamie Doward and Mark Townsend on a horrifying abuse of power
from The Observer
Tanya is the sort of person you notice in a crowd. She has a big, blinding smile and exudes a magnetic aura, a captivating calmness uncommon among normal 18-year-olds.
But then Tanya’s short, tragic life has been far from normal. When she was 11, Tanya’s father died. When she was 15 she was raped by an important donor to Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party. The man pulled strings to ensure the doctor’s report into the rape – and Tanya’s allegations – disappeared. Things got worse. Tanya was accused of making the rape up. People spat at her in the street. She was branded a ‘slut’ who was trying to blacken the name of a respected member of the local community. She plunged into depression.
At 16, she ran away from home. Her family had arranged for her to leave Zimbabwe to marry a man in England she barely knew. He was a member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the political organisation that the Zanu-PF is intent on destroying. His family was relatively wealthy and promised money and cattle to Tanya’s family in return for her hand in marriage. Tanya’s uncles wanted the marriage to proceed. She claims that they found her, locked her in a room and beat her with whips until she agreed to the marriage. Three years later she still has scars on her hands, legs and back.
She entered the UK on Christmas Day 2003. Upon discovering his bride was not a virgin, Tanya claims her husband turned on her. ‘He always kept going on about how he was going to get another wife because I wasn’t a virgin, how I never really got raped because I had come on to the man,’ Tanya said. She alleges that her husband, who had successfully claimed asylum, regularly ensured there was no food in the house they shared in the West Midlands. She had no money and often went hungry.
Tanya left him after one month of marriage. But her options were limited. She could not return to Zimbabwe – her rape allegations against the Zanu-PF donor, and her marriage to an MDC member, meant she was an obvious target for the country’s notorious security services. And she was also in a legal limbo – her husband withdrew her application for British citizenship shortly after she fled.
A male friend who knew Tanya’s husband offered her a roof over her head. ‘He ended up being violent,’ Tanya said. ‘I felt I had to keep having sex with him for him to put me up. There were times when I tried to leave. I went to the Refugee Council but they couldn’t give me a place to stay because I wasn’t an asylum seeker.’
With no money, nowhere to go and few friends Tanya’s only option was to follow her solicitor’s advice and claim asylum. She had no choice but to beg the country she called home not to return her to a brutal dictatorship, a place where a bang on the door in the small hours pressages rape, torture and murder.
What happened next constitutes a disturbing abuse of power and raises fundamental questions about practices within the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND).
Lunar House in East Croydon is an ugly building to house so many people’s dreams. But it is here, behind the concrete walls of the towering office complex, that those seeking asylum in Britain come to plead their case. What the officials say and, more importantly, what they do, helps determine an asylum seeker’s fate. Theirs is an extremely powerful position, an asymmetry between applicant and official emphasised by the reinforced glass screens from behind which IND staff grill the asylum seekers.
On 5 May, as she nervously clutched her forms detailing her home office reference number, a letter from her lawyer and a potted, scrawled chronology of the ugly events that led to her seeking asylum in a faceless office in Surrey, the Zimbabwean teenager cut a forlorn figure in the Lunar House waiting room.
James Dawute spied Tanya almost instantly. The chief immigration officer signalled to a security guard for her to be brought forward. Tanya was searched and given a ticket with a number on it. Moments later Dawute approached the teenager and gave her another ticket with a different number. Instantly she jumped up the queue by several hundred places.
Soon she was being interviewed by a female immigration official only for Dawute to take over. Once his colleague’s back was turned, Dawute passed a scrap of paper with his telephone number on through the window and asked for her number in return. She complied.
Tanya claims Dawute suggested he could find accommodation for her in Croydon that day, but she declined, saying she had no money. Instead he signed some forms allowing her to claim accommodation and emergency benefits from the Refugee Council.
Dawute rang two days later, telling Tanya he liked her and wanted to see her. Tanya claims Dawute he offered to help sort out her leave to remain. He also transferred £50 into her bank account, the first of three such payments he was to make over the subsequent fortnight. The following day Dawute called again saying he couldn’t wait to see her and arranged to meet Tanya in Croydon.
Tanya was torn. She held no illusions about what the man wanted. But she was terrified of being sent back to Zimbabwe. ‘He said he was a really influential person,’ Tanya said. ‘What if he could get me my papers and get me sorted like he promised? But then I realised they could take the papers off me at any time if it was found out I had to do things with him to get them.’ Her friends in the Zimbabwean community persuaded her to talk to The Observer with a view to exposing what had happened. Nervously, Tanya agreed.
The self-styled king of Lunar House shaves off his white hair to make himself look younger. He claims to be 47 but is actually 53. As he sidled up to Tanya, waiting for him in a platform cafe at East Croydon railway station last Wednesday afternoon, Dawute was looking forward to the next 24 hours. He planned to show her off to friends who were meeting in a bar to watch the Champions League final. He had already thought about the hotel where they would spend the afternoon.
Over lunch in a noodle bar, the civil servant with five years’ experience in the IND promised to help the teenager. As he did so he took a phone call in which he discussed booking a hotel room for later that day. ‘I will do my best to make sure you are OK,’ he said. ‘I know how to win your case.’ At one stage he claimed to be able to obtain her a Ghanaian passport. Several times during the meal he admitted he wanted to have sex with Tanya. At one stage Tanya said she could not have sex with Dawute unless he guaranteed to help her. Dawute told her to ‘trust him’: ‘I’m very honest and I keep my word.’
Tanya was still unconvinced and asksed why she should go to a hotel with Dawute. ‘I will tell you when we are alone,’ Dawute said. ‘Because we are going to have sex.’
When confronted by The Observer, Dawute denied any wrongdoing. He claimed he was simply trying to put her in touch with an immigration charity and that he could not help her with her asylum application even if he wanted to. He denied discussing sex with her.
The Observer intends to hand its evidence to the authorities to let them decide. In January this year the Sun splashed on ‘sex-for-visa’ claims made by a former immigration officer who was based in Lunar House for four years. ‘One girl came in and told us an admin officer had visited her flat and they had slept together. She got indefinite leave to stay,’ the whistleblower, Anthony Pamnani, told the paper.
He revealed how female asylum seekers would ask for officials by name. ‘A Lebanese girl came into the office in a foul temper asking for one of the guys who worked there,’ Pamnani recalled. ‘He had moved to another department. She told us that he’d promised to give her an extension to a visa and that they had slept together at her flat in Brighton.’
The claims prompted questions in parliament and an official investigation. But on 14 March this year Baroness Scotland told parliament: ‘I am pleased to say that the investigation found no evidence to support the Sun’s central allegation that there was a corruption ‘racket’ in the public enquiry office involving ‘sex for visas’.
Scotland admitted the inquiry had unearthed examples of minor misconduct, but went on to praise staff at Lunar House for their ‘hard work’ and ‘professionalism’.
The civil servant charged with investigating the claims took pains to emphasise the complexities of the immigration process. Lunar House, he pointed out, had 140 staff who last year processed more than 120,000 immigration cases. This was separate from Lunar House’s Asylum Screening Unit which hears thousands of cases. Pressures on the system were obvious throughout the report. ‘The office continued to struggle with long queues, packed waiting areas, lengthy delays for customers and generally poor standards of service,’ it stated.
The report also found evidence male staff had been jumping women to the front of the queue. ‘In several of these cases the unprofessional behaviour alleged by the Sun is the most likely explanation,’ the report disclosed, before calling for the appointments booking process to be modified to prevent officials bypassing the system.
But, despite this remarkable admission, little appears to have changed at Lunar House. Pamnani told The Observer he felt the report had failed to address his fundamental concerns. ‘I felt it was a bit wishy-washy to be honest,’ he said. He was concerned no attempt appeared to have been made to interview any of the applicants who had allegedly been asked by staff for sexual favours.
The IND’s security and anti-corruption unit is still investigating one official in Lunar House following a specific allegation made by Pamnani. When told of The Observer’s revelations, Pamnani, who left Lunar House in disgust at the practices he witnessed, expressed shock. ‘This guy is from a totally different department to the one I mentioned,’ Pamnani said. ‘This is explosive; this will cause a lot of problems for the Home Office.’
The official report into the Pamnani affair concluded that questions had to be asked ‘about how IND learns lessons, and retains knowledge from such episodes.’ Given its recent turbulent history many would agree. The picture that has emerged over the last 12 months is of a chaotic department in which staff are stretched beyond capacity, bereft of guidance from senior management and where systems for processing visa and asylum applications are often ad hoc and open to abuse.
The government’s recent failure to identify and deport foreign prisoners is largely down to chronic problems within an over-stretched IND. Three years ago, alarmed by mounting public concern over asylum seekers, the Home Office transferred scores of staff out of deportation to assess asylum claims. And the astonishing revelation last week by Dave Roberts, the director of enforcement and removals at the IND, that he had ‘not the faintest idea’ how many people were in Britain illegally confirmed the image of a department in disarray. More embarrassment came on Friday when it emerged that illegal immigrants had been working in the Home Office for years.
Amid the maelstrom, the government has hardened its stance on immigration, introducing a new fast-track asylum application process. The statistics tell the story. At Harmondsworth detention centre, for example, figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal 99.6 per cent of fast-track asylum claims are rejected.
The danger is that the voices of genuine refugees – those such as Tanya, who will be subjected to violence and persecution if they are returned to their native countries – are lost.