Illegal Migrant: Jakia Chowdhury - Tower Hamlets
Now aged in her late 40s, Jakia Chowdhury arrived in Britain with her husband and two children in 1987 on a 'visit visa' to visit relatives. The family overstayed for two years, and Jakia was then left behind in London when her husband returned unexpectedly to Bangladesh, taking the children with him. Jakia told us:
I decided to stay here. It took a while to decide that I wouldn't go back to my husband's house. I had to go through a lot of struggles because of the decision. I didn't have legal papers to stay here. It took me 15 years before I could stay in this country legally.
She spoke of the reasons for staying in Britain:
If I had gone back to him, he would have made me his subordinate. This is what happens to most of the women in our country… I preferred to build a life of my own in this country…I did not seek any advice from anyone but one or two of my close relatives came to me and discussed it. They told me that if I go home the man might divorce me and in that case, what would happen to my children? If that happened, I would not be able to take good care of the children alone. I would not be able to get custody of the children. The society is male dominated and the law supports men because men earn the money… If I had gone, I would have had to shelter in my brother’s house. They would have had to take responsibility for me… So I decided not to take that kind of pain. I chose the pain of the struggle to be independent.
Jakia told us of her long fight to get the right to stay in Britain legally:
I applied to get permission to stay after my husband took my children home, though I did not know how to apply and what would be the best way to get the permission to live here permanently. In 1993 the Home Office refused my application and asked me to leave the country. After getting the refusal letter, I applied again and this time I applied for political asylum. They refused my application for political asylum as well. They tried to deport me five times.
While waiting for her applications to be considered, Jakia worked in a factory making clothes. She recalls:
On one occasion, an immigration officer came to arrest me; they caught me in the workplace but for some reason he left the factory without arresting me… The immigration officer went to the office and asked the owner about me. He told the owner they had come after being tipped off by someone that I was working in the factory. They showed my picture. Luckily the picture was not clear enough to recognise me. The owner told them that nobody like that picture worked there… While all this was happening, my co-workers, who knew I did not have work documents, told me to leave the premises. I tried to leave the factory premises with the excuse of buying milk, but I could not. The police stopped me and started asking questions. They interviewed me for at least 30 minutes. I was very tense and could not think properly… The police and immigration officer knew that I was the person they were looking for, or at least that I was illegal. Anyway, I think the immigration officer was kind to me because he realised I was a woman who was just trying to survive… He left the place without taking me for deportation.
She told us of the fear that she felt with her illegal status:
In another instance, I took shelter in an empty flat. The occupant of the flat was in Bangladesh, so no one was there. I did not go out during the daytime, and at night I used to stay in the dark. I was so frightened that I could not switch on the lights. I lived like this for a while. But at one point the food ran out. I couldn't go shopping. There was nothing to eat. At that time, I did not have many relatives in the UK. Only one of my nieces was living here. We knew nothing about the immigration police. I could not even make a phone call from the house because I thought that if I called anyone they would be able to find out my hiding place… My niece brought food for me. I lived like this in that flat for three weeks.
During this time, Jakia supported herself financially by working in factories, in Bengali supplementary schools and as an interpreter. She was involved in local politics and with Bengali cultural and political organisations. Her husband and children migrated from Bangladesh to the United States in 1995. Jakia eventually got permission to stay in the UK through supporters in the local Labour Party and the intervention of the local MP. She was granted asylum in 1999 and her leave to remain in 2003. Since getting a valid work permit, Jakia has worked for voluntary organisations, with children with special needs and for the local council. She currently works with Social Services. She is particularly committed to improving the situation of women both in the UK and in Bangladesh. She told us:
In London, many things are good, everyone has a good heart, they [Londoners] are connected, very sociable. London is homely. I love London a lot apart from one thing – in London you have to work very hard to survive, you have to do everything on your own. I feel for Bangladesh although I left the country 20 years ago… But I feel London is closer to my heart because I have grown mentally, become mature in this country.
Jakia plans to return to Bangladesh in the future and to divide her time between there and the USA, where her grown up children now live.
I won't be able to live in London when I get older. It will be difficult to live here alone at that age.