‘With a £10 weekly food budget, I am unable to support a relationship’: what it’s like to be stateless in Britain
Liew Teh has lived in the UK for nearly two decades but is fighting for the right to remain there. Britain’s Home Office has not told him when a decision will be made on his future
“What do you do for a living?” is a common question to ask when you meet someone new, but for Liew Teh, the answer does not come naturally.
“I need to be careful about what I say and what I can't say. Sometimes it's very difficult to me to make new friends. Because most of the time people say 'what do you do?', I don't like to lie and say: 'I'm doing this job, that job’, when in fact, I'm not doing anything at the moment.”
Mr Liew first arrived in the UK in 2001, aged 20, where he enrolled as an overseas student at the University of Wolverhampton. He obtained an undergraduate degree in mechatronics engineering, and then a master's degree in science from the university. He quickly settled into life in Britain and made a wide circle of friends.
After university he wanted to remain in the UK and pursue a career in robotics and automation, and to qualify as a chartered engineer, so in 2005 he began the process of applying for an indefinite right to remain.
He didn’t think that 15 years later, he wouldn’t have a place officially to call home. Now 39, Mr Liew is one of about 1,000 former Malaysian citizens who have been rendered stateless in Britain after not having any citizenship for more than 10 years, effectively “trapping” them in limbo in the UK in what some have compared to a “Windrush-style” scandal. Law firms gave them incorrect advice, leading them to believe that the little known British Overseas Citizen (BOC) passports would make them UK citizens.
A 'citizen' but not a citizen
“Even though we're considered stateless, we are called 'British Overseas Citizens'. A lot of people when they hear 'citizens' think it means you have a nationality, but in fact it doesn't give you the right to stay in the UK,” he says.
“The strange thing is, the moment I step out of the UK, I am under the UK consulate’s protection. I still can't get my head around it.”
I'm already in such difficulty, if you go into a relationship then who is going to feed you? You can't even support yourself and then when you have a child, it's even worse.
Immigration lawyers at Christine Lee & Co told Mr Liew in 2006 that at the request of the Home Office, he should renounce his Malay citizenship in order to gain UK citizenship and work as an engineer. But it was only three years later he found out that he was given incorrect advice, when his application stalled and he was made stateless.
“I only found out after reading the 2009 tribunal determination, and consulted two other law firms that year on the BOC issue. And then I complained against Christine Lee & Co.”
The law firm, which is still in operation today, did not respond to a request for comment by The National.
'Fired from my job'
Mr Liew was shocked when he was fired from his part-time job in 2016 and told he couldn’t get a job anywhere in the country because of his immigration status.
He has since appealed to senior officials in Malaysia and the UK regarding his statelessness but with little success.
After an unsuccessful High Court hearing in 2018, his case had drawn the attention of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
A Home Office spokesperson told The National that in 2005 Mr Liew was informed, in writing, that BOCs who do not hold any other citizenship or nationality can register for British citizenship only if they have not renounced their previous citizenship.
But Mr Liew says he has never been informed by the Home Office about his BOC status. He has since asked them for proof in writing that they contacted him in 2005, but has not been sent any.
'Depressed and angry'
The precariousness of Mr Liew’s situation makes him “depressed and angry”. For food, he has to rely on local food projects, as he is legally unable to earn money in the UK as a stateless person.
“Luckily I have a group of friends who support me financially and morally as well. My life is here. It doesn't belong in Malaysia. I've been here all my adult life.”
As well as old university friends, Mr Liew met people through volunteering in Amnesty and Oxfam charity shops in Shropshire. More recently, he has been helping out at Wolverhampton Refugee and Migrant Centre. They cannot legally pay him, but if he’s there for the whole day they will provide him with food.
But although he is receiving financial support from friends, the funds are barely enough to cover his rent.
“Before I went to the food project I spent £10 a week on food. That's my budget.”
Mr Liew says he has no criminal record and has never claimed benefits from the government.
To take his mind off the everyday uncertainty, he plays badminton, cycles and morris dances. As a Buddhist, he also practises meditation at his local priory.
But he often feels like he's in limbo. “I cannot pursue my career. I can't even go into a relationship. Obviously I've seen other people in similar situations of asylum, they still go and have a relationship and have children. Because they have children they get to stay here,” he says.
“But morally I think it's wrong because I'm already in such difficulty, if you go into a relationship then who is going to feed you? You can't even support yourself and then when you have a child, it's even worse.
“This is wrong but the authorities don’t see it that way. They don't even consider whether you're a good character, whether moral or ethical. If you fit their rules, you get in. If you don't fit their rules, you don't get in.
“Which is why even though I have a degree and master's from a British university, they actually disregard it and say it is not relevant to the status of the stateless application.”
In April 2019, Mr Liew submitted a new stateless application to the UK authorities without a legal representative because he can no longer afford a solicitor.
Six months later, the Home Office replied stating that they couldn’t provide any timeline for their decision on his future.
“I strongly believe I meet all the requirements but what I don't understand is why they are still delaying it."
The Home Office says that to qualify for stateless leave to remain in the UK, a person must demonstrate they are stateless and won’t be admitted to another country for the purposes of permanent residence there.
But Mr Liew says that the Home Office is aware that he has not been able to return to Malaysia for the purpose of permanent residence since May 2014. The Home Office declined to comment.
“My turmoil is ongoing and is denying me several of the universal human rights which the UK government claims to support,” he says.
If he is granted leave to remain in the UK, he intends to pursue a career in engineering.
Britain is tightening its immigration policy. The government says it wants to lure in the “highly-skilled” workers – in fields such as engineering and science – to attract the “brightest and the best” people from around the world.
Even if he cannot immediately pursue engineering, Mr Liew says he is open to any kind of work so he does not have to rely on friends.
“At least then I’ll know then I am not a parasite. I want to be able to stand on my two feet, support myself and hopefully I can start my own family as well.”
Updated: August 6, 2020 08:36 PM