A FAMILY seeking asylum in the UK has been left "traumatised" by a 12-hour ordeal during which a string of failures saw them leave their home and wait hours in sub-zero temperatures, be picked up by police and then moved across the country to Newcastle then York.

Dr Henry Okwo and his wife Blessing, with their three children aged four, two and four months, were renting a property in Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire, from a private landlord. However, when Dr Okwo made an asylum claim, he was told he was no longer permitted to work and so had to give notice on the property because he could not afford the rent.

A series of crossed wires and failures by a range of agencies have now left the family homeless and living in a hotel paid for by a charity.

Dr Okwo, who says he was a victim of torture in his native Nigeria and whose brother was murdered, said: "I really have no words to describe the feeling we have been left with because it was really so difficult.

"We came not just to the United Kingdom but Scotland in particular because we just needed a place of quietness.

"I had gone through a lot in my life and I was just tired of all of the things that had happened to myself and so we just needed a place of peace yet here we were going through some terrible experiences.

"What I went through when I was younger remains in my psyche and is still very painful.

"I do not know if my son will remember what we went through but I am distressed to think that he might."

The harrowing incident began on Monday, January 16, the day the Okwos were due to move from their Coatbridge flat. They had been led to believe that Home Office contractors would provide alternative accommodation as the family had been left destitute by Dr Okwo, who is also studying at the University of Strathclyde, leaving his job.


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They had been due to move out on January 14 but asked the letting agency, Aquila Management Services, for an extension because they had nowhere else to go.

The letting agent firmly maintains that he did not know the Okwo family had no alternative housing and believed they were moving directly to another property.

Around 3pm the agent sent a member of staff to move the Okwo's belongings from the flat and lock the property, leaving the family in the corridor of the building. They stayed inside, Dr Okwo said, because a yellow weather warning was in place and the temperature outside was below zero.

The family had still had no word from the Home Office and Dr Okwo was in communication with Migrant Help, a charity contracted by the Home Office, to ask for guidance and support.

Shortly before 5pm Migrant Help assured the family that emergency support had now been approved and told them to wait for a car to come and pick them up to take them to new accommodation.

At 7.10pm, after waiting for four hours, a private hire vehicle arrived with a driver saying he would take Mrs Okwo and baby Henry but the others would have to wait for a second car, also revealing that the family were being taken to York.

Dr Okwo, who is seeking asylum as a victim of torture in Nigeria, was sure this must be an error and so asked the driver to wait while he contacted Migrant Help to check but the man instead left.

 

Meanwhile, as Dr Okwo was trying to contact the asylum charity, Aquila Management Services were insisting the family leave the building as other residents were concerned.

Paul Clark, of Aquila Management Services, told The Herald he treated the family with "compassion" at every step.

A message from Mr Clark to Dr Okwo at 10.34pm reads: "I've just been informed you are still in the property. I need to ask you to leave otherwise I will call the police."

Shortly after this, at 10.45pm, he sends another message reading: "Ok. We are calling the police. You are trespassing in the building."


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At 10.41pm another message from Mr Clark reads: "If you are still in the corridor in five minutes, we will call the police." Three minutes later a second message reads: "Ok. We are calling the police. You are trespassing in the building."

Mr Clark was adamant that he did everything he could for the family and insisted he called a North Lanarkshire Council out of hours number to ask for support for the Okwos but was advised to call the police.

He stood by his decision. He said: "They'd given me notice on the property but not any other information; I had no idea Henry and his family were in a crisis situation. If I got concerned about every tenant who gave us notice then I wouldn't have time to do my job.

"With regards to asking him to vacate the communal area, it's important to note that we act as the factor for that building, including the eight flats in that corridor, so we have a separate duty as factor to safeguard the block's integrity and security.

"Not everybody in that corridor knew the Okwos so think of how you would feel for a family of five and all their paraphernalia to be in the corridor, they were beginning to upset the tenants and I spoke to the police then.

"The residents were quite right to raise it. It's only natural and I would raise it too. I'm not sure I would act differently if the same situation occurs again in the future."

Around 11pm Police Scotland officers arrived having been alerted by Mr Clark and took the family to Motherwell police station where the family waited for four more hours for Migrant Help to provide assistance.


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It is the family's position that they were told to wait outside in a police van – still in sub-zero temperatures – but Police Scotland says the family were able to use the station's facilities.

A spokesperson for Police Scotland said: “Officers supported a family who had been evicted from their property in Coatbridge.

"To ensure they were comfortable before a partner agency was able to assist them, the family were taken to Motherwell Police Office where they had access to all necessary facilities."

A spokesperson for North Lanarkshire Council added: "Had we been made aware of the situation at the time then the council would have provided the family with temporary emergency support.

"We will fully investigate this matter with all parties concerned. Further action may be taken following this investigation."

Finally, around 3.20am, the Home Office sent two private hire cars to collect the family who were told they were now going to Newcastle; Dr Okwo travelled in one car with his older son and daughter, Ferdinand and Beauty, while Mrs Okwo travelled with the baby.

At 6am Dr Okwo arrived at a hotel in South Shields to discover his wife and infant were not there, leaving him frantically trying to try to track her down.

The two drivers had been given different addresses and Dr Okwo's driver then had to travel to Newcastle to the unite him with his wife at a hotel.

Their ordeal was still not over. The hotel claimed that the booking had not been made correctly and there was no room for them.

HeraldScotland: Henry Okwo pictured in Glasgow holding a photograph that shows him at left with his younger brother Ferdinand taken in 2011

The Okwos then endured a further two hour wait in the lobby of the hotel before being picked up again at around 8am and then taken to York.

Dr Okwo had previously contacted the charity Positive Action in Housing for destitution support and so appealed to the organisation again for help in returning to Glasgow where he is reading for a Masters degree in software development.

Positive Action in Housing arranged for train tickets to bring the family back to Glasgow where they are staying in a hotel room paid for the charity's emergency relief fund until a volunteer can provide a short term let.

Robina Qureshi, CEO of Positive Action in Housing, said: “This was a traumatising experience for this family, this was the worst of the worst - a shocking neglect and failure of duty of care towards the Okwo family when they turned to the Home Office for help.

"The family spent more than 12 hours in subzero temperatures, were taken hundreds of miles from their home in Glasgow and now face uncertainty as to what will happen to them next.

"They have been let down at every turn."

A Home Office spokesperson said it does not comment on individual cases. He added: "The Home Office may consider applications for permission to work on an exceptional basis where the applicant does not meet the requirements of the immigration rules.

"However, to allow asylum seekers the right to work sooner would undermine our wider economic migration policy by enabling migrants to bypass work visa rules by lodging unfounded asylum claims here."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "As immigration and asylum are reserved issues, it is solely the Home Office’s responsibility to provide people seeking asylum with suitable accommodation.

"The Scottish Government has long called for this system to be improved so that people have access to the housing that they need, as well as other essential services, support, and advocacy."

A fundraiser has been set up to help the family here.