In nearly 30 years as a journalist, very few stories have stuck with me as long as this one. In late September, 24 years after he arrived in the UK illicitly, I watched as Tunde Jaji took his oath of citizenship in the council chamber of Bournemouth town hall. “I am just so relieved,” he told me. “Now finally perhaps I can stop looking over my shoulder. I can finally be me.”
When he vowed to uphold the values of democracy and an open society that respects difference it was a demonstration that human wrongs can be overcome with just solutions. But first let me take you back to where it all began.
In October 2006, Lynne Awbery, a special needs education specialist, approached me to explain she had taken in a former pupil who had been a domestic slave. At first I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Jaji had been in domestic service with a Nigerian family in the London borough of Haringey from around the age of eight.
For the best part of a decade, the family he stayed with cleverly disguised this abusive relationship. Despite attending Haringey schools for more than 12 years, no-one in authority questioned the legitimacy of the relationship between him and his carers.
Only when the illegally claimed child benefits were stopped as he turned 16, did things turn sour. Threatened with deportation because the family had kept no official paperwork for him, he was forced to share his plight with a few trusted friends.
Confirming his identity
Jaji’s fundamental problem was similar to that of most trafficked children: he had no paperwork which established his true identity or his right to remain in Britain. That’s when he turned to the dyslexia teacher who had helped him at school. Awbery faced a wall of silence and bureaucratic indifference wherever she turned to seek paperwork that could prove who he was. Without this he could make no claim to stay in the UK.
Meanwhile, having passed his 18th birthday there was a very real threat of deportation. If Jaji had been stopped by the police his status could have been legitimately questioned and he could have been deported back to Nigeria, a country he no longer knew.
Over several months I sought to verify his claim that he had been in London for the 14-year period that is required for an illegal migrant to start regularising their status.
Despite being at local schools for his entire childhood it took veiled journalistic threats to the local primary school to get them to delve back into their original hand-written ledgers for primary school entries.
When Jaji and I went to his old school several teachers recognised him. The September 1992 entry for new starters showed his name. My investigation had proven he had been in the country long enough to apply to regularise his status.
Application to remain
Meanwhile, my investigation turned to Lagos, Nigeria, where we searched the official registry archives for a birth certificate. Not only did we eventually find this, but also made the sad discovery of his mother’s death certificate. Despite being told by the Nigerian family that his mother was dead, she had only recently passed away. Here was more evidence of the cruelty he had endured.
Armed with this documentation, immigration lawyer Martina Flanagan prepared a dossier we hoped would stay deportation. There was an agonising wait while the Home Office considered his application to remain in Britain.
Jaji had a dream to pursue a career in animation and for this he needed to go to university. He recalls how it was drawing that had preserved his sanity as a child. But it looked as if he would also have to forgo his university place because his immigration status was taking so long to settle.
Impressed with his artistic talent, the University of Bournemouth were extremely sympathetic to his case. Even if they have been educated in Britain, it remains very difficult for children with ambiguous immigration status to attend university now that fees of £9,000 have been introduced.
With some extra persuasion on my part, Jaji was allowed to begin his course and shortly afterwards he was given indefinite leave to remain in the country, ironically on his 21st birthday. I felt my journalistic duty was done once the authorities recognised the legitimacy of his claim to stay in Britain. Nevertheless, we have remained friends.
Jaji graduated in 2009 and while he is still following a dream of publishing his first graphic novel he has continued to earn his living in retail.
That brings us back to Bournemouth in late September. An English seaside retreat for generations and a retirement destination for senior citizens it has also become Jaji’s home. It was here he had decided to finally take the plunge and to save the several hundred pounds he needed to pass a rather difficult citizenship test to become a British citizen. His journey has been a testament to his talent, determination and resilience to overcome the trauma of a lost childhood in domestic servitude.
Jaji has been lucky too. Awbery didn’t walk on by and he is now a part of her extended family. She too was in Bournemouth to watch his citizenship ceremony with her husband. This was a moment that tugged on the emotions.
For hundreds of other trafficked children and unaccompanied minors languishing in refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk the rules are still unclear and they face not only the indifference of officialdom but an uncertain and troubled future.
It makes you wonder, given the UK as a nation can’t apparently care for many such vulnerable people, what kind of values Jaji was really pledging himself to with his oath of allegiance in Bournemouth.
This article originally appeared on the The Conversation