This woman always thought she was British, but after 30 years she was told she’s not.

By Emily Dugan

Cynsha Best never had a reason to think she was anything other than British.
The 31-year-old was born in Hammersmith and has lived in London all her life. Her grandparents are British; her dad is British; all four of her siblings are British; and her two sons are British.

But earlier this year, she was summoned to the Home Office and detained for seven hours. They told her that not only was she not a British citizen, but that she had no right to stay in the country and she should leave.

“It was news to me because all I’ve known is England,” she told BuzzFeed News, in an accent more London than the cast of Eastenders. “I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and it’s going to be a dream, but it really isn’t. They’re saying I slipped through the net.”

Since discovering her nationality was not what she thought, all her benefits have been stopped and she is relying on the charity of family. She is two months behind on her rent and worried that she will soon lose the small council flat she shares with her young sons.

Her case is a rare one that reveals Home Office ineptitude that dates back over more than half a century.

It shows the way that blameless citizens, especially those whose cases date back to before the system was computerised, are not on the Home Office’s radar. They often discover by chance – for example, by going on holiday or getting married – that their immigration status is not what they had thought it was. And as a result, their lives are turned upside down by a government that has set out to create a “hostile environment” for immigrants.

The Home Office has more complaints upheld against it than any other government department, according to a report by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman published last December. Three-quarters of all complaints to the ombudsman about the department were upheld in 2015–16 and most have been related to immigration failings. The rate has increased steadily over the last three years and is far ahead of other departments. The Department for Work and Pensions had 36% of complaints upheld, while HM Revenue and Customs had just 10%.

Best’s family cannot understand why she is being made to go through immigration procedures given their long history in the country.

Her grandparents first moved to the UK from Barbados in 1956. At the time Barbados was still a colony of the UK, which meant they were considered British citizens. Best’s mother Cynthia was the last of the children to join them when she arrived as a 12-year-old girl in 1968 on her father’s passport.

Thousands of British families have a similar history. Between 1955 and 1966, more than 27,000 Barbadians migrated to the UK under a resettlement scheme. Their descendants are now fourth- and fifth-generation British citizens.

Best assumed her story was the same.

But after applying to register a marriage to her Barbadian boyfriend Andre, she was referred to the Home Office.

“I got a letter in the post asking me to come to the Home Office in Croydon to make sure it wasn’t a sham marriage. We thought it was an interview for that, and I ended up being detained for seven hours.

“I wish we’d never gone now. I was more worried about him than myself, and then it all turned on me. He was fine because he was still within his six months [visitor visa] and his time hadn’t run out yet. I was all worried about him going there, and then it all just flipped on me. They were like, ‘You’re the one who’s got no status.’

“Straight away they asked me my name and then my nationality and I said, ‘British’. She said, ‘No you’re not,’ and I said, ‘Yes I am,’ and she said, ‘No you’re not, you’re Barbadian.’”

Flummoxed, Best said, “But I’m British – I was born here.” The response was unequivocal. She was told that “it doesn’t matter, you can be born here but not British”. Best recalls: “They were arguing with me to the point where they had me crying and I had to just say, ‘Well I’m Barbadian then.’”

That’s when the real problems started.

Best is the youngest of five children. All her siblings are British because they were born before 1983 – when the law changed to say that even if you are born in the UK, you are not automatically British if your parents are not British at the time of your birth.

Though Best’s mother has lived most of her life in the UK and has leave to remain, she is Barbadian. Best’s father is now British but was Guyanese at the time of her birth.

But with so many generations of her family settled in the UK, Best says she never realised this meant she wasn’t British. Suddenly, in the space of a few minutes of questions in a bland cubicle in Croydon’s Home Office building, she had gone from proud British citizen to illegal immigrant.

“They gave me so much information all at once, so it was hard for me to process it,” Best says. “If I knew I was an illegal immigrant I wouldn’t have gone there. I’ve been in this country for 31 years. Every time I filled in a form, I’ve just put ‘British’ all my life. Always. I never, ever knew. I was given a National Insurance number when I was 16.”

She was put into what she describes as a secure holding suite. “There were other people in there and we were locked in and couldn’t go nowhere. They had all of our stuff. They wouldn’t even let me make a phone call to arrange for me to get my kids picked up from school or anything.”

The original appointment was at 9am, but they were held there for hours on end. “Every time I went to the toilet someone followed me; I was like a prisoner,” she recalled.

“The ladies who interviewed me said they had to pass it to the chief immigration officer. The chief immigration officer was ready to [send me to Barbados]. It was so emotional. I was meant to be going about the marriage and they just sprung all of this at me. I was so tearful I couldn’t even speak.”

As the day wore on, school pickup time came and went, and she was terrified that her sons, Rio, 9, and Thierry, 5, would have nobody to collect them. She begged to be released for their safety and was finally allowed to leave.

“By that time I was so distraught. I think they let me out at quarter past, maybe half past 3. My kids had already finished school, but luckily a friend who lives on the estate was just getting ready to leave the school so I just quickly called and asked her to grab my kids. But I would definitely have not made it there in time had I had to go there on my own. And I was just so distressed that day, it was just awful.”

The Home Office does not make official comments on individual cases, but when pushed a spokesperson said “crossed wires” led to the false belief Best wanted to participate in a voluntary return to Barbados. The Home Office says it wants to help her find a route to settlement – but Best says this has not been experience. She says she has been left to navigate the web of bureaucracy and fees alone at a time when her benefits have been cut, and that she is being treated like an illegal immigrant.

At the time of the Home Office interview in February, Best was on Universal Credit, looking for work since her youngest child had started school. She spent most of her twenties working as a dinner lady at schools in west London but had stopped to be a full-time stay-at-home mother while her boys were small.

As a single parent, things were already tough financially, but now she faces years of being blocked from public funds. “They just quickly broke it down to me and told me I’m not going to be entitled to anything. I can’t work without a working visa.

“I feel like the system has let me down, really, because how can I be doing that for 30 years and then it’s just going to come crashing down on me like that and then they start treating me like an immigrant? I just don’t understand it.”

Last month her Universal Credit was stopped and now she is two months in arrears with her rent. She fears she will lose her council flat altogether before this is sorted.

The Home Office advised her to get a lawyer, though with no legal aid to help her, she went for one brief consultation and initially decided to fill the paperwork out herself.

“I just found out at 30 years old that I’m not a British citizen. And then they’ve just been so harsh on me, they’ve told me I either need to apply for leave to remain or do voluntary departure and that’s it. I explained my situation and told them I don’t have the money. The Indefinite Leave to Remain is £2,993 and that’s without a solicitor.“

Panicking that she would be deported before she had time to solve her status, she set up a GoFundMe page to raise cash for the application fees, the family’s living costs and a lawyer. A solicitor saw the post after her cousin shared it on Instagram and is now acting for her pro bono.

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Gloria Adams
Gloria Adams

Very sad and depressing

Lauretta Bassey
Lauretta Bassey

I don’t even understand how this law work.. Britain will be hard after Brexit

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