Christopher Arundell, who grew up in the UK and once dreamt of playing professional football, is set to be deported to Zimbabwe, despite a cross-party appeal to the home secretary to stop his removal – and those of others in his position.
“This is the only place I’ve had a life. What do you remember from when you’re five?” said the 26-year-old, who was born in Zimbabwe and lived there until the age of five.
“I don’t know anything but the UK. I went to school here, all my friends are here, all my family is here,” he explained to the BBC over the phone from Brook House detention centre, near Gatwick Airport, where he has been held since late last month.
“If I have to go back – I’m basically dead.”
Chris’s family have become British citizens, including his two younger siblings.
But his father kept putting off paying the money to sort out his citizenship, so he dropped out of the football academy that had accepted him after leaving school and ended up getting into trouble and going to prison for drug offences.
The Arundells left Zimbabwe after they experienced three frightening burglaries – moving house after each incident. The last one, in particular, was brutal.
“I was taken out by a maid to go to the shops and then thieves came to the house, tied my mum up, and held her hostage and pepper-sprayed her and my six-month-old sister, while they removed goods from our house and took our car.”
Chris is not clear if the family were being specifically targeted – but for his mother he says it proved too much and she left with her two young children first to Botswana, then the UK – where her architect husband later joined her in 2001.
He is of mixed heritage: his mother is half Indian and his father grew up as an orphan in Zimbabwe.
Chris speaks English but neither of Zimbabwe’s two main local languages, Shona or Ndebele.
Any relatives the family left behind have long since gone, during what have been a turbulent two decades in Zimbabwe.
Amid an economic meltdown under the rule of late President Robert Mugabe and political oppression, it is estimated more than three million people fled.
Times are still difficult. Last week a cross-party group of 75 British MPs wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel urging her to stop the deportation of 50 Zimbabweans because of the country’s “deteriorating” political and human rights situation.
Ms Patel replied to say that she was required by law to send back foreign offenders when it was safe to do so: “My key objective is to protect the public.”
In a statement to the BBC, the Home Office, speaking about Chris’s case, said: “We only ever return those who we and, where applicable, the courts are satisfied do not need our protection and have no legal basis to remain in the UK.”
Since January 2019, the Home Office says it has removed more than 7,900 foreign national offenders.
An online petition supporting the Zimbabweans has more than 21,000 signatures.
“Many of the people [facing deportation] have fled persecution, or they came [to the UK] as small children but families couldn’t afford the fees to regularise their stay,” Zita Holbourne, from human rights group BARAC UK, told the BBC.
Zimbabwe’s government spokesman Nick Mangwana says those returning have nothing to fear.
“As long as you are Zimbabweans you are welcome home,” he told the BBC.
However, numerous legal appeals have been filed – and last Wednesday’s chartered flight left for Zimbabwe with only 14 people.
Chris was not on board because of a Covid outbreak in his section of Brook House – and he is desperately still trying to fight his case, which is complicated.
‘Opportunity of a lifetime’
Unhappy family dynamics appear to come into play.
The Arundells had been granted a 10-year limited leave to remain, which Chris says expired when he turned 17.
“My dad was quite controlling – he was in control of the finances. For him to continue working, he had to regularise his status,” he says.
“After he and my mother were granted indefinite leave to remain he kept promising, ‘I’ll sort out the kids next’, but he never did. He says it was about money.”
Unlike all his school friends, who all received national insurance (NI) numbers before their 16th birthday – Chris’s did not arrive – and efforts to fix this then became impossible by 2011 when his legal status needed sorting out.
This had a devastating impact on him: he had just been accepted into Staines Town Football Club’s Academy after finishing his GCSEs (the UK’s school-leaving qualifications) and had started studying sports science at Kingston College.
“Football was my dream,” says Chris, a left-winger who has long been an Arsenal fan.
But he spiralled into depression because without an NI number he could not get any part-time work, like his friends.
The tipping point was when he was unable to go on a college trip to Spain to play football as he did not have the correct papers.
“I’d been offered the opportunity of a lifetime – I went and told my Dad and he didn’t do anything about it, so I left.”
‘My mum’s traumatised’
Things took a turn for the worse when he was sentenced in 2015 for drug trafficking and assault, for which he was given a six-year sentence.
“I pleaded guilty to the drugs charge but the allegation about the assault is not true,” he says.
During the four years he served he got various qualifications, including one to be a fitness instructor and various others for the building trade.
Since his release, he has started a serious relationship, joined a football club for a season – Sleaford Rangers – and taken part in community work in Lincoln.
As part of his bail conditions he had been staying with his mother, who left his father in 2016 with the help of a women’s refuge.
She was then able to sort the paperwork for her other children herself – and they are now British citizens.
“My mum’s been left traumatised by this as well because she blames herself,” Chris says.
Conditions at the immigration detention centres are “prison-like”, he says – something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
“I have been in prison with better facilities, there are no windows in our rooms, the AC is not on because of Covid, it’s just hot and stuffy, the only difference is they allow us to use phones.”
Since the coronavirus cases were reported, the detainees have been kept in their wings and access to computers, gyms and the library has been restricted.
Yet his possible removal to Zimbabwe is what really distresses him.
All he knows about what to expect on arrival is a PCR test, 10 days in quarantine and then a lift to somewhere of his choosing. But he hasn’t got a clue where to go. BBC News