‘It was a relief’ The charity that saved Sylvester Marshall
Ayear ago, Sylvester Marshall had fallen foul of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy. He had been refused NHS cancer treatment because hospital staff believed he was an illegal immigrant. If he wanted to begin the radiotherapy prescribed to treat his prostate cancer, he would need to pay £54,000.
When we first met in February he was homeless, having been evicted as a result of council suspicion over his immigration status. He was told he could not work or claim benefits. He tried in vain to explain to officials that he was not an illegal immigrant, as he had been in Britain for 44 years, since arriving in 1973 aged 19.
Marshall was consumed with worry about the cancer and about whether the Home Office was going to detain and deport him to Jamaica. “I can’t sleep at night. It feels like they are leaving me to die,” he said, during a stressful interview. He was exhausted and depressed; it was, he says, the worst period of his life.
A year later, he looks transformed. After 12 weeks of radiotherapy, everything is going well. The Home Office finally accepted his right to live in the UK and issued him with a biometric card, confirming his legal residency. He says Praxis, the charity that helped him fight for his rights, is the main driver of this dramatic, positive shift in his fortunes.
“It was a relief from day one to meet people from Praxis,” he said when we met in a cafe near Brixton. “Finally, someone understood.”
When the Guardian first wrote about his fight for NHS treatment, we called him Albert Thompson, as his lawyer did not want the media to complicate any official decisions. For a while he was headline news, his predicament emblematic of the problems faced by the Windrush generation. Now his immigration status has been confirmed, he is happy to be using his real name. He was first referred to Praxis in 2017,
‘I don’t know where I would be without [Praxis] – deported or living homeless. Maybe six feet under’
when he was sleeping rough in a London park. It was instantly able to identify his problem and help.
Praxis is one of the five charities supported by the 2018 Guardian and Observer appeal. All played a key role in assisting Windrush victims, and continue to help people adversely affected by the hostile environment (which remains in operation, despite being rebranded as the “compliant environment”).
Praxis, like the Refugee and Migrant Centre, and the Law Centres Network, understands the difficulties facing people wrongly affected by these measures. It had already helped about 100 people in Marshall’s position when they took on his case. Our other appeal charities, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the Runnymede Trust, have highlighted how the policies that ensnared Marshall are causing problems for far more people who do not have papers to prove their right to be here.
Marshall had battled for years to convince the Home Office he was here legally but struggled with the complicated application process and the need for documentary evidence. The challenge became harder when the Home Office said it could find no record of his arrival in the UK.
Case workers at Praxis were able to show that he had a valid claim to be in the UK and find him a hostel. Over several months, they helped collect the proof he needed. It was a labour-intensive process, for which there is no legal aid funding. It found a lawyer prepared to work pro bono to take action against the hospital’s decision to refuse to treat Marshall.
Sally Daghlian, chief executive of Praxis, said: “Praxis faces a tsunami of need as more and more people are trapped in a complex web of immigration legislation and hostile environment policies. People are wrongly denied access to services, employment and housing, leaving them unable to meet basic needs.”
The charity is so overwhelmed by requests for help that they have to turn people away. She hopes that donations from Guardian and Observer readers will help Praxis to see everyone who needs support.
“Unfortunately, the kind of free specialist immigration advice and wider support that Praxis provides is very scarce and without it people fall deeper and deeper into crisis. Praxis is often their last resort.”
“I don’t know where I’d be now without it,” Marshall said. “Deported to Jamaica or living homeless somewhere in the bushes in London. I try not to think about it.” Without Praxis, he feels sure he would not have got radiotherapy. “It was a hell of a lot of money – £54,000. Maybe I’d be six feet under, dead and gone.”