Author: Amelia Gentleman
Praxis helped Sylvester Marshall fight for his rights after he was refused NHS treatment
Just over a year 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 course of radiotherapy which had been 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 about his immigration status. He was told he was not eligible for benefits or allowed to work. He had tried in vain to explain to officials that they were wrong to classify him as an illegal immigrant, as he had been in Britain for 44 years, ever since arriving as a 19-year-old in 1973.
Marshall was consumed with worry, firstly about the cancer, and secondly about whether the Home Office was going to detain him and send him back to Jamaica. “I don’t know what’s going on inside me. I can’t sleep at night. It feels like they are leaving me to die,” he told me at the time, during a stressful and unhappy interview. He was exhausted and depressed; it was, he says, the worst period of his life.
A year later, he looks transformed. He completed a 12-week course of radiotherapy in the summer, and a medical check-up last week revealed that everything is going well. The Home Office has finally accepted his right to live in the UK, and issued him with a biometric card, confirming that he is here legally. 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 this week. “Finally someone understood the situation I was facing.”
When the Guardian published the first of a series of articles about his battle to get the NHS treatment he needed, we called him Albert Thompson, because his lawyer did not want media attention to complicate any Home Office decisions. For a while his case was headline news, argued over by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn at prime minister’s questions, his predicament emblematic of the problems experienced by the Windrush generation. Now that his immigration status has been confirmed, he is happy to be identified by his real name.
He was first referred to Praxis in summer 2017, when he was sleeping rough in a south London park. It was instantly able to identify the root of the problem and begin to help him.
Praxis is one of five charities supported by the 2018 Guardian and Observer appeal. All played a key role in assisting Windrush victims, and continue to help people who find themselves 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 hostile environment measures. It had already helped about 100 people in Marshall’s position when they took on his case last year. The other appeal charities, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the Runnymede Trust, have been active in highlighting how the same policies that tripped up Marshall are causing problems for a much bigger cohort of people who do not have the correct documentation to prove their entitlement to be here.
Marshall had battled to convince the Home Office that he was here legally, but had struggled to navigate the complicated application processes and gather the mass of documentary evidence required to prove a lifetime spent working, paying taxes and bringing up a family in the UK. The challenge became harder when the Home Office said it could find no record of his arrival in the UK.
Praxis case workers were able to show that he had a valid claim to be in the UK and find him hostel accommodation. Over several months, they helped collect proof. It was a labour intensive process, for which there is no legal aid funding. The charity found a lawyer prepared to do initial pro bono work to take action against the hospital’s decision to refuse treatment.
“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 their basic human needs,” says Sally Daghlian, the chief executive of Praxis.
Currently 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 the charity reach everyone who needs support.
“Unfortunately the kind of free specialist immigration advice and the wider support that Praxis provides is very scarce on the ground and without it people fall deeper and deeper into crisis. Praxis is often their last resort and only hope.”
Marshall is profoundly grateful to the charity. “I don’t know where I would be now without it. Either deported to Jamaica, or living homeless somewhere in the bushes in London. I try not to think about it.” Without Praxis, he is sure he would not have got the radiotherapy he needed. “It was a hell of a lot of money, £54,000,” he said, still shocked by the memory of the hospital’s demands. “Maybe I’d be six foot under, dead and gone.”