Barrister says she became legal expert while in Home Office immigration detention | Immigration and asylum

LEGAL

A refugee who has just been called to the bar says she has the Home Office to thank for her career after she became an amateur legal expert while locked up in a detention centre.

Aderonke Apata, 55, from Nigeria, said she was proud to take part in a ceremony last week where she, along with dozens of other newly qualified barristers, were formally called to the bar.

Apata was almost forcibly removed from the UK on a Home Office charter flight to Nigeria in January 2013 after her asylum claim, based on the fact that as a lesbian who had been persecuted in Nigeria her life would be in danger if she was returned there, was rejected.

Apata had completed a degree in microbiology before fleeing Nigeria and hoped to pursue a career in public health in the UK.

She was detained in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire, which at the time was used mainly for women, from the end of 2011 until the beginning of 2013, including a week spent in solitary confinement in 2012.

During her time in Yarl’s Wood, more women – who either could not understand English or did not understand what the Home Office had written in refusal letters about their immigration claims – turned to Apata for help in explaining what was happening with their legal cases.

“The type of language the Home Office uses is very difficult to understand. But I learned quite a bit about immigration law from reading the other women’s refusal letters during the period of more than a year that I was locked up,” said Apata.

She had received poor legal advice about her own case and when she was given removal directions from the Home Office for a flight to Nigeria for 24 January 2013, she decided she had to fight the removal herself.

She downloaded an interim injunction application for the high court and, with time running out, started faxing supporting documents to a member of staff at the charity Medical Justice, which works to support the health of immigration detainees.

The staff member ran to the high court with the documents. But escorts came to take Apata to the plane before she had finished faxing documents. She begged other detainees to continue faxing documents for her while she was being taken to the plane.

“An escort told me I would be fine going back to Nigeria but I could not reply. I knew it would not be fine and that returning to Nigeria would mean death for me. Suddenly the escort turned to me and shook my hand. He said: ‘Congratulations, your ticket has been cancelled. You won’t be flying to Nigeria. You must have a very good lawyer.’ I laughed and said that I had lodged the injunction application in the high court myself.”

Apata continued to represent herself for part of her case and later was able to secure legal representation, which helped her win her refugee status in 2017.

In 2018, she began her legal training with a law conversion course, before being formally called to the bar on 13 October.

“It didn’t dawn on me until I walked into the hall where the bar ceremony was being held that this was something monumental on my journey. Even if I can just help a few people as a barrister over the next few years I will be satisfied,” she said.

When she won her asylum case in 2017, Apata told the Guardian: “I will continue to do my bit in amplifying the voices of people who can only shout so far.”

She is now looking for pupillage and wants to specialise in immigration and human rights work.

“I was always drawn to giving people a helping hand. In Yarl’s Wood we were all in the same boat and we were all drowning. Helping others gave me the energy to carry on myself. When you are faced with a life or death situation that’s where the inner part of yourself comes out,” she said.

“I knew I needed to fight because I could not return to Nigeria. If I hadn’t been detained in Yarl’s Wood for so long I probably would have pursued a career in public health. Without what the Home Office did to me I wouldn’t be a barrister today. In a way they trained me.”

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