Autistic rights campaigners are calling on the government to reverse its “inhumane” decision to ignore detailed, independent medical evidence and force a young disabled man with high support needs and his family to return to India.
Disabled activists from Autistic UK say the medical evidence proves that Gopul Anand is not well enough to make the journey and that the UK government’s attempt to deport him and his family is a “grave breach” of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Gopul is autistic, and also has schizophrenia, epilepsy and learning difficulties, and his family insist – backed up by evidence from experts including social workers and his mental health team – that he is too ill to travel because of the risk both to his own health and the safety of other passengers.
British Airways has even told the family that it would not allow 24-year-old Gopul to fly with the airline because of his current poor health.
Errol Kerr, chair of Autistic UK, said the Home Office’s “lack of consideration” for Gopul’s situation was “horrifying” and suggested “a wider attitude towards disabled people and immigrants”.
Gopul’s father Shekhar, a social and economic development expert, who has worked with Oxfam for 15 years in Africa, Asia and the UK, has told the UK government that his family accepts its decision that they must return to India, but is pleading for time for his son’s health to improve.
Shekhar originally came to the UK with his family seven years ago for a senior position in Oxfam’s Oxford office.
Gopul had been educated in a mainstream school in India, but his mental health deteriorated sharply following the death of an uncle in 2013.
His parents tried to take him on a flight to India that year to visit family, but he was too unwell to travel.
His health dramatically deteriorated even further the following year, and he was eventually sectioned and spent time in an assessment and treatment unit (ATU) in 2015.
Gopul spent 10 months in the ATU, and his family had to appeal to a tribunal to have him released. He still has nightmares and flashbacks because of the abuse he experienced at the hands of a member of staff at the unit.
He is also self-harming and experiencing hallucinations and panic attacks, and is currently so unwell that it is almost impossible for him to leave the family home in Cowley, Oxford, to attend events where he might interact with strangers.
Two years ago, Shekhar’s visa expired, and he and the family have now submitted detailed, independent evidence to the government that shows why Gopul is not well enough to travel back to India.
One of Gopul’s support workers has described how his condition has deteriorated in the last year and said that taking him to India would be “practically impossible and very risky for Gopul, family and any members of the public present during the journey by any means of transport” and that escorting him would be “unsafe and dangerous”.
The move to India, she said, could cause “irreversible damage” to his mental health.
His mental health team agrees and says his condition has deteriorated in the last 12 months, with an increase in his impulsive behaviours, and that he has become increasingly unsettled, aggressive and violent.
They say it would cause him “extreme anxiety” to travel to India and that he would be a threat to himself and other passengers.
Shekhar said: “The risk is that he will get into severe depression and he will not be able to come out of it. There is a risk to his life.”
As well as the risks to his health from the anxiety caused by the flight itself, and the lack of family support in India, Shekhar is also concerned about attitudes in India to autistic people and those with mental distress, and the lack of services to support autistic people and treat Gopul’s mental ill-health.
He said: “The social acceptance is not there. If he goes out by himself maybe some people could throw stones at him and kill him.”
Shekhar said there was a “social taboo” in India about mental health which would prevent Gopul being accepted.
He also pointed out that there is a global average of 3.96 psychiatrists per 100,000 people, whereas in India this figure is just 0.301.
He said: “Gopul will neither feel safe nor get the same level of services as he is getting in the UK.
“We are really, really worried. It is a dire situation. It is a risk to his life.”
A tribunal ruled last February that the Anands would have to leave the UK, and they were refused permission to appeal in September.
Shekhar then approached Gopul’s doctors for a medical review and they concluded that he was not well enough to travel.
The family’s solicitor told the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) service in a letter in November that it had made “arbitrary and hollow statements” in response to the detailed and independent medical evidence provided by the family, and did not understand why UKVI could not consider this as evidence to justify discretionary leave to remain in the UK.
The letter added: “Our client and his disabled dependant are left in a limbo being crushed between medical opinion and the UKVI policy.”
The Home Office has now told the family that it will not reconsider its decision, despite the concerns over Gopul’s health, but that they can lodge a fresh application to seek discretionary leave to remain in the UK.
This new application will cost them about £10,000 in legal fees and costs. The family have already spent nearly £20,000 in applying for leave to remain in the UK, and say they have wasted two years waiting for a decision on their application.
Because of the government’s refusal to extend their visas, Shekhar’s wife Anima has been forced to turn down a job offer.
His other son, Atul, who has been paying international rate fees for the last three years, has had to interrupt his computer science degree at the University of Bath and will need to return to India and then apply for a student visa so he can continue his studies.
Autistic UK, which is run and controlled by autistic people and has supported the campaign to persuade the government to change its position, said the Home Office appeared to consider “invisible” impairments such as autism and mental distress as “ineligible” in deciding whether there should be a medical exemption in such cases, which “is plainly discrimination”.
Errol Kerr said: “The lack of consideration the Home Office have for the situation Gopul is in is horrifying.
“However, it is not an isolated one. Instead it is indicative of a wider attitude towards disabled people and immigrants held by the Home Office itself.
“Whether this is due to wilful ignorance or a lack of understanding matters little – Autistic UK are deeply hurt that the very real needs of a multiply disabled individual are being ignored and we feel we have no choice than to stand with Gopul and his family, and show our support to those whose lives are similarly undermined.”
The Anand family have been supported by their MP, Labour’s Anneliese Dodds, who has called on the Home Office to re-open the case because of the new medical evidence that has emerged since the tribunal decision.
They have also launched an online petition in the hope of putting further pressure on the Home Office to reconsider its decision.
Shekhar said: “We are just asking for the Home Office to give us some more time, maybe six or eight months or a year.
“The moment the doctors say he is fit for travel, we will be able to take him back to Delhi.”
A series of Home Office spokespeople repeatedly promised that the department would release a statement about the case, but it had not done so by noon today (Thursday).
Picture: Gopal (right), with his dad (left), mum and brother
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