Former England boxer Kelvin Bilal Fawaz wins 16-year battle to stay in UK

Exclusive: Fawaz, who was trafficked to the UK from Nigeria as a child, won his Home Office appeal last week

Kelvin Bilal Fawaz
Kelvin Bilal Fawaz: ???I???ve been here since I was a small child, but for the past 17 years I was never allowed to think I could call the UK my home.??? Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

The former England boxer Kelvin Bilal Fawaz has won his 16-year legal battle to live and work in the UK after the Home Office granted him leave to remain for 30 months.

Fawaz, who has represented England six times and was once an amateur champion, has been struggling to establish his adult nationality and immigration status after being trafficked from Nigeria to the UK as a child and kept in domestic servitude.

When he was 18, the discretionary leave he had been granted as a child expired and the Home Office refused to accept he was stateless. Since then, Fawaz has been kept in a state of limbo by the Home Office delaying decisions on his case, refusing him a work permit and, more recently, attempting to deport him back to Nigeria, despite the Nigerian authorities denying him a passport and citizenship.

He has twice been detained in immigration removal centres and was only released from Brook House immigration detention centre last year after his legal team threatened to take the Home Office to court for unlawful detention.

As a child and teenager, Fawaz spent time in the care system. When he found boxing, it became his salvation from the trauma he had experienced and he was quickly recognised as having prodigious talent and drive.

Some of the biggest names in the sport have appealed to the Home Office on his behalf, including the boxing promoter Frank Warren. The former champion Barry McGuigan wrote to the Home Office in 2014 praising Fawaz???s ???exceptional talent??? and offering him a ??230,000 contract.

Because of the Home Office???s refusal to grant a work permit, Fawaz was denied the chance of a professional career and offers to box for Britain at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Despite this, Fawaz built a stellar amateur boxing career at Stonebridge boxing club in North London, representing England six times. While boxing for England at amateur level, Fawaz cleaned toilets in his local gym in exchange for accommodation and food.

The law firm Duncan Lewis, which took on Fawaz???s case in 2019, said that it took the threat of judicial review to force the Home Office to concede that Fawaz should be allowed to remain in the UK. The law firm also said the government had failed in its duty to recognise him as a child trafficking victim, only in 2019 accepting that he had been a victim of modern slavery.

Fawaz has now won his case and has been granted leave to remain for 30 months in light of his exceptional personal history. He now has the right to work.

???There???s no denying the systemic racialised injustice inherent within the inhumane deportation system. Bilal???s legal right to remain in the UK was impeded by the government???s hostile environment,??? says Ahmed Aydeed, a director at Duncan Lewis. ???It took two further applications for judicial review, but Bilal???s claim has finally been vindicated. His unwavering determination is inspiring.???

Last week, Fawaz was on a bus in central London when he finally heard that his 18-year battle over his immigration status was finally over.

???At first I couldn???t hear what my lawyers were saying,??? he said. ???I went upstairs where there was nobody sitting and they told me that I???d been given leave to remain, it felt so surreal I had to get them to repeat it and then I just started yelling and crying all at once because the relief was just so emotional and so overwhelming.???

Fawaz says he got off the bus, kneeled down and kissed the street as baffled pedestrians looked on.

???I???ve been here since I was a small child, but for the past 17 years I was never allowed to think I could call the UK my home, it???s been so traumatic I just can???t believe that I can finally have some peace.???

Fawaz says that his struggle to establish his nationality and identity has seen his mental and physical health deteriorate as the years have passed.

???Last year when I was in Brook House, I just couldn???t see a way out,??? he says. ???I was cutting myself just to release the stress. I???m very strong mentally because of the boxing and all I???ve been through, but the idea that I???d just keep on being detained and living under this much anxiety and pressure felt too much.???

He says that the Home Office used low-level criminal charges he picked up when he was a traumatised child in the care system to argue that he posed a risk to the public.

???They said I was a threat to the public, the Home Office labelled me akin to a terrorist or a rapist or a murderer, but I???ve never been to prison in my life, the charges that I have are for possession for cannabis, driving without insurance and entering a bus without ID,??? he says.

Fawaz says his case must now draw attention to the plight of young unaccompanied asylum seekers, refugees and trafficking victims in the UK who are denied the right to remain when they reach 18.

???I entered the care system at 14, no mum, no dad, I was alone. I had no money,??? he said. ???Kids in the care system often come into contact with the authorities, they have no direction, no adults to speak to them or no awareness that one mistake will haunt them their whole lives and used as an excuse to deport them. This has to stop because young lives are being destroyed.???

Fawaz says he now hopes to reignite his career, and mentor other young asylum seekers to help them avoid the same trauma he went through. He also intends to launch legal action against the government for false imprisonment.

???Now my life starts and I can get down to business,??? he said. ???Because of my age and the time that the Home Office has taken on my case, I???ve lost years of my life and career. I am still hopeful I can represent the UK at some point.???

The Home Office has been approached for comment.