Trigger warning – this story discusses suicidal feelings.

Akunna* came to the UK on a student visa 13 years ago. He was studying to become a chartered accountant and working to support himself and his family in a fast-food restaurant.

He enjoyed his work, “It was a good place to work. I had the opportunity to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds, from different countries, Pakistanis, Indians, Polish, I think there was someone from Fiji Island. I’d never heard of that country before, and I met someone from there through that job. I enjoyed the experience. It helped my perception and broadened my horizons about people. That was my kick about England. The opportunity to meet people of different races and I enjoyed that because I’ve never met so many diverse people in one city.” 

As he was approaching the end of his studies and his final exams, he witnessed numerous migrant students losing their visas due to complexities in the immigration system. He became anxious about completing his studies and being able to stay, particularly because his family was settled in the UK. This included four children, two of whom were born in the UK. 

Akunna had to work as many hours as he could to afford the visa renewal fees for his family, which came to thousands of pounds. Nearing qualification as an accountant, the stress of the exams and the pressures of the immigration system were impacting his mental health. 

As his mental health deteriorated, he was unable to keep up with his studies, and lost his visa when he couldn’t continue to fulfil the requirements of his course. He applied for leave to remain outside the rules, but his application was refused, sending him deeper into crisis.

“Before, I used to be very outgoing, but I withdrew from people, I became isolated. The cost implication of having to apply to the Home Office, the cost of paying a solicitor, being refused, going to appeal. All those things were getting at me. I think that pushed me to the edge and I had no control over what happened then.”

“When I had depression, I applied for leave to remain outside the rules while I was attending to my health issues and couldn’t continue my studies. I applied before I was hospitalised. The stress was too much for me when the Home Office rejected my application. That’s what led to my first suicide attempt.”

“It was my wife who found me and called the ambulance. I can’t really... I didn’t know what happened. I just found myself in hospital.” 

“Death was better than being sent back, you have to understand, that was real desperation.” 

The following years were incredibly difficult for the whole family. Akunna attempted suicide once more and also suffered a dissociative episode where he blacked out and came around far from home, unaware of what was happening to him or how he had got there. During these difficult years, Akunna was having to work where he could in order to support his family. He took whatever work he could find and was often forced to work in poor conditions, for little or no pay.

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“I just had to survive and take care of my kids. I was paid three pounds an hour, where it should have been more, and it was not a good experience. I was working with other people who were in the same situation and sometimes we did the work, and we didn’t get paid at all. The employers knew that they could threaten us and say they’ll call immigration enforcement and that we’ll be deported. And against that threat, no one will chase after the money, so there’s a lot of

Constant fear of himself or his family coming to the attention of the authorities and being deported made it impossible for Akunna to overcome his mental health difficulties. 

For him the worst thing was that his children would feel the same helplessness and insecurity that led to his own mental collapse.

“My daughter is nearly 15 and my oldest son is nearly 12, and then the two other boys are younger. The two oldest ones in particular are old enough to be aware of the situation. And they were aware of how unstable their lives were.”

“No child should have to know about that. It’s a terrible worry even for adults. For them to know that their parents are not safe, that can do a lot of damage. The effects of suffering that kind of trauma as children could impact their lives for a long time.”

Akunna and his family were helped by JCWI’s legal team who supported them to regularise their status, and later to get citizenship. They didn’t lose their status because of any desire to play the system or to break the rules. They found themselves in an impossible situation when the student visa system cut them off without any flexibility to allow for health crisis that can impact on studies. 

“The UK is a country that is known for its protection of human rights, and now that I’m a British citizen I feel that it is a stain on the reputation of the country.” 

“The Home Office may think that it is about denying that one person the right to live here, but it’s not just about that person. That person’s family is suffering, people are exploiting and taking advantage of them, they cannot even go to the police and report a crime because of the fear of being detained or deported. So many crimes and instances of people being badly treated. A person’s dignity is taken from them.”

Today, Akunna*, his wife and his children are all British Citizens. Akunna is still recovering from the severe mental health breakdowns that caused him and his family to lose their status. His wife is now training to be a mental health nurse and his children are thriving at school. They are now safe and secure in the UK. 

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected]. If you have questions about your immigration status and need help, you can call our helpline.


If you are in the UK without status and need legal advice, call our helpline on 020 7553 7470. It is open on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays between 10am and 1pm. The helpline is confidential and advice is free. Calls cost up to 13p per minute from landlines, 3p to 55p from mobiles.

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