Modern asylum law was a product of the Second World War. Having seen the dangers people could face in their own countries, the international community created a legal framework offering sanctuary to those fleeing war, torture, or persecution. It was this framework which allowed for Cambodians to flee the Khmer Rouge, for dissidents to escape Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and for East Germans to jump the Berlin wall without fear of being sent back. And it is this framework that the UK is progressively tearing apart.
‘Asylum seeker’ has become a dirty word. Tabloid pundits routinely denounce those seeking asylum for taking advantage of our welfare system, for causing crime and disorder, or for “stealing our jobs.” And yet for all the words written against asylum seekers, remarkably few of those doing the writing ever take the time to speak to them.
In Nottingham, as you read this, there are hundreds of people trying to seek sanctuary from regimes they have fled. Whether refugees, asylum seekers, or failed asylum seekers they face serious problems, not least the disdain the public at large has for them. These people are on your doorstep, but you will never hear from them. They remain voiceless. They are here, but it is as if they don’t exist.
This month Impact set out to meet some of them. We wanted to hear their stories, the challenges they face, and to find out what life is like for asylum seekers and refugees living in Nottingham. And so I found myself in the middle of St. Ann’s on a cold Saturday morning, with a notepad and a dictaphone and not a lot else.
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I was at a ‘food group’, run by a local charity, where asylum seekers and refugees come along to get a free meal every week. It was nothing special: soup, rice, beans, some vegetables. Some of the people were here to meet others in their predicament, or simply to help with the cooking. Most were here because they have nothing else to eat.
The first person I spoke to was Adam, who knows the university and gave a talk here a few months ago. Adam had fled Darfur in 2003, when the Janjaweed militia, with the support of the Sudanese government, began slaughtering his tribe. “I got away, and sneaked to Libya,” he said. “From there, I travelled by small boat, only a metre and a half wide, with seventeen people, for three days and three nights.”
He explained how he’d landed first in Italy, where he stayed for nine months. In Italy, which is notorious for having an asylum policy even harsher than the UK’s, he received no help whatsoever. “There was absolutely nothing there – no house, no support, nothing at all. So I was in the street, and there was nothing to do, just drugs. I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to be one of those people selling drugs on the street’, as most of my friends now were. So I said to myself that I needed a better life.”
As we talked, I noticed a line of people patiently queuing not to get food, but to hand in forms. These were entries to the charity’s Christmas prize draw. The first prize: a £10 Asda voucher.
There are thousands of others in Adam’s situation. In 2007, 28,000 asylum seekers came to the UK. They sometimes stow away onboard ships, but more often arrive through our airports. Once they get here they have to navigate a legal minefield: filling out forms, dealing with applications, sitting through interviews, and trying to cope with a language and culture they often do not understand. And then most of them are sent back home. Of the cases that were determined last year, 72% were rejected outright. Adam was one of those who got rejected.
“The police came to catch me, to send me back to Italy or Darfur. And they were outside my house that night, and my friend told me they were there. I knew I had nothing in Italy, and I can’t risk going back to Darfur. So I ran away.”
Quite often, asylum seekers are forcibly deported. This is becoming more common each year, as the government tightens up its asylum legislation. It is also becoming more brutal, since the conduct of deportations is increasingly being contracted out to private companies concerned less with people’s welfare than with getting a paycheque. Fatma, another Nottingham asylum seeker, was recently deported in such a way. In her home country she was tortured, raped, and imprisoned, and consequently suffers from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a host of other health problems. On the night of her deportation she was on the phone to a local volunteer, Miriam.
“She rang at 1.30 a.m., and we stayed in contact for about forty minutes,” Miriam recalled. “Given that only two women were in the room in a secure institution, the banging on the door was too loud, too insistent and unnecessary for anyone, let alone someone suffering from trauma and other conditions. She was shouted at repeatedly by a number of female officers, who warned her regularly and urgently that ‘the men are coming’, which terrified her more…When ‘the men came’ there were men’s and women’s voices shouting at Fatma in mixed shouted instructions and demands, as she became more terrified and began to scream continuously.” Fatma was subsequently deported back to her country of origin, and has not been heard from since.
But what of those who remain in Nottingham? Most of them are awaiting a decision on their case, are appealing, or are simply waiting to be sent back home. Most also have to routinely visit the local Reporting Office in Loughborough – a trip they can rarely make without financial help. The lucky ones have some state support. They receive £35 a week, given in vouchers, redeemable in a small number of shops. They sometimes have to walk miles to a particular supermarket (the vouchers do not allow public transport), and even then are only be able to purchase a limited set of items. One person I spoke to sometimes exchanged her vouchers for a much lesser amount in cash because it was the only way for her to buy essentials in her local area.
Then there are those who are given no support at all. These are the people whose claims have failed, but whom the government does not send back. These people are in limbo: they cannot go home, they receive no benefits, and they are banned from working. They cannot so much as beg, since doing so may land them in a detention centre – or forcibly deported. Rather than face torture or death back home, they opt instead to live in destitution, and get by on what charitable food donations or handouts they can find.
There is a large Zimbabwean population in Nottingham right now in this situation. In 2005, an Asylum and Immigration Tribunal ruled that forcible deportations to Zimbabwe should be prohibited – a verdict the government is currently fighting to overturn. While they remain here, most of these Zimbabweans are given no state benefits. Many had their support removed a year ago, on assurances that ‘elections’ would mean they could soon return home safely. Even though Mugabe remains in power they have not yet got support back.
I spoke to one of the Zimbabweans, who did not want to be named. He had fled Zimbabwe fearing for his life, after being targeted by Zanu-PF for his political activity. “At first I got some support,” he said, “and then after they decided my case they cut those benefits.” He has launched an appeal, and it currently awaiting a decision from the government. He has been waiting for a decision for more than two years. “I’m not receiving any benefits, I’m not allowed to work, I can’t do anything – education, training, nothing.”
All of this is even more confounding since, contrary to popular belief, asylum seekers have a lot of skills to offer our country. A couple of years ago the Home Office published some research which showed, surprisingly, that asylum seekers on the whole have proportionally more skills and qualifications than the rest of the UK population. Around a third of them have a degree. Many more have A-level or GCSE equivalents. There are at least 3,000 refugee doctors here, whom it would cost £15,000 to retrain to British standards – less than 1/15th the cost of training a British doctor from scratch. And yet they are given no such chance. One Iraqi I spoke to was a trained accountant, yet found himself working in a factory packing mushrooms. Adam can translate Arabic to English, but is unable to do so much as go to a job centre.
And so they are left in destitution, with no benefits, and no legal right to work. Several people in Nottingham have been in this situation for over five years. One woman has been destitute, awaiting the government’s permission to stay, for over a decade.
Given their situation, you would expect asylum seekers to commit crime – as many tabloid reports suggest. I spoke to one or two people who were driven to it, but for the majority it was out of the question. Bill Walton, who works with Refugee Forum, a local charity in the area, told me: “they’re usually religious, God-fearing people, either Christian or Muslim. They will sometimes break the law, or work illegally, but it’s not very common.” The Home Office’s own research, surprising once again, shows that asylum seekers are no more likely to commit crime than anybody else.
Asylum seekers are nonetheless effectively criminalised just for seeking support they are legally allowed to ask for, and either left destitute or bundled into detention centres. They require a large burden of proof to convince the government they are genuinely fleeing from persecution, and very often this expectation is beyond what they can reasonably provide. Patrick, another local charity worker, said: “usually their claims are refused because they didn’t have enough evidence, but when you run away from your country because of war, how could you bring evidence with you?” Amon, a refugee from Darfur, made a similar point: “They ask you for evidence that you were in danger, but where can we get this? Back in Darfur? You can only do this when you are dead. This is the only evidence.”
And in spite of all this, government policy is getting harsher by the year. Asylum seekers are increasingly being refused claims to stay, being refused support, and being interned in detention centres. The number of destitute people, according to the aid workers I spoke to in Nottingham, is growing year by year – as is the number of deportations. And all this is happening even while the overall number of asylum seekers coming to our country is falling.
The problem is not merely that our policy is inhumane, but that it may be illegal. A recent parliamentary committee report, obtained by Impact, suggests that the UK government’s policy on immigration, and in particular measures introduced in the last five years, may be in breach of international law. The report argues that “the government’s approach to asylum has, in large part, been based on the assumption that many of those who arrive in the UK and claim asylum are not genuinely in need of protection but rather are economic migrants seeking a better life,” a claim which it regards as “without objective justification.” It concludes that “by refusing permission for asylum seekers to work and operating a system of support which results in widespread destitution, the government’s treatment of asylum seekers in a number of cases reaches the European Convention on Human Rights threshold of inhumane and degrading treatment.” The report was published without so much as a whimper from the press.
After they’d eaten, the refugees began to prepare for a protest, and marched down to Market Square. They began chanting, inbetween shoppers and passers-by, as police photographed their faces through long-lens cameras. They unfurled their banners, whose slogans which were interesting for being less about asylum than about weapons: ‘Heckler and Koch: Arming Repressive Regimes’; ‘Zimbabwe Needs Food Not Guns’; ‘Full Circle: From Weapons to Wars to Refugees’.
I realised that, for these people, claims for asylum in our country are not as simple as we think. We like to believe that asylum seekers are fleeing their own problems, but quite often these are problems of our own making. Sometimes these are a result of us selling arms to repressive regimes, as in Zimbabwe. Other times, these problems are the fallout of wars that we have waged. It is telling that, over the last five years, asylum seekers have consistently come from two countries more than any others: Iraq and Afghanistan.
These people feel that the UK has an obligation to help as a result of the problems it has created for them. As one Iraqi I spoke to put it, “if you’re destroying my house, I don’t have anywhere to sleep, you’ve taken off all the water and power in my house and I’m being hunted by militias, what do you expect me to do? Well you need to give me a room at your house. But you don’t.”
And so the laws set up to protect refugees after the Second World War and beginning to be discarded. People arrive here fleeing conflict and persecution, and very often have a lot to offer our country, and yet are promised nothing but a quick ticket home or a life of misery and destitution.
The asylum seekers themselves hold out little hope for change. For the Zimbabwean I spoke to the only answer was change in his homeland. “I hope maybe the deal which is going on back home works, the talks going on between the opposition and the ruling party,” he said. “That’s the only hope I’ve got. I didn’t volunteer to come here to England, it’s just because of the political situation…But given the option that Mugabe is gone, I would rather go back home, because that’s where my life is.” Whether or not Mugabe will soon be gone is an open question. By the time you read this, our Zimbabwean may have been sent back regardless.