Where’s the Humanity?

February 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

On Saturday the 26th January I attended a meeting organised by Tyneside Community Action Against Racism (TCAR). The day was organised by activists to highlight some of the pressing issues within the asylum regime. This blog will reiterate some of the concerns raised, in the hope that it will shed further light on an asylum system shamelessly focused on reducing immigration rather than providing sanctuary and meeting the needs of asylum seekers.Image

The speakers included Tom Vickers, Frances Webber, John Grayson and Raul Ally.
Tom’s speech ‘Racism and Politics in British State Welfare’ focused on the pitiful support that asylum seekers receive whilst they are in the UK and the racism which pervades the history of welfare provision and remains to this day. His speech can be accessed via his blog, consequently it will not be reiterated here.

I had the pleasure of reading Frances Webber’s book ‘Borderline Justice‘, which gives a comprehensive account of various aspects of the asylum system such as welfare, housing, detention, border control and access to justice. Her inspired speech gave a general overview of the developments in the legal system and the role of asylum seekers, community, lawyers and judges in fighting for a more humane asylum system, reiterating the importance of activism and community support. A video of her speech can be viewed by clicking the link.

The remainder of this blog is co-written by Raul Ally, who explains his profoundly moving experience of detention in the UK. He has also included a video link documenting his experience of seeking asylum

Before examining the deplorable practice of detention in the UK, the blog will examine discussion by John Grayson and the transfer of asylum seeker housing from the UK Border Agency to the privatised company G4S.

Privatised Housing and the shameless disregard for humanity:

Asylum seeker housing in the UK is now 100% outsourced to three multi-national security companies: Clearel (London and the South of England); Serco (North-West and Scotland & Northern Ireland); and G4S (North-East, Yorkshire & Humberside and the Midlands & East of England), who earn millions of pounds through securing provision. These companies cut costs by purchasing sub standard properties and letting them to asylum seekers who are left with little or no other options. Their blatant disregard for the standards of housing provided, the needs of asylum seekers and the suitability of areas of accommodation continue to place asylum seekers in precarious positions where their rights are frequently infringed.

G4S were granted 211million pounds for the seven year asylum housing contract. The company recently hit the headlines for botching security at the London Olympic Games, and more seriously for the death of Jimmy Mubenga in October 2010. Mubenga died after being restrained by G4S guards on a British Airways flight in an attempt to deport him to Angola, he was heard repeatedly shouting ‘I can’t breathe’ and ‘they’re going to kill me’ by fellow passengers and British Airways Crew.
In December 2012, G4S evicted a heavily pregnant asylum seeker from her home on the day she was due to be induced to give birth, expecting her to move all her belongings, register as homeless and travel to hospital herself. The woman was aided by one worker who took pity on her and gave her a lift to hospital.

The standards of housing provided by G4S are described by Grayson as appalling. In one case, a mother who had been housed in what Grayson describes as a ‘slum’, found a cockroach in her five month old son’s milk bottle. Her accommodation was damp and infested by slugs and cockroaches, the back yard was littered with piles of rubbish from previous tenants and the landlord had screwed cockroach traps to the walls, one of which was placed close to her son’s cot. Unlike national citizens who have tenant’s rights, asylum seekers were stripped of such rights via the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Despite this, the Government still have an obligation to provide asylum seekers with an adequate standard of living and physical and mental health via Article 11(1) and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
They also have a national obligation to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, which they are bound to consider via Section 55 Borders Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, evidence suggests that the Government is failing to adhere to these obligations.

A recent parliamentary inquiry into the experiences of children within the asylum system found that in relation to housing, “families are living in poorly maintained, overcrowded accommodation which can be damp, dirty, cold and unsafe; infested with mice, cockroaches and other pests, rotting floorboards and locked windows. One submission characterized this as ‘death trap’ accommodation” noting there is little obligation upon housing providers to ensure high quality or appropriate accommodation. During the inquiry, one local authority affirmed that properties issued by private firms “are less well maintained and sometimes lack basic facilities needed for families with young children, such as washing machines. Children and parents have to share bedrooms, or live in flats and hostels with strangers, sharing communal areas.” The accountability of housing standards is thus a major concern.

Racist incidents have also been disregarded by G4S in their selection of accommodation areas, often housing asylum seekers in rough and notoriously racist areas. Grayson discussed the plight of an asylum seeking journalist from Iraq who was dispersed to a G4S property in Stockton in October 2012. On arrival the applicant and four other asylum seekers were overwhelmed by a crowd hurling racist abuse, who proceeded to break down the door and windows to their accommodation before being removed by police. The landlord repaired the door but refused to repair the windows, declining to move the asylum seekers to more appropriate accommodation. The police also refused to register the attack as racially motivated. In fear of reprisals the other four asylum seekers left the property, yet in doing so they also lost qualification for support.

The failure to return or subside at an authorised address constitutes a reason for the discontinuation of financial support to asylum seekers, who are also prevented from working. (See SI 2000/704 and Policy Bulletin 17, Failure to Travel)
Abandonment of address for reasons of racial harassment is classified as a reasonable excuse. In considering whether to discontinue support in these circumstances adjudicators must take into account the nature, degree, frequency, persistence and organisation of the harassment, as well as the effect it has on the asylum seeker and whether police have been informed and taken action. ‘The ‘sufficiency of protection’ test of refugee status itself has even been applied to deciding whether a refusal to return to the site of previous racist harassment was reasonable in the light of the police response. These decisions suggest that there is such a thing as an acceptable level of racial harassment (or a level of harassment which asylum seekers must accept).” (Macdonald’s Immigration Law and Practice 2010, page1104)

Though some asylum seekers are active in their fight for humane and dignified treatment, some are afraid to speak out, worried of the impact it could have on their asylum application. Consequently hundreds of asylum seekers continue to live in squalor and allow racist incidents to go unreported, choosing to remain at home rather than risk racial abuse outside.

Detention: A punitive response to seeking asylum?
Though immigration detention is claimed not to be a form of punishment, Morton Hall detention centre, where Raul was recently held used to be a female prison. At the TCAR meeting Raul described being locked in a cell intermittently during the day and released for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The centre placed restrictions on internet access, which prevented Raul from accessing websites to aid his asylum claim and he claims that staff would intercept his post. Raul reported that the majority of detainees were depressed, one of whom he witnessed stabbing himself with a fork in the dining hall through fear of deportation.

Though asylum seekers have committed no crime, once detained, they are imprisoned and unable to leave. Whereas criminals are imprisoned for a fixed amount of time, there is no time limit placed on immigration detention and no requirement to inform detainees of how long they will be incarcerated. The imprisonment of asylum seekers in the UK has led to countless riots, hunger strikes and suicides.

The National Clinical Director for Health and Criminal Justice at the Department of Health has affirmed that ‘custody causes mental distress and acts to exacerbate existing mental health problems, heighten vulnerability and increase the risk of self-harm and suicide.’ The following case study has been taken from a blog written by Clare Sambrook and provides an insight into the realities of immigration detention and deportation:

“When immigration officers called at his home in Leeds for a ‘pastoral visit’, the man was open and friendly. He let them in, offered them a seat, a cup of coffee, told them of his depression, showed them his medication. The very next day a dozen officers arrived at dawn and broke down his door with a battering ram — (an “absolutely routine pick-up”, they called it). The man and his 13 year old son woke up to find an immigration officer and a police officer in their attic bedroom. They were told to dress and pack, told they’d be flown the following morning to Angola — a country where, the man said, his mother, father and sister had been killed by the authorities.
On the drive to the removal centre — Yarl’s Wood, in Bedfordshire — escort staff from private contractors G4S confiscated a coil of washing line from his bag. At Yarl’s Wood they said he could not keep his medication or the washing line with him, but nobody noted any indication of risk of self-harm in his file. He was found hanged in a Yarl’s Wood stairwell at around 1 AM the next morning. His son was woken up and told the news. The man was Manuel Bravo. He was 35 years old. The circumstances of his death were recorded, with some compassion, by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Stephen Shaw in January 2006.”

At the TCAR event Raul spoke of the profound impact detention had had on him, stating ‘I may seem ok on the outside, but really I am not.’

Raul’s account:

On the 24th of June 2012 I was arrested and held in North Shields police station for 3 days. I was released 3 hours before my prom, I was arrested without committing any crime or doing anything wrong and ordered to sign on (at an immigration centre) every week.

It was Wednesday the 1st of August and I was meant to be watching an Olympic football match between Brazil and Australia, but unfortunately I couldn’t make it because I was rearrested by the UKBA and taken to Morton Hall detention centre in Lincolnshire where I was detained for over 2 months.

My experience in Morton hall has to be the worst experience I have had in Britain. I first arrived there thinking there would only be a few of us, but I was shocked to see how many people were held there, people from all different countries with different circumstances. I expected to see only asylum seekers but there were people being detained for no specific reason which was very sad to see. There were people with major illnesses such as heart disease, people who were blind, those suffering mental illness and people without limbs. It was sad spending time with them, sometimes I wished that they could be released and I remained in there because they didn’t deserve to be held in those conditions.

The staff in Morton Hall were very harsh, I heard one with my own ears saying that they had the hardest job working in a detention centre as we (asylum seekers) were the worst criminals. They treated people like animals, I saw one detainee being forced to move, they strangled and cuffed him, the guy couldn’t even breathe properly and shouted that they were killing him, it was very sad to watch. The nurses lie and say whatever is necessary so people can be deported, there was a Vietnamese person who had heart problems and couldn’t even go to the dining hall to get his food, yet the nurses signed that he was fit to be deported, and they only supply you with pain killers as medication.

The immigration rules say that the maximum someone should be held in detention is 3 months, but some of my friends were held for up to 6 years, some people have even been deported to wrong destinations, just so they can get rid of them. There were a few Somalis who pooed in the plane because they were taken to unknown countries and they used fake documents to deport them. It was hell being in a detention centre, and it hurts me to see people being treated like this. God’s world has no borders. Shut down detention centres!

By Raul Ally

A video documenting Raul’s asylum journey can be viewed at:

Deaths at Sea – Asylum Seekers and Illegal Entry

August 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

(Residents and police try to rescue refugees from an asylum boat being smashed by violent seas against the jagged coastline of Australia’s Christmas Island Photo: AP)

This month disturbing news revealed that 54 people died in an attempt to reach Italy from Libya by boat, one man from Eritrea survived, the rest perished from dehydration in a 15 day ordeal.

This blog aims to provide a legal and realistic narrative of the reasons why deaths at sea continue to occur and who is to be held accountable.

A Personal Account

Before I begin this blog, I want to draw attention to a story I came across during my reading. It is written by a Somali woman who was smuggled into Europe. Her personal account exposes some of the realities of smuggling and the dangers people face in escaping persecution.

“I remember living a medium life. Me, my husband and eight children. I remember my baby calling, “Mama, mama”. Quite normal.… But the war breaks. We fled. Far away to south Somalia….Two months on. Everything’s out of hand. We run away from the civil war. Me, my husband and eight children.… And we go from Somalia by boat towards Kenya. But suddenly the boat is sinking. The boat is overloaded…. The boat broke. Water breaking into us…. I can’t swim. The boat sinks. Who will rescue us?…. 200 people are dying, drowning. I’m losing my family to the sea. Five of my daughters are lost…. And my eldest son, he’s just begun his life, he’s finished university. He’s lost. That makes six of my children. Dead in the sea, in one day.… Suddenly, an Italian tourist boat is passing.… people come to rescue us. They grab my baby, who I’m holding. And another child of mine…. All the time my baby’s calling “Mama, mama.” Suddenly, I am hauled into the boat like a baby myself…. I am crying. My whole body. Crying.… Do you hear me?… I cannot forget that day. Although I’m here before you today, you can’t have imagined the life of one Somali woman.…  am breaking my silence. The world should know my life, my baby calling “Mama, mama”. The world should hear this life.” Found in research commissioned by the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees in the UK (ICAR) at http://www.icar.org.uk/somalicommunityreport.pdf

The Factual Reality

Though the above stories are horrendous, it’s a narrative that continues to take place as persecuted individuals continue to employ criminal smugglers in attempts to find sanctuary within Europe. Figures from UNHCR show that since the 31st of January 2012 over 500 irregular migrants and refugees died attempting to cross the Mediterranean sea. Sadly, this figure is also likely to be higher as not all deaths are recorded (throwing dead bodies overboard is common) and death records are only accounted for in tales from survivors or through enquiries from family members looking for missing persons.  Unfortunately the majority of people smuggled into the UK and Europe are those seeking refuge from conflict ridden countries.

The stark reality is that despite the right to ‘seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’ as enshrined by Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), when conflicts erupt or it is likely that there will be an influx of people from a particular country, the UK government introduces stringent visa requirements and this is paralleled throughout Europe.

This can be seen in the UK Border Agency’s (UKBA) current list of countries requiring visa entry for the UK, which includes many refugee producing countries. Unfortunately given the nature of refugees, (in that most come from politically unstable countries) seeking visas from British embassies within their own countries is often impossible. Currently included on the UKBA’s list is Somalia, yet Somali’s cannot obtain passports, let alone British visas and UNHCR recently reported that a boat was still at sea carrying 50 Somali and Eritrean people attempting to reach Italy. Other countries such as Iran and China are also listed, yet within these countries the State is the persecutor from whom people seek to escape, therefore obtaining travel documents or visas can be dangerous to the applicant or the family they leave behind.

Consequently, legal entry, for the majority of asylum seekers, is unfeasible:  in essence the worse the situation in the country of origin, the more difficult it is to gain entry to the UK or Europe. As a result of this, the activities of criminal smugglers have prospered and human rights abuses have increased. Amnesty International estimates that every year, four million people are trafficked or smuggled across international borders- the value of this criminal trade is estimated at approximately $US10 billion per year.

Illegal entry and the rising death toll can be addressed as a three- fold problem:

-the first (as cited above) is due to visa requirements for entrants from refugee producing countries;

-the second is the failure of the UK government and other European States to provide sufficient resettlement programs;

-and thirdly the increased security of Europe’s external borders forces asylum seekers to find ever more complex and dangerous methods of entry.

Resettlement

In 2004 the UK government, in partnership with UNHCR, set up a refugee resettlement scheme (under Section 59 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act) which provides 500 resettlement places to those refugees most in need throughout the world, this has since been increased to 750 places.

Currently sixteen European countries provide resettlement to refugees, yet they only provide 8% of global resettlement places. 90% of places are provided by the three top resettlement countries: the United States, Australia and Canada. Recently the European Union adopted the EU resettlement program, which intends to co-ordinate, harmonize and increase the number of resettlement places offered throughout Europe. However the number of resettlement places has not increased in parallel with the number of countries needing the resettlement of citizens. UNHCR estimates that 800,000 refugees are in need of resettlement places each year, far more than the places available, the result being that only one in ten refugees in need of resettlement will secure protection through the programs.

Border Control and Smuggling

As discussed, illegal entry is often the only resort of those who wish to escape their country and find refuge. In attempting to do so, asylum seekers commonly employ criminal smugglers to smuggle them across the borders to a new life. This often involves extortionate amounts of money and the sacrifice of safety, putting individuals and families at the mercy of criminal smugglers. Contrary to popular opinion, the poorest members of societies within these conflict ridden countries often can’t afford to pay people smugglers, thus the majority of asylum seekers who reach the UK or Europe in this way come from wealthier backgrounds. Often individuals pay for the journey with their life savings, their family’s life savings or community contributions, and in some instances it can cost them their lives. Causes of death can be due to a number of circumstances such as: extreme weather; unseaworthy boats; beatings from smugglers; drowning; starvation; dehydration; suffocation and in some cases suicide out of desperation.

The increase in European and UK border control makes entering Europe progressively difficult, the visa restrictions and increased security has gained media attention as “Fortress Europe” which propels smugglers further in finding extreme methods of trafficking people across the borders.

Within the Schengen area of Europe external borders in terms of sea, land and air, are guarded by Frontex who employ a border surveillance system and European Border Guard Teams, whose mission is to reduce the number of irregular migrants entering the country.  The UK has its own border agency the UKBA who employ over 23,500 staff in protecting the UK’s borders.

Legal Responsibility

There is a legal framework for people crossing the borders by boat which divides responsibility between Shipmasters, and State parties:

Two Conventions: The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) place the Shipmaster under an obligation to assist those in distress at sea, regardless of any circumstances such as nationality etc.

In terms of State parties, several international conventions obligate them to ensure appropriate rescue arrangements for distress calls received within their area of responsibility. These include:

– 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 98(2) (UNCLOS)

– 1974 International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea, Chapter V, Regulation 7 (SOLAS)

– 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, Chapters 2.1.10 and 1.3.2 (SAR)

The State must aim to relieve the Shipmasters of responsibility by arranging disembarkation of those rescued as soon as possible. The State responsible for those rescued depends on the SAR region in which the survivors were recovered, the State responsible must provide a place of safety for survivors. Disembarkation should not be delayed for procedures such as screening or status assessment. (Guidelines on Treatment of Persons Rescued at Sea – Resolution MSC 167(78).

For further information see the following guidelines: http://www.marisec.org/rescueatsea.pdf

International Refugee Law

Though there is a right for individuals to seek asylum, as enshrined by Article 14 of the UDHR, there is no corresponding obligation upon States to grant asylum. The word ‘receive’ was removed from the UDHR on the premise that member State’s should retain their sovereignty in being able to decide who could enter their territory. Therefore international refugee and human rights law does not offer any concrete protection for refugees until they enter the territory in which they seek refuge. As a result, the onus is on the refugee themselves to escape persecution.

As a consequence of this, States are able to introduce stringent visa measures for refugee producing countries.  The reasons behind this are obvious in that no member State wants an influx of asylum seekers from a particular country. Once this occurs within Europe the first member State to receive applicants remains responsible for those individuals in processing their application and offering them refuge (via the Dublin Regulation – which is why Italy’s refugee system is under intense pressure). The politics of the situation seems like a playground quarrel and ultimately that’s what it is, clearly if all member State’s removed visa restrictions, some of the barriers for entry would be removed, but there is no legal requirement to do this and therefore it is unlikely this will ever happen.

As can be seen the protection for those residing in conflict ridden countries is relatively weak, however once applicants reach the State in which they seek sanctuary, Article 33 of the International Convention on the Status of Refugees (‘Geneva Convention’) becomes active. Article 33 is the right to ‘non-refoulement’ which means that once an applicant is under a State’s jurisdiction they cannot be returned to a territory ‘where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.‘  Consequently State’s must process an individual’s asylum claim before returning them to their country of origin. If they satisfy the member State’s requirements for refugee status they will be allowed to remain.

Escape

Article 33 of the Geneva Convention is seen to be ‘the cornerstone’ of refugee protection. Read in conjunction with Article 14 of the UDHR it offers significant protection to those who manage to escape their country and reach sanctuary. International maritime law also aims to protect those who take to the seas in seeking safety. But that protection only starts once people start their journey, and as shown above, even with that protection people continue to lose their lives.

As discussed there are many barriers for asylum seekers in reaching sanctuary. With no legal framework of absolute responsibility for member States to offer resettlement, or to remove visa requirements, the onus of responsibility for the safety of refugees realistically remains upon themselves. Though their countries of origin are ultimately responsible, in the real world safety does not become apparent until refugees start their perilous journey to sanctuary.

 

– Katie Bales

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