By Cathy Nugent
All the major parties say they want to "control" immigration. The Tories want a "quota system". Once a monthly or yearly quota of asylum seekers and migrants into the UK has been reached, no more will be let in. Never mind the degree of torture or persecution they have endured or the danger they continue to face, or indeed the need for particular workers with specific skills. But it won't be Michael Howard who will have to look the rape or torture victim in the face and say, "Go somewhere else, there is ˜no room' here."
When Newsnight interviewer Jeremy Paxman recently asked Tony Blair about how the Government is doing on deporting "failed asylum seekers" Blair was very anxious indeed to demonstrate how much more "efficient" it is at sending people "home". Indeed they are. In 2003, 12,490 unsuccessful asylum applicants were removed or returned.
But an increase in deportations has been achieved by targeting the most vulnerable, the people who are less likely to go into hiding or elude immigration officials: young asylum seekers who first arrived in the UK as unaccompanied children, and families with young children.
I wondered if Michael Howard and Tony Blair ever think about the real people behind the terminology they use - who are these "illegals", these "failed asylum seekers" and these "rule breakers". So earlier this month I went to Canterbury in Kent to meet some "failed asylum seekers", people who are due to be deported soon. These people are considered "a problem" in the politicians's eyes. So they should be allowed to tell their story.
I met three young Afghani men. All arrived here in 2002, sent here by families to safety. In the past most Afghans would have been given "exceptional leave to stay". The Government is now saying Afghanistan is safe. Many people - aid workers, human rights experts - think this is ludicrous. The postponed elections, the bombs, the killings by militia controlled by warlords, tell a different story. But due to Government policy it has become next to impossible for lawyers to win a legal argument for any Afghan to get asylum.
All three of the Afghans I met have an additional reason to be in fear of returning. They are Hazara - an ethnic minority in Afghanistan. Most Hazara live in the central "Hazarajat" provinces or Kabul. Some live in Pakistan. Most, but not all, are Shia Muslims (the majority of other Afghanis are Sunni Muslims.) Historically, the Hazara people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan have been persecuted.
The Pashtun-dominated Taliban exacted ruthless reprisals against minority communities that they considered rivals - including the Hazara. According to Human Rights Watch, in the Yakaolang and Bamiyan districts in June 2001 Taliban forces burned about 4,500 houses, 500 shops, and public buildings. As they retreated east, they continued to burn villages and to detain and kill Hazara civilians.
The attacks continue. According to an April 2004 report from the Home Office's Country Information and Policy Unit there was a brutal killing of twelve Hazaras in southern Afghanistan by unidentified gunmen. They had their throats cut with knives.
According to hazaragiradio.com every two or three weeks Hazaras are killed by Pashtuns on route to Kandahar, Herat, Gazni and Oruzgun. Although Hazaras are in the government, and an Hazara woman has just been made governor of that area, nobody is in a position to stop it.
The legacy of the Taliban will take a long time to fade. The people who have committed violence against Hazaras in the recent past are still at large. It understandable that the Hazara people want to see unambiguous evidence of stability in Afghanistan. That is, by any standards, a long way off.
The young men I met had all seen persecution first hand and had lost family members. I also met the English people who love and respect them: their teachers, school friends, the girlfriend of one, and a local activist.
None of the supporters and friends could understand why these young people, who have had to rebuild their lives as orphans, are going to go away. As Kate, the activist based in Whitstable, put it, "They have made relationships with friends, girlfriends, teachers. Now it is all going to be taken away. It is heartbreaking."
Amin buratee's father, an uncle and a brother were all killed by the Taliban. The family come from Kabul. At the end of 2001 another uncle arranged for an agent to take Amin to the UK. Amin is now a Sixth Form student at Canterbury High School.
"It took me around six months to get to the UK. We walked, went by lorry, rode on horses, travelling by night, to cross borders. I ended up in Folkstone and then, for three months, I was in a hostel in Dover. By the time I arrived I felt so relieved, so safe and free. I was going to learn English, it was good.
"I had never thought before about leaving Afghanistan, even though there was so much fighting in Kabul. For two years we Hazaras could not go into the main part of the city. It was too dangerous.
"Later I was taken to Whitstable with two other young Afghans and I began to make friends. Now I want to go to University and study computer science."
Last November Amin's house was raided. Amin and another young Afghani, Abrahim Rahimim (see below), were taken to Dover Detention Centre. As both were now 18 they had to go back to "safe" Afghanistan. (Most Afghanis in fact don't note the passing of birthdays or know their exact age.) The fact that Amin was in the middle of his studies was not a matter of concern to the Home Office. When his school friends found out about his detention they mounted a campaign to stop his deportation.
Jade Beaney, Leanne Jones, and Katie Smith from Canterbury High School explain what happened next.
"One of Amin's Afghan friends told us Amin had been taken away. But the school had not been given any information about what had happened to Amin. We had to find all that out ourselves.
"At first it was just the three of us thinking about what we could do, but we got the word round on email and text, and it quickly snowballed. The whole of the sixth form got together. We wrote letters to MPs, the Home Office. On the day we heard about Amin we organised a silent vigil outside Canterbury Cathedral. Later we organised a demonstration outside Dover detention centre. People from other schools and from all over Kent came to these events. We spoke to the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral and he helped us get the deportation date pushed back [first of all to May 2005; Amin has now been told he can stay until September 2005].
"The teachers were very good, letting us miss lessons. The love and attention we got was genuine, the school didn't just let us do this because it looked good for them. It sometimes felt like we were going nowhere, and it was a big shock when Amin got realeased.
"We met a lot of people doing the campaign, and we got to know more refugees and have made good friends. Everyone has learned mutual respect. Refugees realise that no all English people are the same. And we've learned more about Afghan culture. We have new things to think about.
"There was a lot of media coverage and most of it was fine. The local Gazette reporter was, still is, very good. The media were interested because we are young English girls, still in education. Normally young people are not seen taking an interest in things like this. And it was bad press for the Home Office. We were seen crying for our friend on TV!
"We organised our campaign because Amin is a good friend but it has also made us realise about what is going on. Children younger than Amin are being sent back to a place that is classed as home, but there is in fact absolutely nothing there for them. These [Afghan] boys are no different to us. Everyone's got a heart and everyone's got blood. If our country was in danger we'd want us to be looked after. We've got to look at it the same for other people.
"We are being asked to believe that when Amin turns 18 he has become a different person. One day he is someone who needs looking after. The next he is going to be looked after by no-one.
"They are trying to get children and families deported because they are an easy target. It's as if they're no one, nothing. It's disgusting.
"It's difficult to think of the future and difficult to think about what a cruel place the world can be. Of course we'd like Amin to stay with us and that's true for all the boys. We will try to persuade them that they should stay. But we don't make the decisions."
These young women think Amin and people like him have a lot to teach us all.
"Amin is not causing trouble, not doing what some young people in this country do - drugs, stealing money. He's working hard to get his education. Everything he gets he respects. Everything he is told he keeps in his head. So many people waste their education and what they have. The people who don't - they are being sent away!
"There are so many different things being said in the election. On immigration a lot of it is not good. Adults are screaming ˜get them out'. They should get a grip. They are children. They are people trying for something.
"We take everything for granted, everything is done for us. We forget about the real issues and are kept away from the real world. Parents tell their children negative things about asylum and it gets passed on. So it is time for us to stand up and do something about it."
Abrahim Rahimi was born in Kabul and fled Afghanistan in February 2002 after his father was murdered by the Northern Alliance. Abrahim is a target for both the "Northern Alliance" warlords who still have a great deal of power in Afghanistan and the remnants of the Taliban, not least because of his father's involvement with the Communist Party (PDPA).
Abrahim attended Canterbury College for a while and was studying for GCSEs with the hope of becoming an engineer. He dropped out of college when his financial support was ended and he became depressed and isolated. Since Abraham's traumatic flight from Afghanistan he has lost touch with his mother, brothers and sisters. He does not know if they are still alive. Abrahim has medical problems.
Abrahim missed his opportunity to apply for leave to appeal to an Immigration Tribunal when his previous solicitors decided they could no longer act for him. He wants to be able to present fresh evidence regarding his father's involvement with the Communist Party which could result in a new asylum claim.
Abrahim was detained in November 2004, at the same time as Amin. He was released when it was shown the Home Office had not followed procedure.
Abrahim is now in part-time education and is doing very well. His solicitor has referred him to the Medical Foundation, who support refugees who have been traumatised by war and torture. But all this progress is being undermined by the threat of deportation.
Abrahim: "My future is very uncertain. I am waiting to hear still from the Home Office. When I came back from detention I had nothing, no money. I had to fight to get that back. I feel very bad. I should be allowed to stay. I enjoy living here. After the last few years although I still think my nationality is Afghan I also see myself as part of the UK. I have a lot of English friends."
Kate Adams from the Kent Campaign to Defend Asylum Seekers explains why the case of another nineteen year old Hazara, Ashegolla Ahmadi, who was recently sent back to Afghanistan recently, has got everyone frightened. Despite being reunited with his only family, his sister Sajyiah, when she came to the UK, he was sent back.
Ashegolla was probably tortured before he came to the UK. Yet, according to Kate, Ashegolla was beaten up by the Immigration Escort people when they deported him.
"We have pictures taken by people in the refugee camp where he now is. They show his face badly bashed. The doctor there wouldn't write us a report, because he was scared. He said Ashegolla was in danger because of his appearance [as a Hazara, I think]. He wanted us to do something. We thought about a prosecution but because Ashegolla is now out of the country there is nothing we can do.
"We've sent the evidence on to Stephen Shaw, the Prison Ombudsman, who is conducting an inquiry into the findings of the TV programme ˜Detention Undercover' which showed racist attitudes and mistreatment of detainees by staff of Global Solutions. Ashegolla was held at Manchester Holding Centre, which Global Solutions service, awaiting deportation to Afghanistan.
"I was able to speak with Ashegolla in Afghanistan. He told me he was assaulted on the way to the airport and on the plane to Dubai. We were advised by UNHCR UK to tell Ashegolla to go to their Kabul office and ask for protection. Ashegolla said they turned him away and said he had no human rights."
"My story is very complicated. In August 2003 my visa expired but I heard nothing until 21 December 2004. A letter from the Home Office said I had missed an interview set for August 2004. That was my chance to explain my case. So I was sent to court in Bromley on 20 March this year. Although I hadn't been interviewed my application for asylum was refused. I don't know what to do now.
"They say there is security in Afghanistan. But there are two or three bombs every month. The press interview rich people who don't know what goes on. There is a saying in Afghanistan, ˜The full stomach knows nothing about the hungry stomach.' No one hears about the hungry stomachs.
"Lots of Hazara went to Iran during the war, but they are coming back now. They are persecuted in Iran. Thousands of Hazaras are held in a border refugee camp. They get two pieces of bread in 24 hours. No one cares about these kinds of problems. I have made lots of new friends in the UK. Why shouldn't I stay here and finish my education?
"It is very difficult to manage your life in Afghanistan and the UK government should think about these things."
Kate Adams told me some more about campaigning for asylum rights in the area: "It is government policy now to say ˜no Afghans'. That is affecting the decisions of the adjudicators. They are now deporting people under 18. They used to be more sympathetic. Everywhere things are toughing up.
"As the legal avenues close off, community support and arguing the case for individuals become more important in my view. But we need a lot of people.
"That is why the campaign of students at Canterbury High School was so fantastic. We older people can bang away for years achieving limited things. Then something spontaneous like this can make the issues seem so much more real and alive. Those school students were very direct about challenging racism. They had posters saying ˜Ashamed to be British'. Of course not everyone has a school there to care for them.
"Local people were much more sympathetic towards Amin because this was all about young people. They were outraged. They stopped thinking about Amin as an asylum seeker and started thinking of him as a young man, a boy. Especially with women, his case touched people. But you've got to argue the same for everybody.
"If you stand in the High Street with a stall, as we do, you get abuse. But there is some sympathy too. We've done a lot recently, had a fantastic conference about those asylum seekers who came here as unaccompanied minors. We've held a vigil for everyone who has been deported. For the election we're doing a stall with the banner ˜don't play the race card.' We've got the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates to come and talk to us about their policies."
There are 326 unaccompanied minors in Kent (end of 2004 figures). Most are Afghans. Some are Kurds and Kosovans. What will happen to these young people as they come up to their 18th birthday, or even before they reach that point? Are they all to be dragged from their beds at 5 am, imprisoned, then sent back to a place where they have no family and no support? As Kate said, "If these politicians want to be in power they are going to have to face up to the implications of their policies."
"Hard case support" is presently available in cases where a failed asylum seeker is unable to return home because they are stateless or ill or (paradoxically in the case of a rejected asylum application) the country of return is too dangerous. New legislation makes the support conditional on performance of community work.
In effect what is being introduced here is slave labour.
The YMCA has said it will be the first organisation to take part in the scheme. We should protest!
Schools Against Deportations
The Institute of Race Relations has helped set up a schools against deportation campaign. They argue that the best interests of the child or young person should be the primary consideration when deciding whether to deport someone attending a school or college in Britain. Asylum-seeking children have been exempted from the legal protections for children which have been introduced in the Children's Act. The exemptions imply two standards for the care of children: one standard for Europeans and another for the rest. We are calling for that double standard to end. The campaign has produced a declaration.
The truth about asylum
- Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in the UK and to remain here until the authorities have assessed their asylum application. Therefore, there is no such thing as an "illegal" asylum seeker.
- Asylum seekers do not in general come here for economic reasons. The top ten refugee-producing countries in 2003 all have poor human rights records or are places where war or conflict is on-going.
- Most refugees are not in a position to choose their destination country.
- Many refugees hope to return home at some point in the future provided the situation in their country has improved.
- The UK asylum system is strictly controlled and complex. It is very difficult to get asylum.
- The number of asylum applications is falling, a reflection of the toughness of the system.
- Home Office decision-making remains very poor. While nine out of ten asylum applications are initially refused, 20 per cent of cases that go to appeal are successful.
- Two thirds of the world's refugees are living in developing countries, often in camps.
- Africa and Asia between them host over 60% of the world's refugees. Europe looks after just 25%.
- Conflict in Sudan has forced four million people from their homes. More than half a million have fled the country, mainly to neighbouring countries such as Chad. Fewer than 1,000 Sudanese applied for asylum in the UK in 2003.
- The UK is home to less than 2% of the world's refugees, around 250,000 people out of nearly 10 million worldwide.
- The UK is 9th in the league table of European countries for the number of asylum applications per head of population, behind countries like Cyprus and Luxembourg.
- In 2002, the UK ranked 22nd in the table of the world's refugee hosting countries on the basis of size, wealth and relative populations.
NO ONE IS ILLEGAL - INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
Saturday 25 June, 1-6 pm
Cross St Chapel, Cross Street, Mancheste. Wheelchair accessible. 2 minutes walk from Albert Square, 15 minutes from Piccadilly.