Dave Renton, Equality officer from lecturer's union NATFHE, which along with the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), believes immigration controls are racist and should be abolished.
Gill Gibbons from Leeds Asylum Seekers' Support Network (LASSN), a grassroots volunteer group that provides advice, support, 'English at home' lessons and befriending schemes for asylum seekers and refugees.
Emma Ginn from National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC), which faces closure as few funders will support such "unpopular" causes. A few years ago, tabloids ran a campaign aimed at intimidating funding bodies to withdraw support for NCADC's work.
Emma Ginn said:
"People in Leeds need to understand that there are thousands of innocent people, including children, being left to rot in detention centres across the UK. The conditions of detention are very bad and some detainees were driven to commit suicide. Immigration detention is indefinite and there is no requirement for it to be sanctioned by a court or be independently reviewed. Some people have been locked up for years. It is time to end this asylum shame."
Rachel Saunders from Leeds No Borders said:
"Leeds is called the Knightsbridge of the North with its 1000 retails stores and £12bn economy. Everywhere you look there is prosperity and regeneration. But this city is playing a dirty role in Britain's asylum shame. People come here from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan and Zimbabwe for safe refugee from persecution, rape, torture, war and murder. Instead, we deny them the right to work, imprison them in detention centres, humiliate them with vouchers, force them to pay for NHS treatment, and then deport them in the middle of the night back to where they came from. It is disgusting."
1. Leeds No Borders works in solidarity with refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and other campaign groups in Leeds and beyond. We are committed to practical solidarity, mutual aid and direct action in the fight against deportations, detentions, poverty and racism. We are part of a growing network rooted in the belief that all immigration controls are racist and divisive, and should be opposed and ultimately abolished.
2. The public meeting will be followed by two spectacular events on Saturday 6 May.
12-3pm: Leeds, City of Asylum Shame – An alternative guided tour from the asylum seekers’ perspective, assemble Leeds Town hall, 12pm
7pm-till late: No Borders Benefit gig at the Commonplace social centre, 23-25 Wharf St, Leeds
3. There are over 2000 asylum seekers currently imprisoned in UK 'detention centres' and some 30,000 will experience detention every year. More than 2,000 children of asylum-seekers are locked up every year, leaving them suffering depression, nightmares and eating problems. They have committed no crime and many are subject to beatings and racist abuse.
4. Failed asylum seekers, if eligible, get £35 of vouchers per week for food, which are only valid in shops like Morrisons, Starbucks, Wetherspoons. This prevents asylum seekers using local or culturally appropriate shops, creates harassment from staff and general public, and impedes integration. Vouchers cannot be used to buy tampons and nappies, and no change is given – unless goods match the voucher’s full value, asylum seekers’ lose out while companies profit at their expense.
5. Failed asylum seekers have just 7 days to vacate this accommodation – even if the government accepts they cannot be deported yet. With no right to access benefits, asylum seekers are forced to sleep on friends' floors or on the streets. It is illegal for other asylum seekers to provide support. One private provider, Angel Group, was given a 5-year contract worth £20m. Its director pays herself £½m a year. Angel has recently been exposed for appalling housing conditions and stands accused of defrauding the taxpayer by £millions.
6. There are around 2000 asylum seekers supported by National Asylum Support Service in Leeds. Many more are living in utter destitution or are homeless.
7. Section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 enables the Home Office to deny support to asylum seekers who fail to claim asylum within just three days of arriving in the UK. An estimated 200 people per week are being made destitute by this law.
8. The mainstream media is responsible for spreading appalling lies about asylum seekers. Britain is not being swamped by claimants, it in fact hosts less than 2% of the world's refugees, making it 32nd in a worldwide league table. Opinion polls show the public overestimates the number of asylum-seekers in UK by 1000%. The countries with the highest numbers are all poor, developing countries. Even in Europe, Britain comes 8th for the number of applicants for asylum per 1000 inhabitants. Nor are any asylum seekers 'bogus' as anyone has the legal right to claim asylum here.
We began with a good talk by Dave Renton, Equality officer from lecturer's union NATFHE, which along with the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), believes immigration controls are racist and should be abolished.
He started by reminding everyone that Leeds and Britain has, in the past, welcomed those claiming asylum, referring to his own Jewish history, and the fact that Leeds became a major destination for Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dave talked about some of the issues affecting both teachers and asylum seekers in the education system; he described how members of his union had become key to numerous anti-deportation campaigns when students' asylum claims were rejected and how most universities won't admit asylum seekers because of their uncertain status. Accessing higher education becomes almost impossible if you can't access public funds - which rules out asylum seekers. He also described how asylum seekers are forced onto college courses as they are not permitted to work, and although some of these courses can provide skills and assistance (i.e. learning english), the fact that they are not permitted to make those choices is an oppressive way of dealing with people.....
Next Gill Gibbons from Leeds Asylum Seekers' Support Network (LASSN), a grassroots volunteer group, spoke of the severe destitution facing asylum seekers in Leeds because of the removal of support and accommodation once they had been declared 'failed'. She described how LASSN attempts to help families in this situation by providing basic necessities and financial assistance. The key problem remains that
asylum seekers are not permitted to work and do not have access to remotely adequate legal representation to enable them to put forward the reasons why their claims should be accepted. Gill further identified other areas that volunteers assist which included befriending and short stay accomodation for asylum seekers who would
othewise be forced to sleep rough. She made an appeal for more volnteers to offer up their homes.
Emma Ginn from National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) spoke about the reality of detention in the UK. She told some quite horrific stories of the level of abuse and assault taking place inside places like Yarls Wood and other detention centres and how this is effectively rubber stamped by the New Labour government: a well known example of this was at Yarl's Wood when the refusal of guards to provide medical care to a pregnant woman led to a riot by asylum seekers in which a fire was started. During the fire asylum seekers were locked in their cells and it was a miracle that none died, particularly given the governments concious failure (in an effort to reduce costs) to install a sprinkler system. In an
increasing number of sadly inevitable cases the reality of life in detention has lead to asylum seekers taking their own lives. Having often escaped repression and torture in their own countries, being then subjected to jail without having committed any crime proved too much.
Questions were raised from the floor regarding the key reforms that would assist the situation for asylum seekers. All the speakers agreed that enabling asylum seekers to work would both promote, in the long term, a greater understanding of their situation, as well as enable those people claiming asylum to contribute to wider society. The recent absorption of 300,000 economic migrants from eastern europe indicated that this was possible and it was simply stupid to stop, often highly skilled individuals, from working. It was recognised that the government ultimately wants to keep asylum seekers out of work in order to isolate them and prevent their intergration into society.
There followed some powerful comments by individuals going through the asylum system. These included a man whose claim had been denied and, whilst his appeal was ongoing, was not permitted to work and forced to live off vouchers. These vouchers could only be spent in certain shops who would not give change. This forced hand-to-mouth existence on vouchers meant that simple tasks, such as, getting to shops became very difficult because he often did not have the cash to pay for the bus fare. Even going to the Laundrette was almost impossible, as the vouchers clearly do not work in the machines!
Another asylum seeker explained her own situation and how she had been failed by the legal system that had not allowed her to be reasonably represented and had refused to acknowledge the evidence that was presented before it regarding her circumstances. This meant that she was now not fighting for a washing machine, or other material goods, but quite simply for her life and the life of her son. She explained how her life and death struggle had changed her as a person and how she had developed a new family; those who supported her and her campaign had become her family. The knowledge that there were others who wanted to protect and help her had enable her to keep going, despite everything that had been thrown at her since her arrival in the UK.
The evening ended with a half hour of working groups on themes such as supporting destitute asylum seekers in Leeds and campaigning against the detention system in the UK. It was agreed that Leeds No Borders would: (1) produce an up to date guide to the asylum system and the asylum expereince, focusing on de-bunking myths and setting out the case for no borders; (2) start a campaign against companies like Global Solutions Limited that run detention centres in the Uk; (3) do regular events, meetingsm benefit gigs etc.