6am. A cold autumn morning. A young woman and her two children (age 2 and 4) are woken by loud banging at the door. They know who it is, this is what they have been dreading for months since the last time it happened. 8-10 large, burly, aggressive men are outside. As soon as the door is opened they arrest the woman - who has committed no crime - and order her to pack her things. If she hadn’t opened the door they would just have broken it down. She is terrified, her children are terrified. They are bundled into the back of a van and driven to a nearby building where they are locked up. Then they are bundled back into the van and driven to a prison several hours away. The children get ill – sickness, diarrhoea, weakness. The youngest refuses to eat and won’t take her milk. They are both impossible to control. The young woman can’t sleep. She is not given proper access to her medication. She has to share a narrow, uncomfortable bed with her daughter. All the children in the prison are sick, any illness spreads like wildfire. Whenever they want to go to the phone, the canteen etc. they have to pass through numerous locked doors, patted down at each one – including the children. None of the people in this prison have committed any kind of crime, they have harmed no one and done no damage to anyone’s property. They have been harmed, physically and mentally, and their property has been taken.
So which country do you think this is? Some awful foreign place without democracy right? Wrong. It’s the UK.
The first place the family were taken to that cold autumn morning is Waterside Court, on Kirkstall Road, Leeds. Waterside Court is the Immigration and Nationality Directorate reporting and enforcement office for the Leeds/Bradford area. Asylum seekers have to sign there every week, fortnight or month. They are routinely humiliated and shouted at. Each time they attend they risk being detained.
The prison is Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, one of ten throughout the UK. It was recently condemned for its healthcare facilities in a report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons and is certainly no place for an adult, never mind young children. It is full of families. The people inside are not criminals, they are not ‘illegal immigrants’, they are asylum seekers. They have escaped from war, death, rape, torture, persecution and other horrors most of us will never have to contemplate and they made their way here in desperation, seeking safety. They are entitled under international law to seek asylum, but have instead been humiliated, pushed around and ultimately failed by our system. Many are forced to board planes back to countries where they face instant imprisonment, rape, death, torture, persecution, extreme hardship….I know I just listed all of those and I know it’s a hard list to read but everyone needs to know that this is happening because people in our own communities – our neighbours, our children’s school friends, members of our churches – have suffered them and are at risk of suffering them again.
The family in this story (and there are many, many stories like it) have been imprisoned for over a month at the time of writing. They are all sick, exhausted and miserable. Their deportation to a country where the children have never even been, and they are under death threat, was only stopped because the little girl had a fit at the airport which hospitalised her.
Their asylum case has so far been refused twice, the Home Office simply don’t believe that the woman was beaten, wrongly imprisoned, sentenced to death, became so ill in prison she was hospitalised and received death threats from her own family. There is proof for much of this but for an immigration and legal system obsessed by documentary evidence it isn’t enough. How do you prove that a member of your family has threatened to kill you and your children? How do you obtain your court sentencing document from a totally corrupt country when doing so could put others’ lives at risk? This is however not the concern of the Home Office, who simply want to meet their targets.
Despite excellent legal help supported by sustained letter writing, phone calls and petitions and the intervention of two MPs, the legal avenue may be over for them. Their only hope may well be to fight for the right to live here by campaigning. No one expects to flee for their life and then have to fight to not be sent back but that is the reality of Britain today. Many people win their fight, but many lose, and many of those who do win are affected forever by the mental and emotional hell they had to go through along the way. Many put their lives at risk once more by speaking out publicly - this would put them under enormous risk if they were returned to the countries they escaped from. Which is why I can’t include names and other details in this story.
Asylum seekers often say that their treatment here is worse than that in the county from which they fled. One woman who spent 8 months in Yarls Wood and is now destitute, living on the charity of a local church, said ‘I was a victim of the Ugandan authorities and … I became a victim of the UK authorities. When will my suffering end? In Uganda the torture was quicker. Here, living destitute, not entitled to medical treatment for the harm that has been inflicted on me, whether in detention or not, I die a little every day.’ This is one horror story out of hundreds.
Whatever your feelings on asylum seekers, there is just no justification for any of this.
Morally - a vulnerable young family who just want to get on with their lives – school, college, church, community life – have been treated appallingly and are now physically and mentally exhausted. This will affect them for the rest of their lives. Two sick children under 5 are in prison.
Economically - it costs about £11000 to remove someone from their home and put them in detention. Detention costs £100s per week (In answer to a parliamentary question on 25th October 2001, the Government stated that the cost of detention ranged between £364 and £1620 per week, from www.biduk.org). Asylum seekers are taking neither our jobs (they are not allowed to work) nor our council houses (governments have done a good job of that by selling them off). They don’t want to be on benefits, they want to support themselves and their families like anyone else. The woman in the story above has been receiving benefits and housing support for four years yet she speaks and writes perfect English, is very well educated and could easily get a job even in a racist system like ours (even when granted refugee status and finally allowed to work it is often very hard for people to get a job simply because they are from a different country).
Politically…the government only seems interested in meeting their deportation targets, no matter that this leads to immense human suffering. And this is largely due to public opinion, expressed through the mainstream media and based largely on fear and prejudice. We hear so much about foreign prisoners, but where is the coverage of the roughly 2500 people currently imprisoned without having committed any crime? (Home Office snap shot figures 24 June 2006, from www.biduk.org). Where is the coverage of the dozens of children, some not even a year old, in prison? Where is the coverage of the real situation of asylum seekers who came here for peace and safety and are instead humiliated, abused, locked up, attacked and treated like dirt at every turn?
What you can do – campaigning and action
So here’s where you come in. To change this crazy situation we all need to show the government and the media, which are so influential on them, that we will not stand for such appalling and inhumane treatment of human beings anymore. Don’t just read this and feel sorry for those who are suffering, do something…
- Boycott newspapers which vilify asylum seekers, but tell them that you are doing so and why. Tell everyone else you know to do the same.
- Get yourself informed – at the end of this leaflet are some useful facts, figures and addresses along with websites and organisations which can tell you the real situation and give you the facts you won’t find in the media.
- Write to newspapers (it’s really easy to get a letter published) expressing your disgust at any or all aspects of the UK’s immigration and asylum system.
- Write to your MP, Liam Byrne (Minister for Immigration) and Tony Blair.
- Join your local No Borders group - http://makebordershistory.org/workspace/Noborders_UK_communication_channels
- Talk to every single person you know about what you have just read.
- Join demonstrations about asylum issues, or set one up yourself.
- Support organisations which are campaigning on these issues – join their campaigns, give them cash, volunteer for them. You’ll find a list at the end of this leaflet.
By doing nothing about this, you are complicit; you are part of a system abusing vulnerable people. There is no excuse for doing nothing once you know what is really happening – we all need to act now before the situation gets worse. And it will get worse. There is now no doubt that climate change is real and it has already created around 1 million refugees. We need to sort out both our attitude to asylum seekers and our political system now. These are harsh words but we are living in a harsh system and it’s time to expose its realities.
Like climate change, this is a desperate and urgent situation. Like climate change, we can get the government to do something about it if we all see what’s really happening and have the courage to actually do something about the appalling treatment of those far worse off than ourselves who are living within our communities. Everyone has the right to a safe, peaceful life – if you have one then please help another human being to have one too.
- National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns – www.ncadc.org.uk – 0161 7406504
- Refugee Council – www.refugeecouncil.org.uk – 0207 3466700
- Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) – www.jcwi.org.uk – 0207 2518708
- No One is Illegal – www.noii.org.uk
- Barbed Wire Britain – www.barbedwirebritain.org.uk
the preceeding temporary existence of not being able to work or live your life with any security, having to subsist on food stamps, etc. is, in itself, inhumane. To have a gang of unfriendly suited and booted uniforms wake you up in the wee, dark hours and force their way into your house, giving you and your children minutes to throw a change of clothes into a suitcase before whisking you away from your very few possessions, your friends, neighbours and school mates without being allowed the opportunity to contact anyone is sickening.
Transporting them under guard to some 'prison' run by a 'for profit' detention facility staffed by hostile guards to stay imprisoned for indeterminate periods before being whisked back to uncertain and often life threatening foreign shores. There really is no describing the sheer terror and sickening feeling you have in the bit of your stomach or the trauma inflicted on your mind unless you've been through this. And that's for the adults, for kids experiencing this and seeing their parents treated this way the effects are just mentalising.
As tax payers we finance this, we pay a lot for it and it goes on every day, every dawn and has been going on for ages, and will continue to go on for ages, and will be going on as we 'enjoy' the festivities this christmas.
Please show solidarity with the victims of my Government, your Government, protest, visit, make some noise - the very least you can do to help will mean so much to whoever you touch. To do nothing is to be complicit, you can only do what you can do, but you can do something.