Jack Howson | 21.04.2013 15:50 | Migration
I first met Fozia and Nawaz when I was put in touch with Revive, a Christian charity offering practical support to asylum seekers in Manchester. The young married couple fled to the UK four years ago from Pakistan, where they face persecution in the form of ‘honour killings’; Fozia is a Syed Shia, Nawaz a Sunni, and Syed girls are forbidden to marry outside of their sect. Back at home, as well as suffering from the political and religious unrest, the couple would also be hounded by Fozia’s family and community who seek punishment for dishonouring her family.
“Her father made an accusation that I abducted his daughter, and got the police searching for me,” Nawaz told me, without a trace of resentment. “It was a fake report. Anything is possible in Pakistan, they aren’t like the British police.” I asked what he would face if he returned, and he answered with a sigh of certainty, “Prison. And after that I might be killed”. For most of us, that thought is entirely incomprehensible; we take the security that is provided with our nationality for granted without a second thought. The fear of waiting for a decision that literally dictates life or death is unimaginable, yet Fozia and Nawaz do so with humbling humility and hope.
But when they arrived in the UK they were met with a culture that shows neither compassion nor concern for their situation, and a Government that punishes and proscribes them needlessly. For the remainder of their time as asylum seekers here, they shall continue to be stereotyped, prejudiced and hated by the majority of the British public. This attitude stems from the media, which constantly focuses on single isolated incidents of bureaucratic negligence; showing asylum seekers – and illegal immigrants wrongly labelled as asylum seekers – as benefit fraudsters intent on depriving hard working taxpayers from jobs and welfare support.
In reality, the public have been conditioned to accept these very rare instances of injustice as representative of the state of immigration in the UK. It only takes a few minutes on the Daily Mail website to find headlines ranging from the misleading, “Six asylum seekers claim £300,000 compensation for ‘wrongly’ being held”, to the patronising, “165,000 asylum seekers to get ‘amnesty’ because of Home Office blunder over files”, to the downright ridiculous, “Somali armed robber who claimed asylum sues Government for £50,000 because attempts to deport him gave him ‘nightmares’”. Not only do these headlines portray the Home Office as incompetent, they more importantly create a false image of immigrants that causes racial hatred and puts a group of vulnerable people who have so much to offer the country into disrepute.
When the actual statistics from Refugee Action, a leading refugee support charity, are studied, they paint a completely different picture. The farcical misconceptions about asylum seekers begin to fall apart.
Britain is overcrowded because of asylum seekers? False. Asylum seekers make up only 0.04% of the UK’s population. 23% of the world’s refugees find asylum here, according to the British public. Again, false. That’s over 8 times the actual figure, which stands at 1.5%.
Naturally, because these statistics are hidden so much by the media, and the media holds so much power over the public’s opinions on immigration; the prejudice extends to those working with asylum seekers.Fozia and Nawaz were, like so many other asylum seekers, treated badly at the hands of the UK Border Agency and Home Office. During my research, I had heard about the mysterious Orwellian ‘snatch squads’ of the UKBA, used in morning raids to transport asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected to detention centres across the country. Fozia told me, “They came to our house in the early morning, five o’clock. We were sleeping when they came and detained us.” Nawaz, clearly angered, added, “But the Home Office came to our house like we are criminals. In front of our bed were eight people and they cuffed our hands. They came straight to our bedroom. It’s not fair. We’ve just come to claim asylum in this country for the protection. It isn’t like we are criminals or sell drugs here.” Asking him whether the Home Office had any reason to believe they might abscond, he replied, “I would always co-operate.”
Regardless of the fact they were willingly assisting the Home Office, the couple were humiliated. “I said that I needed to go to the toilet,” said Nawaz, “and one of the guards opened the door and told me to go while they waited with the door open. I asked him if he was crazy, expecting me to do that in front of all those people, but he was serious”.
The couple were handcuffed and transported to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre in Bedfordshire by prison van, where the Home Office kept them pending a decision. Fozia suffers from trauma-induced depression and self-harming, in addition to a painful pelvic condition, requiring her to walk with crutches. By taking her away from her home in Manchester, she had to miss vital pre-arranged medical and psychiatric appointments. At Yarl’s Wood, Fozia’s crutches were taken from her, leaving her unable to walk to the medical centre where the medication is controlled and dispensed. Serco, a private company very similar to G4S, are responsible for the running of Yarl’s Wood, amongst a string of other detention centres across the country. Fozia and Nawaz told me, among other asylum seekers, that the treatment they received from Serco staff was inhuman and degrading; it can only be expected that in a system where companies fiercely bid for contracts using public money to run these establishments, the staff lack the compassion and kindness that should be a prerequisite for any job involving people who have been through what Fozia and Nawaz have experienced.
During the whole process, asylum seekers are required to ‘sign on’ regularly to prove they haven’t absconded, and in return, continue to receive their benefits. Fozia and Nawaz travel to Dallas Court Reporting Centre on the outskirts of Salford every week. Fozia suffers from a painful pelvic condition that prevents her from walking without crutches. “Because of my mobility problems, they gave me a bus pass,” she tells me, “but not Nawaz,” so the couple travel separately.
“When we enter Dallas Court, they give you a slip and keep your mobile and all your possessions. They search us, and then they allow us to go inside. They check our mobile number and address are the same, stamp the paperwork then take our fingerprints.” Nawaz angrily interjects, “In my country, the criminals have to do this. Whatever the weather, even if it is raining, we have to form a queue outside. There is no shelter outside. That is the worst thing about Dallas Court.”
Despite the treatment Fozia and Nawaz, and the asylum seeker community receive, they don’t hate Britain. Far from it. When I asked Nawaz whether he disliked the British for their attitude towards asylum seekers, he said he felt passionately indebted to us. “It’s not good to hate the British people or Government. They provide you with food, money, housing - everything. How can you hate them? If someone hates them, they should go back to their own country.” Fozia interrupts in agreement, “At least they give us money. We are not destitute, living in the street.”
I asked how much money they live on each week, and Nawaz laughed. “That’s a horrible question!” It is a myth that asylum seekers get more in benefits than British people. The amount is considerably less – 45% to be exact. “They used to give us £35 per person, per week, and we used to collect that money from the Post Office,” Fozia told me, “but after the detention centre they gave us it in tokens, you know, like gift vouchers. And we can only use them in Morrisons, Tesco or Asda. This is a big, big problem for us because we are Muslim and we eat Halal food. Some supermarkets sell Halal food but they are too far from our house, and we can’t spend the vouchers on bus travel to get there.”
I mention that I’ve heard the Home Office have replaced the vouchers with a prepaid debit card called Azure, a system that apparently is fundamentally flawed, and ask if they’ve had problems. Both resoundingly agree. “All the time.” says Nawaz. “I can’t buy a bus ticket or travel anywhere now, only do the food shopping.”
Fozia explains sadly, “Often it happens that we are in a long queue, and when our time comes to be served, sometimes the card doesn’t work. And that experience is really shameful for us. Sometimes when we buy something, the till operator will say, ‘No, you can’t buy this. You can only buy this, this and this’. We can just see their faces full of contempt for us.”
Perhaps the biggest myth of all in the rumour mill of immigration speculation is that asylum seekers come to Britain for the benefits. A recent Home Office report concluded that there was absolutely no evidence to suggest that asylum seekers had a detailed knowledge of our policies or welfare benefits before they arrived. So it’s highly unlikely that they’re rubbing their hands together at the prospect of six-month dental check-ups or free entry to museums. Fear of being murdered or tortured, for example, is probably a bigger reason to leave.
“I don’t want the benefits,” said Nawaz when I asked him what he thought. “I just want protection, need the protection. I don’t need any of these benefits.” Fozia summed up perfectly their ethos of the sanctity of human life. “We don’t need this £70. We don’t need any benefits because we know if we are healthy, that is enough for us.”
When I asked them if they knew anything while they were in Pakistan about the support they would be provided with when they arrived, and if knowing about it would have influenced their decision to seek asylum in the UK, they both exclaimed in unison, “No! Never.” Fozia continues, “The Home Office can’t imagine what kind of houses we had in our country and what kind of lifestyle we were living.” It’s not like they aren’t making the effort to try to return to Pakistan, either. Nawaz told me he contacted the Pakistan Human Rights Commission and asked, “If you give me a house, money, job, or protection, I’ll come back. And they said no, we won’t support you.”
When I explain Fozia and Nawaz’s situation to people, they instantly make the comparison to Romeo and Juliet, and in many ways it is the same.
The difference between the two is the added dimension of trying to escape persecution by seeking asylum in a country that just isn’t interested. While there is certainly no easy solution to immigration, politicians’ tactics of avoiding the truth and ignoring the human lives and stories behind the numbers isn’t the answer.
Like the flame between barbed wire of the Amnesty International logo, Fozia and Nawaz remain trapped between two countries reluctant to take on the humanitarian and moral responsibility of offering them asylum.
For once, we have the chance to make a difference. It’s a cruel world for asylum seekers, and the only way they can find peace is by having their campaign heard by as many people as possible. Thank you for taking the time to read their story, and please now just take a minute to sign their petition ( http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/anti-deportation/), and if enough of us make our voices heard, we might just be able to save the lives of Fozia and Nawaz.