When we arrived at Leeds Town Hall at midday, more than 50 'tourists' were already queuing up in the hot sun ready for the tour, which considering the current political climate was a great turnout. There was Bradford Samba, a soundsystem all the way from Manchester, two beautifully dressed tour guides in suits and bowler hats, an army of video activists, a press pack and a largely bemused number of wedding parties at the Register Office (inside the Town Hall). It was also really good to see several asylum seekers there, some stewarding the tour.
There were lots of positives: the camaraderie between people supporting each other; the brilliant tour guides; the fearless way in which we walked down the main shopping street in Leeds telling people how they were being lied to about asylum seekers and immigration; the great feeling of seeing young Asian men joining in; the pleasure of seeing asylum seekers who normally try to stay invisible in Leeds walking up to us and marching down the road, knowing they had friends here at last.
One downside was the attitude of the Town Hall staff, who once again showed their willingness to be part of the 'controlled space' society. We were all asked to get off the steps of the Town Hall and onto the front court. Some Town Hall employees told us that 'they feel like foreigners in their own town, that when they go on the bus they are the only white face, and that asylum seekers should be grateful for what they get'. Apart from being a load of rubbish, the idea that people feeling persecution should be grateful for being locked up and beaten by their 'protectors’ shows the amount of ignorance out there.
There were a couple of 'incidents' during the day - one moron threatened to burn our banner, while someone else shouted out abuse from across the street. Apart from that, however, the day passed off really well - a lot of people in Leeds were obviously bemused by what we were doing but still took leaflets and were not hostile. Our main aim was to educate people and we feel that we did this. Although there is a lot more work to be done.
Tour destinations included: Leeds Register Office, Crown Court, Hilary Benn MP’s office, Morrisons, Job Centre, Housing Advice Office and the army recruitment office. Each place either plays a direct role in, or symbolises, the mistreatment of asylum seekers. The guides exposed key facts about the UK asylum system, for example how UK trade and foreign policies create 10,000s asylum seekers ever year as well as more local problems, as well as more local problems such as asylum seekers being forced to attend inappropriate ‘training centres’ and ‘placement schemes’. The tour ended at City Square where candles were lit for all those who have died or remain detained in the UK. Then we made our way to the Common Place social centre for an evening benefit to raise money for No Borders campaigning. Over a hundred people came, it was a great end to a great day.
It's now clear that the No Borders movement is growing and we invite everyone to join us in supporting asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in our city and educating everyone who lives here about the truth regarding immigration in this country.
Our next meetings are on Tuesday May 16th, Wednesday May 31st and Wednesday June 14th at The Common Place social centre, 23-25 Wharf Street, Leeds city centre (www.thecommonplace.org.uk). To join our mailing list please e-mail info at leedsnoborders.org.uk.
Below is much of the information given by the tour guides, which provides an excellent introduction to the local and national treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.
Before we set off, the tour guides asked us to have our 'ID cards' or APPLICATION REGISTRATION CARDS ready for inspection. Only asylum seekers had them because, as we learned, every asylum seeker in the UK must have an identity card. These are plastic smartcards, which provide biometric data about the asylum applicant (personal details, photograph, and the individual’s fingerprint). Each ID card states whether the cardholder is entitled to work and how much cash support they are entitled to. Asylum seekers must take these ID cards to a selected Post Office where a computer terminal that is connected to a central Home Office database will tell the post office worker how much cash they can receive, and will tell the Home Office where the asylum seeker is. So even before the tour began, we learned that asylum seekers are guinea pigs for the national identity card system that will come into effect in 2010.
1. Leeds Register Office
The tour began at 12.30pm in Leeds Register Office, located in Leeds Town Hall. This venue was chosen to highlight the injustice of marriage for migrants.
Since 1 February 2005, UK citizens cannot normally marry foreign nationals, which includes asylum seekers, from outside the European Economic Area (the 25 countries of the European Union plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein) without receiving special permission from the Home Secretary. The application fee costs £135 per person.
The government says this is to help stop ‘sham marriages’ – marriages between two people who are pretending to have a relationship for the purposes of immigration. It is very rare for the Home Office to grant permission for marriages between asylum seekers and UK citizens. Instead, it forces such couples who want to get married to return to the country where the asylum seeker is from and marry there.
In April, a High Court judge ruled the law was discriminatory & contravened people’s basic human rights TO Family Life. It has now turned out that the policy is a huge money spinner for the Home Office. Between February and August, the Home Office received 7,201 applications to marry generating just under a £1million in fees.
2. Leeds Law Courts
Just down the road from Leeds Town Hall is Leeds Law Courts. The guides explained how, even though the right to claim asylum was enshrined in international law, almost all asylum seekers will experience imprisonment during their stay here. They are largely detained in one of 10 so-called Immigration Removal Centres in the UK: Campsfield House, Oxfordshire; Colnbrook, Harmondsworth; Dover; Dungavel, Scotland; Harmondsworth; Haslar, Hampshire; Lindholme, nr Doncaster; Oakington (a reception centre run under detention centre rules); Tinsley House; and Yarl’s Wood. There are also removal centres inside Manchester Airport, Heathrow and Gatwick.
There are currently around 2000 asylum seekers detained in these special prisons – some have been there for over 5 years. Amnesty International suspects that at least 27,000 people who had at some stage sought asylum were detained in 2003 and, similarly, that upwards of 25,000 individuals were detained in 2004, some possibly just overnight and others for prolonged periods of time. None have been charged with a criminal offence nor detained through normal judicial processes. That’s right, 5 years in prison for claiming asylum.
With the exception of Haslar, Dover and Lindholme, which are run by the prison service, all Detention Centres are operated by private companies, contracted out by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. Assaults, disturbances and suicides have been a not infrequent feature in the immigration detention and removal process.
On 19th January of this year, Bereket Yohannes, from Eritrea, was found hanged in the showers at Harmondsworth Detention Centre. He was the 8th asylum seeker to die at his own hands whilst incarcerated in a UK detention centre, and the 34th asylum seeker to have taken their own lives since January 2000.
Inadequate access to medical care and legal representation, high levels of assaults, racist abuse, coupled with trauma from possible prior detention and torture in their home country, and fear of being sent back to places like Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo – is a lethal cocktail.
Many think there will be more deaths in the future because conditions have not improved. The UK is the only EU country to detain children - they should not be exposed to an environment of assaults and suicides.
Here at Leeds Crown Court, we learned that one of the worst companies involved in Britain’s asylum shame had a contract – Global Solutions Limited.
Global Solutions Limited run 4 detention centres, three of the eleven private prisons in England and Wales, and they have two of the four contracts for in England and Wales for managing prisoner transport.
In June 2005, 19 year old Ramazan Kumluca committed suicide at Campsfield Detention Centre, which is operated by Global Solutions Limited. Global Solutions Limited was also a partner in the design and build of Yarl's Wood. In 2002, fire and disturbance after a pregnant woman had been denied medical attention. It was described in the Prison Ombudsman Inquiry into the fire and disturbance there as "astonishingly flimsy" and "not fit for the purpose". The local MP Alistair Burt – a Tory – said “some 300 people avoided death purely by chance”. In a court hearing, a GSL guard revealed that he had been troubled by the order to lock detainees in the burning building, said he knew who gave the order and if bodies were found he would tell the authorities. GSL officers at Yarl’s Wood were reported by an undercover journalist describing giving detainees a “good pasting” and how “brilliant” that is. In March last year, GSL officers were seen on the BBC’s Detention Undercover programme
at another Removal Centre boasting how they assaulted detainees. Again, we heard about how GSL guards boasted of assaulting detainees and how much they enjoyed it. GSL is top of the list of assault allegations.
GSL now holds a contract for "in-country escorting" which they say involves 90,000 immigration detainee movements per year. GSL wants to 'become a strategic partner for Primary Care Trusts, through which it is intended that more than 75% of all NHS funding will eventually flow.
Mainstream prisons are also used in the UK to house people who have sought asylum. Ninety people who had sought asylum at some stage were held in prisons on 25 December 2004. UK government policy remains that prisons may be used for all immigration detainees, including those who have claimed asylum at some stage, for reasons of security and control.
We also learnt that recent legal aid reforms have made it extremely difficult to find legal advisers to take on cases of people whose asylum claims have been dismissed. Detainees must still meet the merits test to qualify for legal aid; this applies to funding for legal representatives to challenge their detention as well as advice about the asylum claim. As a result, some people in detention can be deprived of any legal representation. For example, in order for a legal representative to proceed with a publicly funded bail application, they must apply a ‘merits test’, which means that public funding can only be used if the prospect for success is assessed as over 50 per cent, unless “the case is of overwhelming importance to the client, concerning the life, liberty or physical safety of the client or family...”. Arguably, those in detention could all be considered to meet this test.
3. Waterside Reporting Centre
This was too far away to be part of the tour, but we talked about it as it is such an important part of the asylum system in Leeds and a source of so much fear for local asylum seekers.
Located on Kirkstall Road, it is the regional home of NASS - the National Asylum Support Service – and the Immigration Nationality Directorate. While their claims are being processed, asylum seekers are dispersed around the country to private accommodation.
It is at Waterside Reporting Centre that every week, fortnight or month, asylum seekers have to report or risk losing their cases or imprisonment. For some it’s a 25 mile trip – many asylum seekers have no transport to get there.
Asylum seekers are unable to claim the normal state benefits that a British citizen is entitled to. Instead, NASS provides asylum seekers with minimal financial and housing support. In cash terms, this amounts to around a third less than a British citizen would get to live on Income Support.
Asylum seekers who fail to register with immigration ‘as soon as reasonably possible’ can be denied welfare and housing support.
4. Leeds General Infirmary
It was surprising to visit an NHS hospital. But since April 2004, asylum seekers who have had their claim rejected can be charged for secondary healthcare. This means that many are being sent bills for treatment they thought would be free, while others are being denied essential treatment e.g. antenatal monitoring, renal operation aftercare and screening for serious diseases like cancers and AIDS.
Many asylum seekers are now too afraid to seek help, while those who do risk being turned away by 'confused' health professionals. Ministers are now considering whether to make overseas visitors, including failed asylum seekers, also pay for NHS primary care services. This attitude is partly a response to the malicious misinformation that the mainstream media has continually peddled over the last decade that people come to the UK just to make free use of the NHS.
We also heard how seriously ill asylum seekers are often chained to their beds, and that security guards will sit in during their operations.
5. Hilary Benn MP’s office
We were shown local MP Hilary Benn's office and told some pretty terrible stuff about his personal role in creating asylum seekers. He supported Tony Blair and George Bush’s campaign to bomb the rest of the world into following Western civilisation, voting for the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, which created 100,000s of refugees. The highest number of asylum seekers coming to Britain are usually from Iraq and Afghanistan.
He also voted for the government’s immigration act in 2002 and all subsequent amendments that today determines the life of an asylum seeker in this country.
And as head of the Department for International Development, Hilary Benn is a major cause of forced migration in the world today – promoting economic policies that use debt relief and promises of more aid to force poor countries to open up their economies to British companies who invest in development projects that lead to the displacement of 100,000’s of people every year.
We learned that there are 70,000 Kurds living in the UK. For every Kurd that comes to Britain, millions of pounds of UK taxpayers' money have been spent on supporting the Turkish regime that forced them to flee their homeland. For every Congolese that comes here, millions of pounds of UK pensioners' money are invested in the companies that fuel the civil wars in the region through their extraction of minerals.
6. Leeds Metropolitan University
Another surprise what the inclusion of Leeds Met University. We were told that it is very rare for a university to accept asylum seekers as students because of their uncertain status. Yet, universities like LMU benefit enormously from ‘free labour’ provided by asylum seekers and UK citizens who are effectively forced onto dubious 'work placement' schemes as part of ‘back to work schemes’.
LMU has one of the main schemes. People work for up to 6 weeks for FREE as part time cleaners before being employed. The free workers are allowed to claim income support during this time – so the taxpayer is subsidising employers to have free labour while the workers live on or below the poverty line.
LMU says that as soon as someone has learned the job they will start to be paid. This always seems to take at least 4 weeks. How long does it take to learn how to be a cleaner? And more to the point, training is normally given AFTER someone has gained a paid job!
7. Morrisons Supermarket
We came to Morrisons because it is here that unsuccessful asylum seekers in receipt of support from NASS are forced to shop - they don’t receive cash to choose what they want to buy, but instead get vouchers (£35 per person per week) to enable the purchase of food and other essential items. The idea that you have to shop at Morrisons and other corporate chains, and aren't allowed to use local shops is disgraceful - it above all stops people integrating. They don't even get any change - so they must spend exactly the amount of the voucher or lose money. Vouchers can only be exchanged for specified goods which do not include ‘luxury items’ such as sanitary protection and babies nappies. Not only does this restrict people’s choice but prevents them from buying essentials.
8. Housing Office
One of the greatest myths around asylum is that asylum seekers jump the queue in council housing – that there are people living in the UK waiting years for a council house, and all of a sudden, an asylum seeker comes along and gets priority. Well, the simple truth that we found out is that asylum seekers are not entitled to council housing.
If eligible for NASS accommodation, asylum seekers are housed in temporary accommodation, which is largely run by private companies on multi-million pound contracts from the Home Office.
Asylum seekers whose claim is rejected have just 7 days from their refused application to vacate this accommodation. This happens even if the government accepts they cannot be deported yet, or if they intend to lodge an appeal.
With no right to access benefits, failed asylum seekers are forced to sleep on friends’ floors or on the streets. Other asylum seekers are not allowed to support them.
As failed asylum seekers they have no recourse to public funds. This means they are unable to seek accommodation support from the council and with no financial support are unable to get accommodation in the private sector.
The reality of this housing for asylum seekers is usually appalling. One private provider, Angel Group, was given a 5-year contract back in 2000 worth £20m. It has recently been exposed for appalling housing conditions & accusations of defrauding the taxpayer by £millions. It is claimed that the London-based Angel Group charged the Home Office and Leeds city council for the same properties. Angel’s director pays herself £½m a year.
In 2005 these contracts were renegotiated. Despite all the problems reported with Angel housing, in particular, they were awarded a new contract.
9. Eastgate Job Centre
Contrary to media myths, asylum seekers also are not ‘stealing our jobs’ for the simple reason that most (arriving since July 2002) are not allowed to work. They can’t even undertake vocational training.
The Government said this was justified because employment acts as a ‘pull-factor’ for asylum claims. But there is no evidence that this is the case – people claim asylum because they are normally fleeing for their life.
Unable to work legally, asylum seekers who have been refused their claim and have had all benefits and housing provision stopped, face destitution and homelessness. No wonder then that some are forced into working illegally.
Employers are now reluctant to employ asylum seekers who are legally entitled to work due to uncertainty about their documentation and eligibility to work; they also don’t need to when they can get cheaper labour through failed asylum seekers.
10. Milgarth Police Station
Ironically, just opposite the job centre was Milgarth Police station, home of Leeds’ lovely police force. We went there to learn about another aspect to the asylum experience – that of criminality. There are some 10,000 foreign nationals currently in prison in the UK.
A tiny minority of these are asylum seekers who, because of their desperate situation, have committed petty crimes like shoplifting, or who have been convicted of assault having defended themselves from a racist attack, or who have fallen foul of technical laws in the asylum and immigration act such as having the right papers.
Once they have been put in prison, asylum seekers can kiss goodbye to any chance of staying in the country – they are usually detained in prison before being deported.
11. First Choice Travel
First Choice Travel could be any travel agent in the high street. They represent the tourism and airline industry – a multi-billion pound business.
The next time you book a holiday flight abroad on British Airways, Virgin or Air France to go on Safari, or to a luxury resort in the poorest African, East Asian or Latin American countries, think about this: Your holiday money is helping to keep in power many regimes in those countries that are responsible for the persecution behind refugee flows.
Your plane is churning out the emissions that are creating global warming, melting ice caps, rising sea levels and flooding countries at or below sea level that will create 100s of millions of environmental refugees in the next 20 years.
You might be sitting near an asylum seeker who is being deported back to a country where (s)he faces persecution or death.
The Home Office frequently used commercial passenger flights to deport failed asylum seekers. Many people are deported despite not having had proper legal representation or all their evidence heard in court. The airline industry is profiting from this inhumane system and is putting the lives of vulnerable people at risk.
13. Armed Services Recruitment
We ended the tour of shame at the army recruitment centre because it represents the cause of most refugee flows around the world – war and militaism. All acts of violent repression by the state or otherwise are fuelled by the vicious and uncontrolled trade in small arms. It is these things, not economic factors, which drive people out of their countries and lead them to claim asylum in places like Britain.
Every government, including our own is responsible. From 1998 to 2001, the UK, (amongst others) earned more income from arms sales to developing countries than they gave in aid.
The UN Security Council – of which the UK is a permanent member, is responsible for eighty eight per cent of reported conventional arms exports. In other words, our own government is not only responsible for the crimes it carries out once asylum seekers arrive in our country; it also plays a major part in the root causes of immigration flows.