M. doesn’t want to reveal his identity to protect his family in Iraq.
I met him in one of the few cafés in Nottingham where you’re still allowed to smoke. It’s quite popular with failed asylum seekers.
The first thing you notice about 34 year old M. apart from the immaculate denims, aftershave and strong cigarettes, are his eyes full of tears held back with a crooked smile:
“My secrets drink my blood”, he says.
M. is a poet from Iraqi Kurdistan. In prison at the age of 16 he heard a teenage boy being gang raped in the cell next to him. “He was shouting and screaming and I was thinking they were going to do that to me next.” Of all his memories, this haunts him the most.
M. is a socialist. And this makes him a target now in Kurdistan. But the British authorities do not believe his story.
A lifelong political writer and activist, M. was been jailed six times and tortured for associating with Communists and speaking out against the abuses of the Kurdish nationalist parties (KDP and PUK) and Muslim extremists. There’s an arrest warrant out for him at home. Now an illegal immigrant in Nottingham, he could face deportation.
It’s a bit like living on death row in the community.
The government’s now determined to force people like M. whose appeals have failed, back to Iraq, in spite of UN advice to the contrary.
“For the integrity of our asylum system” according to a statement of 20th November, it sent 15 back just before Christmas,
Like several thousand other Iraqis living illegally in Britain, M. could be forced onto a plane at any time. But if sent back, he’s convinced he’d be killed.
The Home Office insists would-be deportees “are taken forward on a case by case basis and only to areas assessed to be sufficiently stable and where we are satisfied that the individuals concerned will not be at risk”. And yet it’s under pressure to meet its failed end of year target of ‘forced removals’ as soon as possible.
“M’s case is an incredibly strong example of the suffering that Iraqi refugees have gone through and the obvious inhumanity of returning them in the current circumstances”, says Tim Finch, Communications Director of the Refugee Council.
His extraordinary story appears to show a government department not only rushed or mistaken in its dealings with asylum seekers, but cruel, cynical and abominably ignorant of the risks.
At the age of 18 M. watched government forces take his father and three sisters away in the back of a lorry, He has a recurring dream of his sister reaching out for him and crying for help. He never saw them again. 83 members of his family died in the Anfil Operation – the genocide of Kurds who resisted Iraqi policies of suppressing their native tongue and culture.
“As a boy, everything was forbidden – our clothes, our language, we were persecuted all the time. The government tried to delete us on the map”. He describes the Kurdish struggle in his poetry:
“Like a blanket of algae on a dry river bed, its colour changed, we rise, hard and ugly”.
He was held in B’aquba prison for three months for joining the PUK where he was beaten, kicked, punched and tortured with electric shocks and ‘falaka’ (being held upside down).
As a student, he and some idealistic friends set up their own communist party to try to change things – they demanded an end to repression, equality for women and human rights. Naturally he came under attack from all sides - PUK, KDP and Islamist Parties, not to mention the Ba’ath Party.
At the age of 22 he was arrested and tortured twice. He was shown mutilated body parts - a nose, ear eye, pieces of limbs. But he was released after public protests - already well known as a poet and critic of the authorities.
He decided to leave the Communist Party and write for magazines. For a brief spell, he was celebrated, well paid, had his own flat and car and had an audience with the Prime Minister. But following the TV broadcast of a controversial political essay, he was re-arrested.
“They made me promise I wouldn’t write again. Many times they threatened, tried to assassinate me” he remembers.
But M. continued to speak out about the authorities. He was described recently at a public meeting in England by a fellow Kurd as “the bravest man I ever met”.
After falling foul of the authorities again in the year 2000, M. went into hiding. A few days later KDP security forces arrived at his cousin’s house with another arrest warrant and kicked down the door. He couldn’t face jail for a seventh time. He managed to get smuggled out of Iraq and travel to England in the back of a lorry. The journey cost him US $ 5000.
You don’t often see asylum seekers in the grounds of Newstead Abbey. But on a grey day last autumn, M. was invited out there for the day by one of his English friends, a successful poet and his former neighbour, Peter Didsbury. M. is moved to see the home of one of his most cherished writers, Byron. And by the gleaming peacocks which take an interest in him – these are mythical birds in his homeland. Even they have more freedom than he has.
“He was overjoyed when he first arrived”, remembers Peter wistfully. “He thought he’d be safe because he had read so many English writers, and regarded it as the home of literature and the home of freedom. Now I feel desperately ashamed and disappointed that it isn’t proving to be the case for him.”
Peter helped get M’s poems translated into English and published in a respected contemporary journal. M. got in touch with a law firm to make his claim.
Shockingly his statement was taken in the back of a car by an interpreter, with no solicitor present. Then the British authorities put him up in shared accommodation with his worst political enemies - Muslim asylum seekers who attacked him and threatened him with a knife.
Unlike most asylum seekers, M. has impressive evidence to back up his claims: a copy of the arrest warrant urging “all responsible organizations of the KDP to arrest and punish…the criminal…as he stands firmly against our party”; a letter from the Workers Communist Party verifying his history, expert medical assessments confirming that he was tortured, traumatised and is mentally unfit to return, and even video footage of him addressing a crowd of supporters at a poetry reading.
But the Home Office representative at the Adjudication of his appeal case didn’t buy any of it. They dismissed his case. The doctor’s report said the perforation of both M’s eardrums was the result of torture “on the balance of probabilities”, not definitely; they didn’t believe a statement could be taken in the back of a car; “no weight” should be given to the arrest warrant as its date was ambiguous. Finally they said M. couldn’t have been “famous, as he claims” because that the video was “clearly home made”. Their conclusion was that he wouldn’t be “of any interest to the authorities”.
“They were teasing me,” M. says of the people in court. “I was taking medicine at the time and was very sick and I cried. I told the judge, I’m not going to beg you, but if you don’t believe me, at least believe the tears that come from my eyes, at least believe as a human being, someone who lost members of its family”.
“They seemed to be determined to refuse him” says Peter, baffled. ” But Konnie Lloyd from the Nottingham Refugee Campaign Group has been in court many times and says the Home Office staff sound as though they’re briefed simply to find inconsistencies, in order to dismiss cases. She says, as statements are taken when the asylum seeker is at they’re most disoriented, just as they arrive, traumatized, exhausted and terrified after a harrowing journey, it’s not surprising mistakes are made. Sometimes a date of birth looks ‘wrong’, because the calendar is different.
“They go through the statements with a toothcomb, and are told to root them out, root them out, root them out!” she says.
It can’t be proved that M’s statement was taken in the back of the car, because his solicitors went out of business shortly afterwards, accused of malpractice. But he’s sure the interpreter in court made mistakes in his translation, although the Adjudicator wouldn’t accept that, telling him it was all too easy to blame things on the interpreter. But on top of it all is the humiliation of the experience:
“I think it’s horrible that someone who lost everything , crying and just ask to stay, is just teased. It’s not human. We’re not living in the jungle, this is a modern country, this is England. Where are the human rights?” asks M.
A lone silver haired woman with crystal clear eyes, Konnie stands outside Nottingham Central Police station. She waits with a pen and paper to greet asylum seekers as they go routinely to sign in for Immigration.
”We’re here because sometimes people go to sign in and they don’t come out. They’re whisked off out the back in handcuffs, and we can go in and enquire inside and at least there’s someone who knows they haven’t come out again.”
She’s witnessed this several times: bewildered families waiting on the steps outside while their loved ones, sometimes teenagers, are driven away to detention centres. “Must children be handcuffed as well?” she asks.
Asylum seekers have been spotted sleeping in rubbish bins in Nottingham. In most cities they rely on ‘destitution funds’ set up by volunteers to feed them. “You can’t live off thin air” says Konnie angrily.
On top of that are the well-documented delays and confusion arising from constant changing of the rules. We’re the first European country to have a law which says you can still be deported even if you’re married with kids to a legal citizen. God help you if, like most asylum seekers, you arrive with physical or mental health problems such as depression and post traumatic stress disorder. You’re in a kind of limbo, breathing borrowed air, waiting to be removed, for an indeterminate number of years.
The government remains secretive about all this. In response to press enquiries about the 15 people removed in November it said,
“The Home Office will not confirm when this happened or from which airport. It’s not putting anyone up to speak on the subject.” Why won’t it release names of the people sent back, if it’s safe for them? Clearly it can’t afford the political fall out if anything happens to them.
I tried to talk to a spokeswoman on the phone from my kitchen at home. She says the government will send Iraqis back to ‘safe areas,’ yet cannot tell me which areas she thinks are safe. When I ask her how people like M. are supposed to live, she says in a cruelly sarcastic tone, revealing much more than any statement by the department,
“Oh you mean because they kind of “haven’t got round” to going back?”
We become blasé. Konnie believes most of us just can’t imagine the horror asylum seekers have gone through. So when an Iranian girl tells a court how at 15 she’d been punished with 99 lashes for kissing a boy, the Adjudicator didn’t believe her either. “They don’t know what it’s like to live in fear, says Konnie. “It’s totally outside their experience”.
However, independent experts agree the situation in Kurdistan could be life-threatening for someone like M.
Warzones specialist, Nottingham Trent University International Relations lecturer Dr Ces Moore, thinks it would be “crazy” for him to go back:
” It would be a very dangerous thing to do, especially considering the fluid situation in Kurdistan, with different groups vying for power”.
Yet the government has sent people back to Irbil. Where is it getting it intelligence from?
“I think the Home Office does not have eyes”, says M. “It listens to the Kurdish party, everything is nice, but doesn’t see what’s happening now in Kurdistan. When a Home Office representative goes there, they are not shown how the Kurdish party tortures Kurdish people, standing there throwing stones until that person dies. The Home Office never has and doesn’t want to see that”.
As an ex-Communist, M’s life would be in danger, according to Sam Azad from the Kurdish Refugees Organisation :
“What he stands for is completely against the status quo in Iraq and what the nationalist parties are doing. People like M have blown the whistle on the atrocities. There’s definitely no possibility for such a person to survive. There’s total lawlessness and warlords have their own assassins. Last summer, two of our comrades were murdered when they were getting into their car”.
M. has been living in the shadows for 5 years, going illegally from one factory job to another, packing food for a paltry wage to help keep our supermarket prices down. He has no rights at all. What is this country going to do with him?
He lights another cigarette and sums up the existence of a failed asylum seeker:.
“Wasting your life. Because one person doesn’t believe you. What are you going to believe in any more? I’ve never been happy in all my life. But despite that, I try to carry on, and carry on”.
“We could manage the situation,” says Konnie of the British system, “We don’t need to be so hostile about it”. Asylum seekers here are only a few thousand people – two percent of the world’s refugees – most of them are in camps in poor countries. When we mistreat them and don’t give them opportunities it’s no surprise they turn to crime and drugs”.
Unlike the millions of tourists who we absorb every year, using our toilets, crowding our buses, who go away and leave nothing behind, asylum seekers offer talents skills and hard work. “Teachers regularly report that children are keen, hardworking and have lots of offer,” says Konnie.
Peter says he hopes for M. what he hopes for himself, “that he will be able after five years of being in limbo, to settle down and further his education and his writing and live an ordinary life”
“ I came here with hopes, to make a new life, to improve language, teach, I had lots of plans”, says M. “I thought, at least I can live like a human being. But I have nothing, no support from anywhere. Of course I want to go back to my mother and live peacefully. But if I go back, I go back to jail. And they‘re going to torture me again.”
He walks away from the coffee bar and melts into the crowd.
It seems M’s choices are to die, disappear or keep trying to tell his story – if his spirit hasn’t been completely extinguished.