October 13-20th 2008
NO DIRECTION HOME – PART II
Following last week’s look at the situation of Iraqi refugees in the Middle East, Leigh Singer examines what fate awaits those who reach the UK and how the government deals with the contentious issue of asylum seekers.
In the end, Fazzel Abdul’s hunger strike lasted just nine days. The failing health of some of the fifty-odd men, all asylum seekers protesting at their treatment at Campsfield Detention Centre, Oxfordshire, and the lack of any media coverage whatsoever, made it inevitable. Their anger and despair, however, remained.
“I hope the Home Office to look me [sic] like a human being, to release me from detention,” Fazzel, 34, the leader of the Campsfield group told me by phone in early September. “Iraq is not safe. Many times we have complained but no one does anything. I can’t see any human rights in Britain.”
Sadly Fazzel’s worst fears were confirmed. On September 15th, he and around 60 other Iraqi asylum seekers were rounded up, handcuffed and put on a plane bound for Erbil, Northern Iraq. Fazzel smashed an aeroplane window. The flight was cancelled and Fazzel allegedly badly beaten. Two days later, he was successfully deported.
On August 11th Husain Ali, 35, another failed asylum seeker from Kirkuk, was picked up in Swansea and taken to Orpington Detention Centre. Mere days later he was sent home. “After two days he phoned me,” remembers his brother Salman, still in the UK, “he was really upset and sad – he was different over there.” Later that day, Husain killed himself.
Gulzar Mohamad, 53, is also still in Britain. In hiding in Kurdistan for many years after her second husband was killed by someone in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) for criticising the organisation’s leadership, eventually she fled, ending up in the UK. Gulzar believes she faces significant danger from PUK reprisals if she were forced to go back; yet her asylum claim was rejected and, while she awaits a solicitor to take up her case, has at times been reduced to sleeping on a park bench.
The conclusion of Fazzel Abdul and Hussein Ali’s encounter, and Gulzar Mohamad’s ongoing struggle, with the British asylum system may be extreme but their experiences to avoid being sent back to Iraq, where they believed their lives would be in danger (Fazzel claimed his entire family were killed in 2003), are, say critics, all-too typical.
“There are so many faults on the system,” says Jan Shaw, Programme Director for Refugee Affairs at Amnesty International. “In 2002 there was an enormous increase in the number of people applying for asylum, almost 100,000, and it scared people rigid. People from countries where there was significant human rights abuse used to be given Exceptional Leave to Remain. That was withdrawn in 2002 and since that time there has been almost no discretion or compassion or flexibility in the system.”
Fazzel Abdul’s fractured account of his treatment on first arriving in Britain attests to this. He paid his life savings to a trafficker and escaped, as did Gulzar, in a lorry via Turkey. “It wasn’t the plan to come to Britain,” he said, “just any place to save my life.” He applied for asylum and was immediately put into detention.
“I couldn’t speak English and needed a translator but had one not with my original language, I didn’t understand him. I told them completely my story and complained about my interview that nobody listened to me. After three days they straightaway refuse me.”
Hasty and harsh rulings appear to be common. Dave Smith, founder of the BOAZ Trust, a Christian organisation serving destitute asylum seekers in the North West of England cites a recent 28-year old Iraqi woman BOAZ has been helping. “We were told her whole family are dead, blown up by a suicide bomber,” he details, “and yet she’s been refused asylum, which seems bizarre to me.”
The Catch-22 is this: to qualify for asylum, you need to prove you are individually at risk; but if your country is at war, that’s a general, not personal, risk. You don’t count.
In many countries daily life has long been near untenable: Somalia, Zimbabwe, Darfur, Afghanistan. Many Iraqis believe their country also falls into this category. Since war began in 2003, some 4.7 million people have been displaced. Despite their government’s claims that it is now safe to return, insurgency and sectarian violence is still rife and the continuing exodus would appear to back this up. By the end of 2007, Iraqis comprised the largest number of asylum claims to the UK, representing an increase of 105 per cent over the same period in the previous year.
“If the government is prepared to say it’s safe, give us some evidence to prove it,” counters Tim Finch of the Refugee Council. “Our position is that the most important thing for any individual is the safety of their own life. You can’t guarantee it but there ought to be a presumption that if you’re sending someone back they can get on and have a safe life. And if you can’t do that, the humane thing to do would be to wait a bit.”
Those rejected for their asylum application have the right to appeal, and indeed latest figures show that around 20% get their decision overturned each month. Unfortunately this process can take years, and given the efforts made to get here in the first place, who would turn back at the first hurdle? In the meantime, despite being denied the right to work or study, many refugees go on to build new lives in this country. “If you go back,” insists Salman Ali who’s now been here six years, “it’s a different world, different people,”
For those rejected by the system even after appeal, who refuse to return to homelands they feel to be unsafe, the options are limited. The British government provides Section 4 support to those who can prove “you are taking all reasonable steps to leave the United Kingdom or placing yourself in a position where you can do so.” Those who don’t sign up to this pledge, receive nothing.
Opponents call this enforced destitution. According to Alan Thornton from Church Action on Poverty, another Christian group campaigning on asylum seekers’ behalf, “if you don’t go voluntarily, we’ll try and starve you out the country.” Unable to even qualify for homeless programmes, many rejected asylum seekers, if not helped by the network of fellow, often equally impoverished, refugees, end up on the streets.
The Home Office’s official statement paints a very different picture. “Our asylum system is humane and compassionate,” it declares, also noting its Gateway Protection Programme, “committed to resettling 1000 Iraqi refugees over the next two years,” as well as the Return and Rebuild Project, providing Iraqis and Afghans with up to £2000 for renovation of their main family home. With this in mind, they make it very clear that, “We do not accept that it is unsafe for Iraqis to return home.”
Their position isn’t universally popular. Retorts Tim Finch: “The Home Secretary and the Immigration Ministers’ primary political imperative is to drive asylum numbers down, increase the number of returns, get the system working faster and get the right-wing press off their back.”
Even government critics, though, welcome – cautiously - the introduction of the New Asylum Model (NAM), whose ambitious aims include giving every case a single case owner and concluding (i.e granting or removing) 90% of new asylum applications in six months by 2011.
As for the recent past, The Home Office proudly states that 3300 Iraqis voluntarily returned home between 2000-2007; yet according to Dashty Jamal of the International Federation for Iraqi Refugees, between 10-12000, applied for asylum in the last five years. Those already mired in the system remain desperate. And the joint campaign Still Human, Still Here quotes National Audit Office estimates that even at the present rate it would take fourteen years to clear the backlog, at a cost of almost £3.2 billion.
Not every asylum seeker’s claim is valid. Some people, without reservation, should be able to return home. And numbers have dropped dramatically – 2007’s 20,000 applicants was a six-fold decrease on 2002’s highpoint.
Perhaps the real question in relation to Iraqi refugees is, having been heavily involved in contributing to the country’s current instability, what role should the UK play now? “Most British people get that the situation in Iraq is partly of our own making,” argues Tim Finch, “and so a responsibility to refugees from that situation is something we ought to bear in mind.”
While organisations like Refugee Council provide support, even meals for destitute asylum seekers, and groups like BOAZ and Church Action on Poverty try to keep people off the streets, there is clearly a long way to go to fully deal with a problem that won’t simply disappear, and people who simply believe they cannot go home.
“Nobody is listening, that’s the problem,” explains Salman Ali. “I haven’t got benefit, can’t work – I’m just doing what people call “black work”, because if I don’t do that I would go into selling the drugs and thieving. I’m not that man but I need to survive. I’m waiting to start my life again.”
For more information on this issue, visit the following websites:
International Federation for Iraqi Refugees – www.csdiraq.com,
Refugee Council – www.refugeecouncil.org.uk,
Still Human, Still Here - www.stilhuman.org.uk,
and the Home Office site http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/asylum/process
Photography: Claudia Leisinger