Human rights and the UK asylum system

October 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

The news this week that the events leading up to asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga’s death on a deportation flight on 12 October 2010 were entirely different to those given in the Home Office’s account of the incident is, unfortunately, not very surprising.

This is certainly not the first time the private security firm G4S has been in the media spotlight as a result of mistreatment suffered by deportees at the hands of G4S security personnel. Claims of abuse suffered by deportees on deportation flights are routinely dismissed by the Home Office as inaccurate and misleading, with very little attempt made to actually investigate the claims. The difference this time is, because Jimmy Mubenga died on a scheduled flight with other passengers on it, rather than on a charter deportation flight, there were witnesses who saw how the events unfolded and were thus able to challenge the official account. Otherwise, this would still be an “accidental” death caused by Mubenga suddenly falling ill prior to the flight.

The fact is, the UK government wants to be able to deport as many asylum seekers as possible, as quickly as possible. It’s not too fussy about human rights when it comes to getting things done. It’s also not very fussy about where it sends people back to. In the past year, despite opposition from the UNHCR, the UK has tried to send people back to Iraq and concocted a plan to forcibly return asylum seeking minors to “rehabilitation centres” in Afghanistan, not to mention the routine forced deportations of failed asylum seekers from various trouble spots in sub-Saharan Africa.

The New Asylum Model, introduced in April 2006, aims to speed up the asylum process so that decisions on claims are made within a maximum of 6 months. While on first glance the idea of speeding up the asylum process seems like a positive step, it doesn’t at all take into account the significant trauma that the majority of asylum seekers have gone through prior to and during their journey to the UK. It doesn’t take into account the difficulty of sharing such trauma with a complete stranger before you’re had time to process it yourself. It doesn’t take into account the fact that people make themselves “forget” in order to be able to get on with their lives. In a nutshell the logic of the New Asylum Model is simply this: faster processing = faster deportation.

The various tactics employed – turning up to detain and deport people without prior warning, preventing them from contacting their legal representatives and friends, hiring private security firms like G4S to do the dirty work, using chartered flights at odd times of the day to carry out deportations – are all means to this one end. Get people out the country before others – whether individuals, legal representatives or organisations – have the chance to do anything about it.

The attempted deportation of 10 Iraqi asylum seekers
in June this year is a case in point – government lawyers asked high-court lawyers to refuse to consider “last-minute” judicial reviews of asylum cases “because of the complexities, practicalities and costs involved in arranging charter flights.” Of course, the reason last–minute judicial reviews are necessary at all is because the people being deported are not given enough – if any – advance warning that they are about to shipped out so have no way of contacting their legal representatives beforehand.

This recent investigation by The Independent documents instances of physical and verbal abuse as well as the so-called “control techniques” routinely used during removals. It seems that any concept of the human rights appears to go out the window when there’s time and money at stake. Money, mainly. Money seems to be the crux of the matter.

UK politicians and media claim that immigration (including asylum seekers) is a drain on our resources and finances. But our current asylum system appears determined to ignore simple facts:

1 – Asylum seekers on the whole DO NOT choose to come to the UK for benefits, most of them don’t even know where they’re going – they pay someone, hide somewhere, and arrive (if they’re lucky).

2 – Asylum seekers are often highly qualified – doctors, lawyers, politicians, activists – we can use their skills, instead of forcing them to live on benefits that barely cover the cost of basic subsistence.

4 – Deportation flights are ridiculously expensive, psychologically damaging and, particularly in cases where people are being returned to unsafe countries, inhumane.

Basically, it would be a lot more cost-effective to allow asylum seekers to work and use their skills. From my experience of working at Scottish Refugee Council, most volunteer in various roles in order to help others in similar situations, in order to take their minds off their experiences, in order to be doing something. Allowing asylum seekers to work would take any financial strain off the state, generate a fair amount in tax money and help them to start integrating socially and economically into their new communities. And that last point is the problem. While we hear debate after debate about immigrants (generic) failing to integrate properly, keeping to themselves, etc etc, when it comes to asylum seekers, the government doesn’t WANT them to integrate. It wants to send them home, as quickly and easily as possible.

A colleague on a training course said that he’d heard of an instance where an asylum seeker had received a letter from his case owner informing him that his claim has been rejected because he had said that he feared guerrilla attack and, “after consulting with the WWF (yes, the World Wildlife Fund), we do not think there are any guerrillas in your area.” Admittedly, my colleague wasn’t sure if this story was true or not, but added that he wouldn’t be surprised if it were. The aim of our current asylum system is not to provide protection and safety, but to wash our hands off as many cases as possible.

So how do we create a more effective asylum system that doesn’t penalise people from the start, that doesn’t assume immediately that people are lying about their experiences? How can the UK better fulfil its obligations under the Refugee Convention?

The obvious answer would be to start by reconceptualising the way we perceive asylum seekers from the top down – from policy makers to the media to the general public. Unless the real reason for our illogical system is an underlying racism, a desire to “preserve” some undefined nugget of so-called “Britishness”, we should be prepared to have our ideas challenged by the facts… no?

Why is boycott a dirty word?

October 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

(first posted on Political Dynamite, 10/10/2010)

It seems that the very concept of boycott, sanctions and divestment in relation to Israel makes people back off. Why? We know that boycotts can work. We know it takes time for change to happen – the struggle against apartheid in South Africa took decades. But it succeeded.

Boycotts are a non-violent form of grassroots resistance, something small that anyone can participate in, that can make everyone feel capable of making a difference. And they hit the place where it hurts the hardest – the economy. Surely BDS should then be something that would appeal to people campaigning for peace? In any case, surely calling it an illegitimate tactic is unfair?

Caterpillar protest London, copyright Stop The Wall

I’m not by any means suggesting that all concerns about the BDS movement are baseless. Certainly, I don’t think representatives have always been clear in their aims – there is a strain in the Palestine Solidarity movement that makes a lot more noise than it does sense. The problem, as with anything, is that those who shout the loudest tend to get more coverage. In fact, I completely understand some of the criticisms of BDS. For example, I am sceptical of the wisdom behind saying that Israeli politicians shouldn’t be allowed into Britain. I believe that everyone should have a chance to make their point – no matter how unsavoury their arguments might be. I am equally sceptical of the arguments that Ahmadinejad should be banned or the BNP prevented from participating in public debate. I also think that the fear that boycott may isolate Israelis and stifle debate is legitimate, at least in the short-term. I am well aware that several (not all) Israeli and Jewish groups pushing for an end to occupation consider BDS to be a hindrance rather than a help and, again, in the short term, I think their concerns are right. However, I think that in the long-term, the BDS movement is the only real opportunity we as campaigners have to push for a peaceful resolution. I also think the BDS movement needs to be clearer about WHAT it is boycotting.

By divesting from/boycotting those institutions, organisations and businesses that either publically support, prop-up (financially or otherwise) or profit from the occupation, we make an explicit statement that we won’t accept the continuation of the situation as it stands. The academic and cultural boycott – though not unproblematic – aims to make a stand against the continued stifling of Palestinian academia, culture and sport, the restrictions on movement which all Palestinians, including academics, artists and athletes, are subject to.

Sanctions are a tool which the international community has used repeatedly as a means of pushing individual states to respect international law – why are they never used in relation to Israel? Given the recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza, surely an arms embargo would be sensible? We, the international community, have spent too long trying to pacify Israel. We say “stop building the settlements”, “the wall is illegal”, “don’t use white phosphorous” – but when Israel ignores us, we don’t back up our words with actions. That’s why the BDS movement is important. It means that the international community no longer has to rely on its leaders to do something. We can use this active, non-violent tactic to make a point.

None of the aspects of BDS have anything to do with delegitimizing Israel’s ‘right to exist’*. Rather, the movement is about refusing to accept that it is legitimate for Israel to claim that, in order for it to exist as a state, it has to maintain the occupation and continue to restrict Palestinians in all aspects of their daily lives. Of course BDS won’t work on its own, but it does play a significant role in putting pressure on Israel to work towards peace.

Far from cutting links with Israeli society as a whole, the BDS movement should be a way for Palestinian and international anti-occupation/ peace campaigners to build links with their Israeli counterparts, thus enabling us to create a stronger, more cohesive movement for peace. We need to work on making this happen, but it should be one of the core aims. Israeli and Palestinian campaigners need the support of international activist groups in order to strengthen their calls for change. I don’t think we all need to agree on whether BDS works in order to work together – we simply need to agree that we are all, in different ways, working towards a just, practical solution for all involved.

Many people argue that it’s hypocritical to target Israel. What about all the other countries committing human rights abuses around the world? This is one argument I can’t countenance. I find the “but everyone else is doing it too!” argument unforgivably childish. So what? If everyone else is in the wrong does that make it justifiable? Should we just all sit back and let everyone get on with doing whatever they want because we can’t “single out” any one of them? I’m tired of hearing “Why Israel? What about Iran/Egypt/Saudi Arabia?”(it’s always the same list of countries…), and to be completely honest, I just don’t understand the logic. Demanding Israel abides by its obligations under international law is not the same as turning a blind eye to violations committed in China or Iran or Sudan or Saudi. I would hope the majority of campaigners can see this and are able to speak out against injustice regardless of who the perpetrators are.

It’s late, and I fear I might start getting more and more long-winded. Let me leave you with the transcript of this highly articulate roundtable discussion on BDS led by Rabbi Michael Lerner and the Director of Jewish Voice for Peace, Rebecca Vilkomerson.

* I use inverted commas because I’m not sure any state has a ‘right to exist’. I believe people have the right to self-determination, but that’s not necessarily the same thing.

Wanders – Petra, Jordan (June 08) and Lebanon (August 08)

October 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

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