Britain’s hidden horror: the abuse of asylum seekers

Edit: It is What About The Menz Wednesday. Today’s post is by David Neale.

In a country which is supposedly committed to human rights, it’s time to stop ignoring Britain’s hidden horror: the violence and cruelty inflicted by the British state on those who come to this country to claim asylum. This is a population which includes women fleeing rape, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and other abuses; lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people fleeing countries where their very identities are criminalized; children fleeing war zones; and political and religious dissidents fleeing torture and forced disappearance. All too often, after arriving on Britain’s shores, asylum-seekers are traumatized a second time – this time by our own government. The British authorities treat asylum-seekers as though they were criminals, detain them in privately-run “immigration removal centres”, and frequently refuse to believe their testimony about what has happened to them. Many asylum-seekers face forcible return to their countries of origin.

The asylum claims process is notorious for its unfairness, and it strips asylum-seekers of dignity, often forcing traumatized people to describe the most horrific events in their lives to unsympathetic interviewers. Women often suffer the most. Kim-Ly, a Vietnamese asylum-seeker who had been trafficked into Britain and forced into sex work, was forced to tell an interviewer about her traumatic past in a public interview room at the Asylum Screening Unit in Croydon, in front of other asylum-seekers. Since there are no childcare facilities at asylum screening centres, her children were with her throughout the interview. Later, at her substantive asylum interview, her interpreter was a man despite her express request for a woman. In common with the vast majority of asylum claims, Kim-Ly’s was refused. Louise Perrett, a whistleblower formerly employed at the UK Border Agency’s asylum office in Cardiff, revealed that many staff making decisions on asylum claims were deeply prejudiced against asylum-seekers, with one manager even saying “If it were up to me I’d take them all outside and shoot them.” Caseworkers were pressured by management to refuse even meritorious asylum claims. Asylum claims are routinely refused on the basis of minor inconsistencies in the asylum-seeker’s testimony – even where asylum-seekers are known to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses.

Some asylum-seekers are allocated to the “Detained Fast Track” after their arrival in the UK, meaning that they are immediately detained in immigration removal centres while their claims are processed, and have only a short time to gather evidence and prepare for their hearings from inside a detention facility. Others are arrested and detained “pending removal” after their claims have been refused. Many women detainees are held at the infamous Yarl’s Wood facility in Bedfordshire, run by the private contractor Serco Group, which was the scene of a hunger strike in 2010 by more than fifty women – many of them rape survivors – protesting the inhuman conditions of their detention. Detention centre guards responded by “kettling” the women in corridors without access to water, toilets or medical facilities. The detention facilities for men are no better: Nigerian detainee Prince Ofosu died at the Harmondsworth immigration removal centre after reportedly being beaten and abused by a guard. Although torture survivors and people with serious illnesses are not supposed to be detained, this policy is routinely flouted in practice. Bail for Immigration Detainees warns of a mental health crisis in immigration detention, and self-harm among detainees is not uncommon. In at least one case the UK Border Agency has deliberately sought to worsen the health of a mentally ill asylum-seeker.

The situation is particularly severe for LGBT asylum-seekers, many of whom come from countries where gay relationships are illegal and where those who are openly LGBT face the daily threat of violence. In theory, LGBT asylum-seekers who face the threat of homophobic or transphobic violence are entitled to international protection, as Britain’s Supreme Court has confirmed. But most of the time, authorities simply refuse to believe that asylum-seekers are telling the truth about their sexuality or gender identity, demanding evidence that they cannot provide. Clare Bennett’s study showed that immigration tribunal judges often demonstrate profound ignorance about the lives of LGBT people in the developing world, asking lesbian asylum-seekers inappropriate questions such as whether they have read Oscar Wilde or attended gay pride parades, and refusing to accept that asylum-seekers are “really” LGBT if they do not fit into preconceived stereotypes. One immigration lawyer says that some asylum-seekers even feel pressured to film themselves having sex in order to prove their sexuality.

The ignorance and prejudice of decision-makers can have deadly consequences. Jackie Nanyonjo was a lesbian woman from Uganda who sought asylum in the UK. In common with most asylum-seekers, her claim was refused, the Home Office and the Tribunal refusing to believe that she was “really” a lesbian. She was imprisoned at Yarl’s Wood, and after her appeal against the decision was unsuccessful, she was put on a flight to Uganda in early 2013. Knowing that she would face violence in Uganda for being an open lesbian, she resisted: in response, her guards, employees of the private contractor Reliance, beat her so severely that she later died of her injuries. She is not the first person to be killed by British immigration enforcement: Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan man, died on a charter flight in 2010 at the hands of private contractor G4S. Nor is Jackie the only LGBT person to be returned by force to a country where she was forced into hiding. The Movement for Justice, a group campaigning for the rights of LGBT asylum-seekers, has organized multiple campaigns for lesbian women facing removal to countries like Uganda and The Gambia.

The situation is only going to get worse. The British government has recently announced a consultation on legal aid cuts which could lead to many migrants being deprived of access to legal aid. Although asylum-seekers will in theory be exempted from the new 12-month “legal residence requirement”, the cutback in legal aid will affect asylum-seekers whose appeals have been unsuccessful but who wish to make fresh representations to the Home Office with new evidence, as well as failed asylum-seekers who are seeking to stop their removal on other grounds, such as those who have family ties in the UK. The changes to funding of judicial review cases will also have a serious impact on many migrants, for whom judicial review is often the last resort to prevent deportation or removal.

It is time to ask ourselves: why are we doing this? Why do we “need” an immigration enforcement system to inflict violence on people – overwhelmingly people of colour from the developing world, and many of them vulnerable and traumatized – merely because they were not born citizens in affluent Western countries? Few people seem to question why we have a system in which people are denied full equality and civil rights because of the accident of birth. As feminists, as LGBT rights activists, and as people dedicated to challenging oppressive systems, it’s time to start questioning it.

David Neale is a law student in the UK who intends to practice immigration and asylum law.

3 Thoughts on “Britain’s hidden horror: the abuse of asylum seekers

  1. Dear (nonexistent) God in Heaven, what are people thinking? The human tragedy of these stories would bring a better response if they were known, I hope! Have you thought of teaming up with an ambitious reporter who can get these stories before the public?

    I feel that we would be better off if we dismissed all immigration status reviewers and hired new ones by random lottery from the general public.

  2. Or better yet, we could (and should) abolish all immigration controls. No one should be denied equal civil rights because of the accident of birth. (I intend to expand on this argument in a later post.)

    And yes, I’m aiming to get the word out about the human impact of immigration policies. Most of the public are largely ignorant of what happens in the immigration enforcement system. I honestly believe that if the public were better-informed, support for open borders would be much more widespread. I don’t think most people are callous enough to support the deliberate infliction of suffering on migrants: rather, I think most people have been misinformed about immigration by the right-wing media.

  3. The human tragedy of these stories would bring a better response if they were known, I hope!

    these stories are occasionally reported on. they don’t “stick” in people’s brains though. Uncomfortable truths do get filtered out unless and until the constant confrontation with them causes sufficiently painful cognitive dissonance to break down the protective walls around one’s world-view.

    Or shorter: it’s not just a matter of making these stories known; it’s a matter of making them stick, which is much much harder.

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