Britain is hell for refugees

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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST plane-load of Kosovan Albanian refugees is due to fly home from Britain today. It's time for us to feel pleased with ourselves again, isn't it? Britain is the country that welcomed these desperate families; Britain is the country that made their homeland safe again for their return.

But if we warm ourselves too eagerly at that story we are in danger of deluding ourselves about the way Britain treats refugees who come from countries that do not have the immediate hold on our imagination and sympathy that Kosovo briefly did. As the new Immigration and Asylum Bill passes on its way through the House of Lords, we should be clear-sighted about the kind of welcome that most asylum seekers can expect in Britain.

Even during the political and media debate about the new Bill, few voices have been raised against the practice of detaining refugees. And yet detention has become a mainstay of the Government's policy on asylum seekers, and the numbers of refugees who are locked up rise all the time. If it's a subject that's gone away in the media, it certainly hasn't gone away for those who are locked up.

About 800 asylum seekers at any one time are kept in detention centres or prisons in Britain. They live in a legal limbo, with no idea why they were chosen for detention and no idea when they will be released, waiting in hope of a bail hearing or in terror of a deportation order. The callous, arbitrary way that detention is used is obvious if you look at just a couple of individual cases. For one current detainee, it has even involved separation from her young son, a trauma from which neither of them will easily recover.

I visited this particular asylum seeker, whom we'll call Clare, in Tinsley House, a detention centre near Gatwick Airport. It's called a detention centre, but once you've negotiated the steel gates and heavy doors and been searched and frisked and sent through the metal detector you feel more as if you're visiting a prison. This is where Clare has been living for seven weeks, and she has no idea when she will be free to walk out of those steel gates. Clare arrived in Britain from Congo (formerly Zaire) with her one-year-old son in 1993 and applied for asylum. When she moved house, she missed a Home Office interview. One day at the end of May this year the police caught up with her. They took her to the police station, kept her there for two days, and then sent her to Tinsley House. That was on 2 June.

Over the last seven weeks, Clare has only seen her son twice. He is staying with her cousin. As we talk, Clare returns over and over again to the horror of being without him. "He came here twice but this is not a good place to visit. Now he is sick. He isn't eating. Our GP is very worried - he has written to the immigration office to say that my son is so scared that I've gone away that it's making him ill. He is only seven. He doesn't understand why I am here." I ask Clare what the worst thing is about being in detention. "Missing my son. When I left the Congo I took him. We only had each other. I am always with him. This is what is paining me. That is the only thing that is affecting me here. I just want to be with my son."

Even if the authorities thought that Clare was likely to disappear, there are more humane ways of keeping tabs on a young mother than by locking her up indefinitely without her son.

If you think it's appropriate to imprison her, think of what she and her son went through before they even got to Britain. She left the Congo because her father was involved in political activities. She wants to tell me about what happened to her then, but her voice sometimes gets choked off by tears. "One day soldiers came and arrested all of us and took us away in a lorry to a prison. They beat me and raped me and they even hit my son." When she got on the aeroplane to leave, she hoped that their ordeals were over.

Although organisations such as Amnesty International and the UN High Commission for Refugees have been lobbying the government for years to give asylum seekers conventional legal safeguards against arbitrary detention - such as the presumption in favour of liberty that suspected criminals enjoy, and guaranteed legal representation in bail hearings - the Government is actually set to increase the numbers of individuals that are held in detention.

To meet the imminent surge in numbers a new "prison-style" detention centre in Aldington in Kent will be opened to house more refugees in the autumn.

The Government argues that detention is necessary for individuals who have had their applications for asylum refused and are awaiting deportation. That makes some sense, but in fact detention isn't used in that specific way - it is used arbitrarily, and the vast majority of detainees haven't yet had their applications refused. Even the Government admits that people who have suffered torture should not be detained. Its own White Paper on immigration states: "Evidence of a history of torture should weigh strongly in favour of temporary admission or temporary release [ie freedom] while an individual's asylum claim is being considered." But detention is frequently used even against refugees who have suffered torture.

Next to Clare sits Eleanor, a Nigerian woman in her mid-twenties with a quick, clear voice. She and her partner were members of an opposition party in Nigeria. One night the police came looking for her partner. They came to her house, and when they found he wasn't there they took her away. Her face becomes expressionless as she looks back to that terrible time. "They tried to make me tell them where he was hiding. They beat me and tied me up - look." She holds out her right hand. One finger has been broken and has healed at an angle. "I struggled. They raped me. They didn't get the information they wanted. I told them that if they released me I would find him for them. So they released me, and I ran to a friend's house. Then I got out of the country." When Eleanor arrived at Gatwick she was immediately detained, and has now been locked up for eleven months, even though she has told the authorities about her experiences in Nigeria.

I was introduced to both Clare and Eleanor by Women Against Rape. Like many other organisations working in this field, Women Against Rape are feeling overwhelmed by the number of cases that are currently being brought to them, of asylum seekers who are locked up for long periods despite their individual claims on our compassion. And they know that even if they help a couple of individuals to be released and get refugee status, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Naturally, because they are locked up in a foreign country, most detainees are totally invisible and inaudible, unable to access the legal and counselling services they need. "Most women in detention have no one to turn to," says Sian Evans of Women Against Rape.

Conditions inside detention centres are not good for traumatised individuals. The women I met in Tinsley House speak a little about the vindictive attitudes of some of the staff, about the boring food, the limited facilities, the claustrophobic sleeping arrangements (they sleep three or four to a room), the poor medical care available. But what concerns them far more than the conditions here is their pressing, compelling desire just to be free of it all, free of the boredom and humiliation and anguish of being kept like rabbits in a hutch when they are desperate to try to live again. Is that so hard to understand? After all, the right to liberty lies at the very heart of all British law, and only in exceptional circumstances, such as criminal activity, can it be taken from a British national. Only asylum seekers have totally lost that right.

When I ask Eleanor how old she is, she looks at me sadly. "I'm 26," she says. "But sometimes I feel my life is over. If I go back to Nigeria, I think they will kill me. But it is hell here. That's all. It is hell."

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