'They don't torture me, but it's agony'

This man escaped prison in Nigeria only to be locked up here. As the Asylum Bill reaches the Lords, can refugees hope for a better deal? By Louise Jury and Peter Popham
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The Independent Online
The destitute foreign refugee: even the mind of Dickens never conceived such a miserable victim of social injustice, but today in the House of Lords, the Government intends to ensure that such unfortunates are in future as common a feature of our cities as the teenage vagrant.

Keeping a tight grip on asylum-seekers, the Government has clearly decided, makes good political sense. Five months ago, Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, withdrew the right of certain categories of asylum-seekers - those who applied for asylum after arriving in Britain, and those whose initial applications had been rejected - to claim income support and housing benefit.

The projected savings to the Social Security budget of about pounds 300m per year are a drop in the ocean - one-third of 1 per cent of the department's total budget. But the action made good the tub-thumping promises at last year's Conservative Party Conference to come down hard on "bogus" asylum- seekers. And it seems to be working: so far this year, new asylum-seekers are 20 per cent down on last year, reversing a rising trend. The Daily Mail approves; Middle England (it is supposed) applauds.

But is justice being done? And if it is not being done, does anybody care? Or do we have so many problems of our own that concerning ourselves with those of people from faraway countries of which we know little is simply too onerous?

Last week, in its increasingly familiar role as conscience of the state, the judiciary twice condemned Lilley's action in withdrawing entitlements. Ruling that the Government's withdrawal of income support was unlawful, Lord Justice Simon Brown said in the Court of Appeal that the policy would leave some asylum-seekers "so destitute that to my mind no civilised nation can tolerate it". Two days later, the removal of housing benefit was blocked in similar terms.

As usual the Government is unrepentant. Today, as the Asylum Bill - which aims to curb benefits for asylum-seekers - goes through the House of Lords, the Secretary of State will attempt to nail new clauses on to the Bill that will reverse these judges' rulings.

Out in the real world, meanwhile, the effect of the Government's tough new posture on asylum-seekers has already been widely felt. The number of people seeking asylum in Britain has climbed tenfold over the past decade, from 4,389 in 1985 to 43,965 last year. During the debate on the first reading of the new Asylum Bill last December, Michael Howard declared: "Only 4 per cent of those who apply for asylum in this country are successful. The overwhelming majority are not entitled to asylum, are not refugees."

It would be convenient for the Government if this were the case. But although there are plenty of fraudulent applications by people whose motive for leaving home is merely to improve their circumstances, the number of genuine applications has multiplied with the rising incidence of wars and civil strife. The Government tacitly accepts this fact, because although only 4 per cent are granted refugee status, another 22 per cent are granted some form of leave to remain - because their claims on our mercy are well founded.

This means that if the Government is serious about fulfilling its pledge to drive down the numbers of refugees we receive, it must harden its heart to numerous well-founded cases. And this is what it has begun to do.

A Nigerian dissident called Abiodun Igbinidu has been held at Campsfield Detention Centre in Cambridgeshire since 19 June, 1995. Mr Igbinidu is doubly unfortunate in his nationality: like many other Nigerian asylum- seekers, he participated in the Campaign for Democracy, which Nigeria's brutal military regime bloodily suppressed. As a result, he spent three long spells in jail - "To be jailed in Nigeria is almost a death sentence," the Economist said recently, "Dante could have used a prison there to depict the circles of hell" - and during the third spell he was tortured.

But being Nigerian, Mr Igbinidu also belongs to the nation with least- favoured status in Home Office eyes. Nigerian gangs have been notoriously involved in large-scale social security fraud and other criminal activities. Theoretically, that has nothing to do with the Home Office's judgements on asylum applications, which are based on an assessment of political conditions in the country, and which resulted in 100 per cent of Nigerian asylum applicants being turned down last year. The Refugee Council believes that the assessment used by the Home Office presents an acutely distorted picture of political and human rights conditions in Nigeria. It says: "Asylum case officers are likely to disbelieve Nigerians on the basis of this report."

Mr Igbinidu was one of those who has been disbelieved. Arriving in Britain last June, he was promptly sent to Campsfield and, following the new "fast- track" procedures designed to cut the time in which supposedly worthless applications are dealt with, in August his application was rejected.

Mr Igbinidu's is the sort of case that on a superficial reading looks like a clear-cut example of fraud, smartly detected. He entered Britain on a false passport. When stopped, he claimed to be a student. And only when that ruse failed did he claim asylum.

So why is he still here? The reason is that his case, like many others, is not nearly as clear cut as it looks. Many refugees enter Britain on false passports: fleeing for their lives without any documents, it is only by buying false ones en route that they can hope to cross borders. It is refugees who fail to claim asylum at the port of arrival whose right to benefit was withdrawn by Mr Lilley, with the implication that their application was merely a cunning ruse to avoid deportation. Yet many real refugees are far too scared of being refused entry to declare themselves to immigration officials. Most are also unaware of the importance attached by the British Government to immediate declaration. And tacitly the Government accepts that the point at which a would-be refugee asks for asylum is not a useful test of honesty, because over 70 per cent of those eventually granted asylum applied for it once they were in Britain.

Mr Igbinidu, however, has so far been unsuccessful. Yet Home Office attempts to throw him out have been thwarted by the strength of his case. In December, he was granted a month's reprieve from deportation when the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture declared that his claims to have been tortured in prison were credible.

Since then the medical support for his case has mounted further: Christopher Bulstrode, consultant in trauma and orthopaedics at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford examined him at length in May and listened to his graphic descriptions of having been beaten, tied to bars, tortured with dripping water and by having a needle thrust repeatedly into his penis.

Dr Bulstrode concluded: "I found this gentleman's story convincing and compatible, apart from a few minor details ... The minor discrepancies ... are completely outweighed by the extraordinary clarity of his story ... In my opinion ... this man has been tortured ... He also appears to me to be a man who had no discernible interest in coming to the UK, but who had every reason to need to leave Nigeria in fear for his life ..."

Last month, more eminent medical voices, including Sir Richard Doll, professor emeritus of medicine at John Radcliffe Hospital, added their voices to Dr Bulstrode's, and on 26 June the British Medical Association passed an emergency motion at its annual conference condemning the Government's treatment of refugees, and urging doctors to help ensure Britain remained "a place of fair hearing, a civilised society and a safe haven".

Still the Home Office keeps its counsel. Mr Igbinidu remains subject to deportation at any time. And meanwhile the act of Mr Lilley on 5 February of withdrawing income support and housing benefit from large numbers of asylum-seekers is in the process of creating a largely invisible underclass of people who may or may not eventually be welcomed into our society as legitimate refugees, but who in the mean time are condemned to utter destitution.

The Refugee Council believes that up to 3,000 people per month have been affected by the withdrawal of benefits, and when a fraction of these arrived at the council seeking advice and help, it fell to the council's staff to inform them that accommodation and financial support were no longer available. There was shock, tears and anger when the refugees realised that the advice they were being given was to go out on the streets and fend for themselves.

"Initially, we sent some people to the cold-weather shelters for the homeless, but these shut at the end of March," one of the staff said. "After that, many were referred to church halls, but they often didn't have beds or food, and they were not open at weekends, and when the numbers got too many they couldn't cope. So far community groups, housing associations and certain hostels have absorbed many, but as the numbers grow they will no longer be able to do so."

Even when the refugees find a roof, they are completely without funds. Last week, one of the council's caseworkers, Erika, went to the funeral of the stillborn baby of an asylum-seeker from Cameroon whose plight illustrates the harsh effects of the Government's tough stance.

"Pregnant women are the most difficult cases," Erika said. "They get somewhere to stay because they are classed as vulnerable, so the local authority has an obligation to house them. But they get no money at all, and are entitled to none until the child is born." When, as in this case, the baby is born dead, the mother is liable to speedy eviction, as she is no longer "vulnerable".

We don't see the growth of an underclass of destitute aliens because the numbers are so far relatively small - the Refugee Council has to date seen more than 1,000 who are entitled to nothing - and often they speak no English, are immensely ashamed of their poverty, and keep themselves out of view. But already terrible stories have emerged.

The most desperate case seen by the Refugee Council to date is that of a Turkish Kurd who fled Turkey after being tortured. Entitled to nothing in Britain, he stayed with a sister until his money ran out. She then told him he had to leave and go out on the streets. "I tried to leave London," he said. "Sometimes I slept in the train, but the ticket inspectors threw me off when they found I had no ticket. I spent some nights in car- parks.

"I tried to get help from the police. I went three times to the police. I spoke to a police woman and she told me to go to a church. I went to the church but it was closed. I rang on the door of the place next to it, but they told me it was closed for good. This really upset me. I slept on the streets. Then I went back to my sister. She asked if it would be better if I slept in jail than on the streets. I said yes. So she gave me some beer to make me drunk and seem like I was causing trouble and she called the police. They came and picked me up, but then they released me after an hour so I was out on the streets again."

After that, he tried to kill himself by jumping off Tower Bridge, but the police dragged him out of the water and sent him to hospital because of the damage he had done his spine in the fall. Since then the local authority has housed him, on account of his evident mental vulnerability. As the Refugee Council put it, "It is a sorry indication of the current situation if it is only by attempting suicide that this man was able to get help."

Abiodun Igbinidu is spared such terrors, but only because he is locked up. For him the greatest fear is of being sent home. He believes the Nigerian Embassy is keeping an eye on his movements, and that he will be arrested if he is returned. "They know my house," he said last week. "They are waiting for me to be deported, and I will be tortured, definitely."

Meanwhile in Britain, like thousands in similar situations, he suffers torture of a different kind. "They are kind to me, they don't torture me, but it's agony," he says. "I have no idea what is going to happen to me from one day to the next. I am no better than a ghost."