Hunger strike stresses plight of asylum-seekers

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The Independent Online

The sense of chaos that has engulfed the asylum-seeker dispersal system deepened yesterday when 36 jailed asylum- seekers entered the sixth day of a hunger strike and demonstrators gathered outside the Home Office to denounce attacks on those travelling to Britain in search of refuge.

The hunger strikers at Cardiff prison, who stopped eating last Wednesday morning, are among more than 1,100 people being held in prison in England and Wales as detainees under the Immigration Act. Many have committed no crime but are being held alongside prison inmates because of a shortage of places in immigration detention centres.

They are not the first to protest in such a way: last month, asylum-seekers at Liverpool jail refused food in protest at their detention, while last year two Iranians at Rochester jail, Kent, were admitted to hospital after refusing food for more than 30 days to protest against deportation.

The protest outside the Home Office followed the murder of a Kurdish asylum- seeker in Glasgow last week, which precipitated a review of the resettlement programme.

About 50 demonstrators waved placards commemorating 22-year-old Firsat Dag, who was stabbed to death in the Sighthill area of the city. His death was the lowest point so far of the asylum-seekers' experience, which has been characterised in parts of Britain by violence and extreme indigenous antipathy. Two asylum- seekers are known to have committed suicide after being dispersed to the regions.

A letter from Lee Jasper, secretary of the National Assembly Against Racism, was issued to David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, calling for a new approach to dealing with asylum-seekers. It said the Government should consider launching a "positive public information campaign" to promote the contributions of asylum-seekers to the British economy, culture and society over the ages.

It also called for the reintroduction of welfare benefits to refugees, which would "restore dignity, and end the stigma attached to asylum-seekers" by allowing them to work as soon as they arrived in Britain.

The letter said deportations of refugees should be suspended ahead of a consultation process, which would reduce community tensions.

Saeed Arman, director of the International Federation of Iranian Refugees, said it had only been a question of time before a tragedy on the scale of the Glasgow killing took place.

"There had been over 70 recorded incidents of racist attacks on asylum-seekers in the Sighthill area prior to the murder. Such incidents do not take place in isolation but are the product of a hostile and pernicious environment created by the Government and its policies against asylum-seekers, fuelled by the right-wing media." The Refugee Council has called for an immediate halt to the housing of asylum-seekers in prison.

The Prison Service said mandatory health checks were done on the Cardiff protesters over the weekend, and there were no concerns for the health of detainees. A spokeswoman said: "One of the detainees came off food refusal yesterday morning. The others are still refusing prison food. Health checks have given no cause for concern and all the asylum-seekers have been taking part in all regime activities."

The Prison Service denies that the asylum-seekers are on hunger strike, saying they are on "food refusal" and have access to food from the prison shop. About 50 asylum-seekers of 19 different nationalities are being held in the adult prison.