I could tell you once more about the lot of the poor asylum seeker in our country – sing that plaintive folk song again and again until the voice cracks as I have been doing for over 20 years. There is always a fresh reason to lament and strum, boring and predictable though it is for millions. Like the tragedy of Serge and Tatiana Serykh and their son, Russians temporarily housed in a tower block in Glasgow where others like them were kept, people who left their own lands and found no acceptance in ours and so were hovering, suspended, hanging around agitatedly like spirits between worlds. Serge was apparently mentally ill. Last week they jumped off a top storey and fell to death, to certainty.
Then there was the Home Office-commissioned report by Baroness Nuala O'Loan on the alleged maltreatment of detained asylum seekers. Like all good official reports, it is scrupulously anodyne in spite of concerns expressed by respectable lawyers and doctors who know of the suffering inflicted on inmates. One, a Cameroonian woman, was handcuffed until just before a breast biopsy and immediately after she woke up, even though hospital staff objected. Britons rightly get exercised about the treatment of women detainees in Zimbabwe, Iran and elsewhere.
In our own backyards, these are seen as reasonable and proportionate state actions. When Ann Widdecombe stood accused of allowing the handcuffing of women prisoners in labour, Labour politicians howled and hunted down the Tory Home Office minister. Now nobody cares. Meanwhile, asylum children in detention centres are slashing and starving themselves. The women at one immigration removal centre, Yarls Wood, are on hunger strike and complain about racial and physical abuse. Donkeys in sanctuaries can raise more sympathy than do these caged humans. A Swiftian thought – maybe we should turn the enclosures into zoos, label the countries the inmates come from, watch them feed and fight, maybe on a good day attack their guards.
For those still "free" and trying to fight the unjust system, new rules come in to make it harder and keep up deportation targets. Since October, asylum seekers have to personally go to Liverpool to launch an appeal with no funds for travel (the cost is at least £84). Others are denied NHS treatment and have to make do with humiliating food vouchers. They are forbidden temporary employment. And the lies, the lies that are told daily about who they are and why they come. UN figures show that only 0.5 per cent of the UK population are currently refugees.
You know who they are because in shops they buy vast amounts of milk, marg and white bread. The other day I offered to buy a cake for a small girl who really wanted one. Her mother, a widow, is an asylum seeker from Sudan. "No, thank you", she said, nicely but firmly. "I cannot buy her another one tomorrow. Better she don't taste it." A refugee once said to a reporter: "They treat us like we are nothing. I suppose we are nothing. But we were something". And could be something if only allowed. Maybe that is how to awaken the national conscience. Not to do what I have done in this rambling, depressing opening but to look at possibilities, to bear witness to talent and ambition and dreams carried in the heads and bags of those forced to flee and their children.
That's what I thought when I saw the new film Infidel. Funny, profound, and extraordinary, it tells the story of a Muslim man who finds out he was born a Jew. Directed by David Baddiel, it stars the irrepressible Omid Djalili. Baddiel's family fled Germany before the war and Djalili's had to leave Iran because they are Bahais, victims of endless persecution by the regime.
On Saturday night we popped into a small, unlicensed Vietnamese eatery on Kingsland Road in the East End. It was buzzing with arty young things. The young waiters were delightful, the food – which cost a tenner each – was fabulous. Twenty-five years ago I wrote an article on the Vietnamese refugees who were put into estates where the National Front ruled. Some were housebound and going into deep depression. One father sat shaking like he had high fever. Later I heard his son got into Cambridge and became a scientist. In this café, and many more in the area, you see what they did next; for themselves and for an area once in terminal decline.
Walking to the car we saw a new coffee house, The Bridge, and went in. I suddenly wanted a Turkish coffee. Ricco, the owner, in the middle of serving up lattes and cappuccinos, immediately set to, lit a small primus stove and started making me some. The place is stuffed full of opulent mirrors, pictures and bric-a-brac, and upstairs opens up to the most beautifully sensual room in the capital, part Ottoman extravagance, part French boudoir. Ricco is Turkish Cypriot – his family must have come here during the troubled times when a Greek junta took over the island and a war erupted between Greece and Turkey. We hear about Ugandan Asian shopkeepers often enough, but there are millions of other enterprising émigrés who daily inject excitement into British life and add style, choice, pleasure, imagination. And yes, Britain too, for all its resistance to incomers, deserves huge credit for being the kind of country where broken lives are mended.
Just a cursory think through exiles made good gives one hope and should give the authorities some doubts about their draconian policies. The conductor Sir Georg Solti would not have flourished if his family had not been able to flee Hungary and find a home here. Jung Chang, the writer of the wonderful Wild Swans, found her voice once she knew she was safe in our country. Britain opened my mind and enabled me to write after Uganda threw out Asians. Some of the most talented folk on earth have had fractured histories. The Miliband brothers, sculptor Anish Kapoor, Thomas Mann, Rachel Weisz, food millionaires the Pathaks, any number of scientists, doctors, musicians.
Those tormented souls in detention centres, those suicidal people in despair in tower blocks, that Sudanese girl who could not have cake, they could all shine as many before them have. If only the powerful will let them. But they won't. The unwanted exiles have lost the fight but one day we will see how the nation lost a lot more.