Monday, 13 December 2010

Appeal for Asylum Legal Support

Appeal for Asylum Legal Support

By Howard Sichinga

Manuel Bravo Project in Leeds has appealed for more legal support for asylum seekers.

The appeal was made by the New Project Manager, Catherine Beaumont, when she
addressed Press Gang journalists to pledge support for the launch of the City of
Sanctuary in Leeds.

The manager observed that there are many asylum seekers who are looking for legal
support to make appeals and fresh claims but very few find such help because of shortage of legal experts and financial resources.

Catherine pointed out that currently her organization uses volunteer solicitors and other legal specialists to offer legal assistance in making appeals and fresh claims. She explained that while volunteers are doing a commendable job the demand and pressure for their services at their organizations is also very high. This affects service availability and delivery against a backdrop of short timeframe for making appeals.

The Project Manager said that with increased legal and financial support her
organization would be able to help many asylum seekers who are currently making appeals on their own without any expert legal advice.

The Manager welcome the launch of the City of Sanctuary in Leeds and pledged that
her organization will share information and work with other organizations to improve the welfare of asylum seekers in leeds.

City of Sanctuary is a national movement which seeks to build a culture of welcome and hospitality to people who have come to UK seeking safety. It aims to create a network of towns and cities that are proud to be safe havens for people seeking asylum.

Interview with Mahsa from Iran

Interview with Mahsa Rahbari, 25 years old, Iran

Why did you come to the City of Sanctuary launch?
I have been working as a volunteer receptionist at RETAS for about 5 months which is where I found out about the event. I am originally from Iran and study for an access course in art at Leeds College of Art. I managed to have an art exhibition at RETAS and was invited to this launch event where I would also be able to exhibit my art and help out with the organising of the event.

Why is City of Sanctuary important to you?
I am actually an asylum seeker from Iran. I have lived in the UK for a year and 9 months. I think Leeds has been welcoming towards me but could do more to improve how asylum seekers are made to feel. It is an important issue for many asylum seekers. They often have a lot of problems and need peace, space and to feel welcomed. I think support would help them calm down and feel at peace.


Were you made to feel welcome when you arrived in the UK?
Applying for asylum was a strange process. You don’t have any good feelings and are made to feel bad and unwelcome. At RETAS, they are nice and welcoming which made me feel better. They support me. I improved my English, my skills and am more confident.


What do you think people in Leeds can do to help make asylum seekers feel more welcome?
Many people do not know anything about asylum seekers and refugees and I think they can inform themselves. This is very important to combat negative press. They can also help others to stop thinking asylum seekers are bad people all the time who are criminals or only here for money.

Anne Burghgraef of SOLACE thrilled by the launch of Leeds City of Sanctuary

On 11 November Leeds held its City of Sanctuary launch event, to celebrate the official beginning of a project which aims to make Leeds a more welcoming and enjoyable place to live for refugees and asylum seekers.

One of the 300 people attending the event was Anne Burghgraef, Clinical Manager at Solace, a charity that provides free counselling, psychotherapy and advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers who have suffered persecution. Anne was one of the first people to support the idea of Leeds becoming a City of Sanctuary over two years ago, and is thrilled that the movement has finally been launched.

“I grew up in an immigrant community in Canada before moving to England, and have some understanding of the experience of having to adapt to a new culture, of being an invisible foreigner. The world of asylum seekers is like a parallel universe. People don’t see them or even know they exist. City of Sanctuary is a great opportunity for the people of Leeds to get to know asylum seekers and their plight, and their lives will be enriched as a result.”

Anne became a therapist at Solace after studying psychology, social and psychotherapy in Toronto. She found that many traditional Western views of psychology were very individualistic and failed to take into account broader issues such as people’s worldview and culture. She hopes that City of Sanctuary will encourage Leeds to embrace these different cultures and help people feel more welcome and accepted within the city.

The importance of projects such as City of Sanctuary must not be underestimated: “Research into mental health suggests that the most significant factor affecting asylum seekers is the support they receive then they first enter the country. No matter what they have been through in their home country, if people are made to feel welcome and supported when they arrive then they find it much easier to adapt and move on with their lives.

“Many people come here with education and skills but find the way of life here so different that they are unable to put their skills to use. Something I would like to see happen with City of Sanctuary is a co-operative scheme where skilled local people provide mentoring and support to refugees, to help them adapt and use their skills in a way that benefits both them and the rest of the community.”

City of Sanctuary is a fantastic opportunity to improve awareness of the issues faced by refugees and asylum seekers and to help people regain control of their lives, restoring dignity and promoting social integration. Anne hopes that the launch is just the beginning of the realisation of that opportunity: “I’m a developer; I want to see things grow. This is an opportunity to hear people’s stories. It is a blessing to have the chance to learn about so many people’s countries and cultures.”

Solace website: www.solace-uk.org.uk

Interview with Fabian Hamilton MP at City of Sanctuary Leeds Launch

Interview with Fabian Hamilton MP at City of Sanctuary Leeds Launch

STAR: What made you return from London to this particular event and why is it important for you?
FH: Firstly because Tiffy Allen who is a fantastic woman and does so much, came to see me a number of times about City of Sanctuary; secondly because this is a cause I’ve been working for all my political life, especially the last 13 years since I’ve been MP. I do six advice sessions every month, each with eight appointments and usually up to half of those will be refugees and asylum seekers, with the most harrowing stories you’ve ever heard, so over the years I’ve built up this volume of examples of how bureaucracy treats people like dirt and how it needs to change, so it’s been a cause celebre for me for 13 years.

STAR: What is your City of Sanctuary promise?
FH: My promise will be to continue giving the best political support I can to the most vulnerable people in the world, who’ve come to seek sanctuary here; to make sure that bureaucracy doesn’t cause them to despair, and to actually allow them to become refugees and live amongst our society. They don’t have the right to vote so there’s nothing in it for me, it’s purely a commitment to the principal that people who come here to seek asylum, to seek sanctuary, should be given a fair case, and nine times out of ten their case does justify an approval.

STAR: Since the Conservatives have come into parliament, have you noticed a change in the way people are talking about refugee and asylum seeker issues?
FH: They perpetuate the view that we spend far too much money on asylum seekers and refugees, who are undeserving, who come here to exploit our system, and that’s the Daily Mail view of asylum and sanctuary. They want a slice of our country’s wealth, we give all our tax money to them and our own people suffer as a result. That’s the mythology. And it is a myth. The cost of asylum seekers is a fraction.
One chap said to me recently on the doorstep, ‘if it weren’t for all these asylum seekers I’d get a decent pension.’ I said ‘I’m sorry sir, that is a lie, if we closed our borders to all asylum seekers, you might see 5p a week extra.’ That’s what we’re talking about here. We have to explode that mythology, and the Tories really want to built that up, because in the end, they are the xenophobes and I think it’s tragic. Though I will say one thing in their favour. They have selected candidates, who are now members of parliament, deliberately from different ethnic minorities groups. So when I look at the Tory benches now, there are many more people of African origin, Caribbean origin, Pakistani origin and so on, than there used to be. That diversity has given them an edge, but it doesn’t make them any more liberal, I’m afraid to say.

STAR: If you’ve heard of the group United for Refugees, they sometimes have MPs speaking at their conferences and it’s always good to hear a voice of reason.
FH: Well if I can help in any way, do invite me. I obviously have a bit of a vested interest because my Dad came over as a 12 year old to escape Nazi Europe, from Vienna. There is a wonderful couple that I’ve know all my life, who are now in their late nineties, and they came from Berlin in 1938. They were already married, and that’s 72 years ago! A lot of people I know came as teenagers and children in the late thirties; they are old men and women now. There is a close friend of my mum’s, who came to Leeds aged 14 in 1938 from Berlin.

STAR: And at the time the Daily Mail already had a lot to say about this
FH: Exactly, and this woman, who retains a German accent, once said to me ‘Darling, this is terrible, these asylum seekers are coming here, getting everything free’ and I said Laura, you were an asylum seeker! ‘No it was different in those days, nobody gave us anything.’ So that’s alright then? You know, you had a really hard time! ‘I know, we struggled we struggled.’ So why should everyone else struggle? She couldn’t see the irony of what she was saying, it was hilarious.

STAR: Ok well thanks very much for answering our questions, and thanks for showing your support this evening.

Interview conduct by students on behalf of STAR Leeds (Student Action for Refugees)

Interview with Jemma Russell on City of Sanctuary

Interview with Jemma Russell on City of Sanctuary
What is City of Sanctuary?
City of Sanctuary started in Sheffield in 2005 by a group that wanted a city-wide movement to welcome refugees and combat negativity towards refugees and asylum seekers. Since then it has spread to other cities and now cities can gain City of Sanctuary status. Leeds is launching its movement on the 11th of November. The hope is to bring organisations and individuals already doing positive actions for refugees and asylum seekers together as well as encourage others to take part who may not know much about refugee issues.
What made you get involved in City of Sanctuary?
I am a member of the Leeds University branch of STAR (Student Action for Refugees) and have been since I started university. I work with and for refugees and asylum seekers and have also participated in the Leeds Better Housing Campaign group that aimed to challenge providers of housing that weren’t adhering to their contracts. This campaign lost momentum but has been integrated into the City of Sanctuary movement.
What do you do to help welcome refugees and asylum seekers?
I am a volunteer at Common Conversation where I help teach English. This is a great place to meet people and support asylum seekers and refugees who may be experiencing isolation. I am also a STAR committee member and work with them to promote positive images of asylum seekers and refugees.
What inspired you to get involved and support refugees and asylum seekers?
There are many other valuable causes, such as the environment, that have lots of coverage and supporters. However, the isolation and destitution of refugees and asylum seekers is often relatively unkown by the public and there is little focus in the media. I wanted to do something also as important, if not more so, given the problems of destitution and isolation that go relatively ignored by most of the public. I also realised how easy it was to get involved and be supportive by carrying out small actions.
What will happen after the City of Sanctuary launch?
Those involved in City of Sanctuary realise that just getting individuals/organisations to sign promise pledges to be more welcoming won’t make Leeds more welcoming. It is the actual acts that people do that matter and that will create a welcome and hospitable environment. Therefore, we will aim to have monthly meetings for any individuals and organisations to get together, find out about volunteering, the work each other is doing, campaigning and fundraising. It will also be a place for refugees and asylum seekers to find out about services on offer to them. Hopefully, we could have English conversation classes running alongside this.
What will STAR be doing in the City of Sanctuary movement?
STAR are committed to getting the union to sign a promise pledge as well as students, societies and individuals with the aim of getting Leeds to become a University of Sanctuary. We will approach departments with ideas of actions they can do as well as submit motions to our Union forums and hope to build up momentum towards the University of Sanctuary goal. On top of this, we will carry on with our volunteering, campaigning and fundraising work.

City of Sanctuary Interview with Christina Macdonald, Property Manager from Ethical Property Company

City of Sanctuary Interview with Christina Macdonald, Property Manager from Ethical Property Company.
LASSN: Could you give us some background as to what Ethical Property Company does?
CM: We provide office accommodation to organisations that are contributing to positive social change. That remit is quite broad, but it includes the voluntary sector, charities, campaign groups and some social enterprises. We have 15 centres around the country, and I am property manager in the Leeds branch at Roundhay Road Resource Centre, so I make sure this place runs ok and that all the tenants needs are met.
LASSN: Does the company currently work with any refugee and asylum seekers communities?
CM: Not directly, but around the country we do have refugee groups that attend the centres and also organisations who support refugees and asylum seekers, such as RETAS and LASSN here at Roundhay.
LASSN: What was your motivation for joining the City of Sanctuary movement?
CM: Although we don’t formally work with these groups, apart from as our tenants, we are very supportive of organisations who work in this area, and when we had the opportunity to join City of Sanctuary, we knew it was something we needed to get involved with. To me it sounds like it’s building a network of organisations, be they schools or businesses or voluntary groups that positively send out messages and actively promote a welcoming environment for refugees and asylum seekers.
LASSN: I suppose the key is to transmit that message across to the wider community and hopefully dispel any misconceptions.
CM: For sure, and I’ve been thinking about ways we can increase awareness of these issues, as in many cases people don’t know any asylum seekers or refugees and so don’t know their personal backgrounds and how difficult their lives can be.
LASSN: And often it can take one personal meeting to see through the cover-all terms, into a real life with a rich character and history, which is why events that promote social interaction are so valuable.
CM: Exactly, and the launch party will be a great way of celebrating peoples’ cultural diversity. Within our company, I’ve written an article in our staff newsletter to raise awareness and highlight what we can do as an organisation. In addition to that, every six months all the property managers from around the country come together to discuss current issues and I’m hoping to invite someone from Bristol City of Sanctuary to come and talk to us.
Although, I would hope, most of our colleagues are sympathetic to the cause, some of our building contractors, who may have had less contact with these groups and individuals, might feel more detached, so I’m going to invite our contractors to the celebration event of the new art exhibition at the Roundhay Centre as well as the City of Sanctuary launch. This should spread the word to people who wouldn’t usually hear about these things.
LASSN: What do you hope the City of Sanctuary movement can achieve?
CM: As we’ve discussed, elevate the awareness of issues refugees and asylum seekers face and off the back of that evoke a sense of empathy which can drive people to do something positive. This will hopefully inform opinions, and instead of seeing immigration as a problem, illustrate the benefits cultural diversity can bring to society.

Interviewed by Simon Wasser, University of Leeds

Monday, 8 November 2010

Unable to return to their own countries yet unable to work and support themselves

http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/video/Sky-News-Special-Investigation-Highlights-The-Plight-Of-Failed-Asylum-Seekers-Stuck-In-The-UK/Video/201009215722744?lid=VIDEO_029171_Asylum+Seekers+Stuck+In+Britain&lpos=Latest+Video_6&videoCategory=Latest+Video

Come Out: Celebrate Refugee Week

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nP8vv7x5r7g
Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1qLw1G2Pnc&feature=related
Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TU75i9bNCWI&feature=related
Part 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COAEzM6a2Og&feature=related

Live in Leeds? Love it? Want to make it better?

Interview with Jemma Russell on Leeds City of Sanctuary

What is City of Sanctuary? City of Sanctuary started in Sheffield in 2005 by a group that wanted a city-wide movement to welcome refugees and combat negativity towards refugees and asylum seekers. Since then it has spread to other cities and now cities can gain City of Sanctuary status. Leeds is launching its movement on the 11th of November. The hope is to bring organisations and individuals already doing positive actions for refugees and asylum seekers together as well as encourage others to take part who may not know much about refugee issues.

What made you get involved in City of Sanctuary? I am a member of the Leeds University branch of STAR (Student Action for Refugees) and have been since I started university. I work with and for refugees and asylum seekers and have also participated in the Leeds Better Housing Campaign group that aimed to challenge providers of housing that weren’t adhering to their contracts. This campaign lost momentum but has been integrated into the City of Sanctuary movement.

What do you do to help welcome refugees and asylum seekers? I am a volunteer at Common Conversation where I help teach English. This is a great place to meet people and support asylum seekers and refugees who may be experiencing isolation. I am also a STAR committee member and work with them to promote positive images of asylum seekers and refugees.

What inspired you to get involved and support refugees and asylum seekers? There are many other valuable causes, such as the environment, that have lots of coverage and supporters. However, the isolation and destitution of refugees and asylum seekers is often relatively unkown by the public and there is little focus in the media. I wanted to do something also as important, if not more so, given the problems of destitution and isolation that go relatively ignored by most of the public. I also realised how easy it was to get involved and be supportive by carrying out small actions.

What will happen after the City of Sanctuary launch? Those involved in City of Sanctuary realise that just getting individuals/organisations to sign promise pledges to be more welcoming won’t make Leeds more welcoming. It is the actual acts that people do that matter and that will create a welcome and hospitable environment. Therefore, we will aim to have monthly meetings for any individuals and organisations to get together, find out about volunteering, the work each other is doing, campaigning and fundraising. It will also be a place for refugees and asylum seekers to find out about services on offer to them. Hopefully, we could have English conversation classes running alongside this.

What will STAR be doing in the City of Sanctuary movement? STAR are committed to getting the union to sign a promise pledge as well as students, societies and individuals with the aim of getting Leeds to become a University of Sanctuary. We will approach departments with ideas of actions they can do as well as submit motions to our Union forums and hope to build up momentum towards the University of Sanctuary goal. On top of this, we will carry on with our volunteering, campaigning and fundraising work.

Live in Leeds? Love it? Want to make it better? Sign the Leeds City of Sanctuary promise http://www.cityofsanctuary.org/leeds

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Flag of Pride and Terror.

THE FLAG OF PRIDE AND TERROR

The rush hour had passed and the roads were now being cleansed with torrential rain. The journalists with luck on their side were safely inside, whilst the less fortunate arrived completely soaked. None of this lessened the desire to hear the stories of two Ethiopians seeking asylum in the UK after publishing objective accounts of cultural life back in their home countries. Unlike the leadership of Mugabe in Zimbabwe, we hear little of Ethiopia, which the British and American governments tend to portray as a place for rights and democracy. However this portrait is much idealised. Back in 2005 the Ethiopian electorate voted overwhelmingly for a new government, but since the military are closely associated with political parties this vote for change was simply ignored. It’s hard for Ethiopians to protest peacefully about this situation since it’s practically impossible to establish an impartial and independent press. Newspaper funding is needed from somewhere and this often comes through advertising. If the paper publishes an article that is critical of the government, then those advertising would be accused of dissent by association. Opposition against the government’s sovereign ideologies is now an imprisonable offence since the introduction of various civil society and anti-terrorism laws. Prominent international journalists might be spared intimidation for fear of international criticism, but lesser personalities will have their voices beaten into submission, and their businesses and homes vandalised. The government makes astonishing claims that most private media companies are funded by foreign bodies with terrorist associations, and without the support of the judicial system to provide security and support journalists speaking out publicly are right to worry.

The speakers voiced their desire for there to be less political struggle for power within government and more focus on improving issues that would truly benefit society. They asked that young people follow their own consciences, to be the change that they wanted to see.

There are many reasons for which Ethiopians are proud of their country. Ethiopia was never colonised and is known as a very significant place of early civilisation. It has amazing spiritual heritage where Haile Selassie was revered among the Rastasfari movement as well as abroad for his diplomacy. All over the world we also enjoy the taste of Ethiopian coffee.

Change is possible, but more than likely it will be a generational one. Young adults now have limited access to global discussion through internet forums. Gradually Revolutionary Democracy and the memories of the Ethiopian Red Terror will fade.
In the mean time asylum seekers battle with a new front of social change, adapting to ways of life in the UK. The weather is unstable. No kidding, the unexpected summer rain outside is still so loud we can hardly hear ourselves talk. Gender roles are very different in Britain, as is the English language that the problem of regional accents only exacerbates. Many professional qualifications are not recognised between countries, and so many cleaners or security guards might have been your doctor, nurse or courtroom judge in different circumstances.

Support and celebration of Ethiopian life continues here through Leeds Refugee Forum, LASSN and Lucy Amharic Radio. Tune in and find out!

Friday, 9 July 2010

"Why do you choose to be homosexual when its illegal in your country?"

It doesn’t take much for the media to reveal its true colours and this week they have exemplified this in the incredibly bigoted and misinformed reaction to the fantastic decision to grant asylum to two homosexual men who face persecution in their own countries for their sexuality. The headlines are hardly surprising, its not that often that the tabloids get to combine their homophobia and racism in a single article. The Daily Star running with ‘No Room For Gays’ is almost unbelievable, The Sun also runs with ‘Gay Illegals Can Stay’ but even the BBC News 24 reporter’s instant reaction was essentially; ‘Well, surely now they will all just say they are gay so they can stay’.

Not only did this case point the the bigotry of the media (which it of course doesnt take a genius to uncover), it also highlights a couple of other points, the pathetic methods of the UK Border Agency (which a previous article has already outlined the potential affects of) and also the media’s contradictions.

Firstly, in the Refugee Action email out after the ruling, they highlighted how the UKBA staff who assess cases such as this were focusing not on the persecution but on the sexuality, for example the following question was asked:

“Why do you choose to be a homosexual when it is illegal in your country?”

Its difficult to know where to start in trying to dissect the faults in this question. It presupposes that one chooses their sexuality, suggests that if you are homosexual you should not do it if its illegal and thereby legitimises the concept of criminalising a sexuality (but in another country). Their previous ruling that people should go back to their home countries and ‘be discreet’ about their sexuality continues to display an utter lack of understanding. Would they send a member of the Zimbabwean opposition party the MDC back and tell them to be discreet about their politics?

Lastly I want to point out the striking contradiction of the tabloid press which has occured simultaneously to their disgust at the granting of asylum to the to men concerned here in the campaign to prevent the stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani (I have provided The Sun link here). Its very positive that people are questioning the state repression of the Islamic Republic and have decided to campaign against the stoning of a woman accused of adultery. However the contradiction lies in the fact that one of the homosexual men which apparently there is not room for is also Iranian. So, they will campaign to stop the persecution of a woman awaiting a terrible fate in Iran, but they will condemn the ruling which keeps a man from returning to a different kind of persecution in the same country. Is it that he is homosexual, or that he is an asylum seeker that they don’t support him? Or is it another way to maniuplate anti-Islamic sentiment and an easy way to score points over the barbarism of the Muslim regime?

In order to understand the contradiction of the press, try this. Think about what would happen if the stories were reversed; if the court had ruled that a woman who committed adultery would not be returned to Iran because of the persecution she would face and a homosexual man was going to be stoned to death in the same country. What would be the reaction then? ‘No room for adulterers?’ I think not.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Red Hand Campaign

Amnesty International Leeds Group rounded off Refugee Week with a stall in the busy centre of Leeds. 224 members of the public signed an eye-catching petition made of red hand-prints to support the Red Hand Campaign, which aims to persuade every country to ratify the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The Protocol exists to stop countries from forcing anyone under 18 to participate in military hostilities. It is crucial that all countries ratify it: children forced into conflict have been known to be sent into minefields and sometimes even used for suicide missions. Some of the child soldiers living in countries yet to ratify the Protocol are as young as 8 years old.

The Amnesty team will send the petition to the UK embassies of the 61 countries that are yet to ratify the Protocol. Petitioners took away information about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, including myth-busting booklets, a DVD about destitution, and a summary of the Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. The stall also had a quiz to identify some of the main countries that produce refugees (many of which are also yet to sign the Optional Protocol), and children were given official (and very popular!) Refugee Week balloons and stickers to take home.

Many of the children who are forced into armed conflict become refugees. It is only this year that the UK government has promised to end the detention of children in immigration removal centres, some of whom may have been child soldiers in their home countries. It is vitally important to encourage every country to sign the Protocol to prevent children from being forced into dangerous and traumatic situations, which could in turn force them to leave their home countries to seek uncertain refuge elsewhere.

Friday, 25 June 2010

They really go for it

Yesterday we had six visitors to our charity. Two student nurses, two student social workers, one development worker and one psychiatric specialist working in Accident and Emergency. We did our usual thing of telling the visitors a little about where asylum system seekers come from, why they end up in the UK, some of the difficulties they face and how our charity supports over 750 asylum seekers and refugees each year.

We also had time for questions. Most came from the psychiatric specialist. She really wanted to understand what was going on. For her it was vital. She’s an expert in self-harm and suicide. The reason she came to see us is that she sees too many asylum seekers in her job. Asylum seekers who are so desperate because of how they are treated in the UK, that that try to kill themselves. “And they really go for it,” she said.

What struck me was what she said next. She has to send them away as they do not have a mental illness. Their self-harming and attempting suicide is caused by what they are experiencing. In some ways it is perfectly natural for someone to resort to such desperate measures when they are in such desperate situations.

At least 33 asylum seekers have committed suicide in the UK since 2005 (http://www.irr.org.uk/2005/september/ha000021.html).

by Peter Richardson, Leeds Asylum Seekers' Support Network, http://www.lassn.org.uk/

Monday, 14 June 2010

Refugee Week Kicks Off With Leeds Refugee World Cup

video

Refugee week started with a great event at Thomas Danby College on Sunday 13th June with the annual Leeds Refugee World Cup. 16 teams representing all the refugee communities in Leeds turned out for a successful day of football culminating with a victory for the Kurdish team Baban FC, who won the World Cup, beating Iranian side
Caspian FC 4-3 on penalties.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

WAST

‘Asylum seeker’ is a term that evokes controversy and is cloaked with negative euphemisms. The media portrays asylum seekers as scroungers that are arriving in tides, flooding the country.


The system is ‘too soft’.
The people are ‘bogus’, even, ‘ILLEGAL’.
They spread diseases
‘Terrorists’
‘Criminals’
They take jobs
They are lazy scroungers
We must stop them coming; close the gates; pull up the bridge.

It all sounds quite dire really. Somehow and somewhere an idea of an archetypal asylum seeker has been created. But, does it make any sense? Who are these people that are putting our Great island of Britain under siege?

I have visited Leeds’ branch of the ‘Women Asylum Seekers Together’ (WAST) network a few times since January. I originally met the group at a poetry evening where they performed poems that they had written about their experiences. I was deeply touched and decided I wanted to get involved.

WAST is a national network that aims to support women asylum seekers by providing them with a safe space to meet, exchange ideas and skills, campaign and raise awareness. Its members, who come from several different countries mainly in Africa and Asia, were forced to flee for various reasons including political repression, sexual violence and religious/ethnic persecution.

When I first arrived at the WAST group in Leeds, I was warmly welcomed, offered several cups of tea and cajoled into eating a fair amount of food.
Scroungers?
Hardly.
Criminals and terrorists?
Well, I noticed nothing being plotted. Unless all that chit chat was actually a code. However, as I am young, observant and relatively on the ball, I feel confident enough to say that nothing was being plotted.
After everyone had drunk enough, eaten enough and finished talking, they set to work. By ‘work’, I do not mean jobs because asylum seekers are not allowed to work, which means they are not actually taking any jobs. They are forced to live off a sum of approximately £35 a week. Much lower than what British citizens receive, which means the system is not that ‘soft’. Moreover, this sum is now given to them on a card every week and the money does not ‘rollover’. Therefore, they have no cash, they cannot save up to buy something more expensive and they cannot shop in certain shops. The system is really not that ‘soft’.
What these women can do though is be creative! They make cards and jewellery that they can then sell to friends and supporters to buy more materials, pay the rent of the room and pay for snacks. It is a particularly empowering and welcoming project and the support offered is invaluable. The group is run by and for its members, allowing the women to take agency in a country that denies them this daily.
An example of this is the spontaneous detention of asylum seekers, which takes away their autonomy and importantly, their liberty. As I spoke with the members, I found out about the true nature of the detention regime. Asylum seekers, including women that are pregnant and children, can be locked up in privately run centres that are little better than prisons. They can be locked up indefinitely and are not told for how long they will be there. They must have been illegal or criminals, right? No, this is just policy. The government knows about these people because they have claimed asylum which means they have made themselves known to the authorities. Yarls Wood is the most notorious. Just recently some of the Yarls Wood detainees went on hunger strike to protest about the conditions and the fact they are treated like criminals despite not having committed a crime. The government’s crusade against the so called ‘human flood’ has resulted in people-pleasing draconian measures such as this, which aim to keep the numbers down.
Yes, for the love of God, they must keep those numbers down.
As I watched the children playing at the back of the room (WAST welcomes families as well as single women), not surprisingly as normal children play, it seemed ever the more unjust that a supposedly democratic and liberal country could be so authoritarian and tyrannical, all for the sake of playing the numbers game. The reality is that the UK welcomes less than 2% of the world’s refugees and received only 23,430 claims in 2007.
With the introduction of the new cards that will replace the vouchers they used to receive, talk went on to the important matter of campaigning. Campaigning is another of the things this group does to try and affect change and improve the lot of all asylum seekers. By getting together in groups such as this, the women gain a collective voice and can find solidarity with other groups and with British citizens. The idea of speaking to the local MP was suggested, as well as ways of exchanging some of the money on the cards with British citizens for cash (a scheme that used to be run when asylum seekers got vouchers). One week a woman came to scout for volunteers to help person the phone lines of a soon-to-be-established rape crisis centre. She was looking for people from all background as rape and sexual violence is something that happens to people of all backgrounds and is unfortunately something that many asylum seeking women have faced in their homelands. She also asked whether she could refer younger victims of abuse to the group for support. The idea was met with approval. All are welcome at WAST!
So the afternoons where I was supposed to cavort with terrorists, criminals and lazy scroungers, bogus and illegal people, did not live up to the vocabulary, the euphemisms, the myths, the lies or the spin.

Group such as WAST demonstrate that the stereotypes of asylum seekers do not exist in the way many are led to believe. Myths, compounded by senseless scape-goating and political point-scoring have well and truly camouflaged what is essentially a complicated and emotional issue. Who should bear the brunt of this but the asylum seekers themselves, who have been subject to increasingly harsh policies including a reduction in benefits, the removal of the right to work and detention in Immigration Removal Centres. Moreover, they remain voiceless and invisible with most newspapers choosing not to quote them.
At my last visit, it was one of the member’s birthdays. We had cake and one of the members had made a delicious traditional Pakistani dish; I should have taken the recipe. The group had made her a card and inside was a present: cash. A luxury. Who would have thought that something so simple could be so important. She could shop in the market now or even use the bus.

WAST meets every Saturday afternoon, 2-4pm at the Baptist Church on Harehills Lane. Come and visit!

Better Asylum Housing Campaign

























All photographs by:Aidan Dunbar
http://www.aidandunbar.co.uk

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Citizens for Sanctuary

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CDa3ZPro88

Here is the link to CITIZENS FOR SANCTUARY video.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The LGBT Asylum Crisis

There is no denying that asylum seeking is a contentious issue. What sparks even more controversy is the issue of LGBT asylum seekers. The case of the Iranian, Mehdi Kazemi, 19, who faced deportation to Iran and therefore, a likely death sentence, brought this issue to public attention. He was saved thanks to media outcry, however, the prospects for many others are bleak.

LGBT asylum seekers face unique barriers when it comes to the asylum process, not just in the UK, but elsewhere. These difficulties stem from the debate over whether they can be included in the definition of a refugee set out by the 1951 UNHCR Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This is important because states are only obliged to accept asylum applicants who fit into this definition, in other words, someone who fears persecution because of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

The debate focuses on whether LGBT people can be included in the “particular social group” category. There is no indication as to how this should be interpreted or whether the other categories should act as examples. The key characteristic of those other categories (race, nationality, religion) are that they are immutable characteristics, in other words, they neither can be or should have to be changed. Furthermore, procreation, history and culture are integral concepts to these identities. Given this line of reasoning, only people who have immutable characteristics and can procreate to continue an involuntary line of shared culture and history should be included in the “particular social group” category. If such a definition were to pertain then LGBT people cannot be included because a lack of those features means their association with each other is voluntary.

Another complexity is related to how far we may argue prosecution in a state equals persecution. A state may legislate against and prosecute LGBT people and for another state to offer asylum on these grounds amounts to a criticism of that state’s laws.

In recent years, a combination of the development of human rights discourse with the precedents set by recent case law has propounded the issue in favour of LGBT people. In the case of an Iranian man in 1996, the court ruled that Iran’s prosecution of LGBT people did have persecutory intent. The court was able to rule this by looking at the European Convention on Human Rights and how it differed from Iranian laws. Regarding, the debate over the “particular social group” category, judges have increasingly ruled in favour. It is now accepted that this category is for non-traditional refugees, such as LGBT people, to have an entry-point to claiming asylum.

However, despite this, in the UK, asylum seekers face a Home Office whose ethos is steeped in disbelief and the determination to cut the number of successful applicants.
For LGBT asylum seekers, it is particularly hard to prove your sexual orientation. Medical reports, love letters and membership of clandestine clubs are sought as evidence, but few asylum applicants have this kind of proof. In fact in 1995, a judge suggested a Romanian man should have an anal examination to confirm he was, as he claimed, gay. Moreover, claimants that do not reveal their sexuality straight away are seen as embellishing. This is related to a lack of understanding within the asylum process; in many countries, LGBT people are made to feel shame, therefore, it is not something that is easy to reveal to Home Office interviewers immediately.

Homophobia and heterosexist views compound the issue. Applicants that are or have been married, or that have children, are often assumed bogus because decision-makers do not understand cultural issues and the taboo of homosexuality in many states. Decision-makers may use stereotypes to help judge whether a claim is bogus, for example, assuming a woman that is feminine cannot be gay. Now that LGBT people are included in refugee law, issues to do with passing as a heterosexual and evading persecution by changing how you act are becoming problematic. Due to the unique nature of LGBT issues, the focus is wrongly placed on the victim’s actions, rather than the persecutor’s. In the case of Zia Mehmet Binbasi, the judge implied he should stop being active to avoid persecution! Furthermore, the Home Office’s ‘Country Information Policy Unit’ assesses the human rights situation in countries and produces reports which form the basis of many decisions. Often persecution is understated, for example, it has placed Jamaica as a safe country to return to.

So, what can be done to improve the situation? Changing the universal refugee law itself will never happen. Europe’s ‘fortress mentality’ means it is trying to restrict avenues for claiming asylum rather than expand them. Possible options must be state-developed. For example, training should be offered on sexuality, as well as gender and race, to all those involved in the asylum process. The ‘Country Information Policy Unit’ needs to undergo serious changes and becomes more up-to-date. A final option is to offer LGBT asylum seekers better support and advice by overhauling the process so that coming out and telling stories is easier.

Clearly, attitudes towards all asylum seekers in general need to change. They are real people with legal rights to apply for asylum. They should not be used by politicians as a ‘tough on immigration’-tool to pander to the persecutory intent of right-wing media scaremongering, as increasingly appears to be the case.

The Restaurant Reviews

As part of STAR (Student Action for Refugees) action week, we have reviewed a number of restaurants in Leeds which are run by refugees. Positive media for refugees and asylum seekers is rare but these are 3 particular success stories of refugees having been able to fully and positively integrate themselves into society.
If you are tired of eating the same food all the time, or always going to the same places, these restaurants are definitely worth a visit.
Reviews by: Jane Salmon and Grace McNeill

CAFE CREATE

Café Create
Type of Food: Breakfast, lunch and snacks
Average meal cost: £5
Paying: Cash Only
Takeaway: No

Create is a not-for-profit organisation based in Leeds. Its services include catering and cleaning and Cafe Create is their latest enterprise. Slightly different to Darvish and Merkato this is not a family run business but instead is an ethical organisation in which many employees (often refugees) have faced difficulties in life.
Although the food is not exciting (mostly sandwiches, jacket potatoes and cakes) it is all excellently homemade using natural and local products. The drinks are also fairtrade (we particularly recommend the hot chocolate).
The cafe itself is welcoming. The mismatch, recycled furniture gives it a quirky feel and the brightly coloured walls makes it light and airy. Despite not being open long, it is already very popular and the staff are often quite busy. This doesn't get in the way of excellent and friendly service though.
The prices are very student-friendly and this is definitely the place for a chilled out, relaxed lunch or mid-morning coffee and cake.

Address: Holy Trinity Church, Boar Lane, Leeds, LS1 6HW
Website: www.createleeds.org
Opening Times: Mon-Sat 9am-3pm (stops serving hot food at 2pm)

MERKATO INTERNATIONAL

Merkato International
Type of food: Ethiopian
Average meal cost: £7
Paying: Cash only
Takeaway: Yes

Merkato is run by Samuel and Tady Bekalo who came to the UK from Ethiopia 10 years ago and opened this café 3 years ago. It is a quiet place, particularly popular with local Ethiopians and Eritreans who drop in frequently for a chat and a drink. Don't be intimidated though as both the staff and regular customers are very friendly.

The menu is limited and full of unfamiliar words but most options have an English explanation. We tried the vegetarian mixed platter which is a variation of different lentil and vegetable based dishes. It is served with injera, traditional Ethiopian, bread which is somewhat of an acquired taste but definitely worth a try. There is no desert except for a selection of Baklava (sweet pastries) which were very good.

This is definitely not the place for a relaxed evening meal but if you are in town and looking for a quick and slightly different lunch it is ideal.

Address: 79 Merrion Superstore, Merrion Centre, Leeds
Telephone: 07961 883500
Opening Times: Mon-Sat 10am-6pm

DARVISH

Darvish; Traditional Persian Tea-House and Restaurant
Type of food: Iranian
Average meal cost: £10
Paying: Cash only
Takeaway: For orders over £20

Darvish is a family run restaurant and café. Morteza, the manager, came to the UK from Iran 8 years ago and opened Darvish 4 years ago.
The staff and atmosphere of the restaurant are very welcoming and we particularly liked the open kitchen, which gives the restaurant a homely feel and means that you can see your food being prepared.
Having never eaten Iranian food before, we weren't sure what to expect but overall the food was very enjoyable. Between the 3 of us we ordered 2 starters which were both delicious and came with freshly baked naan bread. Being 1 vegetarian and 2 meat eaters, we sampled a variety of the menu. There were 5 vegetarian options. The one we tried, vegetarian khoresht, was a mix of vegetables in a Persian sauce.
The meat dishes; Kebab Chenjeh (lamb) and the Joohjeh kebab fillet (chicken) were beautifully cooked with the chicken and lamb being wonderfully tender.
For desert they offer speciality home-made saffron ice cream (free if you order a starter and main course). We found this surprisingly good!
We made the mistake of ordering tea with the meal rather than at the end, as it comes with a selection of biscuits and dates. However we all enjoyed the Darvish Special tea and would recommend going just for that!

At an average of only £10 for a 3 course meal, it is very affordable. Admittedly it is a little out of the way for most students but it is easy to catch a bus in that direction from town and we think it is well worth a visit.

Address: 283 Roundhay Road, Leeds, LS8 4HS
Telephone: 0113 2495500
Website: www.DARVISH.co.uk

STAR WEEK IS HERE!


Hey Student Action Refugee week is here, with events around the university all week so get involved if you get the chance!