‘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
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.
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!