Wednesday, 28 March 2012

An Easter Eggstravaganza!

The Refugee Council are organising a lovely Easter Event on the 7th April at the Heart Centre, Headingley, Leeds. Join them between 12-4pm on Easter Saturday and enjoy cake, tea and music whilst supporting a brilliant organisation.

Young People Seeking Safety: the network finds its feet in Manchester

The STAR (Students Action for Refugees) Northern Conference was held on March 17th at Manchester University. The event discussed and emphasised the experiences of both young people claiming asylum and refugees in the UK and informed us all of the reality and issues that young people seeking asylum encounter. The key-note speeches and workshops were particularly useful because they were led by a wide range of people with varying insights on the asylum system. They consisted of practitioners, campaigners and legal experts who all have experience either working and campaigning in this area or seeking asylum in the UK themselves.
Justin Nsenglyuma of Refugee Action addressing the STAR conference
(c) Lora Evans//PressGangLeeds
The event began with a warm welcome by Emma Williams of STAR National and a thank you to Manchester University’s STAR group for hosting and organising the conference. Justin Nsenglyuma from Refugee Action then gave a whistle-stop, explanatory tour of the complicated asylum process and also drew attention to the unhelpful and irresponsible reporting by the mainstream media who regularly fail to make any distinction between people coming to the UK as immigrants or economic migrants, and people who flee their home countries and claim asylum here.

Lisa Matthews from Young People Seeking
Safety (c) Lora Evans//PressGangLeeds
Lisa Matthews from Young People Seeking Safety explained how the asylum system particularly affects young people. She stressed that a significant problem is caused by a person having to fit into a category of the 1951 Refugee Convention in order to receive protection. In many cases the children and young people themselves do not know exactly what circumstances led to their parents or guardians sending them out of the country, and yet this information is demanded by the Home Office. Another massive problem is that the UK Border Agency regularly disputes the age of children, treats them as adults and occasionally detains them with adults. She strongly advocated that the interviewing of young people needs to be child centred; shorter, with more breaks, evidence given the benefit of doubt and with legal representation always present. Lisa concluded by reading a moving poem by a young writer from the English Pen exiled writers’ group about his journey and experiences.

I attended two workshops during the day; the first, ‘Personal Testimony’, was led by a member of WAST (Woman Asylum Seekers Together). She spoke of her journey to the UK with her daughter and the problems they encountered particularly with the Home Office not understanding why they hadn’t brought ‘evidence’ with them. She provided much information about WAST, how the women support each other and share their stories. This was followed by a lively question and answer session. The second workshop, ‘Welfare, Support and Destitution’ led by James Jolly from The Children's Society, looked at how the problem of destitution has been exacerbated rather than alleviated, primarily by the removal of the right to work in 2002.
(c) Lora Evans//PressGangLeeds

The last speech was given by Anita Hurrell from Coram Children’s Legal Centre. Her talk was particularly helpful for those of us without legal knowledge and demonstrated how significantly the law impacts on individuals’ cases. It was interesting to hear her thoughts on the potential for the development of law in the areas of humanitarian protection and discretionary leave, in order to protect more people.

Finally a panel discussion was held with the title 'Access to university is becoming increasingly unequal: where do asylum seekers fit in?’ The struggles people face going to university were talked about, especially the difficulty of demonstrating prior education level and the high international fees asylum seekers have to pay. It was interesting that Manchester University is exceptional for not charging these extortionate fees and the discussion continued to focus on how students can lobby other universities to follow suit.
Final panel discussion (c) Lora Evans//PressGangLeeds
The whole event was really interesting and useful for students and activists who wanted to learn more about young people and the asylum system, where developments are being made and what we can do to create positive change.

By Lora Evans 

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Our "Proud Tradition?"

The UK has a proud tradition of providing a place of safety for genuine refugees. However, we are determined to refuse protection to those who do not need it, and we will take steps to remove those who have no valid grounds to stay here. (UKBA, 2012)

This is an excerpt from the UKBA's introductory page to 'Claiming Asylum in the UK.' In their own words, the UK only protects those it considers to be 'genuine' refugees; supposedly, this is how we have formulated our 'proud tradition' of providing sanctuary to thousands of people fleeing persecution and prejudice. Today, however, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published their review of human rights in the UK. Whilst there were some complements, the criticisms were far more revealing.

Human rights, by their very nature, are applicable to everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, wealth, or any other 'variable.' It is not hard to see how this often does not translate into practice. The EHRC highlighted a multitude of marginalised groups in the UK who - due to what can only be described as difference - have limited access to supposedly 'universal' human rights. Some of the main groups noted by the EHRC were illegal immigrants, suspected terrorists and gypsy and traveller communities.

According to their report, "Immigration procedures can favour administrative convenience over safeguarding individuals' rights to liberty and security. Periods in detention can be unlawful if release or removal is not imminent." Much of the criticism focuses on the new 'Fast Track' asylum application system, highlighting that the current process makes detention more of a frequent choice for the UKBA rather than a last resort.

Equally, the UK is criticised for not following its own procedures when it comes to safeguarding the mental health and wellbeing of individuals in detention:
Detention can also have a detrimental impact on a detainee's mental and physical health [...] The UK government does not always follow its own procedures around assessing and removing people who are particularly vulnerable, such as survivors of torture and people with serious mental illness which risks breaching Article 5 for unlawful detention.
Many NGOs, voluntary organisations and the UNCHR hold the fast track procedure responsible for the unnecessary and harmful detention of vulnerable individuals. Exacerbating this, the report continues to reveal that Immigration Removal Centres provide inadequate mental health support for detainees.

Another group who fail to be eligible for certain human rights in the UK are gypsy and traveller communities. Their right to family life is under threat from local authorities' unwillingness to provide legalised sites for travelling communities. Due to their supposedly 'non-conformist' attitude to bricks-and-mortar housing, they are not afforded the same access to 'universal' human rights.

As only two salient points in a selection of ten areas for improvement, it is worth reading the whole report to see the full picture of the UK's somewhat shaky commitment to human rights in the twenty-first century. It seems that much like the UKBA, the government's general attempts to protect are more often than not undermined by a viciously hardline attitude to those who are supposedly 'exploiting the system.' This 'genuine' vs 'bogus' technique can be seen across all manner of government rhetoric, from JSA (Jobseekers' Allowance) to the asylum system. What the coalition must remember is that access to human rights cannot be dictated or directed by political ideology; the universal cannot become the particular.

Gwilliam's Guardian!

Janice Gwilliam, a faithful Short Stop co-ordinator for LASSN (Leeds Asylum Seeker Support Network) among many other wonderful things, has published her next piece on The Guardian's Northerner Blog. With a lovely mention of LASSN and an account of keeping footpaths open on the Yorkshire Moors, Janice's article is well worth a read.

Janice also writes her own regular blog, detailing her varied experiences of volunteering in Leeds.