Sunday, 22 December 2013

PAFRAS and CreAtive AspIRer: Clash of the Arts Fashion Show

On Saturday the 14th December people made their way out of the cold to come to the West Yorkshire Playhouse for the Clash of the Arts Fashion Show; a collaboration between PAFRAS and Leeds youth enterprise CreAtive AspIRer. Since 2003 PAFRAS (Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers) has been working in Leeds as the main provider of direct support for asylum seekers. They are a charity that offers a valuable service to people who are often the most invisible within society; running drop in sessions, mental health services and distributing food parcels.  Yet as PAFRAS director Christine Majid made clear in her speech, the work of the charity has become increasingly pressed as funding cuts take their toll while changes to government policy since 2005 have made destitution an increasingly common fate for asylum seekers. In October 2013 due to lack of funding PAFRAS was forced to close one of their weekly drop in sessions. However despite all the pressures on the charity from the current economic climate, the Clash of the Arts fashion show was an evening of celebration; celebration of talent, of CreAtive AspIRer’s young people and of the work of PAFRAS itself.

CreAtive AspIRer’s achievement of their aim to inspire youth talent and responsibility within the community was evident through their ability to put on such an amazing show. Hosted by Alisha Musungo, Miss Face of the Globe and Zimbabwe UK, the evening was an incredible display of creativity, dance and musical talent.  The models strode confidently down the catwalk showing off clothes created by four young Leeds based designers. Bright colours and patterns were a theme of all the collections. The work of Siobhan Thomas featured jewel coloured dresses for the women and colourful sportswear for the men, including an eye-catching feather headdress style hood. A collection called ‘Breaking Walls’ inspired by PAFRAS itself showcased huge headbands, brown leather capes and bold zigzagging patterns in vibrant blues and greens. Meanwhile designs by Norma, director of Olando Tailors, brought a taste of sophisticated eveningwear with her collection of cream silk dresses.  As the models changed their outfits, the audience was entertained by the improvising of the band and the energetic fluidity of dance group Y.G.T. (Young Gifted and Talented) whose passion shone through individual and group dances.

This event was a wonderful chance for people to come together for a night of entertainment. Yet as CreAtive AspIRer’s director Talent Charura reminded everyone, it was also to raise awareness and donations for PAFRAS. A final speech by Christine Majid ended the night, denouncing racism across the city and encouraging continued pressure on the government for positive action for asylum seekers. As the audience stood holding hands through the band’s final number, Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’, the evening ended on a message of unity, compassion and determination to fight social injustices in the local community. 

Erin Rooney

Friday, 13 December 2013

Free Radio Training for Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Radio in a day
Saturday 25th January
One Community Centre
10.00 – 4.00

Join Leeds Press Gang for a fantastic free training day (equivalent courses charge £90)
that will equip you to get involved with community radio and produce your own radio shows.

Book now – only five spaces remaining for refugees and asylum seekers

If you are interested please email Hannah at

The training will be led by Judith Weymont, former South Leeds Community Radio Station Manager.  Judith worked briefly in education before joining BBC Radio Leeds in the 1970s, and was part of the team that set up Manchester's Radio Piccadilly. She then spent 25 years as a producer/director with Yorkshire Television and Channel 4, heading up the Media Unit for the NUM in South Africa and producing radio and television documentaries in Zambia

Press Gang is a Leeds based group of people dedicated to the action and promotion of positive stories about asylum seekers and refugees. Acting to counteract misinformation, prejudice and negativity in the press, we work with both exiled journalists and activists to help change this imbalance. It is supported by Leeds Refugee Forum, Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network, RETAS, Pafras, Solace, Refugee Council, Refugee Action, British Red Cross, Abigail Housing, and the Manuel Bravo Project.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Refugees in Focus.

Human Rights Week at Leeds University does an outstanding job every year of raising awareness of a huge array of issues that endanger the basic rights of people worldwide. The week of non-stop events is led by the Leeds University Union’s (LUU) Amnesty International Society but is successful in uniting a diverse set of groups, emphasising the diversity of rights we are fighting to protect.

On Thursday 28th November Human Rights Week brought us ‘Refugees in Focus’, an event co-hosted by Leeds Friends of Syria, LUU Revolutionary Socialists, Leeds Student Action for Refugees, and No Borders Leeds, an eclectic set of groups which served to further stress the broad-reaching scope of the week’s events.

The evening was split into two parts with a break in the middle to give a chance for the audience and the speakers to mingle, a nice touch which helped break down any artificial barriers and create an inclusive atmosphere. The first part gave the audience a chance to listen to different experiences from a refugee and an asylum seeker living here in Leeds. Nisreen Al-Zaraee, who was a student at York University when the war started in Syria, was at pains to explain that her experience of claiming asylum was not representative of the asylum procedures most people go through. Despite feeling that she is lucky in being one of the only 0.1 per cent of over 2.5 million externally displaced Syrians registered as a refugee in the UK, she still felt like she was “treated like a suspect” throughout the asylum process.

Nisreen’s situation, in which she was able to claim asylum relatively quickly while living with a friend, is in stark contrast to so many others, who may find they rely on charities such as Abigail Housing and volunteers working with projects such as Grace Hosting. During the process asylum seekers are not allowed to work and many have to rely on as little as £5 a day for food and transport before an initial decision is made. This can sometimes take up to a year and it is hard to imagine making ends meet on so little for so long while at the same time not knowing where you will sleep tomorrow night.

The second part of the evening focused on the range of charities that provide services to asylums seekers and refugees in Leeds. I was impressed to learn of charities such York Street Health Practice which provides an enormous number of services including counselling, visiting teams, immigration solicitors, and housing teams. At the same time however, there was a running theme when any charity was mentioned: increased strain and budget cuts. Major charities such as the Refugee Council received heavy cuts, meaning they have had to reduce the number of services available.

Throughout the event, it was stressed by the LUU Revolutionary Socialist that they wanted to see concrete action develop. This may not have happened in the way they envisaged but with the number of charities mentioned, the range of groups involved in the event and signup sheets available, they can be sure that the majority of people in the room that night will have felt inspired to get involved and help out with those who need our support.

Adam Leake

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Love is a Human Right

Love is a Human Right. But a right that we all enjoy?  Not even close. Imagine if you were told you couldn't love someone because it was a crime, for gay Ugandans this is the world in which they live.

On the 7th of February 2012 an Anti-Homosexuality bill was brought once again to the Ugandan Parliament. The bill makes any homosexual activity a crime punishable by long-term imprisonment or even death. It also states that anyone who knows of any homosexual activities going on is also to be punished with three years in prison. Parents are expected to report children; teachers are expected to report students. Unfortunately, but maybe not unexpectedly, the basis of the anti-homosexual laws originate from British rule during the colonial period- one of those laws they just never got round to eradicating. Ugandan newspapers have sparked campaigns of hate selling newspapers by promising to name and shame homosexuals, encouraging Ugandans to take the law into their own hands.

Last Monday I attended a talk entitled Love is a Human right which was put on by the Amnesty International at Leeds University and LUU LGBT. The talk gave an incredible insight into the plight of the gay and lesbian community in Uganda. It was the first event to kick off Human Rights week. The evening opened with a short film, Call me Kuchu, in which key figures in Uganda were documented trying to combat state discrimination against homosexuals. What was remarkable about the events documented was they continued insistence by government officials that homosexuality was inherently ‘un-African’.  The film itself is well worth a watch if you want to get a better idea of the turbulent situation there. You can watch the trailer below: 

The first speaker at the event was Kevin Ward, a former schoolteacher in Uganda who taught religious studies to university students. Kevin who is originally from the UK, had lived in Uganda for almost ten years, he had become fully immersed in the culture and had many friends and respected colleagues there. “I found being in Africa a liberating experience” he said, Kevin explained that whilst there was still stigma about being openly gay in Britain, Uganda offered a place where he was free to have close relationships with men, without causing gossip. Whilst Ugandans were not supportive of homosexuals, Kevin argued that the situation was one of acceptance. The situation became volatile though, when religious preachers from America organised a tour of Uganda preaching homophobic hatred and connecting it with religion. When Kevin was found to be gay, his colleagues and friends turned on him, he was fired from his job at the school and forced to start afresh.

The second speaker was Quentin Bashem, a Kenyan student at the university of Leeds. Quentin explained that the un-African perception of homosexuality goes beyond Uganda and is embedded in the culture and society of Kenyan also. Although there are no laws that make being gay illegal in Kenya, Quentin explained that he had a friend at school that was discriminated against because of his sexuality. Quentin, always being a liberal thinker promised that when he returned to Kenya he would be sure to speak more openly and supportively of the gay community in Kenya, in order to try and change the prejudices felt amongst the younger population in general.

The situation in Uganda and Kenya are not isolated cases, even here at home, homophobia is rife. Gay Ugandans, fearful of imprisonment and even their lives have fled Uganda, some have tried to seek asylum in the UK, but Kevin argues the immigration office doesn't take their fears seriously enough. If we can learn to accept each other and love one another, the world will be a better place.

After all, Love is a Human Right.  

Hannah Martin

Friday, 29 November 2013

Syria’s Lost Generation: What hope for children born in war?

Children are the future, a common knowledge. With the conflict in Syria raging on, humans right violations and atrocities continue to be committed on a daily basis. Children have become the most vulnerable victims, with their future lives being dramatically implicated upon. On Wednesday evening I went to a talk organised by Leeds Friends of Syria, LUU Save the Children and ONE LEEDS society. Salli Martlew from the high profile international Save the Children and Dr Ayman Al Jundi from the smaller grassroots charity Syria Relief talked both of the immense atrocities and what is being done for those who can’t help themselves.

The facts are horrific. 11,420 children have been killed. 7 million people, 1/3 of the population have been displaced, a figure larger than the populations of many of the neighbouring countries! In both Lebanon and Jordan 1 in 4 people are Syrian, an astounding figure and half of the refugees are innocent children. Over 2000 schools have been bombed and only in 1 in 10 now receive ‘formal’ education. The figures continue on a mind numbing scale, as do the stories. Hope for children in the war may seem diminished when concentrating on these figures. Below is a heart-wrenching video of what kids have become accustomed to dealing with:

However, positivity can come through from the actions ordinary people, in a country as far removed as our own, have taken. Save the Children are working on two fronts: to provide practical support and to give a voice to those who don’t have one; and to let the perpetrators know the world is watching. However, Save the Children are somewhat up against a wall since aid is still not allowed to cross the border into Syria. This means 2/3 of their work is concentrated in some of the largest refugee camps the world has ever seen. The continued denial of humanitarian access across the borders is baffling. However this is where the beauty of small grassroots organisation and collaboration really comes to play.

Syria Relief became an officially registered charity in 2011 and has raised £4.5 million so far, of which 92% has been spent inside Syria!! This has happened because the founders and trustees are well respected Syrians based in the UK, thus can cross the border and are part of a whole network that large international charities could not dream of. The strength of the small charities is not necessarily the funds they can raise but their ability to deliver and get in. By collaborating and presenting project proposals to larger charities who have the money, the two can work together to make a real, fundamental difference to many Syrians both inside and out of the country. Syria Relief has established new schools, set up social programmes including orphan support and provided food and food security through sanitising water. Their aim is to not only help immediately, but to set up sustainable efforts. One such is craft workshops organised for women refugees in Jordan. The items they make are sold abroad and then Syria Relief channels the money back to them ensuring those women involved and their families have essentially their own money to live on.

The achievements of a grassroots charity are astounding and inspiring. The ‘lost generation’ of Syria is a heartbreaking subject and awareness still needs to be raised. However the talk showed how successful and important collaboration and the simple actions we take can be. Check out the links below for more, including a petition to get parliament to help get aid into Syria!!
  • One of the major hindrances of humanitarian aid is that they are simply not allowed in. Below is a petition to get the issue discussed in British parliament, in the hope they will advocate humanitarian corridors into Syria, amongst other things:

  • Ellie Goulding has produced a song for Syria with Save the Children. Download to donate to Save the Children! The video is harrowing - will make you re think all the news headlines that are easy to drown out! 

Jessica Papworth

Monday, 25 November 2013

Leeds Friends of Syria - 'Give it a Go' Event

Leeds Friends of Syria, in Thursday 21st November, hosted a 'Give it a Go' event to welcome old and new faces to the society.

Leeds Friends of Syria is a society, at the University of Leeds, which was founded as a direct response to the violence and human rights violations taking place in Syria. They seek to contribute to international efforts to stop violence and provide humanitarian aid to those in need. The group is primarily based at the University of Leeds but is open to all those who share their goals and values, in the Leeds area and beyond.

The Leeds Friends of Syria GIAG was also an opportunity to fundraise for 'Hand in Hand for Syria', a charity which the group regularly fundraises for. Also the event was a great opportunity to sample traditional Syrian food which was kindly provided by the society's Syrian members.

Christine Gilmore is the society's President and Hannah Dudley is the Treasurer. Hannah and Alice Hale ran the Leeds Friends of Syria and welcomed both old and new members. 

'Leeds Friends of Syria' will be hosting a number of events this week to mark Human Rights Week (Monday 25th - Friday 29th November) - details are below: 

Wednesday 27th November

Follow them on Twitter @LeedsForSyria

Monday, 18 November 2013

Review of 'Suitcase': 75th Anniversary of Kindertransport

75 years ago, following urgent appeals from Quaker groups, Jewish and non-Jewish organisations, the British government agreed to take part in the emergency evacuation of Jewish children up to the age of seventeen from those countries under immediate threat from the rising Nazi Party.

Set in train stations around the country, ‘Suitcase’ invites the audience to witness the experiences of those involved in Kindertransport, from the children arriving and the foster parents awaiting their arrival to those fundraising on their behalf.

The audience are welcomed to the event as if they themselves were refugees being welcomed by a group of volunteers and musicians, establishing an atmosphere of excitement and anxiousness. Slowly, from among the audience, the children appear and we are introduced to a range of attitudes: There are the older siblings, desperately trying to fill the shoes of their absent parents; the younger children excited by the journey and not quite aware of the severity of the situation; and the ever-optimistic child who believes that all will be well when mummy gets here…

Throughout the play the audience is ushered to different parts of the station to see and take part in a number of vignettes. Some are light hearted, poking fun at the British lack of awareness for cultural differences. Other scenes, however, are far more heart wrenching and I was not surprised to see many of the audience wiping their eyes upon the separation of a little boy from his older sister.

Despite being set in 1938, the audience will have noticed that the disturbing language of one scene in particular was all too familiar. Just as we hear and see the spread of casual racism and scaremongering from populist politicians today, ‘Suitcase’ did well to show that similar attitudes are ever-present. Even with Jewish persecution on the continent being common knowledge, there were some that were keen to spread the words of Oswald Mosely and truly believed that “there is no room” or that the new arrivals would take our jobs.

Overall, the play achieved what it set out to do: to educate. Hopefully, the audience, about a quarter of which were school children, left Sheffield Station in a reflective mood: proud that the UK was involved in Kindertransport, proud that the UK is still seen as a place of refuge for those who need it, and questioning of those who, when faced with people fleeing unimaginable horrors, can simply shake their head and say there is no room.

Adam Leake 

For those who have been unable to see 'Suitcase', the show is still touring on the following dates:
Leeds Central: 19/11/13
Manchester Piccadilly: 21/11/13
Liverpool Lime Street: 22/11/13
Bristol Temple Meads: 25/11/13
Southampton Central: 27/11/13
Harwich International: 29/11/13
Liverpool Street Station, London: 2/12/13

For more information please visit:

Image Sources:

1) Taken by Press Gang

Friday, 25 October 2013

Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery in India

Interview with Dave Skivington by Press Gang Member, Howard (Part 1)

In a recent interview with David Skivington, author of the novel Scar Tissue, he recalled that inspiration for his book came from the disturbing experience he had while travelling in India at the age of 18. David recalled that while he and a friend were walking down the street in Calcutta they “were approached by a man [who was] basically offering us young girls for sex.” Shocked and upset by the event, David went on to research the extent to which human trafficking was prevalent in India. The results of his findings inspired him to put pen to paper in the form of Scar Tissue.

Although the event that moved David to write Scar Tissue may be upsetting, it should not come as a surprise. A recent study by the Australian-based rights groups Walk Free found that just under half of the 30 million people enslaved in the world are in India. It should be noted that although not all of the men, women and children enslaved are done so for the purpose of sexual exploitation, this does not make their condition any less horrific. Many of these modern day slaves are born into debt bondage and because of this, or due to the persistence of the caste hierarchy, they are forced to work tirelessly in unsafe conditions in mills, factories and kilns from an early age. Many are coerced through means of sexual violence.

It is widely recognised by both the Indian government and international observers that, while it may not be the only form of enslavement, the trafficking of persons in India for sexual exploitation is widespread. The practice is not only limited to Indian nationals but there are also large numbers of Nepali and Bangladeshi women and children trafficked as India increasingly becomes a destination for trafficked persons as well as a source.

The Indian government has a number of measures in place to try and tackle the issue including the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, the National Advisory Committee to Combat Trafficking, and nation-wide Anti Human Trafficking Units. Despite these measures, it would seem that the prevention of trafficking is limited and the conviction rate of those responsible is poor. Indeed, the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime reports that in 2008, out of the 8512 people against whom prosecution for trafficking in persons commenced, only 1565 were convicted.

The United States’ Department of State ‘Trafficking in Persons Report 2013’ observes that although the Indian government is making significant efforts to ensure the problem of human trafficking is recognised and tackled, it still does not comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. While actions such as the establishment of Anti Human Trafficking Units are commended for being steps in the right direction, they are at the same time criticised for being inefficient, negligent and, at times, existing on paper only.

These figures, and the overall assessment of human trafficking in India, are deeply disturbing. Facts and figures, however, can only go so far in opening people’s eyes to the grotesque nature of the situation. It is for that reason that books such as David Skivington’s ‘Scar Tissue’ serve such a vital purpose. Despite being fiction, it is often the case that the story told is not too far removed from the truth.

This is a truth that everyone should be aware of.

Review of David Skivington’s Scar Tissue coming soon.

For more information on the issue of human trafficking and global slavery see:

Adam Leake

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The great British property scandal

Mark Harper the immigration minister was one of the panellist on  BBC Question Time last week. ( so obviously immigration issues were on the agenda.

"Massive effect on public services... housing."

"We cannot take any more... we are full."

"Pressures on public services... housing...  immigration."

In many people's mind the problem of housing shortage and immigration are clearly linked and it therefore becomes all too easy to blame migrants.

But that's dodging the issue. Just for a moment put the immigration issue on one side and simply consider housing.

One of the most devastating impacts of the housing shortage is homelessness. There are 75,000 homeless people in the UK, but for each homeless person there are almost ten empty houses - with an estimated 710,000 empty houses in the UK. ( How many more are effectively empty because they are second homes?

Professor Alex Marsh in his personal blog earlier this year highlighted the lack of effective housing policy in what he called, "Aggressive intolerance as a substitute for aggressive housing policy?"

He goes on to highlight that, "overall... immigration is not the key driver of dwelling population imbalance" and notes that credible evidence seemingly has little impact on the immigration debate.

I worry that as we creep nearer to an election politicians will utilise safer, simplistic arguments around immigration rather than be brave enough to challenge the public by debating the real issues and causes for concern such as inequality, unemployment, housing, education and health.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Immigration Bill 2013/14

The Immigration Bill 2013/14 is now available to view on the Home Office website. The Bill aims to make it much more difficult for migrants to settle in the UK with the changes seriously affecting the social and legal rights of asylum seekers.

Part one of the Bill, as well as Schedules one and two, enlarges state powers to search individuals and premises, as well as record, use and retain biometrics.  

Part two of the Bill amends the right of appeal, drastically reducing the number of appeal rights that currently exist, form seventeen to four. Under the new Bill an appeal case will only be possible if it involves a human rights claim; where someone says that they need humanitarian or asylum protection; where such protection has been provoked and where someone has the right to remain under EU law. The four categories of appeal do not account for situations where there has been a factual error which has led to the decision.

Time-limited immigration status under the bill will have to make a contribution to the National Health Service, a subject which has been heavily criticised. The Charity Doctors of the World UK have condemned the new laws relating to the access to the NHS as “unethical”, with the danger of penalising those who are most vulnerable. DOTW, while acknowledging that it may make sense for groups like tourists to contribute to health costs, they have stated that there is no economic argument to impose such a levy on these vulnerable groups.

Landlords under the new bill will be liable to a civil penalty of up to £3000 if they rent their premises to residents who do not have legal status. The bill essentially is turning landlords into immigration officers when they are not trained to deal with the complexities of the system, with over 400 types of documentation. Surely the measure to have landlords check the immigration status of residents will just create circumstances where they look to not to rent to anyone who is not British to avoid the risk of being held liable.

Part four introduces stricter investigations into “sham marriages” and civil partnerships and extend powers for information to be shared by, and with, registration officials. Marriages and civil partnerships will be referred to the Home Office to be investigated.

The proposed Immigration Bill 2013/14 will make the UK a much more hostile environment for migrants, a situation which liberty director Shami Chakrabarti has described as a “race relations nightmare waiting to happen”. The changes that the Bill plans to impose are not just “nasty” but also is lacking in ethical or financial justifications. 

On the 22nd October 2013 there will be a protest against the New Immigration Bill opposite the House of Commons in London at 10:30am. This protest is scheduled for the day of the Bill’s second reading in the House of Commons, and is a demonstration against the infringement on the social and legal rights of migrants. 

Hannah Conway

Friday, 18 October 2013

An Integral Role

The recent Immigration Bill has called into question what role refugees and asylum seekers have in the UK. 
The impact that refugees and asylum seekers have had on British culture and public life is often seen through a negative light but the success of Olympians, such as Mo Farah who was originally an asylum seeker from Somalia, who came over to Britain is testament to what allowing refugees to enrich civil life can bring. One of Leeds most famous exports to the world was started by refugees. Marks and Spencer’s started by Michael Marks a Jewish refugee from Russia and Thomas Spencer a cashier from Yorkshire.     

However, there is a negative perception surrounding asylum seekers and refugees in the UK. A sizable proportion of public opinion appears to favour a harsher approach towards asylum seekers and refugees. In my opinion this is because asylum seekers are not allowed to work. The Refugee, Education, Training and advice service in Leeds says that the unemployment of refugees is six times higher than the UK average. Especially amongst politicians on the right-wing of the spectrum the opinion seems to be that immigrants are taking “British jobs”; this is a mistruth. According to the charity Refugee Education Training Advice Service 55% of asylum seekers who arrive in the city do not speak any English, and there are fears that there is a lack of integration from refugees and fears of isolation.  

Interviews . . .     

Solomon arrived in the UK eight years ago from Eritrea after tensions with its larger neighbour Ethiopia escalated into war.   Solomon says that Eritrea his garage was very busy as he said: “I would maybe 200 customers every day back in Eritrea but at my garage in Leeds I see only 3 or 4 people a day. Sometimes I do not see anybody”.   

However, despite the lack of customers Solomon seems full of hope about the future and says he is happy in the UK. He said: “I like the UK apart from the weather as it is too cold here. But now that I’m working it does not feel as bad as when I did not have a job.  It’s a quiet garage at the moment but I have only had it since January. When people her about it they will come.  I am very happy at my work”.      

It took Solomon eight years before he was able to own a business. Considering his experience of 25 years of ownership of a garage in Eritrea it is hard not to feel that his expertise was wasted during those eight years. 

Jack Elliot. 

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Volunteering opportunities

Do you want to work in journalism?
Press Gang is recruiting volunteers
to tell the real stories of asylum seekers and refugees

Leeds Asylum Seeker Support Network (LASSN) launched Leeds Press Gang in November 2008. The group is made up of volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds including refugees, local workers, students and activists. The aim of the group is to challenge the negative perceptions members of the public have regarding asylum seekers and refugees through sharing positive stories.

We currently have three exciting volunteering opportunities for October 2013 - May 2014

  1. Coordinator (1 - 2 days per week) 
  1. Editor (approx 5 hours per week) 
  1. Reporter ( 3 - 5  hours per month)

What’s involved

·       Bi-monthly meetings to plan our press strategy
·       Interviewing, researching, writing and editing
·       Writing press releases, magazine articles and blog pieces
·       Empowering asylum seekers and refugees to talk with the media
·       It’s important you build up a relationship with us, with the asylum seekers and refugees, and with the media – therefore we are looking for people who are going to stick with us for at least six months

What we provide

·       An opportunity to gain valuable journalistic experience
·       Briefings about asylum issues
·       A chance to work alongside exiled journalist from around the world
·       and meetings with some amazing people!

What next

·       Please contact us by 1st October

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Detained indefinitely

I’ve never been locked up or held against my will, but today I will be visiting people who are locked up without limit. Under the Terrorism Act the police can hold suspected terrorists without charge for up to 14 days. The people I’m visiting are also held without charge under UK/European immigration detention legislation. I’m visiting two women who have both been in detention for around 50 days but there are many people who have been detained for over a year under the same powers. A Freedom of Information request revealed that as of December 2012, 10 people had been locked up solely under the immigration act for over two and a half years each (the longest was 4.4 years and  between them they had clocked up a mind-numbing 32 years behind bars).

I’m nervous about my visit. I’ve had to send my personal details in advance and I’m expecting to be searched, photographed and fingerprinted before I’m allowed through the gates. But the people I’m visiting have not committed a crime, have not been charged with any offence, are not waiting to come to trial and pose no threat to Britain.

Under the powers of the Immigration Act, the government can detain people indefinitely (see Jonas Bochet's article about history and consequences of indefinite detention.) In theory detention should only be used to aid deportation but the experience of many asylum seekers is that detention is used arbitrarily as standard practice often without any rational explanation.

I remember the time when a friend from church was detained. Police and immigration officials arrived at her house in Leeds very early in the morning and hammered away at her door. When she answered she was swiftly bundled into a waiting van without even being allowed to change from her pyjamas.
She was released two days later, once it was pointed out to the authorities that they had made a mistake and detained her despite her ongoing asylum application. She was lucky that no one else had been assigned her room in the shared house in Leeds so she was able to return to the same place. Many people come out of detention and end up in a new town or city away from any community or support they have built up while in the UK.

My friend returned to Leeds with additional emotional scars caused not by her experiences of persecution in Africa but by her treatment here in the UK. Her room and house had now become infused with an extra layer of fear. She would wake, startled with her heart pounding every time a car pulled up and she would jerk awake at any unexplained noise in the night.

Her situation has now improved. She’s been granted refugee status and is busy working at Leeds University having just completed a degree.

I arrive at Yarl’s Wood in the company of Heather from Yarl’s Wood Befrienders. It’s striking that wherever you get asylum seekers you always get support groups and charities springing up ready to mitigate the appalling situations many people face. It clearly demonstrates how many people in Britain believe in justice and value our society for our positive Human Rights.

(c) Google street view
The Immigration Removal Centre (or Immigration Detention Centre as the signs still calls it) is on a business estate a very short marathon length from Bedford along Paula Radcliffe Way. There's not much nearby apart from Milton Ernest, a small thatch-cottaged village. It’s not an easy place to get to. Serco, the private company who hold the detention contract with the home office, do provide a bus to the station every two hours. Yarl’s Wood is sign-posted from the main roads in a rather unusual manner. The sign points to Yarl’s Wood I.D.C. and then has two brown boxes underneath highlight the facilities of Indoor Sky Diving and Indoor Surfing making it look like an I.D.C. is a place of extreme sport rather than captivity.

There are some incredibly ugly and uninviting buildings hiding behind tall fences topped with barbed wire. They're not the detention centre but the Skydiving site and the Red Bull racing team. The Immigration Removal Centre itself is much more attractive with half-brick, half yellow walls and a light grey low-pitched roof giving it the appearance of a modern office block.

Entering the buildings is not such a welcoming experience despite the staff being polite and helpful.

I meekly follow my minder who knows the system. First stop is the visitor’s reception where I am photographed, have my finger prints scanned and my ID checked. I also have to leave all my belongings apart from coins in a locker before I can proceed.

We then walk across the visitor’s centre. I’m still expecting high walls and barbed wire but that’s all hidden around away from visitor's sensibilities. We walk along a short corridor and press a button to alert the guards to our arrival. The door opens and my minder enters. I attempt to follow but am shooed back and told to wait. Moments later the door opens and I’m allowed in. The guard explains that only one person is allowed in at a time to preserve their dignity while being searched. She then searches me and my finger print is scanned again before I’m allowed through the air lock type doors.

The visitors centre itself is a light spacious room that has perhaps been consciously designed to look like a Starbuck’s cafĂ©. There are large windows on one side looking out onto a small garden with bright murals that attempt to hide the size and blankness of the walls. There are low armchairs sprinkled around coffee tables and in one corner there are vending machines where visitors can treat themselves or the detainee – which explains why I should have kept hold of my coins.

I’m meeting two women detained under the immigration act. Their cases are different but I quickly discover two things they have in common. Despite it being mid-afternoon neither woman has eaten and both of them talked about difficulties sleeping.

The first woman is a couple of months pregnant and it cannot be good for her health to be incarcerated with so little self-determination. She described in limited English how sad she was. I only saw one smile from her, which ironically was when she talked about Gujarat food, before continuing to comment on how the meals provided were not appetising. 

The befriender told me that many pregnant women have real difficulties with food and sleep. Meal times are set and don’t take account of the difficulties caused by morning sickness and don’t provide the flexibility for women to eat when they need rather than when they’re told.

The second women I met spent much of the time with her hands clenched on either side of her neck. Again the smiles were few and mostly reserved for when she talked about how much difference a visit makes to her. She described how, “In the dinner hall you see people crying - you cry. How can you eat?”

Those tears are caused by desperation and depression and previously she has been "on watch" - with someone keeping her in constant sight because of fears of self-harm. This week she is due to present her appeal before a judge but has no solicitor to represent her and no medical report to provide evidence of the physical persecution she has suffered.

I cannot imagine how hard it must be for her to be confined with so much hanging over her.  She’d spent the previous night working on paperwork to fax to the court this morning. She’d expected to sleep for a few hours in the morning but was called for a medical appointment. Having waited in the medical wing for over an hour she was finally informed that the appointment had been cancelled because the medic was off sick – which they could have told her when she first arrived.

(c) Google maps
I’d expected to be intimidated by high walls, barbed wire and a security check that is more onerous than when visiting a prison. The five-metre, razor-topped walls of Yarl’s Wood are safely hidden behind the friendly front face of the building and polite and efficient attitude of staff to me as a visitor.

What I had forgotten about was the impact of meeting people living in such devastating captivity. I met two women who had no control over their lives, who had little hope and were totally isolated with the Yarl’s Wood Befriender as their only visitor. One of them explained that during her asylum claim no one believed her and that meeting the Befriender made such a difference and gave her hope.

I’ve been working with asylum seekers for over six years and I am still astonished by had badly we treat them and how much they are vilified by the press and by politicians. My experience today has only deepened my concern about how the UK treats people who come here looking for protection. I long for the day when politicians are brave enough stand up to immigration and take a lead on promoting British values of fairness and concern for those in need.

If you live near one of the UKs twelve Immigration Removal Centres (Bedford, Gatwick, Heathrow, Strathaven, Hampshire, South Lanarkshire, Oxfordshire, Lincolnshire, Dover, Antrim, Manchester) why not consider volunteering. If you live near Leeds then come and join us at Leeds Asylum Seekers’ Support Network and perhaps you can be the person who brings hope.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Submissions wanted for next edition of One Planet Leeds magazine

We are looking for submissions of articles of 500 words or less. Our target audience is people who don't know much about asylum issues and may not really be all that interested. Therefore we want strong personal stories, creative pieces such as stories or poems, and good public interest links such as sport, arts, food or current events.

We work with people with incredible experiences both in their country of origin and here in the UK.  We know that people who listen to their stories are often changed by what they hear.  We also know that most people have very confused or ill-informed opinions of what seeking asylum really means.  So we challenge the myths and untruths perpetrated by the media.

Any links to Leeds are obviously a bonus but not essential. Articles written by people with direct experience of claiming asylum are particularly welcome.

One Planet Leeds has a circulation of over 1,000 readers and is produced both as an online pdf and as a printed magazine. Articles may also be used for this Blog.

One Planet Leeds is produced by LASSN with support from 8 charities in Leeds. We regret we cannot provide any payment for articles.

If you have an article idea please email pressgangleeds(at) by 1 October 2013.

Monday, 15 July 2013

One Planet Leeds, the Press Gang magazine, summer edition is available here:

This edition includes:
  • Theatre
    • Refugee boy
    • To walk in your shows
  • Football – A shared sense of belonging
  • Media – Mispeceptions
  • Experience – The kindness of strangers
  • Music – United Voices
  • Women – Refugee Group
  • Books – Scar Tissue
  • Volunteering – interpreters needed

Monday, 24 June 2013

Could Mark Harper, MP, the Minister for Immigration live on £35.39 per week?

Almost half-a-million people signed the petition calling for Iain Duncan Smith, the current Work and Pensions Secretary, to prove his claim of being able to live on £53 a week.

He’d have it easy compared with the 2,068[1] asylum seekers living on just £35.39 per week support from the Home Office under section 4 of the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act. To make things even harder these people are not given any cash but a piece of plastic, called an Azure card, that can only be spent in a limited range of shops and if they don’t spend every penny it’s wiped off the card each week.

According to research[2] from the Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRSP) at Loughborough University, the minimum income standard for a single person is £262.25. But that includes rent, council tax, gas and electricity, which the Home Office pays directly. It also includes petrol and £5 per week on cigarettes but Asylum seekers are prohibited from buying petrol, cigarettes or alcohol on their Azure card. The weekly amount also includes things like insurance and motoring expenses that asylum seekers certainly don’t have.

If we strip things back to the very basics then according to the research the minimum income required for a single person per week is £80.76 and I haven’t included anything for the bus fair for the required trip to report to Home Office each week or month:
·        £48.25 food
·        £11.55 household goods – kitchen cleaning and bathroom
·        £11.65 personal goods – toiletries and health care
·        £9.31 clothes

It may be possible to manage on less than this for a short while – but I was shocked by Mark Harper’s reply to my letter expressing my concern.

“We do not think the value of cash and non-cash support is ungenerous…” Mark Harper MP in personal letter, May 2013

If £35.39 per week is generous then I’d like to see Mark Harper rise to the challenge of living on it for even one week. Perhaps he could donate the amount he’d save to our charity so that we can support people with the mental and physical difficulties caused by their desperate situation.

Peter Richardson

Peter Richardson is Director of Leeds Asylum Seekers’ Support Network, a small charity in Leeds where over 250 volunteers support around 700 asylum seekers and refugees each year.

[1] Number of asylum seekers on Section 4 support at the end of March 2013. Source:

BHI Media Workshop

The Black Health Initiative (BHI) led a media workshop during Refugee Week ran by Richard Smith and organised by Ali Mahgoub from the Leeds Refugee Forum at One Community Centre. The workshop raised awareness of various health issues through an innovative by using rap, music and poetry.

Richard a former DJ used music as a backdrop and used his bubbly personality to make everyone feel comfortable and free to express themselves. There was a brief talk about how there are many health issues which people are unaware of and not willing to discuss, one being prostate cancer which is a killer in the Black community, yet there a few people who are willing to discuss this. We were then asked to write a short piece about health or whatever we wanted to talk about. There were a variety of different styles of performances and topics.

Bilal Awali a 16 year old student at Mount St Mary’s rapped about street crime and the negative impact it has he says “I have seen it a couple of times and wanted to talk about it, the event has made me want to carry on performing and learn more about health, so I will definitely read more on the issues.”
Rachael McGarry a volunteer at Refugee Action is currently working  on a project for young people which aims to get them involved in sports and more activities. Rachael performed a piece on women and the way they are portrayed in the media. Rachael says “You can’t really talk about health so open but it is important to talk about especially with refugees who don’t know the country.The event has opened my eyes about health, particularly in the black community. ”

There was also a rhyme on health by Solomon who works with people who are challenged financially at the One Community Centre who said “It is important to reach people who are struggling financially; debt can cause mental health for many people. Richard has been inspirational and shown me how music can be relaxing; I will definitely try the method, especially with people I work with. We are planning a stall for the Debt Free Project next month in Lincoln Green and will use music as I have seen how relaxing it is.”

I was unaware I would have to perform but after being put on the spot I decided to be a good sport and quickly jotted something down and performed a extremely short piece titled:

Knowledge is power and power can bring change,
Change can lead to positivity and make the world a better place.
Change starts with you so stand up and take your place!

Ali says “The forum tries to do joint events, to work with disadvantaged groups, by organising these events we can let people have access and see what there is on offer. Refugee week is a celebration but also the best way to put on different events to raise and bring awareness.”

Throughout the workshop there was an emphasis on the importance of health problems and the need to talk about it. If anyone ever feels like there is something wrong they should talk about it with family, friends and get checked out as it is the only way to get better and from getting worse. Richard’s final message is simple “Your health is your wealth, the better you look after yourself, and the better you will be.”

After the workshop came to an end there was delicious food available for everyone to enjoy.
BHI is extending a warm invitation to men within the city to attend the Men's Health Dialogue on Thursday 27th June 2013, at Tiger 11 Hillside Beeston Leeds. There is a mini bus shuttle which will be going from the BHI office. 

BHI are also seeking people from the Black and Ethnic Minority community, who are living with lung cancer. If you can help or know someone who could call them on 0113 307 0300 for further information.


Together for Leeds Conference
Motivation Progress, Good Mental Health

Divine Charura, a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University in Counselling and Psychotherapy, led
the open discussion on Motivation Progress, Good Mental Health at the Together for Leeds Conference. Divine is a graduate member of the British Psychological society and also works as a UKCP registered adult
psychotherapist with experience in the voluntary sector and within the NHS.

He has years of various work experience in diverse psychiatric/clinical and therapeutic settings in the UK and abroad. Divine also has years of working as an individual and group supervisor and has written and presented papers and book chapters on different topics including Transcultural Psychology, Supervision, Addiction, Love, Family Work, Working with Young People, Trauma, Psychopathology and other complex mental health diagnoses. His background makes him an extremely knowledge individual to lead a discussion on such an important issue.

Feeling motivated is crucial to having good mental health, as when people become de-motivated they become trapped in a constant negative despair. This workshop was extremely insightful and showed the importance of feeling motivated.

The question ‘How to motivate refugees’ got people passionate right away. The first point mentioned by the group was the importance of integration, which members of the group did not agree with. Some raised the issue of there being a divide in communities as people only stick to people from their own cultures which leads to people not being able to integrate into other communities. However others felt when refugees come into a country, not knowing anyone and not being able to speak the language it is important to surround themselves with familiarity as it builds up confidence and a form of belonging.

As the debate went back and forth, in the end there was a common ground, in the problem that lies within housing. Refugees do not have control over where they are placed and therefore end up wherever they are housed. This may either lead them to being placed in a community with no other cultures or areas where there are predominately similar ethnic groups, which means they might be less inclined to socialise with other people and in turn miss out on opportunities such as learning the language, the countries customs and being able to integrate into the work force.

Another major issue with housing is that families with children have limited options of schools they can attend. A disadvantage of this is that sometimes the children can get labeled and by not having people from their own country in the same area it can lead to a disconnection to their roots as they have no one to relate to. One member of the group said his son goes to a school where there are no other children from his country and doesn’t want to speak his mother tongue.

The recommended solutions to both these important issues raised by the group were that there needs to be better control over housing by ensuring that communities and areas become more culturally integrated. This will not only lead to more cultural integration but it will also allow people who have misconceptions of refugees to understand more about them.

There was also a general agreement within the group that the media plays a big part in the de-motivation of refugees. The majority of media portrayal is negative, which leads to not only the public having a negative perception of refugees but also refugees of themselves. When Divine asked how many negative portrayals the group has seen nearly all of the participants raised their hand and when he asked how many positive stories they have heard or seen hardly anyone raised their hand. The media is extremely influential and when there are constant negativity portrayals being shown people will start to believe them. A participant of the discussion said “everyone has a vision when they leave their country but de-motivation starts at the airport and from there on, there are constant beating downs of your character”.

Another issue raised was the lack of support for those suffering from depression from health care practitioners. One participant felt that the current methods and dismissal the health care offers is not   supportive. A solution to this problem by participants  were the need for more practical and active classes being offered and there being better ways of communicating those to the refugee community.

The discussion could have carried on all day on how to motivate people and the various barriers there are to overcome those issues, however as the session was only 30 minutes long this was not possible. Discussing that there is a problem and the passion that the participants showed for the topic is a step forward.

If you have anything to add to the discussion that took place and have suggestions on how to improve those, please do comment below and voice your opinion.