Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. Jon Huntsman has become the second Mormon millionaire (the first being Mitt Romney) to announce his bid for the Republican candidacy for the 2012 presidential election.

Unusually for a Republican, he has worked for President Barack Obama, who appointed him as ambassador to Beijing. Obama's praise for Huntsman can be seen from about 30 seconds into this news report:

  

Huntsman's candidacy worries the Democrats. Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe said he felt "a wee bit queasy" when he floated the idea of running early in 2009. However, over at Hot Air, Jazz Shaw notes that this might not be a good thing:

All of the video clips making the rounds showing President Obama praising Huntsman will certainly be widely employed ammunition for the rest of the GOP field. But in the unlikely event that he somehow nabbed the nomination, those same clips would hobble the president in the general election. It would be fairly hard to start questioning the man's credentials after heaping that kind of praise on him.

2. Just hours before Huntsman announced his bid, Rick Santorum, a rival for the Republican nomination, released a video criticising him for not signing an anti-abortion pledge.

The video parodies the web videos of a man riding a motorbike through a dessert that the Huntsman team have put out over the last week to trail their candidate's formal declaration. In this spoof video, the character crashes at the end.

 

The Huntsman team was quick to respond, telling CNN:

People who rely on pledges usually don't have a record. Fortunately Governor Huntsman, a life-long, no flip flops pro-lifer, has actually signed anti-abortion legislation into law -- that's a signature that makes a difference.

3. The Texas governor Rick Perry's team is gearing up for unsubstantiated rumours about his sexuality to resurface if he runs for president. Back in 2004, it was reported that he was gay and that he and his wife planned to divorce. At the time, he blamed his political opponents, saying that the rumous "are not correct in any shape, form or fashion."

Speaking to Politico, his top strategist Dave Carney said:

This kind of nameless, faceless smear campaign is run against the Perry family in seemingly every campaign, with no basis, truth or success. Texas politics is a full contact support, live hand grenades and all; unfortunately there are always going to be some people who feel the need to spread false and misleading rumors to advance their own political agenda.

Dirty tricks and smear campaigns are not unusual in US politics, as the recent furore over Obama's birth certificate showed.

4. Reggie Brown, the comedian who was pulled off stage after racially questionable jokes about Obama at the Republican Leadership Conference last weekend, has defended his routine ("My mother loved a black man, and no she was not a Kardashian," he quipped, saying that while Michelle Obama celebrated all of black history month, Barack only celebrated half).

Although RLC President and CEO Charlie Davis told CNN that he was pulled because "we have zero tolerance for racially insensitive jokes", Brown suspects another motive:

I was at the Republican Leadership Conference, and I was just entering my set where I was starting to have some fun with the Republican candidates. I do believe that I was over my time by a few minutes, and I also believe that the material was starting to get to a point to where maybe they started to feel uncomfortable with where it was going.

He also denied that the racial content of his jokes had anything to do with it:

I didn't hear any boos on any of the racial jokes. The president, like myself, shares a mixed background. My mother's white, my father's black, and I feel very safe delivering content like that. And the president himself has poked fun at his heritage.

5. Michele Bachmann has been rather silent after performing unexpectedly well in a debate with Mitt Romney last week. This is surprising, given that Bachmann has been one of the most outspoken members of the House simce being elected to Congress in 2006 (who could forget her suggestion that Obama might be "anti-American"?)

According to the Washington Post, this is a "calculated strategy aimed at building message discipline within the ranks" ahead of 2012. Reportedly, this decision was made before the debate, and is being carried through to avoid trampling on the momentum created. Silence must certainly be a new experience for the Minnesota republican but some message discipline wouldn't go amiss. Several weeks ago, she castigated her campaign manager Ed Rollins' for saying that Sarah Palin is not been "serious".

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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“I will kill myself”: the gay Syrian refugee couple who could be deported from the UK

An EU law means the Home Office could decide to force the couple to leave Britain.

“We haven't any hope this war in Syria will finish. So now we are looking to another country. We're looking to another country to protect us. We haven't got a country anymore.”

Ahmed is a 29-year-old architecture student. In 2013, with a year left of his degree, the Syrian war intensified and he was forced to flee Damascus. He began the arduous journey across Europe with his boyfriend, Said*, hoping to claim refuge in the UK and finish his studies. When they arrived in London last December, he thought the traumatic 4,500km trek across the continent was over. Instead the UK Home Office is threatening the couple with deportation.

When Ahmed left Syria and headed for Istanbul he took nothing with him, hoping his stay would be temporary and that the war would soon end. It was there that he met his boyfriend Said, who, like Ahmed, had left everything behind and joined the city’s estimated 366,000 asylum seekers. They spent two difficult years in Istanbul; neither spoke Turkish, paying for rent and food was a struggle, work was hard to come by and poorly paid. Their relationship was kept strictly secret for fear of any repercussions from those they stayed with. All the while they prayed the situation back home would alleviate and allow for their return.

During his time in Istanbul he received a call from his mother; one of his brothers had been killed in the war. Details of his brother’s death were sparse, with his mother worried about the phone call being tapped, but Ahmed understands that he died trying to protect the district after the Assad regime’s military invaded. Along with one other brother, Ahmed’s mother is all that remains of his family in Syria, with his siblings scattered across Europe and the Middle East. Any lingering optimism of one day returning home, of the war dissipating, faded. With nothing left to keep them in Istanbul and the situation fast becoming untenable, Ahmed and Said decided to move on.

“We stayed together, we supported each other and that made life easier for us,” says Ahmed. “So we decided to not live in Istanbul. There was no chance to stay there. I made a deal with someone to go by boat. We paid money for that, about one thousand dollars. It was so scary to do it. We hadn't any other choice.”

They made their journey across the Aegean Sea with 30 other refugees. Arriving safely ashore, they spent two days in Greece before moving north on foot towards Hungary. They waited at the now closed Hungarian border for two days, uncertain of their next move, until hearing rumours that the Croatian border had been opened.

“We went to Croatia and they [Croatian officials] took us from the border and they put us in a place like a prison,” Ahmed recalls. “It was so bad. We didn't know what happened. We didn't know anything. They took us in a van. It was like a small building with a big campus and it was like there was a big wall around. And cameras everywhere.”

Ahmed estimates that around 500 other refugees were detained at the compound while he was there. During their 48 hour incarceration, they slept outside, were fed three meals a day (usually a bread roll and tuna) and kept completely ignorant about what was to happen to them and why they were there. Eventually officials forced them to register their finger prints and took them to the northern border.

“We refused to do our fingerprints but they said they would not let us go, unless we give our fingerprints,” he says. “They took us from border to border in a van. We have the worst memories there. We didn't know where we were going. We were like animals.”

Passing through Austria, Germany and France, they eventually came to Calais. After spending some time living in the infamous jungle camp, they snuck on to a lorry, crossed the channel and arrived in London. After spending a few nights at his ex-boyfriend’s place, a French-Syrian national and the only person Ahmed knew in the UK, the couple went to the Home Office to file for asylum.

But when they arrived, officials refused to see them. Despite their desperate situation, they were told that they didn’t have an appointment and had to come back in ten days. Instead, they returned two days later, this time assisted by the UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group (UKLGIG), who were concerned that the Home Office was illegally turning people away.

“We went to the Home Office to observe as we were very concerned that they didn't have anywhere to live,” says Paul Dillane, executive director of UKLGIG. “If you're destitute you're allowed to turn up immediately, without an appointment, because what else are you supposed to do? We said to the Home Office if they don't get accommodation today I have to pay for a hotel and we don't have the money for that.”

After arriving at 8am, Ahmed and Said were interviewed by six interrogators, as they tried to establish whether to even register their claim to asylum.  “I didn't expect anything from the Home Office, I just wanted to be legal here,” says Ahmed. “I didn't want financial support. I want to go to university. That's it. If I go to another country where they don't speak English it is difficult for me to finish and start university again.”

Eventually, at 6pm, the Home Office agreed to register them and find them accommodation, albeit temporarily. Ahmed and Said are now living in a small studio apartment in Rochdale. It’s the first time since leaving Syria they have had anything resembling a home, the first time in their lives they have felt able to live openly as a gay couple. Such respite may prove short-lived.

Because Ahmed and his boyfriend first entered Europe through Greece, according to an EU law (the Dublin III Regulation) it’s Greece that should take responsibility for their claim. But as the situation in Greece is now a humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 2,000 arriving every day, the UK government no longer deports asylum seekers there. It’s of little consolation to Ahmed. Having heard nothing for weeks, he received a letter summoning him to the Home Office; according to his lawyer, the Home Office is making plans to transfer the couple back to Croatia.

“Even if legally it's possible, the question is: is it the right thing for the government to do?” asks Dillane. “600,000 refugees have gone through Croatia to Germany, and Croatia is struggling to cope. Not to mention only three gay asylum seekers have ever successfully claimed asylum there.”

If Ahmed and his boyfriend are deported back to Croatia there is no guarantee they will be granted asylum. Just three LGBT refugees have been successful in their applications to Croatia, and with more refugees entering the country every day the country’s asylum network is coming under increasing pressure.

Last September, David Cameron announced that the UK would resettle 20,000 asylum seekers by 2020 and that LGBTI refugees would be included in the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement programme. Despite this, Ahmed and Said could still face deportation.

“David Cameron has said he's very worried about the treatment of gay men in Syria because so many of them have been killed by ISIS, by Dhaesh, and so Britain is going to take gay men from Jordan and Lebanon and bring them here,” says Dillane. “The Prime Minister used LGBT Syrians as justification for air strikes. And this week he has been saying countries need to step up, give more, do more. Yet here are two people you're offloading onto a country that can barely cope. How do those two things fit together?”

Today Ahmed will meet with the Home Office to hear the decision. As far as he and his lawyer are aware, the outcome has yet to be decided; the Home Office could concede and accept their claim to asylum, it could simply decide to postpone any decision to a later date. Ahmed’s fear though is he will be immediately detained and deported to Croatia. Having come this far, losing everything and risking more, it’s a fate he refuses to accept.

“We can't go back. I will not go back,” he says. “I’ve decided if they take me to Croatia I will do anything. I will kill myself. I lost everything. I came here and I lost everything. If they would force me to go to Croatia I don't have anything to lose. It will be the end. To stay here . . . will be a life for us. It will not just be asylum, it will be more than that. It will be a real life. We haven't a life anymore. We haven't a lot of choices. We haven't any choices.”

*name changed to protect anonymity as Said’s family do not know that he is gay.