One month of hunger

How thirteen Sudanese asylum seekers starved their way to fairness.

Asylum seekers are often treated like criminals in the UK. Their claims are processed slowly, little effort is taken to ensure that translators are provided at key legal and medical briefings, and there is little or no pastoral help for those suffering the mental effects of torture and conflict in their own countries.

On 24 May thirteen Darfuri men at an immigration detention centre, named Campsfield House, went on hunger strike in protest of their treatment. Each with pre-existing health conditions which made the hunger strike incredibly dangerous, they continued on, refusing to take any nutrients or vitamins into their bodies until they were given the help which they needed to process their asylum claims, gained better treatment and were moved to safer institutions. They did not demand asylum, or threaten the UK should they not be immediately released, but they did ask for a safe resting place, legal representation and immediate healthcare.

Those with pre-existing health conditions, as diverse as HIV and gunshot wounds, were denied access to basic healthcare; legal assistance is minimal; and there is no reliable expectation about when detainees will be released.

Exactly one month later, with waning health and worrying weight loss, Malik, the last of the protestors, was released on bail awaiting his appeal hearing. Others remain in detention but, having been moved to other facilities, are willing to eat again.

These men represent just a handful of those held in detention without any idea of when they will be released; on 31 March 2012, of those in detention, 160 asylum seekers had been held for over a year. A Joint Committee on Human Rights report has pointed to a number of flaws in the detention system, showing that the hunger strikers are not alone in their discontent. The stories of the Campsfield protestors would resonate with many other detainees.

Malik was detained in the UK over six months ago, and was moved between Campsfield and similar centres in London. A Sudanese Arabic speaker with very little English, he could not communicate with his lawyer and was not provided with a translator. His case was dropped, without any member of the legal team or detention centre staff informing him. Legal representation must be properly provided to detainees before their cases can be listened to and they can regain the freedom which they have lost, often without crime.

Those facing a hearing on their asylum status are put in positions like Malik’s, unaware of their own circumstances and unable to influence their own situation. Mental instability and fragility can result from the circumstances under which they are held, combined with the tortuous situations from which they have fled. Detention centres are designed simply to house detainees, not to act as a welfare system for those facing mental health difficulties.

Asylum can only be granted to those who are in danger and any argument for full amnesty for asylum seekers would require far more space than we have here. Instead, this is a plea for the fair treatment of those who have sought help from our nation. In the words of the Joint Committee, those seeking asylum should be treated with “humanity and dignity”, not with strict bureaucratic allegiance. They should be helped and cared for as we would our own until the final verdict is offered. They should not be treated as criminals.

Malik’s release came as welcome news for protestors and supporters outside the camp, but this happy outcome is only a short-term victory. The stories of these men should serve as motivation to change the system of asylum which has been broken for years. These people and their month of hunger deserve to be remembered. These men starved for their fair treatment. For the sake of their, and other’s, human rights, dignity and justice, we need change.

UPDATE 28.06/2012 10.30 Malik is not the 'last of the protestors', as stated above. Two men remain on hunger strike in Harmondsworth Detention Centre, with one more having been released since Malik’s release. Finally, one man had to call off the strike for medical reasons but remains in Campsfield and continues to protest against his treatment.

 

Protestors at Dungavel Detention Centre in Edinburgh in 2005. The system has long been broken. Photo: Getty Images

Helen Robb reads PPE at Oxford University where she is deputy editor of ISIS magazine.

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I am an immigrant – and I believe “migrant” is a far from neutral term

 A seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious because we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

I am an immigrant. I came to the UK 20 years ago from the US to teach philosophy at the University of Sheffield, where I am now a professor. My American accent remains very strong. I used to be surprised when, despite hearing me speak, people would express anti-immigration sentiments to me, with a clear expectation of agreement. I would tell them that I am an immigrant. “I don’t mean you”, they’d respond, surprised that I count myself as an immigrant.

This shows that seemingly neutral words – like "immigrant" – are not always used in a neutral way. The supposedly neutral word "migrant" is increasingly used by the media to describe the large numbers of desperate people travelling into and across Europe, fleeing war and persecution.

But this use has recently come under attack.

To some, this attack is baffling. A migrant is just a person who migrates, surely, and these people are migrating. What can be wrong with this truthful description? One thing that might be wrong with it, however, is that, according to the UN, that’s not what a migrant is:

The term 'migrant'… should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of 'personal convenience' and without intervention of an external compelling factor.

While maybe among the desperate risking their lives to escape places like Syria and Afghanistan, there is a person or two who has joined them for reasons of “convenience”, these people are surely vanishingly rare. According to the UN, then, it is simply factually wrong to call these people migrants.

But why, a more compelling objection goes, should we even care about language? People are dying and need help, and there goes the left again worrying about words. The reason to care about language is that the language we deliberate in shapes our deliberations. We’d see this without hesitation if racial slurs were being used to describe these people. And few people of good will would defend Katie Hopkins’ use of the term "cockroach". We know all too well how such clearly dehumanising words help put in place patterns of thought that make genocide possible. But "migrant"? "Migrant" is not a slur. 

Those who study the intersection of language and politics, however, have become increasingly aware that terms that seem innocent, like "migrant", can do some of the worst damage. This is because we are not aware of the ways that they are affecting our thought. Almost all of us, below our consciousness, are prone to ugly biases that we would reject if we were conscious of them. We see this in studies showing that people presented with the same CV judge it to be less attractive if the name at the top is a typically black one.

Apparently innocent words can come to function as dogwhistles, speaking to our unconscious in ways that our egalitarian conscious selves would reject if only we realised what was going on.

In America, the apparently race-neutral term "welfare" has come to be so strongly associated with black people that attitudes to any policy described using this term correlate with racial attitudes. Fascinatingly, adding an explicit reference to race removes this effect – if it’s too obvious, our conscious egalitarian selves step in. And this is why a seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious: it is not, as the UN recognises, actually a neutral term. But it seems like it is – which means we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

The suggested alternative terms are "refugee" – which calls attention to the fact that these people are fleeing intolerable conditions of violence; and the simple "human being" – which reminds us of our moral obligations. Either of these is an improvement on the inaccurate "migrant", which threatens to distort our discussions without our even realising it.

Professor Jennifer Saul is from the University of Sheffield's Department of Philosophy.