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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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism