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.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
Show Hide image

Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit