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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle