Time for a change on asylum

How thousands are detained in Britain without charge and the story of one person who chooses to visi

The long-running political row over the latest anti-terrorism proposals to detain people without charge for up to 42 days has been in stark contrast with the silence over the 2,000 men, women and children detained in the UK without charge.

These are the failed asylum seekers who are held for days, months or years in one of 10 prison-like, immigration removal centres scattered around the UK, and they are invisible.

But when they are noticed, it is generally by the tabloids and right-leaning think tanks. A recent example: The Sun reported that the ‘foreign lags’ in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre are living in a ‘holiday camp’.

Well, for the past 18 months I have spent a couple of hours each week visiting these so-called foreign lags in Colnbrook and Harmondsworth next door, and from what they have told me and from what I have seen, it couldn’t be further from Butlins.

The two centres are next door to the Heathrow Sheraton and you could mistake them for anonymous hotels designed for delayed passengers and tired cabin crew. However, after the first glance, you see swathes of barbed wire, barred windows and uniformed officers milling around.

As a visitor, you require two forms of ID; finger prints and a photo are taken; and there is a thorough search. The atmosphere is a heady mix of loud, oppressive, emotional and distressing. Children are crying, couples are holding each other; and there’s me, talking to a stranger about politics, Hollyoaks, torture, music, desperately missed wives and children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and the infamously bad food.

I started visiting detained, failed asylum seekers during the summer heat wave in 2006. The political temperature was also running pretty high and the tabloids were baying for the blood of the now ex-home secretary, Charles Clarke.

The tabloids were scandalised to learn that foreign residents were released after completing a prison sentence. “They must be deported!” they shrilled, and the home secretary hastily complied. Inevitably mistakes were made, like attempting to deport British citizens. Abdul, my first client, told me he was British passport holder, who had come here with his family at 18 months old.

He had committed a petty crime and on completion of a short prison sentence, he received a notification of intention to deport to Bangladesh. After a speedy intervention from his solicitors in the High Court, he was allowed to go home to his British wife and children.

Aside from British citizens, torture victims also should not be detained according to the Home Office’s own guidelines. Michael, 20, from Uganda, and I got to know each other well as the many months passed in first Colnbrook and then Harmondsworth and he told me why he came to the UK: he came to the UK after the 2006 Ugandan elections, he was, and in exile, still is a prominent member of the youth wing of Uganda’s opposition party.

He was tortured by the Ugandan authorities – it is clear to see that some fingers nails on each hand have been pulled out - and he told me that he was badly beaten as a warning. He came to the UK soon after. Michael was on the ‘fast-track’ system, whereby the Home Office makes a decision on a ‘straightforward’ case within 24 hours, with a 99 per cent refusal rate.

According to Michael’s documentation from the Home Office, one reason why his case has been refused is due to the fact that the Home Office does not believe his claim that he was very politically active from 16 and became a constituency campaign manager for the youth wing of the party.

Perhaps, thanks to the political torpor among much of Britain's youth, the Home Office’s scepticism isn’t surprising. His case continues two years later and will be heard in the High Court in the coming months. He is no longer detained and receives counselling for post traumatic stress disorder.

The Home Office states people should be detained for as short a time as possible before removal. Currently, I visit Kak Ahmed from Kurdistan, who has so far been detained for 16 months after a short prison sentence.

He has told me that he can’t get out of Colnbrook because someone with the same name as him failed to comply with their bail conditions.

He feels that he and his solicitor have presented proof of the mistake, but judges repeatedly refuse him bail, believing he will abscond.

His solicitor is now taking this issue to the High Court. Kak Ahmed has severe medical problems, which the Kurdish government have stated cannot be treated in Kurdistan. So he is stuck in the system and being stuck means being deprived of liberty with no end in sight.

The UK is one of a handful of European countries that detains failed asylum seekers indefinitely, with no automatic right to legal advice, with no automatic right to bail and with no automatic case review.

Detention of failed asylum seekers is at the cutting edge of human rights but the majority of people, campaigning organisations, lawyers, journalists and politicians skip over these invisible thousands to politically safer territory.

I try to make a small difference to individuals where I can, but this isn’t scratching even the surface of the problem; there needs to be a sea change in government legislation that will end the indefinite deprivation of liberty that even terror suspects (rightly) avoid.

All the names in this article - including the author's - have been changed

Katie Walker independently visits Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre. She currently campaigns with the World Development Movement. She hold a Masters with Distinction in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights.
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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.