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.
Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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