Out of the frying pan ... how Britain lets down its most vulnerable migrants

Alan White details the failure of the UK Border Agency to help Margaret Nambi, and many others like her.

Margaret Nambi tells me why she left Uganda. She was at home with her husband and children when the soldiers burst in.

My husband was a soldier. He wanted to leave the Government army. He resigned. Then they attacked us in our house. They asked him where he was getting his money from, and claimed that he was in the pay of Joseph Kony. They kicked him to the floor. My children were shouting. They put a mattress over the children.

The writer Jane Bussmann has talked about how, when she heard a Ugandan describe the atrocities he had suffered, the subtle differences in how he used the English language brought the horror into sharper relief.

A soldier cut me with a knife. He raped me. Then another one joined in. He kept hitting me until I gave up. I was raped again. But this time at the back. I saw my husband on the floor. I thought he was dead. They saw him and panicked. They told me, you, lady, we’ll come back tomorrow to deal with you. You knew your husband was supporting the Kony group and you didn’t tell us. I was scared.

At 5am the next morning, she sent her children to their grandmother’s village.

I covered my face in traditional dress and went to friend’s house. My friend went to a doctor. I had treatment on an open wound on my chin. At the back there was another wound, which he treated with a cream.

I contacted a friend who was living in London. She phoned people who could help me get to England. My husband had given me money so I used that to escape.

Nambi arrived in England. At her initial interview with Border Agency (UKBA) officials, she didn’t speak about being raped.

[In my screening interview] I was put in front of two men – I felt guilty. Now, I realise from the people I see around me that it’s common, that I could have talked about it.

Her initial application was refused. She appealed, but her lawyers dropped her case. This was due to the new merits test, which allows them to pre-judge a case before a judge does. If you’re deemed to have a less than 50 per cent chance of winning at appeal, you’re not deemed to be entitled to legal aid. She had told the lawyer she was raped, but they chose not to gather any extra psychiatric evidence, so this was never considered at her hearing. 

The woman who had purportedly helped Nambi escape to England expected her to do domestic work for her. Once her claim was dismissed, the woman was threatening to have Nambi deported. She told her to have sex with men, from whom she was taking money. Nambi managed to escape that situation only when the woman died in a car accident, and later went to the organisation Women Against Rape.

As Sian Evans from the organisation tells me:

Her asylum claim is closed, partly because of poor legal representation, which is quite typical.  Cases of women not mentioning rape at the first time of asking are common, but instead of the difficulties they have about talking about this being taken into account, they’re actually used against them.  Women like Ms Nambi end up destitute, vulnerable to further rape and other exploitation by others.

With Women Against Rape’s help, Nambi’s new fresh claim for asylum was lodged on October 8th. It included evidence from a psychiatrist that corroborated the fact she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of rape, and documented evidence of the physical injuries she suffered. She was asked to report to the Border Agency the following day, and was taken into detention at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. 

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Yarl’s Wood holds 900 inmates: at the time it was opened in 2001, it was the biggest in Europe. It is operated by the private contractor Serco. Since it opened, it has been dogged by controversy – most recently, on 11 January 2011, the High Court ruled that the continued detention of the children of failed asylum seekers at Yarl's Wood is unlawful.

In 2010, a hunger strike began when a number of women protested their indefinite detention. The hunger strike was escalated when, according to a Guardian report:

Seventy women taking part in a protest were locked in an airless corridor without water or toilet facilities.

Oddly enough, Crystel Amiss, from Black Women’s Rape Action, has a similar story to tell me about what happened this week; a story which until now has gone barely reported.

Amiss claims that on Monday, one of the women with whom she was working was dragged out of the isolation centre naked, in order to force her removal. The other women were upset. They immediately reacted, and held a peaceful protest to demonstrate. Hundreds of them immediately began to refuse their food at lunchtime, and again at evening. They demanded to meet directly with the UKBA. 

Serco’s management told them UKBA wouldn’t meet with them unless it was one-by-one. The women refused, saying that these were divide-and-rule tactics. A stand-off continued into the second day. According to Amiss the women followed a manager, and they were immediately locked in the corridor that leads to the UKBA offices – exactly as happened two years ago. They were held there without food and water, and were let out a few at a time. There was a mix of women with illnesses and disabilities there. The stand-off continued for eight hours. Amiss says the centre was then placed on lockdown.

She says:

They just watched the women get more and more distressed and then picked out the ones they’d release. Now internet access has been blocked, and access to legal teams has been blocked. It can affect cases where women are on what’s called the detained fast track – where the case can be decided within days. They’re losing valuable time to research the information they require from the Internet or send paperwork to courts. The healthcare services are also on lockdown, and one woman has told us she hasn’t been able to get the medication she requires for her PTSD.

When asked about the protests, a spokesman for UKBA said:

Detention is only ever used as a last resort after all attempts to encourage individuals to leave voluntarily have failed. No-one is detained for any longer than necessary, however there are those who prolong detention because of their attempts to frustrate the removal process. They must take responsibility for that. All detainees are treated with dignity and respect.

The agency also gave a very different description of the protest: it claims that the corridor was unlocked, and that the women were asked to return to their rooms but all declined. This description is a long way from the multiple reports coming in to Amiss. One wonders how long it will take for the truth to emerge. 

Other worrying details have recently come out of Yarl’s Wood. Only last week Private Eye ran a story about a Serco job ad from the detention centre seeking a “laundry assistant” – a job that pays £1.50 a day. As the magazine noted:

Not only does this provide the company with captive cheap labour, it can then make paltry savings on the toiletries and the other small necessities that the detainees, desperate for any income, will spend their money on. . . Not only does it flout minimum wage law for those who have a right to work, but it also breaches the Government’s own punitive policy of not allowing failed asylum seekers the right to work.

According to Amiss, any women who’ve taken part in these protests have been sacked from this work. 

In 2010, the journalist Melanie McFadyean visited the centre, in what she called a PR exercise on behalf of the centre which backfired. It seems the underlying issues haven’t ever gone away. As she said at the time:

It's done in our name, paid for by our taxes, creating profits for private companies and their shareholders.

She then quoted Christopher Hyman, Chief Executive of Serco Group plc, which runs Yarl's Wood, announced on publication of profits last year:

We were awarded record level of contracts, entered a number of important new markets, and delivered a strong financial performance.

Research has found that 70 per cent of the women in the centre are rape survivors. That’s why Amiss’s organisation is so keen to see the Border Agency adheres to the guideline whereby victims of torture with independent expert evidence to back up their claim are not detained. 

Evans says:

The Home Office said Ms Nambi was being detained because they’re expecting to remove her imminently, but they hadn’t even made a decision on her fresh asylum claim. It suggested they pre-judged the case. Another woman told us that a UKBA case worker summoned her in and told her ‘It doesn’t matter what your lawyer puts in – I’m going to turn you down.’ It seems to me that they’re only prepared to pay lip service to the law.

In Nambi’s case, the law appears to have been flouted. How long would she be locked up in this centre for “immediate removal”? It was hard to say: Amiss’s charity has several long-term detainees on its books, including one whose incarceration stretches back to May.

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In fact, it wasn’t so long. Yesterday she received a decision: she will be flown back to Uganda on Thursday. UKBA say that nothing has been added to her case – even though they accept that she is reporting rape for the first time:

The fact that she may not be able to access the same support in Uganda is not a sufficiently compelling reason to justify allowing her to remain.

Evans says:

Whilst UKBA challenge some aspects of Ms Nambi’s case it doesn’t deny that she was raped. But it rejects expert evidence, including from us, about how severely traumatised Ms Nambi is and her inability to survive if sent back. We are helping Ms Nambi to fight on in the courts and stop her removal.

Yarl's Wood detention centre. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty Images/Ian Forsyth
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The big battle in Corbyn's Labour party will be over organisation, not ideas

Forgotten and near-moribund institutions of the parliamentary Labour party will become vital once again, explain Declan McHugh and Will Sherlock. 

“Decidedly downbeat” was Chris Mullin’s assessment of the first Parliamentary Labour Party meeting following the 2001 landslide General Election victory. Blair was “received well, but without elation … the managing director was treated to some blunt warnings that this time around the boys and girls on the shop floor expect to be treated with more consideration.”

Assuming he wins the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn’s first PLP meeting will be anything but downbeat. The ‘shop floor’ will be more akin to a Lions’ Den. Labour’s new figurehead will face a PLP overwhelmingly opposed to him. Many will question the legitimacy of his election and some will reject his authority. From day one, he will face a significant number of Labour MPs not merely against him but actively out to get him. There has probably never been a situation where a leader of the Labour Party has been so far removed from the parliamentary party which he supposedly commands.

The closest historical parallel with Corbyn is arguably George Lansbury, another ardent socialist who took charge of the party after serious electoral defeat. But the comparison doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Lansbury may have been on the left but he had been a leading figure at the top of the party for many years. Corbyn has never been anything but part of the Labour fringe – rarely even attending PLP meetings.

Nevertheless an immediate move to oust him is unlikely. Whatever their concerns about the circumstances of his election, the scale of the contest will make MPs nervous about executing a coup. And crucially there is no obvious alternative leader waiting in the wings.

The internal battle against Corbyn will instead be more drawn out and fought through the internal structures of the party. The number of Labour MPs showing a sudden and hitherto undiscovered interest and expertise in the PLP Standing Orders is an indication of what is to come. When Labour is in government, journalists pay little notice to obscure internal committees. Now they are going to be the centre of attention. The PLP may be energised on an organisational front in a way that it never was during the Blair, Brown and even Miliband years. Conflict is likely to be focused in the following arenas:

  • Shadow Cabinet

Corbyn is now understood to populate his shadow cabinet by appointment, but opponents in the PLP are seeking a return to the system of elections. That will not be straightforward. Although the 2011 decision to end elections was primarily achieved by means of a PLP vote to change Standing Orders, it was subsequently agreed by the NEC and passed into party rules by Conference. It will be harder to undo that constitutional knot than it was to tie it. The PLP can vote to change Standing Orders again but the NEC and Conference will need to reflect that in further amendments to party rules if the decision is to have constitutional authority. That sets the scene for a messy clash between the PLP and the NEC if Corbyn chooses to defy the parliamentary party.

 

Even if elections are restored, it is not clear how Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP will respond. MPs seeking the return of shadow cabinet elections hope to run a slate of candidates who will work to emasculate the new leader. But others have already resolved to boycott the front bench, regardless of how it is selected. Corbyn’s opponents face a dilemma. On the one hand abandoning the shadow cabinet may be viewed as walking off the pitch at a time when others are prepared to get stuck in and organised. On the other, it will be impossible to take a shadow cabinet post without signing up to some level of collective responsibility. That means undergoing the daily grind of defending the party line in front of the 24 hour media spotlight, with all statements scrutinised and recorded by Conservative researchers for future use.  How many Labour MPs would be willing to support a Corbynite line on foreign affairs, defence and economic policy? The new Labour leader will soon find out.

 

  • PLP meetings

The Monday evening meetings of the PLP are a weekly arena in which the frontbench and the party leadership are held to account by the wider parliamentary party. In the Kinnock, Smith and Blair days, although occasionally raucous, there was a degree of deference to the Leader. That has waned of late but will likely be non-existent under Corbyn. No one can remember the last time the PLP voted on a matter of policy, but Standing Orders permit it to so – expect opponents of the leadership to use this device.

 

  • PLP Chair

John Cryer, the current PLP Chair, will have his work cut out trying to manage what are likely to be stormy meetings. Moreover, the annual election of the Chair is an important barometer of the parliamentary party’s mood and the easiest means of organising a proxy vote on confidence in the leader. Importantly, the Chair of the PLP approves what motions can be tabled at the weekly PLP meeting. 

 

  • Parliamentary Committee

The parliamentary committee are effectively shop stewards for the backbenchers and the election of representatives is similarly a reflection of political sentiment in the PLP. New elections won’t happen until next May but the PLP could decide to initiate earlier elections. Labour MPs will ask whether the current committee, which includes one Corbyn nominator, is representative of the majority view. If not, a slate opposed to the leader could be organised. The Parliamentary Committee has executive powers that it rarely uses but this may change and will be significant. 

 

  • Departmental Groups

The PLP’s internal policy committees have been in decline since the early years of Tony Blair and have rarely made waves but have potentially important powers, including the right of Committee Chairs to speak from the Despatch Box. MPs may use these bodies to challenge frontbench policy positions in a way that no leader has experienced, promoting alternative agendas at odds with the leadership line on foreign affairs, defence and the economy. The Chairs have not yet been elected and this could be a key focus in the autumn.

 

  • Whips Office

The idea of Jeremy Corbyn directing the PLP to follow three-line whips is, to many, a source of amusement. A man who regularly topped the charts of rebel MPs will struggle to maintain the traditional system of party discipline – and indeed he has already indicated that he has no intention of “corralling” MPs in the traditional way. Most likely the whips will play a distinctly different role in the future, acting more as shop stewards for backbench MPs who want their concerns made clear to the Leader’s Office. And the likely deputy keader Tom Watson, who hails from the right wing union tradition but is close to some of the left, will play a major part in trying to balance the needs of the new leadership with the real anger of backbench Labour MPs.

Corbyn’s lack of authority and support within the wider parliamentary party puts a major question mark over his long term prospects as Labour leader. He would certainly lose any direct trial of strength against the PLP.

But the Corbynite group will seek to avoid confrontation inside Westminster. They believe their strength lies in the party outside Parliament and in the new influx of members and supporters. Their agenda will be to capitalise – though they might not use the term – on the leadership triumph by instituting rule changes that will revive the left within the party machine. Not just inside the NEC, the Conference and the party HQ but in the regional and constituency party organisation.

Most particularly, they are likely to seek to convert supporters into members, with a role in the selection of parliamentary candidates. By such means they will seek to apply external pressure on MPs from their own constituency parties. Labour members may be understandably wary about moving to decapitate a new leader so soon after his election. But they face a race against time to prevent him and his supporters from reshaping the party machine in ways that will undermine them from below.

 Will Sherlock and Declan McHugh are former Labour special advisers who now work at Lexington Communication.