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.

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times