Laurie Penny on the coalition’s war on the disabled and destitute

Being sick and tired is no reason not to keep fighting - a growing number of people are refusing to accept this new, cruel reality.

Lucy Aldridge is on hunger strike. She is disabled, but her state benefits were suspended after she received a “death-in-service” payment for her 18-year-old son William, the youngest British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. New, harsh welfare rules mean that Aldridge, from Herefordshire, is entitled to nothing.

Christos Palmer is on hunger strike. The 32-year-old Welshman is also disabled, and has spent the past month protesting outside the Cardiff offices of Atos Origin, the private firm charged with turfing thousands of sick people off the welfare rolls. “After a few days, due to a lack of nutrients, the hunger striker will feel dizzy and faint,” explains Palmer, whose bodyweight has plummeted following his protest. “Why do people like myself and Lucy take this form of action in protesting? We see it as a last resort. No-one seems to be listening to us. We are the invisible silent minority that everyone is happy to ignore.”

A hunger strike is a phenomenal act of willpower. It’s a final attempt to wrest back dignified control of your own body when your dignity and control have been confiscated. That’s why the hunger strike has historically been a strategy employed by political prisoners and peaceful civil rights protesters: it’s the last resort of proud, desperate people with nothing to lose. It is suicide as spectacle.

The hunger strikers have assumed – as most of us did, until very recently – that the government gives a damn about whether or not very poor, sick people die early and in pain. Given recent pronouncements by the Department of Work and Pensions, this may be a dangerous assumption. Over the past four years, an all-out assault has been underway against the disabled and unemployed in Britain. The attacks have come on all fronts, from the financial to the moral – rewriting the social script in this country so that the needy are no longer full human beings with just as much right to a life as anyone else, but parasites, scroungers, burdens on the state, barely even human.

Let’s step back for a moment. Let’s take a look at how far we’ve come.The modern welfare state was founded to liberate people from hunger, poverty and want. The document that laid those foundation, the Beveridge Report, was released 70 years ago this month and it makes for fascinating reading, not least because one so seldom encounters a government document which proposes to make life better for people, rather than burying planned abuses under shovelfuls of waffly obfuscation.

Beveridge, who was far from a radical, proposed that nobody should be left destitute by virtue of being unable to work. Bear in mind that this report was written in 1942, when the nation was at war. “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching,” wrote Beveridge in the introduction, which recommends a minimum guaranteed income level for every citizen, leaving everyone the option to earn more and improve his or her circumstances.

When the welfare state was built, the world was changing. A working class which had been asked to put itself on the line to fight fascism and protect a faltering British Empire was growing restless. For the first time, the notion that being sick, widowed or unemployed might not have to mean living in the sort of hunger and filth described in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier seemed like more than airy fantasy. In the early years of the Second World War there were still 100,000 people living in ghoulish, Victorian-era workhouses. There are no workhouses left today – they were closed after the modern welfare system was instituted, and the buildings turned into retirement homes and community centres – but the ability of those who would once have needed them to live free, independent lives is rapidly disappearing.

The Conservative front bench is keen to remind us that the world of work has changed since Beveridge’s day. One of the most important changes has been that a full salary can no longer be expected to provide any sort of decent standard of living, or indeed to cover basic rent in many cities where employment is to be found – which is why the majority of recipients of housing benefit, among other benefits, are in work. And yet the fantasy that removing benefits will “get Britain working” continues, because we allow it to.

In a time of soaring joblessness, encouraging an underpaid or unemployed person to seek work by removing their benefits is rather like encouraging a desert traveller to find an oasis by setting them on fire.You cannot simply bully people into jobs that aren’t there. Nor can you order a person to get on their bike and look for work, as Norman Tebbit did in 1981, if it is physically impossible for them to ride a bike, or, indeed, to stand.

You can, of course, bully them off the welfare rolls so that your figures for unemployment and incapacity aren’t quite so embarassing when election time rolls around. Indeed, up to 1.8 million needy new claimants may have been frightened away from applying for benefits to which they are entitled for that reason. This sort of figure-fiddling only works for so long. A dramatic increase in net national destitution tends to get noticed, after a while. If you’re going to accustom people to living smaller, meaner lives, you need to persuade them that it’s wrong to want more and always has been. You need to tell them they’re scroungers, spongers and shirkers. You need to get rid of other people’s empathy by blaming them for every possible social ill. You need to justify the degradation of the disabled.

And that’s just what’s been happening in Britain over the past decade, as the poisonous rhetoric of “shirking” and “scrounging” has come to dominate the mainstream debate about social security, the truth about benefits obscured by fairytales about welfare recipients living rent-free in mansions made of gingerbread in a magical land of full employment.

This week, a study by the Elizabeth Finn charity revealed that press attitudes towards benefit recipients have hardened considerably in recent years, and that many of the negative stories about benefit claimants parroted in the tabloid press have been instigated by a government determined not to let the facts get in the way of its philosophy of slashing state support for all but the extremely wealthy.

It's difficult to stay calm about this. I'm finding it difficult, as someone who has been writing and campaigning about the attack on welfare for four years and more, since I was a caregiver with a severely disabled boyfriend who went through the process of prostrating himself for incapacity benefits that came too late or not at all. Back then, it was the Labour Party attacking disabled people’s right to live with dignity. The Work and Pensions Minister whose offices we were picketing was James Purnell, not Iain Duncan Smith, who today mouths the same torturous rhetoric about getting people back to work by taking away their means of support.

In those four years, years in which the insanity of ripping enormous holes in the social safety net during a double-dip recession has only become starker, disability campaigners have made the arguments over and over again about why we need a welfare state. We’ve watched extremely sick people sacrifice what little health and energy they have fighting for their rights to live independently, coming back from welfare offices with stories of being made to walk until they fall over, being made to undress to show their self-harm scars, and still being turned away. We’re getting weary of explaining why blaming those who have almost nothing, not even their health, for the state of the economy is callous and evil.

It’s a struggle to come up with new ways to reiterate the facts behind the torrent of propaganda pouring out of the Conservative press office. It’s a struggle to remind people that welfare costs have risen because wages have failed to rise; that most welfare recipients are in work; that the rates of benefit fraud, far from being a drain on the state, are as low as they've ever been, at one per cent; that the cost of corporate tax avoidance to the exchequer (£25bn a year) is a hundred times higher than the cost of benefit fraud, and yet it is the poor and needy whom the government chooses to blame for the state of the economy.

Those who’ve been fighting this cause for years are sick and tired of repeating the arguments over and over again and watching the public conversation about disability slide backwards into hate and suspicion. We’re sick and tired of hearing about another disabled person dying or committing suicide days after being found “fit” for work that isn’t there, another terminal cancer patient sent to the job centre, another person afraid to leave the house on crutches because they might face harassment, another parent or caregiver watching helplessly as their loved ones sink into despair, as their health and hope are worn away.

Right now, reading over the government’s latest plans to take away benefits for everyone under 25 who isn’t earning money, I don’t want to lay out yet another reasonable case for why humans shouldn’t have to starve because they weren’t born rich. I want to put my fist through the computer screen until it comes back bloody. I’m sick and tired of the cruelty and the lies.

But being sick and tired is no reason not to keep fighting. Karen Sherlock, who died in June after a suspected heart attack, not long after having her benefits cut and being told to seek work by the DWP, was sick, and she was tired. She was just 44 years old, and severely disabled. In one of her last blog posts, she wrote: “We need to be passionate about standing up for our rights. If we can make enough noise, and get enough people to listen then we can overturn the inhumane changes this parasitic government have made.”

There is a growing phalanx of people in this country refusing, like Karen Sherlock, like Christos Palmer and Lucy Aldridge, to accept this new, cruel reality. Disabled people and their allies are refusing to lie down meekly and accept their new status as scapegoats and social parasites. They are angry, and desperate, and prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect their right, and others’ rights, to live with dignity. If the rest of us aren’t standing with them, we ought to be.

Laurie Penny is an NS contributing editor

Disabled protestors demonstrate at Parliament in May 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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The EU-Turkey refugee deal only succeeded in one thing

It swept the humanitarian crisis under the carpet.

The Greek island of Chios is a picturesque holiday resort, and home to some 50,000 Greek residents. The occasional cruise boat moors alongside the fishing boats which populate the main harbour of the island. Tourism and fisheries make up the majority of the island’s economy.  A 7km stretch of sea separates Chios from Turkey. It is so close that you can look across the water and see the lights come on in houses in Çeşme as night falls. This beautiful island is also one of the scene of an unfolding and largely untold humanitarian disaster. It is evidence that the EU-Turkey deal in March, intended to stem the flow of refugees, has failed. 

Chios is home to more than 3,000 asylum seekers. Refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, make the perilous crossing from Turkey every day. Smugglers launch tiny rubber boats in the middle of the night, over capacity to a dangerous level, to attempt the crossing. One Syrian boy told us that the smuggler on the boat counted down from 10 to calculate when the best time was to purposefully puncture the side of the boat in order to escape the Turkish coastguard, but be rescued from drowning by the Greeks.

As a result of these cavalier strategies, this scenic stretch of water has become the grave of thousands. Those who are rescued by the Turkish authorities rather than Greece are often detained. Such high stakes has not deterred the refugees - one family we knew of had tried 17 times to get to Chios from Turkey. 

The main camp on Chios, "Vial", is at the end of a dusty track and is housed in a disused aluminium factory surrounded by barbed wire. G4S, the private security firm, guards the entrance to the European Asylum Support Office compound. It looks more like a prison than a place of refuge. The majority of the refugees live in metal containers. The camp was constructed to hold 1,100 and now holds approximately twice as many.

Most of the migrants and refugees who arrived in Greece before the EU-Turkey deal have been moved to the mainland, nominally in the hope of relocation elsewhere in Europe. More recent arrivals on Chios (and those simply left behind) have been subject to the hastily-adopted Greek Law 4375/2015, which allows for the lengthy detention of asylum seekers on arrival.

While camps on other Greek islands operate as de facto prisons, on Chios, the police allow refugees to travel around (but not leave) the island. A bus service is provided between Vial and the island’s main city, to allow those housed in unofficial camps to come to Vial for appointments. This is a tacit acknowledgement that makeshift camps are needed for those who cannot be accommodated in Vial’s limited facilities. Thus, the entire island is turned into an open prison camp, with asylum seekers unable to leave until their claims are determined, a process taking upwards of six months. During that time refugees, many of whom have fled from unimaginable horror, are left in an endless waiting game.

In May 2016, a Human Rights Watch report called the refugee “hotspots” on the Greek islands, such as Vial, “unsanitary and unsafe” . By September, when we arrived, the situation had not improved. The conditions in the camps around Chios were shocking. Violence was a daily event - both between asylum seekers and from the frustrated local population. Children, at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, would simply disappear. We would spend hours searching the camps, armed with lists of unaccompanied minors, asking everyone we saw if they had seen this or that child. Some had already become desperate enough to risk their lives in the hands of human traffickers, in order to escape from the very place where they initially sought sanctuary. Shortly after we left Chios we heard that seven people had suffocated to death in a fridge trying to reach the mainland. Isis were known to be recruiting in the camps. 

Unaccompanied children were left to live together in overcrowded containers, often without enough beds. They would take it in turns to stay awake on guard. Food was often inedible. Access to medical treatment was limited. In Vial, the medical facilities were located inside the disused aluminium factory. To be able to speak to a doctor, you first had to get the permission of the police officers manning the entrance gate. People were sometimes left waiting there for days in the baking heat of summer.

It is no surprise that most of the refugees we met were self-harming, severely depressed and suicidal. It is also no exaggeration to say that everyone we interviewed said they would rather be dead than live in this limbo on Chios. Many of the refugees who arrive in Greece are already seriously traumatised. Large numbers of them are victims of torture, or bereaved or wounded by the Syrian war. Almost all have been forced to flee their homelands because of incomprehensible suffering. The reception they receive in Europe only reinforces their trauma. “I didn’t expect Europe to be like this," a Kurdish Syrian refugee aged 18 told us. His entire family (26 members) had been killed in one bomb blast and he had been subjected to horrific torture under the Assad regime.

We volunteered in the camps on Chios providing legal aid. Any hopes we had on arrival of facilitating the speedy settlement of refugees in Europe were quickly dispelled. The structures in place on Chios for the processing of asylum applications were at breaking point. A tiny team of under-resourced and overworked staff from the Greek Asylum Service and European Asylum Support Organisation try to work through the mammoth backlog of cases, but with officers only conducting two asylum interviews per day each, the process moved at a glacial pace. Every day of infuriating bureaucracy is another day vulnerable people are left in appalling conditions. During this indeterminate period of delay in an individual’s protection claim being processed, the authorities failed to take any steps to disseminate information or timescales which would have minimised the psychological harm caused by the never-ending uncertainty.

So what can be done? A French legal NGO collected the accounts of 51 residents in the camps and applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to oblige Greece to take interim measures to safeguard the refugees from the risk of serious and irreversible harm. This application was quickly dismissed, with the residents being asked to wait (yet again) and abide by the usual procedures (yet again). The case of Raoufi and others v Greece, brought on behalf of several asylum seekers challenging their detention in camps in Greece, is pending before the ECtHR and doesn’t look likely to change the position for refugees in Europe any time soon. 

Some have placed their hopes in the controversial agreement between the European Union and Turkey, signed in March of this year. The heart of the EU-Turkey deal is the return of so-called "irregular migrants" to Turkey. Syrian refugees who reach Turkey are expected to make their asylum claims there and await relocation to Europe. Turkey will then, on a one-for-one basis, take migrants from Europe who have not patiently waited their turn. The supposed lawfulness of such a deal comes from the suggestion that Turkey is a "safe third country" to which to remove refugees. 

The attractiveness of this agreement to the EU, which comes at a cost of several billion euros, is that it may deter refugees from undertaking the dangerous (and politically inconvenient) crossing into Europe. While the European Commission has insisted that the numbers of refugee arrivals has fallen, their assertions are contradicted by aid agencies who point out that the temporary drop in arrivals following the EU-Turkey deal was short-lived. Refugees continue to arrive in large numbers on Chios, to face appalling conditions on reception. Few are returned to Turkey and the promised funding has not yet been provided to Turkey’s satisfaction.

Our experience on Chios was that the EU-Turkey deal is not only not working, it is fundamentally unworkable. Most of the refugees with whom we worked had passed through Turkey on their way to Greece. Almost all had stories of mistreatment in Turkey. In particular, we were told of guards on the Syrian border shooting and wounding at desperate people – including women and small children – attempting to cross into Turkey. Once in Turkey, arbitrary arrest and detention was the norm. Those migrants most likely to be returned to Turkey (because they cannot be returned to their country of origin) are Syrians, for whom Turkey is clearly not a "safe third country". Turkey’s systematic refusal to allow refugees fleeing Syria to cross its border is a clear breach of international law mandating the reception of refugees. Those refugees who manage to slip through into Turkey are left without meaningful protection or support. Kurds are systematically mistreated by the Turkish state while migrants in general face abuse by police, army officials and criminals. Turkey simply is not a safe third country for refugees, as is underlined by the tiny numbers of people found appropriate for return. 

The EU is seeking to resolve its refugee crisis by returning vulnerable people to inhuman conditions in breach of EU member states’ obligations under international law. The assessments as to whether the refugees are returnable to Turkey, are meaningless. Thousands of refugees are waiting for months for these assessments and yet a tiny minority have been found to be appropriate for return. 

In the meantime, a humanitarian disaster unfolds. The physical and mental health of those trapped in the camps deteriorate. Children are left without schooling or proper protection. Violence breaks out. Self-harm rises. Lives are irreparably damaged. Further delay, for political, economic or legal wrangling, is not an option. As long as the European Union fails to act, it remains complicit in these human rights violations. 

Miranda Butler, Maria Moodie, Bryony Poynor and Saoirse Townshend are barristers who recently volunteered in Chios, providing legal aid to refugees.