Persecution of asylum seekers in Britain

How a group of London students were inspired to fight for asylum seekers in Britain

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

This time last year, two Ugandan twins, Judith and Mariah, came to speak at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies]. The twins, who were twenty at the time, had fled Uganda under horrendous circumstances; by the time they had managed to escape all of their close family were missing or dead. They had come to the UK seeking asylum but, as they explained to us, they had found continued persecution in a new form.

The twins’ bid for asylum had been rejected, despite the fact that one of the girls had been officially recognised as a victim of torture by the Medical Foundation. We were shocked to hear that they had been ‘detained’, or rather imprisoned for month at a time, on three separate occasions during the two years that they had been in the UK.

The Home Office had attempted to forcibly deport them but so far, against all odds, they had been able to stay. They described the psychological strain that they had been put under in detention, not knowing when they would be released from detention, as they put it: "even criminals know how long their sentence is".

They explained that this mental torture did not end with their release because each week, as ‘failed asylum seekers’, they had to register and could be re-detained, without warning, each time.

Unfortunately, their experience is not unique and the more you hear about the immigration system the worse it gets. Against the Home Office’s own guidelines, and against the European Convention of Human Rights, minors are detained, often for months at a time.

Children have actually been taken out of their primary school classes to be locked up. Documented victims of rape and other forms of torture are also detained as a matter of routine, despite the fact that this too contravenes official guidelines. So too are people with mental health problems. Furthermore, the experience of indefinite detention is in itself producing all kinds of mental health problems such as depression and schizophrenia.

Incidences of suicide and self-harm are, unsurprisingly, high. Detainees are systematically denied access to adequate healthcare and basic legal representation. The public, however, remains largely unaware of what is going on.

Over the half hour in which Judith and Mariah spoke our eyes were opened to the injustices and blatant human rights abuses being committed by our government, in our names. We left the talk shocked, angry and deeply distressed.

Then, less then two weeks later, Judith and Mariah were detained for a fourth time. This was something of a 'call to arms' for many of who had heard them speak and a group of us got together and started a campaign to stop their deportation and for their immediate from detention.

We began visiting and calling the girls and by lobbying the Home Office and MPs, which involved organising a petition, writing numerous letters and marching on the Home Office itself.

However, it became clear that the most effective route to their release was through the courts and we started to support their legal case, by putting them in touch with a good lawyer and assisting him with country of origin research.

When both of those routes were exhausted and they were scheduled for deportation, we engaged in more direct action. We flooded the offices of the airline with faxes telling them not to collude in the forced deportations and went to the airport to speak to passengers travelling on the same flight, explaining what was happening and pleading for them to support the girls in resisting their deportation. While one deportation was successfully stopped we eventually failed –in the end both girls were deported to Uganda.

The experience was emotionally very difficult for many of us, however in many ways it was also incredibly empowering. As a group we discovered capabilities we never knew and the potential to have a meaningful impact on other peoples’ lives. When the twins were deported the feeling in the group was very much that the battle might have been lost but that the war was far from over.

This academic year we have set up the SOAS Detainee Group as an official society at SOAS. Building on what we did with the Judith and Mariah, we aim to support people in immigration detention centres and/or those facing imminent deportation and also to raise awareness about the reality of the immigration experience. Fresher’s Week recruitment proved to be a big success and we now have roughly 70 active members.

Our group aims to build supportive relationships with detainees through regular visitation.

This is partly about providing emotional support but we are also in a position to inform people of their legal rights and put them in contact with legal and medical professionals.

Importantly, we emphasize empowerment and self-help over handouts and sympathy.

Our campaigns group will be running both in individual anti-deportation campaigns, similar to the Judith and Mariah campaign, but also more general campaigns focusing on issues such as young people in detention. We also have a fundraising and events committee which will be organising events at SOAS and in London throughout they year to raise both money and awareness for our cause.

Last weekend we had a successful training for the whole group, conducted by people from the different organisations we work with. Visitation and campaign work have now begun in earnest.

If you are interested in funding our activities, or would just like to find out more about our group then you can contact the SOAS Detainee Group .

We particularly interested in collaborating with students from other universities and if you want to arrange a talk or event at your uni around this issue, or would like to set up a similar kind of group give us a shout as we can help.

Ben Feder is 20 and studying BA Law and Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He co-founded the SOAS Detainee Support Group with friends from the university and is an active campainger for migrants rights in the UK.
Free trial CSS