Woolly minded hippies?

Rowena Macdonald went to Climate Camp fearing "woolly-minded hippydom" but found a serious and commi

Forget Southwold. This year’s Climate Camp protest against a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent is where Gordon Brown ought to be spending his summer holiday.

I went to the Climate Camp in the spirit of curiosity and nostalgia, having been taken to the protest camp at Greenham Common missile base as a child in the early eighties. I had intended to go to the camp on Monday with a borrowed tent but was put off by the rain. On Tuesday it also rained. By Wednesday it had stopped raining but it seemed far too much effort to carry a tent and a sleeping bag via public transport to Kingsnorth – I sensed I would be persona non grata if I turned up in my car – so I put on my rarely-worn wellies and just went for the day.

Although I am interested in green politics, as you may discern I am not a die-hard environmental campaigner. I am also suspicious of anything which smacks of woolly-minded hippydom. However, when I got to Strood, where a Climate Camp bus run on recycled vegetable oil was ferrying people between the railway station and the camp, I was pleasantly surprised to find my fellow passengers were not the grubby crusties I had feared. They included a sporty-looking guy who worked for the local council, a student from Bristol University and a smart, urbane photographer also down from London for the day.

We were warned on the bus that we would be searched by the police before entering the camp, and that they would ask for our details but we were not obliged to give them. From a distance the camp, which is on a hill overlooking the existing power station, looked like a mediaeval circus. We were dropped off at the top of a lane leading to the camp which was lined with an extraordinary number of police officers, some of whom had been drafted in from forces from afar as Wales and Yorkshire.

I was alarmed when the female police officer assigned to search me put on a pair of purple surgical gloves but she merely gave me a quick frisk and checked my bag to make sure it contained no weapons or drugs. A “full internal examination” wasn’t necessary, I was told. After refusing to give any details apart from the facts that I am 5ft 6 and white, I was given a pink slip to prove I had been searched and allowed to enter the camp.

Inside, there was a fair scattering of feral looking types and white people with dreadlocks, and overall the campers struck the barefoot, deliberately casual attitudes of seasoned environmental campaigners that I had expected. But, what offset the hippyish vibe and what impressed me most was the serious-minded efficiency of the camp.

As well as eleven large tents for each ‘neighbourhood’ of campaigners from around the country, where three communal meals were produced each day for the 200 or so people in each neighbourhood, there was a group of marquees in the middle where a large number of lectures and workshops about climate change issues were being held each day of the week-long camp. There was a media tent with laptops and internet access, an independent TV station, a cinema screen, showers, sinks and numerous compost toilets housed in temporary wooden huts. Electricity was provided by solar panels, wind turbines and people riding fixed bicyles. A mains water supply had been bought from Southern Water. In short, a fully functioning eco-village for more than a thousand people had been constructed from scratch in three days. All of this had been organised along non-hierarchical lines, with no central committee and people taking responsibility for tasks according to their expertise and inclination.

The level of debate and knowledge in the workshops was impressive too. I went to a talk about Tradable Energy Quotas, a scheme devised by academics in which all citizens are given a quota of energy and large energy users can buy extra energy from those who use less energy. Apparently DEFRA are currently conducting their own feasibility study into this idea. In another tent Dr David Fleming, a writer and academic, gave an inspirational lecture about how environmentally conscious enterprises should be developed in the outside world along the ‘inside out’, non-‘top down’ anarchist lines used to organise the Climate Camp itself. If more people came to this free camp to learn about practical ways of saving the planet rather than wasting money and frying their minds at the numerous corporate festivals that have sprung up, Britain would be a better place.

There were a few downsides. I was told that some of the locals who work at the existing Kingsnorth power station are against the protesters, since they fear their livelihoods will be at risk if the proposals for a new power station are stopped. Landlords in the local pubs won’t serve the protesters as a gesture of solidarity with the workers.

During another workshop when I pointed out some of the impracticalities of alleviating climate change through vegan farming, I had the definite sense that I had upset the workshop’s somewhat complacent groupthink.

However, the overwhelming impression of the camp was of energy, community spirit and open-mindedness and everybody I met was polite and welcoming. On the way back from the camp, as a storm was beginning to roll overhead, I was given a lift back to the station by a band that had played there the night before.

We stopped and stood on top of their van watching lightning fork through the violet sky. The power station, the camp and the police swarming around it was suddenly lit by natural electricity. The level of police presence seemed ludicrous as the camp felt incredibly peaceful, although this might change on Saturday when a mass action to shut down the existing power station is planned. Gordon Brown ought to be tapping into the intelligent and, in the main, practical ideas of these protesters. As was said in one of the workshops, a large problem like global warming does not necessarily need to be dealt with by a large solution; we can begin to tackle it with small solutions inside a large framework. The government is missing a trick by not engaging seriously with the Climate Camp.

Photo: Getty
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The gay Syrian refugees still living in limbo two years after making it to the UK

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. 

31-year-old Ahmed and his boyfriend Said* fled Syria in 2013, after the civil war intensified. They both headed to Turkey – where they first met – then moved on through Greece, Croatia and Western Europe. In December 2015, they completed their 4,500km, two-year journey and arrived in the UK.

When Ahmed and Said shared their story with the New Statesman two months later, the Home Office was still deliberating on whether to accept responsibility for their asylum claim. At the time, their lawyer feared plans were being made to deport the couple back to Croatia, where they’d previously been registered while incarcerated in a refugee camp. 

Eventually though, in November 2016, the Home Office officially agreed to process their claim. The decision to do so is one of the few positive developments in their situation since they arrived in the UK more than two years ago. Little else has changed.

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. They’re unable to engage in basic day-to-day functions, from owning a bank account to booking a cab through an app. They still have to keep their identity and status as a gay couple anonymous – a precaution in case they are made to return to Syria, or outed to intolerant family members. They continue to live in fear that they could be summoned and deported at any moment. It’s been two years in limbo.

“For everything here you need documents or a bank account,” says Ahmed. “We don't have an address because you need income. So the minimum of life requirements we cannot get. We're not asking for much. We're not asking for financial support, we're not asking for accommodation. Just give us the right and we will depend on ourselves. We will work. We will study. We will find accommodation. We will pay tax.”

Shortly after the couple arrived, they were given temporary accommodation in Rochdale and a weekly allowance of £35. With no right to legally work in the UK, this was all they had to survive on. And while the flat in Rochdale was the first place they had space to themselves, they were isolated from the reason they came to the UK in the first place: to be with the only friends they knew in Europe.  

“We couldn't stay there, we tried really hard,” says Ahmed. “At that time we were alone, completely alone, in Rochdale. We were living separately there was no one around us… we got depressed. We got stressed there. So we decided to move to come to London because we have a friend here who can support us, who can be with us.”

In May 2016 the couple moved in to the spare room of their friend’s Mayfair apartment. She had arrived from Syria six years ago on a student visa. In the time they’ve been in London they’ve tried, in vain, to prepare for work, readying themselves in case they are actually granted asylum. After another friend loaned them some money, Ahmed, a trained architect, took an animation course, while Said, a chef, took a course to improve his English. Said finished the first level, but wasn’t allowed back to complete the next module without a passport. Ahmed stopped the animation course after running out of money from their friend’s loan.

Moving in with their friend may have bettered their living conditions, but it proved detrimental to their financial situation. The small sum they received from the Home Office stopped when they moved out of the accommodation in Rochdale. The Home Office claims this was due to the fact they were no longer classed as destitute.  The few friends they do now have in London have often had to loan them money or lend them essentials, like clothes. With no money and little to keep them occupied during the day, the limbo they’ve found themselves in has taken its toll on their mental health.

“Most of the time we get depressed because we don't have money to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can't work, you can't study…you can't imagine how you feel when you spend your days doing nothing. Just nothing. Nothing useful in your life. Nothing. Can you imagine the depression you get?”

Though their friend has helped over the last year or so – giving them the place rent-free and providing them with food – she is now selling the apartment. They have four weeks to find new accommodation. If they don’t they’ll be homeless. The stress has caused Said’s hair to start falling out and he now has a plum-sized bald patch on the back of his head.

“If any country can accept us we would go back,” says Said. “But Turkey can't accept us. Syria can't accept us. Croatia can't accept us. So no one needs us. Where we can go? What are the options we have?”

The Home Office officially began processing the couple’s asylum claim in November 2016, and stated it aimed to make a decision by 27th May 2017. According to its own guidelines, claims should be processed within six months. Ahmed and Said have been waiting more than a year.

On 11 September 2017 they received a letter from the Home Office via their legal representatives at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, an organisation which provides free advice and representation predominantly through the legal aid scheme. The letter apologised for the fact their asylum claim had taken longer than six months to process. It went on to say that they would be invited for a “substantive asylum interview within 14-18 weeks with a decision to follow 8 to 12 weeks after.” More than 22 weeks later, the couple are still waiting an invitation.

“When they didn't [invite them to an asylum interview], we threatened them with a judicial review again,” says Ryan Bestford, an immigration lawyer at the unit, who has been working with the couple. In Ahmad’s case, the judicial review – an application to a higher court which seeks a review of a government decision - would look for an order forcing the Home Office to interview him. “In response to our [judicial review] threat, they then claimed that they will interview Ahmed within 10 weeks.”

The letter to their lawyers also states that there are many reasons why a claim may take longer than six months. According to the Home Office “further internal enquiries in relation to your client’s asylum claim were being made,” hence the delay in Ahmed and Said’s case. No additional information for the delay was provided.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, claims are often classified as complicated or non-standard by the Home Office to excuse the UK Visa and Immigration Unit from processing claims within six months. Ahmed and Said’s lawyer scoffs at the notion their case is complex.

"This case is not complicated," says Bestford. "They are from Syria and even the UK government accepts that the situation in that country is so bad that all Syrians are entitled to refugee status. In addition they are gay. This case is straightforward."

Bestford has been working with the couple since January 2016, when the Home Office wanted to return them to Croatia, despite the fact the Croatian government had made it clear that they did not want them. As LGBT asylum seekers, Ahmed and Said are an especially vulnerable group. Said is also HIV positive, and when the Home Office consider his application to asylum they’ll need to consider his ability to access treatment.

Such vulnerabilities are no guarantee of asylum. According to a Home Office report published in November 2017, 3,535 asylum applications were made on the basis of sexual orientation, 2,379 of which were rejected. Just 838 were approved.

"They should have been granted refugee status a long time ago," says Bestford. "I have no idea what the reason for the delay is. But it certainly cannot be the complexity of the case. If the Home office are saying that it is because of the complexity of the case – they are not fit for purpose."

As well as support from the few friends they have in the UK, they’ve also found an ally in Lord Paul Scriven, the Lords spokesperson for international LGBT rights. He highlighted the plight of the couple in July last year, in a speech which raised concerns about the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and the systemic delays in processing asylum claims.

“I am both bewildered and surprised that [Ahmed] and [Said]* are still waiting for their case to be dealt with and them been granted right to stay,” says Scriven. “I have written to the Home Office and made it clear it is totally unacceptable and needs now to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“As in many cases the reason for this delay lies at the door of the Home Office and the way in which they deal with cases of asylum for people claiming on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.  In many cases this slow and cold approach is all too common by the Home Office.”

Ahmed has contacted the UK Visa and Immigration Unit helpline to try and seek temporary accommodation. He is still waiting to hear back from them. For now the couple’s situation is no clearer; but with impending homelessness it’s certainly more desperate.

They arrived in the UK eager to work and excited about the possibility of living openly as two gay men. They arrived brimming with ideas for what a new start could look like. The last two years have taught them to abandon any forward planning and to avoid imagining a life where they have been granted asylum.

“I can't plan anymore,” says Ahmed. “All our plans have disappeared…we thought we escaped from the war…we thought we're gonna start again. We thought there's justice here. We thought there are human rights. But nothing exists. There's no justice. There's no fair. There are no human rights. They treat us like animals. The dogs live better than us here.”

Close to defeat, Ahmed and Said have discussed one final alternative. “Or I go back to Syria,” says Ahmed. He swiftly disregards any concerns about the conflict and his identity as a gay man. “I prefer to die there at least with my family in my country. Better than dying here alone. “

In a statement provided to the New Statesman, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.

“An asylum case that does not get decided within 6 months is usually one classed as a non-straightforward asylum case. These cases are usually not possible to decide within 6 months for reasons outside of our control.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are supported with free accommodation and a weekly cash allowance for each person in the household. This is available until their asylum claims and  any appeals are finally determined or they decide they do not require Government support.”

*names have been changed