Defending secular spaces

In the rush to be tolerant or sensitive to religious difference, the space is created for the most r

On 18th July 2008 at the High Court, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) won an important legal challenge affirming its right to exist and continue its work. At stake was a decision by Ealing Council to withdraw funding from SBS – the only specialist provider of domestic violence services to black and minority women in Ealing – under the guise of developing a single generic service for all women in the borough.

The council sought to justify its decision on the grounds of ‘equality’, ‘cohesion’ and ‘diversity’. It argued that the very existence of groups like SBS - the name and constitution – was unlawful under the Race Relations Act because it excluded white women and was therefore discriminatory and divisive!

The challenge succeeded in revealing that the council had deliberately misconstrued and failed to have proper regard to its duties under the Race Relations Act in reaching its decision, and it was forced to concede that it would have to reconsider its position afresh.

Ealing Council’s cynical use of the government’s confused and contradictory ‘cohesion’ agenda to cut our funding has profound implications for the human rights of black and minority women in particular.

Specialist services like ours are needed not only for reasons to do with language difficulties and cultural and religious pressures on women.

Women turn to us because of our considerable experience in providing advice and advocacy in complex circumstances: where racism and religious fundamentalism (the political use of religion to seek control over people, territories and resources) is on the rise in the UK and worldwide; where legal aid is no longer easily available; where privatisation of what were once important state welfare functions is accelerating; and where draconian immigration and asylum measures are piling up.

These developments threaten our very right to organise and challenge abuses of power by state and community leaders. Secular spaces are literally being squeezed out of minority communities.

The SBS challenge to Ealing Council represents a key moment for black and minority groups that have organised politically to counter racism and other forms of inequality based on gender, caste and ethnic divisions between and within communities in the UK.

While successful in forcing the council to withdraw its decision and to re-think its policy on domestic violence services in Ealing, our experience has also sounded a warning bell to secular progressive groups in particular.

The current drive towards ‘cohesion’ represents the softer side of the ‘war on terror’. At its heart lies the promotion of a notion of integration based on the assumption that organising around race and ethnicity encourages segregation.

At the same time, in the quest for allies, it seeks to reach out to a male religious (largely Muslim) leadership, and it thereby encourages a ‘faith’ based approach to social relations and social issues.

This approach rejects the need for grassroots self organisation on the basis of race and gender inequality but institutionalises the undemocratic power of so called ‘moderate’ (authoritarian if not fundamentalist) religious leaders at all levels of society.

The result is a shift from a ‘multicultural’ to a ‘multi-faith’ society: one in which civil society is actively encouraged to organise around exclusive religious identities, and religious bodies are encouraged to take over spaces once occupied by progressive secular groups and, indeed, by a secular welfare state.

In the process, a complex web of social, political and cultural processes are reduced by both state and community leaders into purely religious values, while concepts of human rights, equality and discrimination are turned on their head.

The problem with the state accommodation of religion – even so called moderate religious leaderships – is that they work against and not for equality and justice.

Since 9/11, we have witnessed the rise of religious intolerance in all religions, which has in turn fostered a culture of fear and censorship.

The failure of the British state to de-link the state from the Christian church – coupled with its anti-civil liberties agenda and disastrous foreign policies – has fuelled a faith based politics of resistance amongst Muslims.

In the event, many have become ever more vigilant in the protection of their religious identity, as borne out by increasingly loud demands from religious and even fundamentalist leaders within black and minority communities. Such demands – for blasphemy laws, for state funding for separate religious schools, for female dress codes, and for customary laws for family affairs to name but a few – have nothing to do with challenging racism or poverty, but everything to do with ensuring that all state institutions accommodate ‘authentic’ religious identity: an identity which depends on the control of female sexuality.

Such demands, by their very nature, deny the numerous progressive religious and even secular or feminist traditions that exist within minority communities.

In this context, the sentiments recently expressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chief Justice concerning sharia law are very telling: in the rush to be tolerant or sensitive to religious difference, they create the space for the most reactionary and even fundamentalist religious leaders to take control of minority communities, and they enable a climate which allows religion to define our roles in both private and public spaces.

Their sentiments appear contingent on the false assumption that black and minority cultures are intrinsically opposed to universal human rights principles, and that they do not contribute to the body of law based on such principles that now inform the English legal system. In doing so, they allow religious and cultural contexts to become the overriding framework within which those from ethnic and religious minorities are perceived, inevitably drawing on very narrow assumptions about religion and the role of women.

It is these political developments that have compelled groups like SBS to defend ever more vigorously the secular black anti-racist and feminist spaces that we created in the late 70s and which, until the 90s, we were able to take for granted.

This is now our most important struggle in addressing gender-based violence, in the face of attempts by the state and religious leaders to corral us into specific reactionary religious identities in the name of ‘coehsion’, on the assumption that we live in a post racist, post feminist and classless society.

This is the significance of our successful challenge to Ealing Council: it highlighted the urgent need to develop a politics of solidarity within and between communities which recognises that what is at stake is no less than the fight for secular, progressive, feminist and anti-racist values – a fight which is embodied in our name.

Pragna Patel is chair of Southall Black Sisters and a member of Women Against Fundamentalism

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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