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“I will kill myself”: the gay Syrian refugee couple who could be deported from the UK

An EU law means the Home Office could decide to force the couple to leave Britain.

“We haven't any hope this war in Syria will finish. So now we are looking to another country. We're looking to another country to protect us. We haven't got a country anymore.”

Ahmed is a 29-year-old architecture student. In 2013, with a year left of his degree, the Syrian war intensified and he was forced to flee Damascus. He began the arduous journey across Europe with his boyfriend, Said*, hoping to claim refuge in the UK and finish his studies. When they arrived in London last December, he thought the traumatic 4,500km trek across the continent was over. Instead the UK Home Office is threatening the couple with deportation.

When Ahmed left Syria and headed for Istanbul he took nothing with him, hoping his stay would be temporary and that the war would soon end. It was there that he met his boyfriend Said, who, like Ahmed, had left everything behind and joined the city’s estimated 366,000 asylum seekers. They spent two difficult years in Istanbul; neither spoke Turkish, paying for rent and food was a struggle, work was hard to come by and poorly paid. Their relationship was kept strictly secret for fear of any repercussions from those they stayed with. All the while they prayed the situation back home would alleviate and allow for their return.

During his time in Istanbul he received a call from his mother; one of his brothers had been killed in the war. Details of his brother’s death were sparse, with his mother worried about the phone call being tapped, but Ahmed understands that he died trying to protect the district after the Assad regime’s military invaded. Along with one other brother, Ahmed’s mother is all that remains of his family in Syria, with his siblings scattered across Europe and the Middle East. Any lingering optimism of one day returning home, of the war dissipating, faded. With nothing left to keep them in Istanbul and the situation fast becoming untenable, Ahmed and Said decided to move on.

“We stayed together, we supported each other and that made life easier for us,” says Ahmed. “So we decided to not live in Istanbul. There was no chance to stay there. I made a deal with someone to go by boat. We paid money for that, about one thousand dollars. It was so scary to do it. We hadn't any other choice.”

They made their journey across the Aegean Sea with 30 other refugees. Arriving safely ashore, they spent two days in Greece before moving north on foot towards Hungary. They waited at the now closed Hungarian border for two days, uncertain of their next move, until hearing rumours that the Croatian border had been opened.

“We went to Croatia and they [Croatian officials] took us from the border and they put us in a place like a prison,” Ahmed recalls. “It was so bad. We didn't know what happened. We didn't know anything. They took us in a van. It was like a small building with a big campus and it was like there was a big wall around. And cameras everywhere.”

Ahmed estimates that around 500 other refugees were detained at the compound while he was there. During their 48 hour incarceration, they slept outside, were fed three meals a day (usually a bread roll and tuna) and kept completely ignorant about what was to happen to them and why they were there. Eventually officials forced them to register their finger prints and took them to the northern border.

“We refused to do our fingerprints but they said they would not let us go, unless we give our fingerprints,” he says. “They took us from border to border in a van. We have the worst memories there. We didn't know where we were going. We were like animals.”

Passing through Austria, Germany and France, they eventually came to Calais. After spending some time living in the infamous jungle camp, they snuck on to a lorry, crossed the channel and arrived in London. After spending a few nights at his ex-boyfriend’s place, a French-Syrian national and the only person Ahmed knew in the UK, the couple went to the Home Office to file for asylum.

But when they arrived, officials refused to see them. Despite their desperate situation, they were told that they didn’t have an appointment and had to come back in ten days. Instead, they returned two days later, this time assisted by the UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group (UKLGIG), who were concerned that the Home Office was illegally turning people away.

“We went to the Home Office to observe as we were very concerned that they didn't have anywhere to live,” says Paul Dillane, executive director of UKLGIG. “If you're destitute you're allowed to turn up immediately, without an appointment, because what else are you supposed to do? We said to the Home Office if they don't get accommodation today I have to pay for a hotel and we don't have the money for that.”

After arriving at 8am, Ahmed and Said were interviewed by six interrogators, as they tried to establish whether to even register their claim to asylum.  “I didn't expect anything from the Home Office, I just wanted to be legal here,” says Ahmed. “I didn't want financial support. I want to go to university. That's it. If I go to another country where they don't speak English it is difficult for me to finish and start university again.”

Eventually, at 6pm, the Home Office agreed to register them and find them accommodation, albeit temporarily. Ahmed and Said are now living in a small studio apartment in Rochdale. It’s the first time since leaving Syria they have had anything resembling a home, the first time in their lives they have felt able to live openly as a gay couple. Such respite may prove short-lived.

Because Ahmed and his boyfriend first entered Europe through Greece, according to an EU law (the Dublin III Regulation) it’s Greece that should take responsibility for their claim. But as the situation in Greece is now a humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 2,000 arriving every day, the UK government no longer deports asylum seekers there. It’s of little consolation to Ahmed. Having heard nothing for weeks, he received a letter summoning him to the Home Office; according to his lawyer, the Home Office is making plans to transfer the couple back to Croatia.

“Even if legally it's possible, the question is: is it the right thing for the government to do?” asks Dillane. “600,000 refugees have gone through Croatia to Germany, and Croatia is struggling to cope. Not to mention only three gay asylum seekers have ever successfully claimed asylum there.”

If Ahmed and his boyfriend are deported back to Croatia there is no guarantee they will be granted asylum. Just three LGBT refugees have been successful in their applications to Croatia, and with more refugees entering the country every day the country’s asylum network is coming under increasing pressure.

Last September, David Cameron announced that the UK would resettle 20,000 asylum seekers by 2020 and that LGBTI refugees would be included in the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement programme. Despite this, Ahmed and Said could still face deportation.

“David Cameron has said he's very worried about the treatment of gay men in Syria because so many of them have been killed by ISIS, by Dhaesh, and so Britain is going to take gay men from Jordan and Lebanon and bring them here,” says Dillane. “The Prime Minister used LGBT Syrians as justification for air strikes. And this week he has been saying countries need to step up, give more, do more. Yet here are two people you're offloading onto a country that can barely cope. How do those two things fit together?”

Today Ahmed will meet with the Home Office to hear the decision. As far as he and his lawyer are aware, the outcome has yet to be decided; the Home Office could concede and accept their claim to asylum, it could simply decide to postpone any decision to a later date. Ahmed’s fear though is he will be immediately detained and deported to Croatia. Having come this far, losing everything and risking more, it’s a fate he refuses to accept.

“We can't go back. I will not go back,” he says. “I’ve decided if they take me to Croatia I will do anything. I will kill myself. I lost everything. I came here and I lost everything. If they would force me to go to Croatia I don't have anything to lose. It will be the end. To stay here . . . will be a life for us. It will not just be asylum, it will be more than that. It will be a real life. We haven't a life anymore. We haven't a lot of choices. We haven't any choices.”

Update, 17.04, 8/2/16

After reporting to the Home Office, Ahmed and his boyfriend have been told they will have to go back in two weeks for a final decision. They are no clearer on what will happen to them and still face the very real threat of deportation. 

*name changed to protect anonymity as Said’s family do not know that he is gay.

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Libya’s slave markets are a reminder that the exploitation of Africans never went away

Slavery was recorded in 20th century Ethiopia and continues to exist in Mauritania today. 

A recent African summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, saw one welcome piece of news: the African Union had – for the first time – called on Mauritania to end slavery within its borders. In what was described as a “landmark ruling”, the African Union reprimanded a member state for allowing the widespread practice of hereditary slavery. This is not what is now termed “modern slavery”, but the ancient practice of one person owning another: chattel slavery, as it is known.

While the announcement was a step forward, it was not quite what it seemed. This was not a declaration of African heads of state. The final statement from the summit failed to mention Mauritania. Rather, the call came in the form of a ruling by one of the African Union’s many subsidiary bodies: the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC).

Anti-Slavery International, which has campaigned against the scourge since 1839, welcomed the decision, but urged action. “The message to the Mauritanian Government is extremely clear: ensure that their masters are prosecuted with the full force of the law,” said Anti-Slavery’s spokesman, Jakub Sobik. 

How Mauritania responds remains to be seen, but the ruling came shortly after shocking evidence from CNN of the slave markets of Libya. “Eight hundred,” shouts an auctioneer. “900 ... 1,000 ... 1,100 ...” Sold. For 1,200 Libyan dinars – the equivalent of $800. And with that, the ownership of refugees captured by human traffickers change hands.

CNN’s report was not the first to expose the practice, but the channel’s broadcast jolted public opinion. In the UK a petition calling for the British government to act attracted more than a quarter of a million signatures. As a result, it was debated in Parliament, with Labour MP Marsha de Cordova noting the outrage of her constituents from the African diaspora. “This is modern-day chattel slavery,” she said, “And a window into practices that form part of a particularly traumatic collective memory for many communities.”

In Britain, discussions about slavery have long focused on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and rightly so. Britain carried out slavery on an industrial scale: between 1640 and 1807, when the British slave trade was abolished, it is estimated to have transported 3.1 million Africans, mostly to the Americas. Furthermore, defenders of slavery justified their lucrative trade in human misery by promoting racist ideas that left indelible scars on Western society. It is only in recent decades that politicians have fully addressed the role of the slave trade in Britain’s history beyond the abolitionist movement, and even in 2006, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair stopped short of a full apology, for fear of reparations. The more recent campaign against “modern slavery” has concentrated on criminal gangs exploiting undocumented workers, and elite families keeping vulnerable women as unpaid maids. 

Discussing slavery within Africa is, it seems, an uncomfortable subject, not least because of the potential in a digital age for a nuanced discussion to be used as an excuse to let the West off the hook. Liverpool’s otherwise excellent International Slavery Museum skims over the mention of slavery on Africa’s East Coast. How many schools explain that for five thousand years African slaves were captured in wars or raids and marched along the Nile, across the Sahara or transported over the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to Asia?

Forms of slavery existed in the Ottoman and Roman empires, but its presence can be traced far further back in time, and across the world. Europeans practiced slavery at least since the times of the ancient Greeks; so did the Chinese, Japanese and Indians. Maori turned prisoners of war into slaves. In Africa, “the first evidence was carved in stone in 2900 B.C.E. at the second cataract depicting a boat on the Nile packed with Nubian captives for enslavement in Egypt”, according to the late Robert Collins of the University of California. The trade on Africa’s East coast, to the slave markets of Arabia, India and beyond took place for at least a millenium. Collins calculated that the Asian trade numbered an estimated total of 12,580,000 slaves from 800 to 1900.

Slavery generally shared common attributes: brutality, oppression and frequently racism. Even when both master and slave were African, this did not prevent the most derogatory descriptions being used about the group from which the slaves were drawn. For example, racist terms were routinely used by Sudanese Arabs against those African groups they enslaved. This racism was manifested by Arabs’ derogatory use of the term “abid” (slaves) – and what the Northern Sudanese writer Mansur Khalid called “a series of [other] unprintable slurs – to apply to western and southern peoples.”

Much East coast or trans-Saharan slavery was practiced by Arabs. Ronald Segal (who wrote on trans-Atlantic as well as Islamic slavery) suggested that while there is a tradition of debate about the former, the latter has been less satisfactorily explored. “There is a conscious and articulate black diaspora in the West that confronts the historical record of slavery and racism there,” he wrote in his 2001 book Islam’s Black Slaves: The History of Africa’s other Black Diaspora. “That Islam has no comparably conscious and articulate black diaspora to confront it with the reminders of slavery does not make that record any more immune to examination and judgement.” 

African slavery was not restricted to Arabs or to Muslims. Nor did the African trade in slaves end in 1900. There is evidence of slaves in Christian-ruled Ethiopia in the 1930s: a photograph from the time shows slaves carrying their owners’ money to fund Emperor Haile Selassie’s war effort against Italy. 

It was the Italians who finally abolished the practice after they occupied the country. “The Italians issued a decree in April 1936 which liberated more than 400,000 slaves,” according to Seid A. Mohammed, historian at at Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey.

Even then, slavery was not eliminated. Mauritania continues the practice, failing to enforce a 2007 law designed to end the practice. Anti-Slavery International reports that slavery is still to be found in Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Chad and Sudan. “People born into descent-based slavery face a lifetime of exploitation and are treated as property by their so-called ‘masters’. They work without pay, herding animals, working in the fields or in their masters’ homes. They can be inherited, sold or given away as gifts or wedding presents,” says the organisation.

Mauritania is also a reminder that even if the situation in Libya stabilises, the deep roots of slavery may be harder to remove. What is required is a wholehearted campaign by African leaders to name, shame and impose sanctions against their fellow heads of state who continue to tolerate this practice. Until Africa as a whole acts, the scourge of chattel slavery will continue to blight the lives of its people.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?