Volume 14 Number 6
Welcome to Britain
01 December 2001

Do we have to make the people who come to us for help so unwelcome, asks Mary Lean

In 1996, when I first volunteered to visit immigration detainees held near Gatwick Airport in south-east England, I had little idea of what a huge world issue I was getting involved in.

Since then applications for asylum in Britain have soared from 26,640 in 1996 to 80,315 in 2000. The news has been full of stories of desperate attempts to reach Italy, Britain and Australia—and of sometimes draconian responses to these.

Many European countries have seen similar increases. In the three years between 1996 and 1999 annual applications in Sweden and Switzerland doubled. They tripled in Austria, increased fourfold in Finland, fivefold in Norway and sevenfold in Ireland. Italy saw a staggering increase from 1,700 in 1995 to 33,400 in 1999, caused by the war in Kosovo.

Like all statistics, the figures can be misleading. People in Britain ask, ‘Why do they all come here?’ The answer, of course, is that they don’t. By far the largest numbers of refugees are sheltered by countries in the global South, with Iran, Pakistan and Tanzania carrying the heaviest burdens.

Britain didn’t even appear in the UNHCR table of the 40 countries who had the most refugees per head of population in 1999: Armenia tops the list with 84.2 per 1,000 inhabitants. Germany, 19th on the list with 11.9 per 1,000, still receives more asylum seekers every year than any other industrialized nation.

None of this is to deny that more and more people are knocking on our doors and governments do not know how to cope. The figures raise all sorts of emotions in host communities—fears of being ‘swamped’, of being pushed to the back of the queue for jobs and homes, of being taken advantage of, and, since 11 September, of letting in terrorists to plot our destruction.

There are of course grounds for some of these fears. Not every asylum seeker has a good case and not every asylum seeker tells the truth. But in our anxiety not to be a soft touch, it is often the most genuine who suffer. For seven months I watched one detainee, who had been tortured in his own country, become more and more depressed. Eventually he told me that the thing that was eating away at him was that no one believed he was a genuine refugee.

Asylum seekers are among the most marginalized people in Western societies today. In Britain, they often have to cope with months—even years—of uncertainty and humiliating restrictions while their claims are processed. And at the same time they have to deal with homesickness, the pain of exile, traumatic memories and fears for those they have left behind.

An unlucky—and increasing—minority of these people are also imprisoned, either in immigration detention centres, like the one I visit at Gatwick Airport, or in regular prisons. Unlike criminals, they have not been convicted of any offence, there is no limit to how long they can be held and it is often unclear to them why they are detained. Many become depressed or fatalistic as the weeks and months drag by.

The Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, to which I belong, has some 80 volunteers, up to 50 of whom are visiting at any one time. Each is allocated to a detainee, whom they visit every week until the detainee is released, transferred or put on a plane.

My weekly visits over the years—to 18 people from 13 countries—have introduced me to the faces behind the statistics and to the darker realities of our world today. One woman’s husband and toddler had been killed by thugs who were searching her house for papers; another had been abused by her husband and raped by strangers; another simply said, ‘If I go home, no one will help me.’ I cannot even imagine being in that situation.

I have visited a teenager who had no idea if his family in Kosovo was alive; another who had just heard his father was dead; and a third who had been beaten up because he supported an opposition party.

Others I have visited had not asked for asylum, but were ‘overstayers’ who had been in this country for years, working in useful jobs. One young woman had been born during a visit home by her Nigerian mother and so, unlike her older British-born siblings, was not a British citizen. Another woman had come here from India to marry and then been abused by her husband who had shopped her to the authorities when she left him.

I am not a lawyer, a doctor or an immigration officer: it is not my job to sort out these people’s cases, to diagnose their illnesses, or to assess their eligibility to remain in this country. I am just there to be a friend, someone who cares and who will walk alongside them on their journey. The worst moments have been when I have been unable to help in the way someone has asked me to: the best when I have seen someone walk free after a bail hearing.

In the process, I have learnt to recite the days of the week in Arabic, to say ‘See you next week’ in Albanian and (after much sign language and drawing of vegetables) how to make Mediterranean-style tahini and aubergine salad. I have had my horizons extended and my stereotypes shaken—for instance, through visiting a Serb from Croatia during the Kosovo war.

How Western countries treat asylum seekers is, I believe, one of the great moral issues of our times. I accept that it is difficult to work out an asylum policy which is just, effective and compassionate; I accept that it is not possible to let everyone in; I even—reluctantly—accept that it may occasionally be necessary to detain people. But I am ashamed that so many who come to us for help are met with suspicion and disbelief.

I am ashamed too at the way this debate affects even those who have established rights of residence in the West. One person told me that she never tells anyone she is a refugee for fear of their reaction. Another spoke of how hard she used to find it when British friends casually asked her how long she would be here. In the present climate, an innocent enquiry can so easily be heard as: ‘We don’t want you.’

So I was pleased when, in October, the British Home Secretary, David Blunkett, pledged ‘to take the stigma’ from the asylum system, and to stop detaining asylum seekers in ordinary prisons. This—if he delivers—will be good news. So are his proposals to open legitimate channels for economic migration, to answer a labour shortage which is presently made up by illegal workers.

Two years ago, I met a young woman in detention who had been involved in political demonstrations in her country. She asked me if it was possible to fly from Africa to Ireland without changing planes in Britain. She explained, ‘One day I will be able to return to my country, and I will want to travel in Europe, and to go to a country where they speak English. But after the way I have been treated here, I will never want to set foot in Britain again.’

Shortly afterwards she was released and last summer I ran into her again.

Although she still did not know whether she would be allowed to stay, she had been able to study and fulfil some of her dreams. When I reminded her of our conversation, she wept at the despair she had felt. Then she said, ‘I have since seen the other side of Britain.’

Last year, an Albanian detainee wrote to our coordinator, ‘You and your group personify better than anybody the generous spirit of the English people.’ In spite of the tabloid headlines, I know that this spirit exists—all over Europe. And, in the light of recent world events, it has never been more needed than today.

Mary Lean is Vice-Chair of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

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