Sunday, 22 March 2009

Still Human, Still Here: The hidden despair of Britain's failed asylum seekers

Alain was a respected TV journalist in Congo whose criticism of the government led to his arrest and torture. His father paid a huge bribe for his release and he fled to Britain. His asylum claim was rejected and, unable to support himself, he is destitute, Two years ago a racist attack left him blind in one eye.

Alain is one of 60 failed asylum seekers featured in an exhibition by photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith, Still Human, Still Here at London's Host gallery. The exhibition exposes the hidden lives of those who are trapped in an impossible no-man's-land, unable to return home but prevented from working to support themselves. They can only wait and hope their lengthy appeals are successful.

"In Kinshasa I was tortured physically and here I’m tortured mentally," Alain told the exhibition launch on Wednesday night. He explained that he had arrived in Britain looking for sanctuary but was treated as less than human, forced to sleep rough and rely on what little money people gave him. He has lost not only his home and family but his dignity and now he has also lost sight in one eye.

Abbie spent many months volunteering at a drop-in centre for asylum seekers before she started taking pictures. She explained that building a relationship with each individual she photographed was vital, not least because she did not want to "be a vulture" and exploit their vulnerability.

The trust she clearly developed with those she photographed has enabled her to shine a light on the drudgery of daily existence for these people. Cheap canned food heated directly on a gas stove in a squat in Leeds, the blackened feet of a figure lying on a shabby mattress, footprints in the snow in North London. Abbie's pictures take us right to the heart of these immigrants' lives and sensitively expose the hopelessness of their predicament.

Boris Johnson has recently faced criticism for suggesting that the government consider an amnesty for all illegal immigrants. Immigration minister Phil Woolas described the Mayor of London's idea as a "road to hell". But at the very least it seems sensible to allow people to work while their claim is being settled.

What seems abundantly clear is that the current removals policy isn't working. A new study by the London School of Economic estimates the number of illegals to be 725,000, up from 430,000 that the Home Office recorded in 2001. People who would have previously been granted Exception Leave to Remain (ELR) for four years are now denied asylum, after the rules were changed in 2003. A recent report from the refugee charity Pafras said that the number of destitute asylum seekers the charity has seen has tripled in two years.

Alain thanked Abbie for "being our voice". Her photos should make us all listen.


UK accused over asylum seekers left to live on $1 a day

Hundreds of thousands of failed asylum seekers are living in the UK in extreme poverty, because they fear torture or death if they return to their home countries, according to a report released today.

The report warns many failed asylum seekers are living in a "twilight zone", with no housing or financial support, and no right to work. Many failed asylum seekers are living on less than "a dollar a day", the global yardstick for extreme poverty, it claims. Recent research by the London School of Economics estimated there are 500,000 failed asylum seekers in the UK.

Christine Majid, from the refugee charity Pafras, who commissioned the Underground Lives report, says the number of destitute asylum seekers the charity dealt with tripled in the past two years and called destitution a "deliberate" policy to force asylum seekers out of the country.

She said: "In the 21st century the fact that the government is trying to starve people out of the country, it is absolutely inhumane and it just isn't working. These people would rather starve on the street here than return to their own countries."

A series of governmental policy decisions including preventing asylum seekers from working in 2002, cutting legal aid in 2004 and an overhaul of the system in 2007 has lead to an "untenable strain" on local charities, she added.

The report found that, on average, failed asylum seekers were surviving on £7.65 per week, but the majority lived on less than £5. Two thirds had experienced torture in their countries. Following the refusal of their asylum claims, 72% have spent time sleeping outside; of these, 38% have experienced physical attacks. More than a third of the women sleeping rough had experienced sexual assault, including rape.

The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg called the report "a timely reminder of how the government has combined incompetence and inhumanity to create one of Europe's most inefficient and cruel asylum systems". "Responsibility for asylum should be taken away from the cack-handed blunderings of the Home Office and given to an independent agency."

Asylum claims have fallen sharply in recent years and are at a 14-year low, with 23,430 applications for asylum in 2007 - 4% of all immigration applications - compared with 103,080 in 2002. A lack of access to proper legal advice is having a significant impact on the number of valid asylum seekers being refused sanctuary, and returned to countries where they could be tortured, said human rights lawyer Louise Christian. "The government's asylum policies are entirely at odds with its human rights obligation - particularly with regards to children in detention. It is a huge source of scandal and shame to this country."

A UK Border Agency spokesperson said the government provided measures to ensure individuals are not left without basic essentials. But the report says only around 9,000 people receive UKBA support, which provides £35 in supermarket vouchers a week and no-choice accommodation. Many are reluctant to apply for it as they must sign an agreement consenting to be removed from the UK at a later date.

The report is being released in conjunction with a major exposition of photographs of failed asylum seekers, launched in association with the Still Human, Still Here campaign, led by a coalition of human rights organisations including Amnesty International and the Refugee Council.



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