The Home Office and the Scottish Executive ordered civil servants to carry out a thorough review of the dispersal system.
Its conclusions are expected any day. But will the racial violence that claimed the life of Firsat Dag be on the agenda?
A safe haven?
As Europe’s overall approach to asylum seekers gets ever harsher, the organisations delegated to assist in reception arrangements follow an approach based on hostility and rejection. Certainly, they do not see themselves as responsible for providing a safe haven for asylum seekers. Protecting refugees from racial violence should be regarded by reception agencies as a ‘duty of care’, but protection measures are not even on the agenda. Some refugee organisations have asked whether governments see racial violence, like vouchers and dispersal, as a component of deterrent policies. But whether governments wittingly or unwittingly use racial violence to deter asylum claims is less important than the effect such racial violence has on the quality of asylum seekers’ lives and on their ability to make a claim.
The charity Refugee Action reported in August a huge rise in the number of asylum seekers seeking to return to often war-torn home countries rather than face racial harassment in the UK. Their views can, perhaps, best be summarised by the Iranian asylum seeker, Davoud Rasul Naseri who, after being stabbed in the back in Sighthill three days after the racist murder of Firsat Dag, told the press that it would be better to return to Iran ‘because I would be killed because of my aims, not because of nothing’.
Failure to protect
What is so alarming about the approach of national reception administrations is that they do not consider it their duty to protect asylum seekers from racial violence, or ensure racial harmony, as evidenced by the almost total absence of strategies, policies and mechanisms in this area. This is particularly culpable in the UK, because the Macpherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence recommended that all institutions should put in place systems to monitor and record racial incidents. And in order to meet another of Macpherson’s recommendations, the 1976 Race Relations Act was amended last year to place on public bodies general duties to promote good race relations and monitor the impact on racial equality of their policies.
Despite these measures, introduced and supported by the government, NASS (the National Asylum Support Service), itself a government agency , is probably the only housing body in the country with no coherent policies against racial harassment and no apparent overall strategy to promote good race relations. But, does the Race Relations Act, as amended, actually apply to NASS? This is a moot point, as the amended Act actually excludes from its provisions bodies with immigration control and asylum application functions. And what about NASS’s failure to draw up policies to record and monitor racial incidents? Is the government to argue here, too, that NASS is exempt from Macpherson’s recommendations? The Home Office’s manifest failure to ensure NASS meets its obligations in this area could well be the subject of a challenge under the Human Rights Act, as a failure to provide protection for life and property constitutes a fundamental breach of human rights.
And the recent proposal from the EU Council for a directive laying down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers across Europe is striking on the matter of protection. Member states are, under the proposal, under a duty to protect asylum seekers in accommodation provided by the authorities from sexual, but not racial, violence. This glaring omission suggests that the EU expects asylum seekers simply to put up with racial violence as the price they must pay for entry to Europe.
Negotiation not education
The failure of NASS and its European counterparts to protect asylum seekers from racial violence is manifest at all stages of the reception process. Prior to placing asylum seekers in dispersal areas, no checks are carried out on the suitability of locations vis-à-vis racial violence and hostility. In Ireland and the Netherlands, where the DASS (Directorate for Asylum Seekers) and the COA (Asylum Seekers’ Reception Service) have at least held consultations prior to dispersal, the authorities have responded to hostility with negotiation instead of education, embarking on consultations designed to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers sent to a dispersal community. In this way they have capitulated to the racist argument that fewer numbers make for better race relations.
NASS, DASS, the COA and their like do not provide extra finances to deal with racism, either through education, material measures to improve physical safety, or improved resources that would benefit the whole community and go some way to reduce racial hostility. But whereas DASS and the COA have attempted to negotiate in cases when local communities have opposed dispersal, NASS has removed itself from the fray altogether. And it is this abdication of all responsibilities, that brings NASS into direct conflict with the Race Relations Amendment Act. For promoting good race relations would mean that NASS would have to, at each turn, consider the race relations implications of its dispersal policy. And it is its manifest failure to do so which has led to increasing racial violence.
This initial failure is then compounded by the fact that NASS does not consider that it has a responsibility to monitor racist attacks nationally or co-ordinate a response. On the contrary, NASS regards racism, like health, as an issue for the consortia which accept dispersed asylum seekers, with any additional measures paid for through their own budgets. Prior to the murder of Firsat Dag in Sighthill, Scottish anti-racists had documented the worst racist attacks and pleaded with Glasgow city council to invest in better protection measures and to fund better facilities for all the community. But the council did not act soon enough. In the aftermath of Dag’s death, Glasgow city council announced that it was considering a new resource centre in Sighthill. In future, every asylum seeker in the city will receive a guaranteed monthly visit from a support officer and be given a regular opportunity to air their concerns to the council. But this, while welcome, is too late for Firsat Dag. And where will such a measure lead in practice if NASS, and the government, do not take responsibility for a situation they created through their underfunding of the dispersal system?
The question of responsibility is crucial. Talk to those asylum seekers who have experienced racial violence, and they will tell you that NASS simply does not want to know. NASS, of course, will tell you otherwise. Its official policy actually states that it is prepared to move asylum seekers if they suffer racial violence and that those who flee an area due to racial harassment will not be considered ‘intentionally destitute’. However, no one at NASS seems to be aware of the policy, which is hardly surprising given that its sole policy declaration on racial violence appeared in an August 2000 edition of its inaccessible policy bulletin, and if the staff are aware of it, they are more than happy to ignore it. In Scotland, Positive Action in Housing caseworker Adrian Lui acts as an advocate on behalf of asylum seekers who want to be rehoused by NASS because of racial harassment. Yet, in many cases, NASS does not reply to his appeals, which are backed up by police and medical reports. And trying to contact NASS direct, is, according to Lui, like trying to contact ‘a call centre – they deal with numbers and seem to have no emotional attachment to their duty to deal with asylum seekers.’ The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture says it has repeatedly warned NASS that asylum seekers are left at the mercy of racist landlords, but its evidence is ignored. In one case an asylum seeker was hanged from a bannister in a tower block by agents of the landlord, to force him to reveal the identity of a person who had complained about their accommodation. Despite NASS being informed, the administration continued to send asylum seekers to this accommodation.
And it was only after a long and bitter campaign which included a damning TV documentary exposé that the government recently agreed to stop sending asylum seekers to particularly notorious accommodation in Liverpool.
On top of this failure to respond to complaints, there is inbuilt into administrations such as NASS a social authoritarianism and control that prevents it from responding in a humane way to complaints of racial violence. In turn, this militates against asylum seekers challenging such administrative racism. For accommodation is allocated on a no-choice basis and those who demand a choice are simply ejected from the system, denied housing and welfare and thrown onto their own resources. This is most graphically shown in Germany, where the Law of Obligatory Residence forbids asylum seekers from moving from the region to which they are sent. But in the UK too, asylum seekers who want to escape racial violence risk forfeiting all welfare rights. For the Palestinian brothers Iyad and Haitham Sada, who, among other things, suffered serious head injuries after being beaten up in Sighthill, this was a price they were prepared to consider. They have fled Glasgow for Bolton.
When dispersal was introduced in the UK, the then immigration minister Mike O’Brien issued assurances that those experiencing racial violence would not be forced to live in unsafe areas. In reality, the opposite is now the case, as those experiencing racial violence are either ignored by NASS or actively bullied, harried and threatened into silence. Ignoring racial violence is another example of a system contemptuous of asylum seekers’ health needs. Asylum seekers interviewed by Charles Watters, of Kent University’s European Centre for the Study of Social Care of Minority Groups and Refugees, said they felt suicidal at the prospect of dispersal. In one case, a man dispersed to northern England had to be returned to London after racial violence. The man, who had a history of mental illness, was subsequently admitted to a psychiatric hospital with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the NASS HQ in Croydon, London, officials promptly dispatched back to Glasgow nine families who had fled the Sighthill estate and arrived on NASS’s doorstep seeking protection. A NASS official later announced that should the asylum seekers refuse to return to Sighthill, all welfare support would be withdrawn. Eighteen asylum seekers, most of them Kurds, who refused to be sent from Liverpool to Oldham were similarly threatened if they did not comply with the NASS instruction. And when asylum seekers have appealed against the withdrawal of support after fleeing racial harassment, asylum support adjudicators have told them they should have stayed where they were and waited for the police to protect them.
How do governments respond when the impact of racial violence goes beyond individuals’ experiences to become a highly-publicised national concern? What sense of responsibility do government ministers show? Having allowed asylum seekers to be attacked, ministers then leave them in the same areas, vulnerable to further attacks – and justify this, in the words of junior home office minister Jeff Rooker after the murder of Dag, on the ground that to do otherwise would ‘mean that our policies would be run by the racists in this country. And we’re not going to have that’.
And here, Britain follows in the footsteps of the worst European precedents. In the Netherlands, the government has not even responded to a request for a public inquiry into the high level of arson attacks on asylum reception centres. And in Germany, the plea of 116 asylum seekers in the Brandenburg town of Rathenow to be transferred to a safe region in the face of escalating racial violence, fell on deaf ears. The asylum seekers sent an open letter to the Chancellor, the lower house of the German parliament and other federal institutions, but their request was refused by the foreigners’ office as Rathenow’s mayor angrily denounced the economic consequences of the labelling of the town as racist.