In June 2005, the author interviewed five Sudanese men, all but one of whom had been failed by the UK asylum procedures.
‘I am 27, no 28′, said Salah when I met him in June 2005. He looked 35 and spoke no English. Through the interpreter, Hassan, Salah told me he felt utterly frustrated and bitterly disappointed; his final asylum claim had been refused and he had already been on the streets for six weeks when we met. His NASS (the UK National Asylum Support Service) support of around £37 per week had been cut off as soon as he became homeless and his depression and frustration showed in his expression and slumped body. Just six months later, Salah is in prison, having been found guilty of sexual attacks on two young women. His friends claim he was framed, but whatever the case, Salah confessed to the crimes and was sentenced to four years behind bars. Two more young women were added to the list of the victims of crime, but all three are victims of the UK’s increasingly cruel asylum system.
Salah and his Sudanese friends were all terrified, when I spoke to them, of being returned to persecution, violence, torture and possible death in their home country. As Salah said to me days before he committed his crimes: ‘No one seems to understand my situation, and no one feels they can help me at all’. He had asked for help from the Refugee Council, from everyone he could think of, but it seemed no-one could do anything for him. When he went to the High Court, he was told by the judge he should return home to Darfur, since Darfur was once his home. Salah was a farmer there, before he was chased from his village by the militia. He lost touch with his family, lost his land and everything he ever had. Salah sits in jail now, but even if he were free, he says he cannot go home to Sudan. He would not be safe. What is more, Salah suffers from asthma and has to use an inhaler. When he was homeless in June his inhaler was running out and he did not know where he would get his next one from. As a destitute, he has no right to medical care. In prison, he can get what he needs: food, shelter and medical care. This is literally insane; this is how to make crime pay. Salah is much better off in prison than he would have been continuing as an honest ‘destitute’.
Of the other Sudanese men I talked to in June 2005, the second, Haroun, reveals: ‘I have just received notice of the refusal of my appeal. I fear I will soon be in the same position as Salah here.’ Haroun knows of forty-two Sudanese asylum seekers who have been dispersed from London, of them only two have been granted refugee status or the right to remain in the UK. Haroun fled Sudan in 2004, after Janjaweed militia came to his farm, attacked his village, and forced everyone to flee. He left Sudan through Port Sudan and travelled via the capital, Khartoum, a long, difficult journey of several thousand miles. The Home Office does not believe Haroun is in danger, and says he too is safe to go back to Sudan. Musa’s story is similar to Haroun’s: ‘I have just been refused asylum by the Home Office.’ He awaits a court case for his appeal hearing, since he is one of the lucky ones, being well represented by a London solicitor. Since early 2004, when the government cut back payment for appeals to just five hours of legal aid, there are fewer and fewer people in his position with access to proper legal support. If, like Haroun, you also speak no English, then with no legal support, injustices are bound to follow. Salah might never have been on the street, had his solicitors bothered to translate vital documents from the Arabic so that the judge could consider them at the appeal. They did not do so because it was too expensive.
Hassan, the interpreter, relates the historical background to the fighting in Sudan that brought him and the others to the UK: ‘In the past, Darfur had its own sultanate and was separate from Sudan. Only after the Anglo-Egyptian invasion was Darfur annexed to Sudan. It was then that Arabic settlers and the Arabic language came into the region for the first time.’ Salah’s language is Brgo, Musa and Hassan speak Fur, and Haroun speaks Marari. The Fur (as in Darfur) are among the largest group in the region, with around two and a half million people, at least that was before the Janjaweed began killing and plundering with the support of the Sudanese government. Two million refugees have left Darfur, and, contrary to popular perceptions, Britain received only a tiny trickle of these, not even one per cent. Most have had their asylum claims refused outright in any case.
Hassan now tells his own story in English: ‘I grew up in Darfur and know the whole area. I know where the men around this table come from. Before I came to the UK, I travelled about inside Sudan. I lived and studied in Khartoum, where I attended secondary school.’ He continues, ‘It is difficult, after secondary school, for Darfur people to get into higher education in Khartoum.’ There is a lot of discrimination, so he went back to Darfur, and started his own business, keeping cattle and, as he puts it ‘cultivating his dreams’. ‘Unfortunately’, says Hassan, ‘all that is gone now’. Having been homeless and destitute for six months, Hassan recently signed a ‘Section 4’ Hard Case support agreement. He is back in NASS accommodation and gets a small allowance to live on, but he seems unaware that signing Section 4 means he agrees to be deported back to Sudan as soon as the British government thinks he should be. What other choice did he have?
But the worst story is told by Jeem. He has just had a stomach operation for an ulcer brought on by stress. In a lot of pain, Jeem has four days to move out of his NASS accommodation. Doctors say he needs three months to recover from his operation. Jeem too was chased from his home in Darfur by militia. He, too, has been refused asylum because his story was not believed, and was never even properly told.
Why are these people’s stories not believed or listened to? As international courts spend vast sums trying to get testimony, the evidence of these ordinary people disappears into the files of the Home Office, there to remain after they are deported back to where they came from. Haroun calmly explains that the militia burned his village, stole everything worth stealing and took his family’s only wealth: camels, sheep and cows. We find such stories hard to believe because they raise awfully uncomfortable questions. Why does this happen to people? Why is the world in such a mess? Has it got anything to do with us, with British policies or those of other Western countries? It seems easier just to fill the rejection quotas that dominate the lives of the civil servants in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the British Home Office.
Most asylum seekers are not ‘bogus’, or just looking for an easier life; most are looking to stay alive, and that seems to be their crime. As it reforms the asylum system year after year, the UK government deliberately seeks to make life harder for those fleeing persecution and war. It does this so as to deter others from coming from the same war-torn countries to the UK. Cruelty is built into the system. Such policies assume that people seek asylum because they want to, not because they have to. But according to Professor Mohamed Salih, an expert on Sudan at the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague, land grabbing taking place in Darfur is a form of ‘ethnic cleansing’, and is more or less like what happened in former Yugoslavia, when Serbs grabbed the towns and properties of Bosnians. Professor Salih also says quite clearly that people from Darfur will not be safe if they are returned to any part of Sudan today.* In this he agrees with the UN, which says the British government should not return any failed asylum seekers to warzones. Killings in Darfur have been defined as genocidal by the UN, and Salah, Jeem, Hassan and the others are escaping this genocide. What more evidence could we possibly need before we agree that all these people are victims of genocidal violence and deserve to be protected and are very likely to be telling the plain truth in their asylum claims?