Two days before Human Rights Day, sixteen asylum seekers and refugees graduated from an intensive human rights advocacy course.
On Friday 8 December, Amnesty International hosted a graduation ceremony in London, which was attended by family, friends, activists and sympathetic MPs. After hearing speeches by Cameron Bowles of Education Action and Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, the audience heard the personal accounts of graduates and saw a film showing a number of former graduates describe their own projects to defend human rights in such areas as healthcare, domestic violence, persecution, disability and freedom of expression.
The ‘Human Rights Advocacy’ course is the initiative of Education Action International, a charity providing education and training to people affected by conflict and aims to help participants develop their knowledge and skills to influence policy in the United Kingdom and internationally. Since the course was set up, three groups of successful participants have graduated.
Some of the graduates explained how the six-month course had allowed them to develop their skills as defenders of human rights in relation to both the situation in their native countries and in the UK.
Forced into destitution
Mariam Mahmoud, a 33-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker, described her arrival in the UK in the summer of 2005. After telling her they did not believe she was Eritrean, immigration officials allegedly claimed she had come here ‘just for study’. Subsequently, several interpreters from various countries were brought in in an attempt to determine whether or not Mariam spoke the Tigre language of Eritrea or another language.
The only university-educated daughter in her family, Mariam holds two Masters degrees, in English Language & Literature and Gender & Development. Her high level of education appears to have been used as a reason for refusing her access to English lessons in Middlesborough, where, ever since her asylum case was refused and her NASS accommodation and benefits withdrawn in early 2006, she has been homeless and destitute, relying on the generosity of friends.
Yet she is undeterred: Mariam is working hard to use her education and recent human rights course to benefit others who are in a similar situation to her. She is actively involved as a volunteer for the North of England Refugee Service and is working on two human rights projects – one looking at female genital mutilation in the Eritrean community in London, the other campaigning for Eritrean failed asylum seekers in the UK who have been made destitute. The human rights course, she says, has helped make her more aware and responsible when it comes to assisting asylum seekers.
Empowered to defend human rights
Similarly, Grace Tambi, a Cameroonian woman with decades of experience as activist and teacher in her native country, intends to use the experience gained on the course to the advantage of excluded asylum seekers. She is currently working on a project to provide support and advice to female failed asylum seekers from DRC, Zimbabwe and Cameroon who have found themselves forced into ‘working like slaves as cheap domestic servants in the UK’.
The human rights course has provided Grace with extra ‘tools to arm myself and has allowed me to be more empowered’. Although she feels she is now in a better position to defend her human rights and the rights of others, she still has reservations about the reception asylum seekers and refugees are given in the UK: ‘How do we integrate when we do not have a system there to allow us to integrate?’, she asked at the meeting.
Campaigning for detainees
Another graduate from the human rights course, Congolese asylum seeker Patrick Ramazani, has decided to focus on the impact of prolonged detention in immigration removal centres on the mental and physical health of detainees. Having spent over ten months in detention at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook removal centres, Patrick is in an ideal position to campaign for the human rights of detainees who suffer what he calls ‘mental torture’ for weeks, months and sometimes years of indefinite detention. Harmondsworth and Colnbrook are notorious for the number of suicides, suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm in recent years.
During the course, Patrick realised that he was a ‘human rights advocate by vocation’ and sought to develop his skills and understanding of the asylum system in order to help others unfortunate enough to be in detention, suffering degrading treatment. Now released from detention (albeit destitute), he gives generously of his time, contacting immigration detainees to offer help and advice and, as a trained pastor, helps refugees and asylum seekers at the many church services he attends. He is also addressing the serious issues related to the poverty and exclusion of asylum seekers in the UK, explaining that if more asylum seekers could work, it would be a more just and humane system that would benefit everyone. Patrick also hopes in the future to use the course to benefit people in his own country who are suffering human rights abuses.