On Tuesday 8 May, a crowd of a thousand ruptured the quiet of the street in St James’ where the Home Office has its headquarters.
With drumming, dancing and chanting, with banners and placards, T-shirts, stickers and traditional Kurdish or Kashmiri dress, the demonstrators proclaimed their defiance of the ban on the twenty-one organisations, support for which became illegal on 29 March 2001 under the first Order made under the Terrorism Act. The aim was to show the breadth of the Act’s provisions and the danger it poses to democracy and, more specifically, to the right of asylum.
The Act, passed last year, allows organisations to be proscribed if the Home Secretary believes they are involved in terrorism, or promoting or encouraging it. Terrorism is defined as the use or threat of any action involving violence to people or property or serious risks to health and safety, designed to influence any government or intimidate members of the public anywhere in the world for political, religious or ideological causes. Under the Act, it is an offence to belong or profess to belong to a proscribed organisation, to invite support for one, to arrange a meeting which is to be addressed by a member of one, or to address a meeting to encourage support for one – even a meeting is in someone’s house, with only three people attending. The penalty is up to ten years imprisonment. It is also an offence to wear any clothes or any other article which might arouse ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the wearer is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation. The penalty is up to six months imprisonment and a fine of up to £5000.
Wearing Kurdish national dress demonstrates support for the PKK (because the PKK works for Kurdish self-determination) and thus risks a six-month sentence.
So does wearing a T-shirt proclaiming support for Tamil or Kashmiri liberation. Hence all the colourful clothes, T-shirts and stickers on the demo. On that occasion, no-one was arrested. But everyone attending was liable to arrest, as were the organisers, since the rally both supported proscribed organisations and was addressed by their members. Writing an article or speaking in support of Kashmiri, Tamil or Kurdish self-determination could be construed as inviting support for a proscribed organisation. A rally or meeting in support of asylum rights which is addressed by a member of one of the organisations could land the organisers in prison.
The Act’s provisions are drawn so widely as to give police and prosecutors freedom to arrest most people who are involved in any way in refugee communities’ activities or in solidarity work. No wonder Gareth Peirce, the civil rights lawyer who has fought anti-terrorist legislation and defended those accused of terrorism for over three decades, describes the 2000 Act as the worst ever.
Restoring the divine right of kings
Previous anti-terror laws have been used against refugees, and police have tapped phones, threatened prosecution of those collecting money, targeted cultural and community events and centres, warned against the selling of newspapers, and have offered bribes and, on occasion, even refugee status in exchange for information. In 1998, the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act foreshadowed the Terrorism Act in criminalising conspiracy to commit offences abroad. Labour back-bencher Donald Anderson commented that it was ‘trying to restore the divine right of kings’, in supporting any regime, however tyrannical. He asked: ‘Are we to say that someone who has fled to this country from that tyranny is stopped thereby from seeking to overthrow by word or action that tyrannical government?’
The answer, in the provisions of the 2000 Act and the Proscribed Organisations Order, seems to be an unequivocal yes. The battery of new powers, new offences and proscribed organisations allows refugee communities to be even more closely controlled and monitored, and the criminalisation of the refugee communities has been formalised. The definition of ‘terrorism’ is the broadest ever, as is the number and range of organisations proscribed, the range of criminal offences created and the scope of the new, draconian police powers of arrest, search and seizure. The Act will allow the government to extradite political offenders to their home state – something which was not permitted a century ago, when it was accepted that those fighting oppression abroad should be allowed a safe haven in Britain. Anyone convicted of an offence under the Act is likely to be excluded from refugee status in Britain as a terrorist supporter, and could face deportation on national security grounds, since last year the Court of Appeal accepted the Home Secretary’s argument that a threat to a friendly government abroad was a threat to Britain’s national security.
Friends with repressive regimes
The government’s economic, diplomatic and political priorities dictate friendly relations with the repressive regimes which produce refugees. The Turkish, Sri Lankan, Algerian, Israeli and Saudi governments (among others) have long complained that Britain did nothing to stop refugees conspiring against them from London. Other European governments have acted against the PKK and the Algerian groups. The government wants British firms to win more business in Turkey, Iran, Algeria etc, as is evidenced by its plan to extend export credits to Balfour Beatty to build the Ilisu Dam in Turkey, which will destroy the 10000-year-old Kurdish city of Hasankeyf and leave thousands of Kurds homeless. There is no room for ethics. The Turkish government showed its disapproval in January of the recent French law recognising the Ottoman killings of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 as genocide, by cancellation of defence contracts with two French firms worth over a billion dollars. The UK’s huge armaments industry wants the trade, and NATO wants Turkey’s co-operation. Similar considerations apply to many of the other countries from which the banned organisations come.
Effect on asylum claims
The impact that the Act, and the proscription of several mainstream liberation organisations, will have on the right to asylum, will be vast. If it is a criminal offence to belong, or to profess support for, the PKK or the LTTE or the Mujahideen, what can an asylum-seeker say, who fears persecution at home for his or her support for one of these organisations? Support for the liberation struggle is the foundation for most asylum claims by Tamils, Turkish Kurds, Kashmiris and others. Someone who supports the Kurdish liberation movement will almost invariably support the PKK – and if he doesn’t, he’ll certainly be suspected of it. Assertion of an asylum claim could thus lead to criminal charges. The Home Office has, according to immigration lawyers, told its civil servants who present immigration and asylum appeals to notify it of anyone who claims on appeal to be a member or supporter of any of the listed organisations. It is likely that the information will be passed on to police. It’s a case of ‘damned if you do; damned if you don’t’ – an asylum-seeker who claims support or membership of a listed group risks arrest, and one who disavows support for the group will have the claim rejected on the ground that he or she is not persectured at home. Many people, faced with this dilemma, are likely not to claim asylum at all, although they deserve to be granted refugee status. The measures are likely to result in the growth of the undocumented, invisible underclass vulnerable to exploitation by sweatshop employers in agriculture and in the service, retail and garment trades. These consequences are a price the government is willing to pay for a reduction in the numbers claiming asylum – an increasingly pressing priority during an election campaign fought on the terrain of xenophobia.
Link to racism in immigration
In this connection, the banning orders are of a piece with the provisions allowing immigration officers to discriminate against members of particular ethnic groups who are perceived as a threat to ‘the immigration control’. The groups who can be discriminated against under the new provisions, announced in May, include Tamils and Kurds as well as Roma, Somalis, Afghans, Albanians, ethnic Chinese and (bizarrely) Pontic Greeks. The authorisation allows immigration officers to delay members of these groups at immigration control for longer and subject them to more rigorous checks than others.
But the groups deemed a threat to ‘the immigration control’ are precisely the groups who make up the majority of asylum seekers (excepting the Pontic Greeks). They’re the groups who are forced to arrive in the UK clandestinely or using false documents because they can’t get to safety in the UK any other way. It is the same government which forces them to travel illegally and then justifies institutional racism against them because of their illegal travel.
Thus, Kurds, Tamils and others are hit from both sides, treated as a threat both to immigration controls and to national security (with its peculiarly broad definition). But so far as the Kurds are concerned, the timing of the terrorist ban is strange, since the PKK has held a ceasefire for two years. This suggests that the government’s motivation has more to do with showing the electorate that Labour can be ‘tough on asylum’ than by any real terrorist threat.
New rejection strategy
The other recent development pointing the same way is the U-turn in the way Iraqi Kurds and Iranians are dealt with. Until recently, 90 percent of Iraqi Kurds were allowed to stay, either as refugees or with exceptional leave to remain. Now, despite the Home Office accepting that no one can be returned to areas controlled by Saddam Hussein, the number rejected is almost 90 percent. They are told they can live in the ‘safe havens’ – despite the US, the UK and Turkey bombing of Iraq, and the threat of aggression from Iran. And in the last few months, the rate of rejection for Iranians has shot up, despite Home Office acceptance that torture, unfair trials and secret executions are routine; those claiming to fear execution for political activity are told they can live in Turkey. Iranians, Iraqi and Turkish Kurds, Tamils, Algerians, Kashmiris and others are among the victims of the government’s drive against the right to asylum.
The Campaign against Criminalising Communities held a meeting in April at which leading human rights and refugee lawyers condemned the ban and the Act. After the successful demonstration on 8 May, it plans further activities.