An asylum seeker from Tanzania (who has asked to remain anonymous) delivered this speech in Manchester in October 2000, as part of the Civil Rights Caravan tour.
On Wednesday 2 February 2000, I was arrested in my house in Salford, Manchester, and detained. I was deemed to have contravened the laws of the land and I was specifically told that I belonged to another land. It is from that day that my perception of life changed. But more significantly my livelihood became contained and restricted; and all in the name of immigration laws. Now, life is for me an intangible reality in the hands of authorities and laws designed to withdraw control of my own life. For the first time in my life, I can only see but not participate in my own existence.
Only seven months ago I was able to fend for myself, buy my own food and clothing and do what I wanted, when I wanted. Now everything has changed. I can only go to two shops: first, is the supermarket in Salford where I have to use vouchers to spend on food; and second, is the cop shop to sign bail. The cop shop is the only shop I know where the customer is always wrong.
The shame of it all is that I am able and willing to work but I am restricted from doing so. I have skills as an engineer and I have also worked as a quality assurance technician for three years. Because I am not using any of those skills, I am gradually losing my own self-belief.
One morning in February 2000 there was a knock at the door and the police and an immigration officer came in. I was told that I was being detained under the Immigration Act. I was taken from my house to a police station where I was detained for one day before being taken to Manchester Airport Detention Centre. Many people are not aware that there is a prison at Manchester Airport. I was locked up there for five nights. You can only stay at Manchester Airport for a maximum of five nights, after which you have got two options. Either you are taken to a proper prison or you agree to be deported. I was told that I was going to be taken to Haslar. They did not say that Haslar was a prison.
First, they took me to another detention centre in Harmondsworth just outside London and I was detained there for a further night. Then I was told that I was to be taken to Haslar, which is a place of which I knew nothing. Somebody else, who was on the phone, was pleading not to be sent to Haslar and I did not know why. Then he said that he ‘can’t be going to Haslar because that is a prison’. I realised that I was going to be imprisoned. When I got to Haslar I was given prison uniforms by prison guards and I was given a room to stay. It was a really terrible place, a completely different atmosphere from the other places I had been in.
In detention I was, like all the detainees, condemned to the lowest point of my life. Detention is where I spent the gloomiest weeks, experiencing all forms of despair. I cried a lot, believing that it is when you cry that you stumble onto a source of goodness. But when I called for goodness, goodness refused to come. Detention is where hope and inspiration are almost impossible to sustain. The cage is a place where sanity is a full-time job. I tried to keep going but I was very close to losing it. I saw fellow asylum seekers going clinically insane, trying to commit suicide and others, sadly, successful. You think that these are scenes which should trigger a human response, but not when it is asylum seekers. We never found out what happened to those who tried to hang themselves. They are simply taken away and the outside world never finds out. Asylum seekers faced open abuse from detention or prison officers who believe that all asylum seekers are scroungers and they should all be locked up.
I was detained in Haslar during the final year of my engineering degree at Manchester Metropolitan University. I tried to get out on bail to at least finish my degree. My application was not successful for the first time but eventually I was granted bail by the adjudicator.
The bail conditions were curious – I was told that I was not allowed to move from my house in Salford. Also, I was to appear at Manchester city centre police station three times a week, between the hours of seven and eight in the evening. But at least I could avoid the cage. I have not been allowed to go to work so I have been condemned to use the voucher scheme.
I am just one asylum seeker. It is estimated that there are 100000 asylum seekers in Britain. What they have done to me with the immigration laws, with the voucher system and with detention, they are also doing to at least 100000 other asylum seekers. People speak from experience but others with experience do not speak. As asylum seekers and refugees we are vulnerable and timid. Because of these laws we have failed to state our own defence. It is obvious to me that Britain today has failed to protect us and the authorities here will seek to further increase our pain. Over the past few years authorities have come up with unashamedly racist laws to restrict freedom and take away any dignity we have as human beings. The authorities have treated us as worthless individuals with no human values and, because we lack a voice of our own, the authorities have used this tryst to disfavour and deny us any basic human rights.
The government’s policies of dispersal, detention and vouchers are hugely traumatising for us. When we are dispersed, it is done without regard to any friends we may have around, places of social care, places of worship or even centres of legal representation. We find ourselves in places where there is no knowledge of us and absolutely no help waiting for us. For example, if a person is living in Manchester with a family member or friend and they apply for accommodation of their own, they could quite easily be dispersed to the North East or somewhere equally distant.
The voucher scheme very clearly highlights the racist dimension and focus of the authorities. The vouchers say that we are scroungers and we should not be trusted with money. If somebody does not trust you with money, they surely do not trust what you say. And surely they would not trust our claims for asylum.
We asylum seekers are ready to work but the right to earn a living has been withdrawn and we fall victim to the voucher scheme as our last resort. Not only are we dehumanised by the scheme, we also have to face abuse and disrespect from racists and the right-wing press. One asylum seeker was told that if he needs money, he should sell his wedding ring. Somebody else went to collect his vouchers wearing a new pair of trainers from well-wishers. He was asked how, if he was an asylum seeker, could he have got a new pair of trainers. He was told his vouchers would be stopped.
The vouchers I get as an asylum seeker amount to £28 a week to spend on food and food only. And you can only spend it at shops where they tell you to go – just one supermarket. There is no cash because you are deemed untrustworthy. Now this provokes some curiosity. What about special dieting, for example halal food for Muslims? And what if we need a bus fare to get to a hospital or to see a legal representative? What about a bus fare to and from the supermarket itself? And what about shoes, socks or underwear? Surely those who designed this policy do not regard us as humans.
It is painful to finally realise that you can be created as a human being and not be treated as such by fellow humans. Having come across a lot of fellow asylum seekers myself, some questions really bother me. Why would a wealthy Christian tortured by fundamentalist Muslims flee Egypt to be on vouchers? Why would a software engineer, persecuted for his political affiliation, flee Algeria to be on vouchers? Why would an established lawyer flee Nigeria to be on vouchers? The voucher scheme shows the authorities’ determination to stigmatise us, to emphasise that we are different and bad. And that is why we have been given vouchers instead of cash. It is designed to exclude us from mainstream society.
The policy of detention is further proof that the authorities seriously disregard the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees. It is now possible to be arrested and detained in this country just for claiming asylum. It is now possible that a six-week-old baby can be detained. It is now possible that somebody is jailed for up to two years having committed no crime and certainly having not been convicted by the courts. Their only mistake is being a foreigner and claiming asylum in this country. Now let us ask ourselves a question. What crime would constitute a two-year jail term?
The immigration and asylum policy introduced by the government, the lies told about us by the racist and right-wing press, have made it possible to convince seven out of ten people in this country that we are over-helped and have overpopulated the land. It is quite clear to me that the authorities here have treated us as guinea pigs to see if their voucher system and their dispersal scheme will work.
We are accused of telling lies, stealing from the economy and exploiting the hospitality of the British people. We are treated as criminals. We do not get what we deserve but what we, or our supporters, negotiate and fight for. I truly believe that asylum should be a right not a fight. With relentless campaigning, we can show that the dangers to this society are not caused by refugees and asylum seekers but those who perpetuate their hate towards us.