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How Hunger Strikes at a Detention Centre Cast Shame on UK Government Policy

Written by
Peter Markham, Immigration Advice Service
Date of Publication:
06 October 2020

The hysterical ways in which some sections of the UK's media report on refugees whip up a belief that Britain, compared to some of its neighbours, is being overwhelmed by a tsunami of asylum seekers. It all helps a narrative that the Home Office would like us to believe.

A look at some of the figures reveals a different story. Last year, France had about three times as many asylum applications as the UK. Germany had about four times as many, and Greece around double.

The Home Office expends huge amounts of time and money to find any way it can to send those seeking asylum in the UK either back to another European country or to the home country from which they fled. Home Secretary Priti Patel has gone further by considering holding asylum seekers offshore on rusty ferries or banishing them to faraway islands in the south Atlantic.

Labour's shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, had this to say about that plan: 'This ludicrous idea is inhumane, completely impractical and wildly expensive. So it seems entirely plausible this Tory government came up with it.'

Ms Patel now says she plans to deliver the 'biggest overhaul' of the UK's asylum system in 'decades.' She claims the system is 'fundamentally broken' and says she wants one that is 'firm and fair.' That, she says, will include expediting the removal of those 'who have no claim for protection.'

Many who've fled horrendous experiences face an uphill battle for basic services even when they get to the UK. The truth is that the UK government sees asylum seekers as an annoyance. The angry shouting that this feeds into needs to be challenged. There's no better way to do that than by giving asylum seekers a voice and listening to some of their stories.

It's shameful that it took in part a hunger strike by as many as twenty two detainees at the Brook House detention centre to bring to light their chilling ordeals. These detainees were protesting against a move that would have seen them bundled on to a plane and sent back to other European countries deemed responsible for processing their claims. Eight reportedly attempted suicide.

'Detained Voices' is a website that shares the stories, experiences and demands of people held in the UK's immigration detention centres. One of those who participated in the hunger strike describes the journey he suffered from his war-torn home country of Yemen.

Since trying to seek asylum, he recounts the abuse, homelessness and instability he's faced. It's hard to believe that a human being could face such torment and hostility in the western world, let alone live to tell the tale. And now the UK government wants to throw him out and send him back, along with many others, to the European countries they suffered such atrocities in.

The UK government is relying on what's known as the Dublin regulation. It allows governments to decide which EU member states are responsible for processing asylum claims.

If someone has sought asylum, provided biometric data and begun their claim elsewhere in Europe, then the UK government reserves the right to remove that individual and send them back there.

Yet, often disregarded is that some are trying to escape the problems and abuses they've had to endure inside those European countries. By ignoring this, the Home Office is putting those who are already vulnerable and frightened back into danger. The fact is that asylum seekers are not obliged to claim asylum in the first 'safe' country that they reach.

'Detained Voices' has also shared the story of six Syrian detainees held at Brook House detention centre like those mentioned before. They too had gone on hunger strike to protest against the prospect of being sent back to Spain.

Here's some of what they had to say: 'In Spain, we got beaten up and abused. In the camp, they put a hundred of us in the same tent. We did not see any humanity, only humiliation. We left our families and homes in Syria. The only community we have is in the UK and they want to separate us from it.' Asylum seekers talk of being left to sleep on the streets, stripped of their dignity.

There are many factors which influence an asylum seeker's decision to embark on a dangerous journey to the UK. These do not stem from some wish to deceive or manipulate the asylum system. Family ties or language ability may play a part, but more often than not there's a real sense of necessity.

At the same time, some European countries have been struggling to cope with a steady influx of refugees. That's led to camps that are overcrowded and unsanitary. And, in France, there's been mounting evidence that ordinary French citizens who try to help refugees with basic necessities have themselves been targeted by the police.

And now, Priti Patel's department seems to want to increase the removal of asylum seekers significantly. That led Celia Clarke, director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, to speculate that this could all be part of a plan to hurry through as many removals as possible under Dublin rules because the practice will probably not be part of UK law once the Brexit transition period is over.

The first port of call to get a real understanding about why some are seeking asylum in the UK is to listen to their stories. Instead of washing its hands of the most vulnerable, the government should be doing its bit and sharing the load with its neighbours.

The UK has to an extent built an international reputation for compassion and fairplay. The actions of the Home Office are threatening that reputation, with asylum seekers the collateral damage.

There has been little empathy from Priti Patel. Instead, she's choosing to focus on making more 'immediate returns of people who arrive illegally,' people whom she says, 'break our rules, every single week.' The rhetoric plays right into the hands of those with a far-right anti-immigrant agenda. The likelihood is that the politics surrounding the issue of asylum in the UK is going to become even more polarised.