I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time, but the truth is I don’t know where to start. With Jacqui Smith, Home Secretary, who said about a week ago: “In the 21st century no one in Britain should ever feel under threat of verbal or physical violence just because of their sexual orientation.” No. Move back four years or so.
In 2004, the Syrian government arrested a young man, Jojo Jako Yacob, whose father was involved with the Yakiti Party – pro-Kurdish, anti-government.
“At one point I was put up against a wall and a handgun pointed at me. I was told that if I did not tell the authorities what they wanted to know they would shoot me dead. I did not tell them anything, I did not think they would shoot me.”
“The police officer then shot me in my upper left arm. At that point, I told them what they wanted to know as I believed that they would shoot me dead.” (Death sentence: gay Syrian teenager facing deportation)
In Ahdas Prison, by the Turkish border, this young man formed a relationship with another prisoner – but the guards found out and the prisoners were systematically beaten, for days or weeks – Jojo no longer remembers.
“This was all because I was gay. No questions were asked of me about my father’s political party or any other political activity. All the questions related to me being gay.
“I was also subjected to cold-water torture, where I was put in a room and buckets of cold water were constantly thrown over me. I could not remember what day it was or how long I had been in prison. (Death sentence: gay Syrian teenager facing deportation)
He woke in hospital: the doctor who was treating him told him that he had been in a coma for 20 days. He escaped from Syria, intending to get to the UK, which he had heard was a democracy and treated people with justice and fairness. In early 2005, huddled in the back of a freezer lorry, suffering from post-traumatic shock, he arrived in the UK.
He applied for asylum: was given extended leave to remain while this application was considered – the UK has a backlog of asylum cases miles long, and at the time Jojo was under 18. In 2006, he was arrested in Aberdeen for having a fake Belgian passport: locked up in Polmont Young Offenders: and his asylum application withdrawn, he was served with a deportation order – a letter would arrive weekly, telling him that if he agreed to return to Syria the British Government would give him £46 “to assist you in reintegrating into your home country. This could be used for example to set up a business, further your education or assist with housing”. link These letters continued to arrive week by week until Jojo was released from Polmont on bail, still under threat of deportation from the UK to Syria, where he would be handed over to the Syrian authorities. He is an escaped political prisoner, the son of a man jailed for anti-government activities, and known to be gay.
In a letter written last month to Lord Roberts of Llandudno, Jacqui Smith, Home Secretary, rejected a call for an immediate halt to the deportation of gay and lesbian asylum seekers (based on the case of Mehdi Kazemi, whose partner in Iran had been executed for being gay):
“We recognise that the conditions for gay and lesbian people in Iran – and many other countries – are such that some individuals are able to demonstrate a need for international protection. We do not, however, accept that we should make the presumption that each and every asylum-seeker who presents themselves as being of a particular nationality or sexuality, regardless of their particular circumstances, should automatically be … allowed to remain in the UK. With particular regard to Iran, current case law handed down by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal concludes that the evidence does not show a real risk of discovery of, or adverse action against gay and lesbian people who are discreet about their sexual orientation.”
“In the 21st century no one in Britain should ever feel under threat of verbal or physical violence just because of their sexual orientation.”
The UK signed the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1951, and ratified this Convention in 1954. Long before I was born, the UK agreed that a person who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” should be allowed to claim asylum in another country.
The asylum tribunal rejected Jojo’s application: they felt he could reasonably be returned to Syria. It’s hard not to think this is part of the British government’s policy of enforcement – they have a quota of deportations to meet, and as they can point to Jojo’s false passport conviction, if he’s sent back to Syria – especially if he is then imprisoned by the Syrian authorities – his deportation can help them meet their quota of people to be kicked out.
Four years ago at a Labour Party conference, Tony Blair announced an off-the-cuff policy called Tipping the Balance: his government would deport more people from the UK than were applying for asylum. One means used to cut down the number of asylum seekers was to change the cheap and effective policy that a refugee entering the UK could apply for asylum at the nearest police station: now a refugee must travel to one of three application centres, in Croydon, Leeds, and Birmingham. They get no help from the UK government until they have reached one of those centres: if they fail to reach a centre to make an asylum claim, they are never included in the tipping point. (Thus neatly demonstrating, incidentally, that when the UK government claims they want to enforce a mandated biometric ID card because of their concern for people just wandering the country without identification, they are lying like a lying lying thing.)
But on the other side of the balance, there is the quota of people who must be sent back to the countries from which they fled in terror. The Home Office is smugly proud of its achievements there. This anti-asylum seeker policy has been pursued at any cost to public safety, and any human cost, because they have a public performance target to be met (PDF) – a quota of people to be deported.
Whilst publicly “condemning” the perpetrators of genocide and human right abuses, the British Government is quietly deporting the Victims of War right back into the world’s worst disaster zones and the hands of the world’s most brutal regimes. Asylum seekers refused through “Fast Track” are from countries such as DR Congo, Iran and Myanmar. (Medical Justice)
This must not be. If Jojo Jako Yakob is sent back to Syria it will be to his death. False passport or no, he does not deserve a death sentence merely so that a Home Office bureaucrat can complete their quota for the year. No one does. We must cease to be a country that sends people to their deaths by quotas.
This “quota” for deportations is not merely targeted against LGBT asylum seekers – though the UK government, while talking big about their stance against homophobia abroad, does not recognise sexual orientation or gender identity as good cause to seek asylum. Refugees from Zimbabwe are being threatened with return even as Gordon Brown denounces Robert Mugabe’s regime as a “criminal cabal”.
The government does not do it, in large part, because it wants to curry favour with the editors and readers of the tabloid press. And the Mail, the Sun, the Express, the News of the World, together with their competitors, have done more than any other body to stir up hatred of asylum seekers. Here is a tiny selection of ‘asylum’ headlines from the past 12 months: ‘Asylum seekers turn to attacking Britain’, ‘Asylum rejects to get NHS for free’, The Asylum Seeker Opera’, ‘Asylum per left in the UK to attack girl, 7’ , ‘100 years to sort asylum’, Now even yanks claim UK asylum’.
It’s not simply that many of the stories are false, and that most of them are deliberately misleading. It is the relentless negativity of the whole campaign. And the depressing fact that this is where the majority of people get their information about asylum seekers from.
We have become so used to this kind of rhetoric that it seems almost normal. But turn the clock back 40 years and replace the words ‘asylum seekers’ with ‘blacks’, or turn it back another 30 and replace them with the word ‘Jews’, and you start to see how poisonous it really is.
And yet you can get stories from the other side:
Jean Donnachie flashes a mischievous smile as she describes the tactics she and her neighbours used every day to thwart immigration officers trying to arrest asylum seekers on her estate in Glasgow. A grandmother and former cashier who has lived on the Kingsway for 20 years, she makes an unlikely resistance fighter. But when she talks about how the estate took on the Home Office, there is a gleam of defiance in her eyes. “It was like watching the Gestapo – men with armour, going in to flats with battering rams. I’ve never seen people living in fear like it. I saw a man jump from two storeys up when they came for him and his family. I stood there and I cried, and I said to myself, ‘I am not going to stand by and watch this happen again.'”
And she didn’t. She and her friend Noreen mobilised the housing estate, “gathering in large crowds in the early-morning dark to jeer at immigration officials as they entered the tower blocks. On more than one occasion, the vans left the estate empty – the people they had come for had got out in time and were hidden by the crowd. The estate kept this up for two years until forced removals stopped.”
You can call Jacqui Smith at the Home Office on 020 7035 4848, and ask why the UK is treating asylum seekers like this. And specifically, if you will, why Jojo Jako Yakub, whose appeal number is IA/00541/2008, whose Home Office ref is Y1065198, who hoped to be treated fairly in the UK because it is a democracy, is being expelled because the UK has a “quota”, and Jojo can help fill it.
I am not going to stand by and watch this happen again.