It’s time we walked away from Omelas

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes–the child has no understanding of time or interval–sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked; the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good, ” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer…

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

Many of my readers will be familiar with Ursula Le Guin’s celebrated short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. We might be horrified at the idea of a society which would arbitrarily inflict cruelty and suffering on a person who cannot fight back, and which, worse still, would convince itself that such cruelty and suffering was necessary for the good of the community. But it is time that we faced the truth: our own society does precisely this. With every day that passes, we deprive people of basic human rights, deny them the right to work, intern them in detention camps, or force them to return to violent and dangerous parts of the world – for no other reason than that they are not British citizens.

We inhabit a corner of Fortress Europe, and there is a vast enforcement industry in this country dedicated to keeping irregular migrants out. The Home Office, the UK Border Agency, Frontex, and a plethora of for-profit private contractors – Serco, GEO, G4S, Mitie – employ between them a small army of enforcement personnel dedicated to arresting, detaining and removing people, people whose only “crime” is to have come to this country seeking a better life. The people affected are those who are disenfranchised, shut out of the political process. Unsurprisingly, the system is deeply racist and classist in practice: the people most harshly affected by immigration enforcement are people of colour from developing countries. Some are asylum-seekers, who have come to this country to exercise their internationally-recognized right to seek refuge from persecution: many are survivors of torture, rape and unimaginable trauma. Others do not qualify for asylum because they are “only” fleeing poverty, coming to this country to seek work and to feed their children, or to obtain lifesaving medical care.

Many asylum-seekers arriving in this country, having been allocated to the so-called “Detained Fast Track”, are put into immigration detention while their asylum claims are processed. They face months-long imprisonment in hellholes like the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, run by private contractor Serco, where, in 2010, more than 50 women – many of them survivors of rape – went on hunger strike to protest the appalling conditions. Although Home Office guidelines provide that torture survivors and people with serious physical and mental illnesses should generally not be detained, this provision is rarely followed in practice, and torture survivors like Tarik Adam Rhama languish in detention indefinitely.

Life is hardly less bleak for those asylum-seekers who are not held in detention. They are not allowed to work while they are waiting for their applications to be adjudicated, and those who are not detained must subsist on minimal state benefits – as little as £37 a week for a single person, or £83 a week for a lone parent with a child under sixteen, far less than the income of a British jobseeker. Few of us have any conception of what it is like to be denied even the basic right to seek work and earn our own money.

The asylum claims process itself is notoriously cruel and arbitrary: all too often, those seeking asylum are disbelieved, and subjected to a second terrifying ordeal at the hands of the Home Office.

Kim-Ly – no real names are used in this article – was trafficked into the UK from Vietnam, and forced to work as a prostitute. Terrified about her fate at the hands of her traffickers if forced back to Vietnam, she claimed asylum. She found a system that was in turns confusing and intimidating.

When she attended the Asylum Screening Unit (ASU) in Croydon to make her claim, she was required to disclose information about sex work in the earshot of queuing strangers, and was particularly unsettled by the presence of other Vietnamese asylum seekers. Understandably uncomfortable, Kim-Ly was hesitant in her answers; when her interpreter shouted at her to speak more loudly, she burst into tears. Her children were with her throughout, as there are no childcare facilities at ASU to protect them from hearing traumatic details about abuse and persecution. Later, at her substantive asylum interview, her interpreter was a man, despite her express request for a woman. Kim-Ly agreed to proceed with the interview, not least because, after her experience at ASU, she had arranged for her children to be looked after elsewhere. In common with the overwhelming majority of asylum claims, her application was refused.

There was evidence in the research, too, of deeply inappropriate questioning at interview. Emiola, having claimed asylum after bring trafficked from Nigeria to work in the sex trade, was asked whether she enjoyed being a prostitute, and how many men she had slept with.

Although asylum-seekers are eligible for legal aid, actually obtaining legal advice is far from easy; following recent swingeing cuts to the legal aid budget, charities like the Immigration Advisory Service and Refugee Migrant Justice have closed their doors, leaving many asylum-seekers trapped in what the Guardian called a “Kafkaesque legal nightmare”, facing the prospect of making their claims without the assistance of a solicitor. In 2008, 60 percent of women in immigration detention attended their hearings without legal representation.  Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of asylum claims are refused, and all too few decisions are overturned on appeal.

For those whom the system fails, the consequences are terrible. Brenda Namigadde, a Ugandan lesbian woman detained at Yarl’s Wood, was refused asylum and told that she would be deported to Uganda. It is well-known that violence against LGBT people in Uganda is rife; a recent wave of homophobic violence culminated in the murder of gay rights activist David Kato, an event which shocked the world. Yet an immigration judge reportedly found that Ms Namigadde was “not homosexual”, and she was under threat of deportation to Uganda until, thanks to the efforts of her legal team, she received a last-minute reprieve in January 2011. And many others are not fortunate enough to receive a reprieve. The Home Office continues to return people by force to Afghanistan, for example, despite the fact that much of the country remains a war zone. In another appalling case, a Ugandan woman known only as FC, who had been kidnapped as a child by the Lord’s Resistance Army and was infected with HIV, lost her appeal against removal, despite the courts’ knowledge that her return to Uganda would mean that she could no longer access the anti-retroviral medications which kept her alive.

There is yet another invisible and suffering population – those who have been refused asylum, but who cannot for various reasons be removed from the country. Banned from working and from claiming benefits, failed asylum-seekers are eligible only for “Section 4 support” of £35 a week. They receive no cash, only an “Azure card” which can be used in certain stores to purchase food. No more than £5 can be carried over to the next week, so saving money is impossible. Without cash, refused asylum-seekers cannot use public transport, cannot choose where to shop, and cannot even make telephone calls. Many are suffering from sicknesses and disabilities. Often, their story ends with destitution and homelessness on the streets.

It is time to end the absurd and cruel system by which a person’s civil rights depend upon the accident of their birth and ancestry. Abolishing immigration restrictions is a radical policy. But a century ago, abolishing racial segregation was a radical policy; women’s suffrage was a radical policy; gay liberation was a radical policy. Unjust laws can, and should, be changed. And we can, and should, work to end the system of institutionalized state violence against irregular migrants.

Note: This post incorporates material from various posts on my former blog, And Cabbages, And Kings.

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