This Christmas, don’t forget the injustice and cruelty of the immigration system

Apologies for the dearth of new posts. By way of an explanation, I am now working as a pupil barrister specialising in immigration and asylum, and my time and energy are consumed by fighting for those harmed by Britain’s unjust and cruel immigration laws.

This Christmas, please spare a thought for the people who will be spending the holiday season in immigration detention. And for those who face removal to places where their lives will be in danger – like Prossie, a Ugandan lesbian and survivor of abuse, removed to her home country at a time when the Ugandan authorities are cracking down on LGBT people. Of course I am not free to write about my own clients’ cases, but I have encountered horrors no less grave.

A few Christmases ago, immigration barrister Colin Yeo wryly imagined what would happen if Jesus were an asylum-seeker. It’s an illustration of how callous and arbitrary the decision-making process can be, something of which few who have not worked in this field have even an inkling. Most asylum claims, however meritorious, are refused. Home Office caseworkers and immigration judges often seize on minor discrepancies as excuses to reject the credibility of a person’s entire account – even where the person is vulnerable and suffering from diagnosed PTSD or another illness. The Home Office persistently misuses and misapplies its own country of origin information reports. Many asylum-seekers are put on the “Detained Fast Track” with only a matter of days between asylum interview and decision, leaving them no time to gather evidence. In some cases the Home Secretary exercises her power to “certify” an asylum claim as “clearly unfounded”, meaning that her decision cannot even be appealed. And once asylum has been refused, the law makes few concessions to the sick and vulnerable. To select just a few of the reported judicial decisions, the Home Office has fought in the courts to send critically ill patients back to their home countries in the certain knowledge that they will die within weeks without kidney dialysis, and to return mentally ill and traumatized young people to wartorn Kabul.

Think too of people who do not qualify for the protection of the Refugee Convention because they are fleeing destitution rather than persecution. As immigration lawyer Frances Webber puts it in her excellent book Borderline Justice:

“But among the undocumented, the ‘irregulars’, are also those who have migrated here over the past 30 years because increasingly there is no land, no work, no possibility of feeding, clothing and educating a family, no future at home and no legal routes to earning a livelihood anywhere else. They are the ‘economic migrants’, the ‘bogus asylum seekers’ of popular myth, hounded as ‘illegals’ and rounded up when they are discovered using false documents to secure sub-minmum wage work. But how valid is the distinction the law draws between economic and political desperation?… One way or another most of those who come to these shores without official permission are refugees from globalisation, from a poor world getting poorer as it is shaped to serve the interests, appetites and whims of the rich world…

“The entire system of immigration controls, not just in the UK but throughout Europe, the US and Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Gulf states, is built on the most massive global injustice. At the heart of globalisation is a ruthless social Darwinism, which immigration controls reflect and reinforce. For the global elite, it has never been easier to move about the globe… new immigration rules smooth the path of the wealthy, even as fees have increased steeply to reflect the commercial value of UK residence. As requirements for eligibility multiply, increasingly the biblical parable is reversed, and only the rich may traverse the needle’s eye to enter the kingdom.”

I sometimes wonder how the people who work for the Home Office – the immigration officers and security contractors and detention centre guards who inflict violence on their behalf, and the presenting officers and Treasury counsel who represent them in the courts – can live with themselves, how they can go home and hug their children after a day of inflicting senseless cruelties on someone else’s child. Terry Pratchett may well have been right: “There are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath which cannot easily be duplicated by the ordinary family man who comes into work every day and has a job to do.”

This Christmas, remember that many people are suffering as a result of the deliberate policy of our government – a policy which is getting worse, not better. We are all responsible for this; as Desmond Tutu said, he who is neutral in situations of injustice has chosen the side of the oppressor. Let’s make 2014 a year of fighting for immigrants’ rights.

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Guest post at Pharyngula: Fighting for refugee and migrant rights

I have a guest post up at Pharyngula today, “Fighting for refugee and migrant rights.” Many thanks to PZ Myers for inviting me to guest-blog!

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Stand up to the bullies at the Daily Mail

[Trigger warnings: racism, transphobia and suicide]

The Daily Mail’s ongoing smear campaign against the late Ralph Miliband, and its invasion of the Miliband family’s privacy, are nothing new. These events is the latest in a long and ugly saga of abusive behaviour by one of Britain’s best-selling newspapers – often directed at people who, unlike the Milibands, are not fortunate enough to have a platform of influence or the opportunity to defend themselves in public.

Earlier this year Lucy Meadows, a trans woman teaching at a primary school in Accrington, was ridiculed and publicly humiliated by Mail journalist Richard Littlejohn in a characteristically vitriolic column. Ms Meadows was not a public figure; she was not a politician or a celebrity; she had no power, and no chance to defend herself. None of this stopped Littlejohn from penning a column in which he misgendered her, smeared her, and called for her to be sacked. Her complaint to the Press Complaints Commission resulted in no action. Tragically, in March, she took her own life.

One of the Mail’s most prominent columnists bullied a woman to the point of suicide for his own amusement – and the Mail’s editors and owners lifted not a finger to stop him, and willingly profited from his abusive behaviour. The coroner, Michael Singleton, put it well: “to the press, shame on all of you.” And the Mail has never offered the slightest hint of an apology for its role in her death. When called upon to apologize, its spokesman responded with an irrelevant jibe at former Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell, whose actual involvement in the matter was limited to having shared a petition on Twitter.

Nor is Lucy Meadows the only victim of the Mail’s abuse. Virtually every day the Mail runs a story in which it attacks refugees and migrants – calling the desperate people who come to this country to seek sanctuary “scroungers” and “illegal immigrants”, portraying them as problems rather than people. This dishonest rhetoric influences the political discourse, stirring up hatred and hostility against one of the most marginalized groups in our society. The Mail, having taken upon itself to speak for “Middle England”, bears a large share of responsibility for the rabid anti-immigrant bigotry that infects British politics. Our politicians, Labour as well as Tory, fear the Mail’s electoral influence and pander sycophantically to its editorial line: a profile of Mail editor Paul Dacre from 2001 illustrates how Tony Blair and David Blunkett caved to the demands of the right-wing press to “get tough” on asylum-seekers. In this way our immigration enforcement system grows steadily more brutal and dehumanizing, claiming lives like Jackie Nanyonjo’s. And the Mail continues to profit from peddling hate.

What can we do? We can, of course, boycott the Mail, but I don’t imagine that many of my readers read it in the first place. We can call upon Mail-reading friends and family to cancel their subscriptions. And we can seek to expose the Mail’s abuses whenever they occur, and stand up for the targets of its bullying.

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The fight for refugee and migrant justice continues

I have another post up at The Feminist Hivemind: The fight for refugee and migrant justice continues.

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The limits of the law

I am looking forward to reading this book.

Garden Court Immigration Blog

Taimour Lay reviews Borderline Justice: The fight for refugee and migrant rights, a new book by former Garden Court barrister Frances Webber.

BorderlineJusticeImmigration has for so long been captured by the cynical myth-making of the right that any call for a world of ‘no borders’ faces summary dismissal as utopian and detached from public opinion. Even more cautious manifestos for a freer and more humane regime are today cast well outside the political mainstream.

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Banning the burqa and niqab is a terrible idea

When France’s ban on full face veils in public spaces entered into force in 2011, I spoke out against it, fearing that it would contribute to the oppression and marginalization of Muslim women. Sadly, I think that subsequent events have proved me right. Since the burqa and niqab have become much-discussed topics here in Britain in recent weeks, and politicians have called for a “national debate”, this seems an appropriate time to remind my readers of why such coercive legal measures are an appallingly bad and counterproductive idea.

In the words of Angelique Chrisafis, the ban has put some French Muslim women “effectively under house arrest”. While there has been little enforcement of the law by the police, the existence of the law has enabled the worst forms of bigotry: some members of the public have taken it as licence to abuse Muslim women verbally in the street, and even to assault them. This is the very opposite of liberating Muslim women: it actively restricts their freedom and drives them out of the public square. Banning women from wearing the burqa or niqab in public places does nothing to protect victims of abuse who are forced to wear these garments against their will. Indeed, some women who have experienced this kind of abuse spoke out against the ban when it was introduced. Djénane Karah Tager, author of the autobiography Sous Mon Niqabwho was forced to veil by her abusive ex-husband – has opposed the law on the ground that it simply confines women to their homes, letting their abuse go unnoticed.

And we also should not ignore the views of those Muslim women who choose of their own volition to wear the burqa or niqab. Some of them have spoken out, too. Some readers may dislike and disapprove of their choice; and it is certainly not my wish, as an atheist, to defend any version of the Muslim faith or its teachings. But to suggest that their choice should be criminalized, that they should be punished by the state for dressing as they wish to dress in public places, amounts to erasing their agency and denying them the basic personal freedoms which the rest of us take for granted. It seems paternalistic and infantilizing to suggest that they cannot make their own choices, and that the state ought to define how they ought to dress and punish them if they refuse to comply. And it seems almost Orwellian to claim that such laws are intended to liberate women and combat misogyny. You are not “liberating” marginalized people by forcing them to conform to your ideals! And a social-justice-oriented discourse needs to involve listening to the people actually affected by such policies, instead of dismissing their views and assuming that we know better. In a society committed to the ideal of bodily autonomy, no one has the right to police others’ personal choices about their appearance.

I will doubtless be accused, as leftists often are, of espousing a kind of strawman cultural relativism. We are often accused of being uninterested in fighting misogyny within minority communities: we are even from time to time accused of being allies of radical Islam. This criticism is utterly misplaced. I do not believe – and I have never known a leftist who believes – that the state ought to turn a blind eye to abuse and violence merely because it forms part of the tradition of a minority culture. Many of us speak out against abusive cultural practices such as female genital cutting and forced marriage, and indeed campaign for the rights of asylum-seekers who are fleeing these abuses. I will be the first to argue that the state should protect people of all cultures from abuse and violence, whether it comes from within their own communities or from outside. But it plainly does not follow that the state ought to regulate how Muslim women dress, and punish them for expressing their faith through their clothing.

If the ban is supposed to “liberate” women who are forced against their will to wear the burqa or niqab, then it is both overinclusive and ineffective. It is overinclusive because it also affects the many Muslim women who choose to wear these clothes of their own volition. And it is ineffective because it does not actually liberate the victims of domestic violence, it simply confines them to their homes out of sight. An effective strategy for fighting domestic abuse in minority communities should not criminalize the victims, it should criminalize the abusers. We cannot liberate people by declaring them criminals.

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Yarl’s Wood update

Today I attended a demonstration in London, organized by the Movement for Justice, calling for the closure of Yarl’s Wood and for a full public inquiry into the abuse of immigration detainees. I hope that the public and the media pay attention.

We heard harrowing stories from a number of women formerly detained at Yarl’s Wood. This is a detention centre where male guards regularly enter the rooms of women detainees unannounced, denying them basic privacy and dignity, and where sexual harassment of women detainees by guards is commonplace. The living conditions are substandard and the medical care grossly inadequate, and seriously ill detainees have been offered paracetamol instead of proper medical attention. Detainees are expected to do menial labour for far below minimum wage. Many of the people detained at Yarl’s Wood are people who have experienced trauma and horror in their home countries, and when they come to Britain, they are victimized a second time by the immigration enforcement system. It’s time that the British establishment started listening to their voices.

For more on the institutionalized abuse of detainees at Yarl’s Wood, see my post at The Feminist Hivemind, “The horrors of Yarl’s Wood: why immigration justice is a feminist issue”. I would also encourage you to support the Movement for Justice By Any Means Necessary, and follow them on Twitter at @followMFJ.

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