26 June 2003 Edition
Maghaberry asylum seekers begin hunger strike
Asylum seekers who are being held in Maghaberry prison are so desperate to draw attention to their plight that they are going on hunger strike.
An Algerian asylum seeker being held in the prison is ending his first week without food in protest at the delay in processing his case. He is the second detainee to refuse food at the jail, where asylum seekers and illegal immigrants are being held while their applications for refugee status are being processed.
The Algerian man, who is in his twenties, has no family or relatives in the North and is understood to have been held in the prison for the past two months.
Amnesty International's Six-County programme director, Patrick Corrigan, said the Algerian man had started his hunger strike on the morning of Tuesday, 17 June.
"This is a desperate action by a desperate man," he said. "All he wants is a decision on his future. It's so bad that he would nearly prefer being returned to Algeria to the interminable stay in Maghaberry."
Lawyers acting for another detainee - a man from Ghana - have had to issue a writ of habeas corpus to see their client after they were prevented from meeting him on two separate occasions this past week. The man is understood to be receiving treatment in the prison hospital.
Ritchie MacRitchie, a solicitor at Madden and Finucane who is acting on behalf of the Ghanaian man, said he had been forced to apply for a judicial review and for habeas corpus proceedings after he was unable to see his client.
"I have not yet been able to discuss this matter with my client in person to determine if he is in lawful custody, " he said. "The refusal of the prison service to permit a legal visit leaves us with no choice but to aske the court to determine the matter."
At present, eight asylum seekers are being held in the prison, including a Nigerian man in his forties who had to be treated in the City hospital in Belfast after he went on hunger strike two weeks ago. The detainees are being held on the same wing as unionist paramiltary Johnny Adair at a cost of £75,000 a year each.
"Clearly the government should seek alternatives to holding these people in prison," Corrigan says. "They could live in hostels or be allowed to live in the community but report to the police regularly."
Campaign groups have branded the policy of holding asylum seekers behind bars as a breach of human rights, but a British Home Office official insisted there were not enough detainees in the North to warrant any change to the current arrangements.
The spokesperson added that the Home Office was obliged to hold asylum seekers in custody and that it has no plans to stop holding them in Maghaberry.
"There are not sufficient numbers of asylum seekers detained in Northern Ireland to warrant a separate facility," said the spokesperson. "Everyone detained at Maghaberry is offered the option of being transferred to a purpose-built centre in Britain. They would then be in the same position as anyone else seeking asylum in the United Kingdom."
But Patrick Corrigan rejected the Home Office's defence of its policy.
"For most of the people seeking asylum here it's not really a viable option to be brought to holding centres in Britain. They seek asylum in the North for a reason. Maybe they have support networks here or friends, but they come here instead of going to Britain."
Home, Sweet Home
BY ÁINE NÍ BHRIAIN
There has been much hysteria in both political circles and the media about refugees and asylum seekers lately, but is it based in fact or merely an extension of institutionalized racism? As Sinn Féin's Newry and Armagh representative Conor Murphy calls on the NIO to end the detention of Asylum seekers in prisons in the North An Phoblacht's Aine Ni Bhriain examines the plight of refugees in the Six Counties.
There are many myths about refugees and asylum seekers. Most are based in ignorance or bigotry. Ask some people what they think about asylum seekers and you may be stunned at the responses you get: Asylum seekers are "criminals," "terrorists" trying to "sneak" into a new country. They are "illegal" immigrants. They are "dirty," "sad" and "alien." They are "lazy," "looking for a free ride on social assistance," or "taking advantage."
Strikingly, not one of these views reflects the reality or experiences of asylum seekers throughout the world. In truth, an asylum seeker's decision to leave their home country is often a matter of life or death. They are - by legal definition - escaping persecution in their homeland.
Under international law, a refugee is defined (under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention) as being a person who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear is unwilling to, avail himself of the protection of that country".
People flee their homes for a range of reasons. Persecution of religious difference, political dissent, trade union activism, truthful journalism, and "persecution" can range from ostracisation to actual abuse, torture or threat of death.
In a booklet produced by the Refugee Action Group here in the Six Counties, one woman originally from Eastern Europe explains: "When they hear you are a refugee they think you have come here for a better life. I came because of the terrible things that were happening in my country. Nobody leaves their own country and their own family for nothing."
This, is the real truth behind asylum seekers and refugees - a reality that is easy to lose sight of in the shuffle of bureaucracy and forms. Every asylum seeker has their own unique story and many are echoes of some of those heard right here in the Six Counties over the last 30 years.
Central to the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement is the vindication and protection of the human rights of all. This must include the human rights of asylum seekers.
- Conor Murphy
Take, for example, the story of a Colombian teacher now living in Belfast.
"I belonged to non-governmental organisations that defended consumer rights in regards to overpricing of public services by our corrupt government," he says, "I also was a member of the teachers' union. This got me into trouble with the Government and army to the extent that my house was raided twice in a year and I also received death threats by phone and by letter, as they had accused me of being subversive and a guerrilla sympathiser.
"This type of aggression from the government is commonplace. However, despite this I didn't leave Colombia then, I only decided to leave the country when the paramilitaries - the AUC - arrived in my city. They pushed a death threat under my door and were already murdering many politically active people in my city. I had to leave."
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, it is estimated that there are approximately 12 million people who are legally recognised worldwide as refugees. Approximately one million of those are asylum seekers.
Britain and Ireland, like many countries, have created legal processes to establish if applicants for refugee status fit the 1951 UN definintion. In the Six Counties, the legal process of deciding the status of asylum seekers is "a Westminster matter".
By contrast, the Assembly, when it was functioning, had responsibility in all other areas - such as health, education, etc.
While there are no official figures, the Multi-Cultural Resource Centre, the NI Council for Ethnic Minorities and the Refugee Action Group, estimates the combined total for refugee and asylum seekers in the Six Counties is around 2,000. Every year there are about 400 applications for asylum in the North, but not all are successful.
The terms refugee and asylum seeker are often used interchangably, but there is an important legal distinction between the two.
Under domestic law, a refugee is a person who has already had a positive decision on an application for asylum and has been granted full refugee status. An asylum seeker is a person who has applied for refugee status and is still awaiting a decision.
Migrant workers are a totally different category. They are recruited by targeted international advertisement to fill gaps in the labour market, and are not fleeing persecution. All they have in common with asylum seekers, travellers, and the settled ethnic minority community is their shared experiences of racism.
There is no such thing as an "illegal" asylum seeker.
Under the UN convention, anyone, anywhere, has the right to apply for refugee status, and once a person has applied for asylum, they are here lawfully while the application is processed.
However, because they are often fleeing their own government, some asylum seekers are not able to obtain travel documents, and in such cases they may then try to obtain false ID to secure travel to safe countries. This means they may also have to enter a country illegally or with forged documents, but this is acceptable, under article 32 of the UN Convention.
Others may have had to flee at short notice and did not have had time to gather identification and passports, but this too, is permitted - under Article 31.
Advocates for asylum seekers are adamant that the current process is far from fair. They say the legislation and manner of its implementation often resembles the same conditions refugees are fleeing.
The Home Office is seen as operating a "culture of disbelief" and applications may take years to process instead of months. Delays in the decision making process have resulted in asylum seekers waiting for lengthly and unnecessary periods of time, leaving them feeling insecure and unable to begin the process of rebuilding their lives.
According to Amnesty International, interpretation of the UN convention is often very narrow and the complexity of initial claim form - which must be completed in English - means many asylum seekers actually have claims rejected for non-compliance - in other words, filling out the form incorrectly.
Language barriers are also particularly profound in the North, due to our small population of ethnic minorties.
However, the worst abuses arise from the draconian powers of the Immigration Service to enter and search property, and engage in the intimate searching of people. Far from a warm welcome, the oppressive nature of such state policies has catastrophic effects on separated families.
The entire process also creates prolonged poverty among people who might otherwise be making a positive contribution to the economy, because while the paperwork is shuffled about and the asylum seeker waits for a decision on their status, they are prohibited from working.
Those who are destitute receive support from the Home Office, but get only 70% of basic income support. This means they are forced to live 30% below the British government's own defined minimum subsitence level, and anyone who has tried to make ends meet on the dole knows that every penny is needed just to survive.
Gaps in service provision have resulted in asylum seekers and refugees not being able to access basic services. They face greater isolation, social and economic exclusion, have difficulty accessing basic medical assistance and healthcare, and their children have not been able to attend school. There have also been serious incidents of racial abuse and harassment.
And as if all this isn't enough hardship and humiliation, there is still a disproportionate use of detention in the Six Counties, as compared to regions in Britain.
This means a higher number of asylum seekers are detained here, and since there is no dedicated detention facility, they are being detained in high security prisons, like Maghaberry - in spite of the fact that none has committed a criminal offense or faces a trial.
This too, has a familiar ring for republicans and nationalists alike.
We are told the reasons for this are varied. Some applicants are detained to establish identity or nationality - an inherent hazard of fleeing persecution without documentation - others, because they have innocently left the area.
Under EU law, an asylum seeker must stay in the first country in which they have applied for refugee status until that status is determined, and many of those detained in the North actually applied for asylum in the 26 Counties. They are now being "detained" here because they have strayed over the border, often without even knowing they have done so or that the border exists in the first place.
Sinn Féin's Newry and Armagh representative, Conor Murphy has called on the NIO to end the detention of asylum seekers in prisons here.
"Central to the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement is the vindication and protection of the human rights of all," says Murphy. "This must include the human rights of asylum seekers.
"The detention of asylum seekers in prison, alongside convicted criminals, for up to eight months without charge or trial is nothing less than internment. Republicans know only too well the impact that this has on individuals and families. Internment only serves to increase the uncertainty and hardship that asylum seekers face."
Sinn Féin called on the Assembly to back the recommendations of the Law Centre report on asylum seekers, Sanctuary in a Cell, over two years ago.
Despite a political mandate for action which included the ending of the unnecessary detention of asylum seekers, the creation of non-custodial alternatives, the designation of the British Home Office under section 75 of the NI Act, and full access to free legal advice and welfare and community services, the NIO has done nothing to change or improve the situation.
"The British government and the Irish government have adopted an antagonistic approach to this issue," says Murphy. "It is the responsibility of us all to give leadership on the issue of asylum seekers and racism."
Up until the last few years, the Home Office did not fund the provision of services for asylum seekers in the Six Counties, and local administration failed to take the matter seriously.
However, after September 2000, (and intense lobbying and negotiations on the part of support agencies,) the Home Office did finally agree to fund the Council for Ethnic Minorities, which provides advice and assistance to asylum seekers and refugees.
Still, the support system needs further development to ensure that people can become self-sufficient and independent and full participants in society.
The Immigration and Nationality Directorate must ensure fairness in the decision-making process, and do away with unnecessary waiting periods, prison detention and language barriers.
And the rest of us must do away with old prejudices and ignorance.
"There is a huge richness to be gained from multiculturalism," says Conor Murphy. "With information, education and political leadership, fear and misunderstanding can be replaced with an embracing of the growing diversity in Irish society."