Desperately Seeking Asylum
Sam Beale uncovers an unlikely alliance between church groups and squatters, providing support for people caught at the sharp end of new asylum and immigration legislation.
Squall 13, Summer 1996, pp. 24-25.
In February 1996 a loose affiliation of squatters, activists, church groups and concerned individuals, tentatively met to discuss the occupation of a building in Hackney. They called themselves ARCH (Autonomous Refugee Centre, Hackney) and hoped the meeting would form the basis of a practical campaign against Government changes to Social Security regulations for refugees and asylum seekers, as well as the upcoming Asylum & Immigration Bill (A&IB).
Chris Locke of ARCH explains: “We wanted to provide homes for refugees affected by the Social Security changes. On the way we found lots of other stuff to do; ranging from getting decent solicitors for people to finding them clothes and food.” Warren, another member of ARCH, states the group’s intention to create alternative solutions: “We understand these people are alienated, some come from war zones and oppressive regimes to the big city. Providing bedding, conversation and a good meal is enough to give the basis of what they need; the dignity to keep their sanity and keep on living.”
ARCH subsequently squatted an empty magistrates court in Stoke Newington to provide immediate shelter and publicise the legislation.
The new Social Security regulations mean any asylum seekers applying for asylum ‘in country’, ie after they have entered the country rather than at their port of entry, are no longer entitled to any benefits. (Currently around 70 per cent of asylum seekers apply after they have entered the country. 80 per cent of these within the first week). Similar rules apply to those appealing against an asylum refusal. According to a recent report by the Campaign for Racial Equality, the impact of these changes is inescapable and includes: “Increased hardship, poverty and further exclusion for an already marginalised group.”
Debbie Young is a member of the Prisoners of Conscience Appeal Fund (PoC), a small organisation which finds funds for the basic needs of refugees persecuted for nonviolent expression. Her main fear is that: “the most vulnerable and traumatised refugees are coming through, not making in-country applications and not getting to agencies like the Refugee Council because they don’t want to deal with any sort of officialdom whatsoever”.
"This is a dying government's last kick, trying to engender some kind of popular support from a racist population."
People who have been persecuted, imprisoned or tortured, who have narrowly escaped death under oppressive regimes or witnessed the murder of family, friends or colleagues, are likely to have a lingering suspicion of authority of any sort. Many would rather take the risk of staying here illegally than place their fate in the hands of officials and face possible deportation. Debbie Young explains: “We contacted ARCH to ensure that those refugees within our remit who decided to squat would not slip through the net and miss out on a PoC grant.
“This is a time for alliance between all sections of the community to help these people cope. The idea that they’re squatting is irrelevant. This is about basic human survival.”
ARCH are learning on their feet, offering to take people to Law Centres as well as finding funds, food, and language courses. Volunteers have been working alongside the Churches Refugee Network (CRN), a group set up in Hackney in 1989 to deal with an influx of Kurdish refugees.
Revd Lance Stone, Pastor of the United Reformed Church in Stoke Newington, has direct experience of providing food and shelter for Kurdish refugees: “This is a Government policy which says the way to happy race relations is to keep black people out, which is a bit like saying the way to stop mugging is to keep people in their homes or the way to stop rape is to make sure women don’t go out at night. This is a dying Government’s last kick, trying to engender some kind of popular support from a racist population.”
His congregation has, through referrals from the CRN, allowed asylum seekers and refugees to sleep in their church: “I think the most humanising stuff goes on where people just take responsibility outside institutions and structures. I think the squatters are wonderful. They get things done. I have been humbled and amazed by the work they are doing.”
Revd Stone has attended countless meetings on this issue: “There’s an awful lot of talk about politics and mobilising the community which is great rhetoric. And there is a serious job of consciousness raising to be done, I don’t deny that. But at the end of the day somebody has to deal with the fact that there’s a refugee on the street who needs a bed and food.”
Lance Stone organised his congregation to provide food, baths and other support, a responsibility now aided by the ARCH collective. “It’s just insane to have properties vacant when there’s people in this kind of need. We would always try to find accommodation other than squatting if it was available,” he says.
Warren of ARCH describes the churches as “a vital link in the chain”. The unlikely alliance between the Church and the squatters is, he says, “a very youthful relationship. We find ourselves on equal footing in as much as we are blindly going into something that needs a lot of work”. Chris Locke agrees: “It is weird but it seems to be working out.”
For squatters this is a simple extension of the logic of turning empty buildings into homes. Here are people in a strange country with very simple and urgent needs: somewhere to live and something to eat. Here is a borough with a record for keeping properties empty and here are some activists willing to crack a few buildings. Simple.
However, not all the agencies dealing with the rapidly rising number of destitute refugees accept this. The Refugee Council who have seen and referred around 400 people affected by the new legislation since February has a clear policy on squatting.
Richard Lumley, Housing Advisor on their National Development Team, told Squall: “We will not work directly with squatting groups. As a charity it is not something we can get involved in.” Even when presented with a situation of either referring someone to ARCH or sending them onto the streets, this position would not change: “If we knew of vacancies in a squat we would not send people to them,” said Lumley. Billy McKenna from Shelter adopted a similar line: “As a registered charity, Shelter could not support any action which would encourage the breaking of any law.” Reminded that squatting is not actually illegal he said: “No, but with the CJA it does push very near the line.”
Subject to restrictions on charities, image-bound by conservative funders and caught up in time-consuming bureaucracies, many official organisations keep their efforts strictly within the mainstream.
Meanwhile in a Stoke Newington pub, a week or so after the eviction of the courthouse, two ARCH volunteers stroll in with a couple of young refugees; Varben from Cosovo in former Yugoslavia and Antonio from the Angolan enclave of Cabinda. Present in the pub that night are members of ARCH, planning to squat an empty house for the new arrivals to live in. One of the volunteers is also taking them swimming the next day: a far cry from an overcrowded hostel in the West End, where nobody has the time to think beyond the barest necessities.
Varben and Antonio have very different histories and different reasons for being in London. Antonio, a doctor from Cabinda, tells his story: “I left because of the civil war. I was afraid I would be killed. I had many problems because I was treating people from all the different parties who are at war. Some parties didn’t like me helping all sides but I am a doctor, I must help anyone who needs it. They put me in prison for a long time. Then I escaped and came here.” Antonio had no idea he had to apply for asylum as soon as he arrived and is currently waiting for the Home Office to process his asylum application. On average this takes nine months.
Varben hitch-hiked to England in a lorry from Macedonia: “When I got to London I slept out on the streets at Victoria Station for three days. I met an African who told me to go to the Home Office.” Varben says there were at least ten other refugees sleeping at Victoria whilst he was there: “I don’t know what happened to them, they didn’t speak English.” The Refugee Council referred him to a hostel for five days and then on to a church. He believes that squatting is a logical solution: “Why have houses empty? Why have people sleeping in the church?” He is looking forward to an English course organised for him by ARCH and the CRN. He too awaits a Home Office decision.
Meanwhile ARCH ensure asylum seekers understand what squatting entails, whilst also being acutely aware of the need to ensure the legality of any building in which they are housed because of the vulnerability of their situation.
The reluctance of official agencies to work with squatters is maddening. The reasons are clear enough but there is little sense in, as Chris Locke says,“blanking squatting completely”. ARCH has the experience and the political will to provide time, support and buildings. With the support of ‘respected’ organisations, a little co-ordination and some intelligently directed cash, real differences could be made to thousands of shattered lives.
Such a move does require an imaginative and ideological leap for many ‘legitimate’ organisations. But faced with the sort of crisis predicted once the A&IB becomes law, what choice is there?
This is not scaremongering. Predictions for the effects of the passing of the Asylum Bill are grim. These people will quickly fill already overburdened hostels whilst Debbie Young is convinced that within a few months the “churches will not be able to cope with the numbers”.
Empty properties, particularly council properties, are an obvious solution. The work currently going on in Hackney is a precedent for positive responses to unspeakable legislation. To ignore it is blind arrogance. If no-one will cooperate with them it will be a slog, but have no doubt, the squatters will carry on regardless. They know it makes sense and they have been marginalised and misrepresented for too long to be deterred by the prospect anymore. As Revd Lance Stone says: “This is a desperate situation and desperate situations require imaginative initiatives.”
ARCH is desperately in need of cash.
Donations c/o: 2 St Pauls Rd, London N1 2QN.
Refugee support contacts:
ARCH c/o Squash: 0171 226 8938 Churches Refugee Network: 0171 241 6646 Prisoners of Conscience Appeal Fund: 0171 328 0153 Hackney Migrant & Refugee Support Group: 0171 533 7111
Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture: 0171 813 7777
Refugee Council: 0171 582 6922
Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants: 0171 251 8706
The Asylum & Immigration Bill and Social Security Amendments: A brief history
• In 1993 the Asylum & Immigration Appeals Act was introduced accompanied by alarmist media reports of ‘bogus refugees’. It tightened the criteria for gaining asylum and led to the development of a ‘culture of disbelief: a disturbing trend whereby asylum seekers are assumed to be lying about their reasons for seeking asylum unless they can produce proof.
• 1993 also saw the introduction of a fast-track system which meant that any asylum seeker who had passed through a third country on their way to the UK could be arbitrarily returned to that country without regard to individual circumstances and without any guarantee that the third country in question was any more likely to offer asylum than the UK
• In May 1995 the Government introduced a pilot scheme for quick decisions on ‘in-country’ applications. Applicants from named countries (including Nigeria, Romania and Ghana) were given a short interview to determine their eligibility. The Home Office has confirmed that under this scheme 100 per cent of applicants were refused asylum.
• In 1990, 17.5 per cent of asylum applications were refused, by 1995 this had risen to 79 per cent.
• The Government claims this shows a rise in ‘bogus’ claimants. However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states: “A country’s recognition rate of refugees may more often reflect the narrowness or liberalness of that State’s application of the refugee definition than the legitimacy or otherwise of individual’s claims.”
Asylum & Immigration Bill
• The Bill provides a ’fast track’ appeal mechanism for rejected applicants whose cases are deemed unfounded including those from a new ‘white list’ of supposedly ‘safe’ countries.
• Applicants from this white list of countries will almost automatically be presumed to be ‘bogus’ claimants, regardless of individual circumstances. The Bill will also abolish the existing right to appeal prior to expulsion in cases where an applicant arrives in Britain via a third country. Chain removals of people from one country to another, including to those with seriously deficient asylum procedures are inevitable.
• Both the White List and the Third Country policies are drawn directly from European Union agreements drawn up in secret by a European Steering Group. This is contrary to Michael Howard’s pledge to his party conference in 1995 that immigration policy would be “decided here... not in Brussels.” None of the EU documents in question have been debated by British Parliament
• The Home Office takes, on average, nine months to reach an initial decision on asylum claims. During that time applicants are now unable to physically support themselves. The backlog of applicants awaiting decisions rose to 85,000 in March this year.
• The Government has made no provision for people affected by these changes. Other European countries, some with traditionally harsher immigration policies than the UK, have at least provided reception centres, ensuring accommodation and basic needs, whilst claims and appeals are pending.