Asylum: The Myth of Sharing

Anita Castelino, 22nd May 2008ce

Have you ever wondered why as children we’re taught the importance and value of sharing? I have and it seems somewhat misplaced; it’s not as if as adults we have any need for such a value.

The much-lauded childhood principle of sharing runs contrary to those principles we practise as grown-ups. As adults we are scared about what the next man has, we envy his lot. We are scared about what sharing might do to our children’s futures. Those very children who think sharing is so important. So while as children we equate goodness with generosity, as adults we try very hard to undo this philosophy. Bizarrely this seems to work.

As a nation we generally object to sharing, we’re scared of sharing, we don’t want to share – and certainly not with asylum seekers. We fear them, certainly, but we don’t understand them. We’re fed distorted figures and facts about the ubiquitous asylum seeker – rich, happy, with shelter and education; thousands of them, our country being undone from its core.

We couldn’t be more wrong and further from the truth, and it’s tragic that the more information we’re given, the further from the truth we get. Asylum seekers are denied everything. They are denied the right to a voice, denied the right to rights, denied the right to live.

Our government and media are obsessed with numbers and so if they really want to talk numbers the truth is that England is ranked 8th in Europe in terms of how many refugees we do welcome and barely takes in 2% of the world’s asylum seeking population. But still we’re scared.

What is forgotten amidst this obsession with statistics is that seeking asylum is an international human right. There can be no ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. There should be – and cannot be – a debate regarding who is eligible for compassion and humanity. We are all equal, all human. At least that’s what we’re taught as children.

Germain, Esthery and Fungi – three friends at the University of Leeds – are all currently guests of the Geography department there. They study hard for a qualification they will not be accredited and live on £35 Morrison’s supermarket vouchers a week. They are unable to work and are even forbidden from doing unpaid or voluntary work. They are unable to move and live with the fear of deportation. They are all asylum seekers. But the media does not seem to want this side of their story. Perhaps our lack of compassion would embarrass us.

Germain fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Esthery and Fungi escaped from Zimbabwe. All three were activists in their native countries. Knowing the risk and the danger to their lives, they sought to protest against the brutal regimes that they and others around them were living with. For this they were all forced to flee their homeland – leaving everything and everyone they knew behind.

In talking to Germain, Esthery and Fungi the idea of humanity and compassion is a subject that we touch upon time and time again. Britain, a nation that seeks to criticise countries for their lack of human rights and humanity, will at the same time refuse people who have fled those very countries seeking asylum. To them the notion of human rights is painfully obvious and contradictory. We have to ask ourselves are human rights real or are they just another fallacy like sharing? If they are to exist there cannot be one rule for some and another for the rest.

There seem to be many contradictory rules, many double standards that we use in dealing with those seeking asylum. Holidaying (for British citizens) in DRC or Zimbabwe is a no-no, too dangerous and unsafe, not possible (I have heard that deportation escorts themselves will not venture into Zimbabwe – they leave their prisoners stranded in Nairobi instead).

Germain knows only too well the dangers in the DRC; his life is still in danger if he returns but yet he lives in constant fear with the threat of deportation hanging over him. Germain arrived in England, at Heathrow airport in January 2005. But his story starts much before then when in June 2004 government forces in his hometown of Kamanyola accused the people there of supporting a dissident general opposing the government. As punishment for their supposed disloyalty government soldiers brutally raped, tortured and beat almost everyone. If they did not comply, the alternative was death.

In October of the same year, the People’s Party (for whom Germain was the mobiliser and his father the secretary) organised a demonstration in order to stand up for those people who were helpless against these attacks. The demonstration was broken up immediately. The party leader was shot dead at the scene. On November 3rd, Germain’s father was arrested and on the 4th his father’s body was found – beheaded. None of Germain’s family – his mother, his siblings, his wife and his children – was able to attend the funeral because of the danger to Germain and themselves.

His family was forced to flee to another part of the DRC and after a few weeks, Germain was arrested there. His sister, who was in the house, was also arrested. After more than a month of being beaten every day, after being fed only bananas, after being sexually assaulted, he was freed along with his 15-year-old sister who was also sexually assaulted and repeatedly raped.

In the Congo, as well as a school teacher and an activist Germain was also a choir-master. An Italian priest he knew very well, under the pretext of getting medical attention which they were in desperate need of secured their release. It was then that Germain escaped with his sister from these most brutal and unimaginable tortures to England – where his claim was denied.

In 2006 an article appeared on a French news website which reported that Germain is still a wanted man. Even though he fled a year prior the authorities are still searching for him. The article also told of how his mother was raped and murdered and that his wife and three young children were kidnapped as bait for Germain to return. He still has no idea as to what has happened to them. Tragically it was this article that allowed him to make a fresh claim with the Home Office and still two years later he has not heard anything.

Germain says he demonstrated ‘as a human rights activist, as a political activist to stand for these voiceless people’. For this, he goes on to say he has lost everything. But not only has he lost everything, he is denied anything here. Germain asks a poignant question; ‘who is the killer between you who is deporting me and the one who is the torturer there?’ How many of us would be that brave I wonder. Germain, as well as Esthery and Fungi have shown remarkable bravery. In a society where we protest by the dozen and shop in our millions, would we do the same?

A common myth about those seeking asylum is that their lives were simply static before they arrived in England. That somehow they have chosen to be an asylum seeker. Esthery says, ‘I was happy with my family back home but I had no choice in standing up for my country’. Esthery owned her own hairdressing salon in Zimbabwe; she had a daughter who was 10 when she arrived in England in 2002 that she was forced to leave behind.

Esthery protested against Mugabe’s regime with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – the opposition party. She held meetings, distributed flyers, sold cards and t-shirts, all in her own salon and all in protest against Mugabe. The ruling party became aware of this and between 2000 and 2001 Esthery’s shop was continuously targeted. She was ordered to stop her involvement with the MDC. Bravely she didn’t but as a consequence her salon was burned down, her house was destroyed and she was beaten.

MDC officials were warned that her life was in danger and in 2002 she arrived at Gatwick airport. From there she was moved continually – unable to feel safe and put down any roots – to London, Birmingham, Liverpool, and then Yarlswood detention centre for two months.

She launched a fresh claim in 2005 and like Germain is left with no clue as to what will happen to her, straddling a no-man’s-land with no rights. In October this year she tells me she will have been in England for six years. In that time she has been destitute and is only in minimal contact with her daughter for both their safety.

For the past six years Esthery, like her fellow asylum seekers has been unable to work, to study or to live. She has continually been on anti-depressants, constantly suffers headaches and is always fearful as to what will happen to her next. This system she says is ‘killing her silently’.

Fungi, from Zimbabwe as well, was also locked up in Yarlswood detention centre. She was detained for seven months in 2004. Fungi had to flee for the same reasons as Germain and Esthery – for standing up against a regime, for herself, and for others who were powerless to do anything. She arranged rallies, gave out pamphlets, organised demonstrations – all in the hope of making a change.

Like Esthery she was targeted by the ruling party and it became a matter of survival that she escape. Fungi tells me that she didn’t believe the danger she was actually in until she was threatened with a machete at her throat. She had no choice but to run away. Her uncle, who was also involved with the opposition party, had already fled and claimed asylum in England.

Arriving in England in 2002 Fungi stayed with her uncle in Nottingham and until December 2004 she was hidden. However, after a stop and search on their way to church, Fungi was arrested. Fungi tells me she had never been to a police cell in her life until that point. She was kept in a Nottingham police cell for a whole week. It was following this that the real torture began – in Yarlswood detention centre. During her time there, Fungi was given details of four separate flights on which she was told she would be deported.

On April 21st 2005 three escorts took Fungi to Heathrow airport so that she could board a plane back to Zimbabwe. As she was escorted out of the centre she didn’t say anything, she tells me, because she knew they beat detainees and taped their mouths. At the airport she asked to use the toilet. She was refused that request. When she saw the plane and the boarding entrance, she tells me she started struggling. Understandably, she did not want to go to a place where she would inevitably be tortured or killed.

As she started resisting, the escorts beat her, sat her in the rear of plane with her head in her knees and all of them punching her. All of their hands were on her face, her nose and her mouth so she couldn’t breathe. She was forced to bite one of them so she could inhale and at this they started screaming at her and pulled her braids.

An air hostess luckily saw all this and refused to allow them and Fungi on the plane. In the van the beating continued, they pulled her handcuffs until her wrists bled, the escorts raised the volume of the radio so no one could hear her screaming. When she arrived at the centre again she was given no treatment other than painkillers. In July 2005, Fungi managed to win a civil case against the escorts that so brutally and humiliatingly abused her – as an asylum seeker she was not allowed to receive any compensation.

There are three hundred documented cases of assault and abuse in detention centres, nation-wide. But we don’t hear about these stories. In our solipsistic society, after years of education we know more and more about less and less. We don’t know what our neighbour has experienced, we don’t know how asylum seekers are living, many of whom are destitute and living like this for years. Perhaps we are too scared to find out.

We don’t know that life for people like Germain, Esther and Fungi is unimaginable. The torture hasn’t ended by escaping, in some ways it has only just begun. All three are forced to live on £35 Morrissons’ supermarket vouchers a week. They are not allowed to work. They are unable to move. They are denied an education. They have been denied humanity in every respect. This life is impossible for most and yet they do it. This proves nothing except the human spirit’s resilience and will to survive. However it is not without consequences – we are killing them all silently.

Fungi and Esther told me about the work camps in Zimbabwe that they will be sent to if they are deported – above them a plaque which translated reads ‘You have achieved nothing’. But that’s not true; Esther, Fungi, and Germain have achieved so much. They were brave enough to protest against brutality and even now, all three are still fighting with what strength they have left to remain here without the fear of deportation.

They have achieved so much with what little they are given – imagine what they could achieve if they are allowed to stay.

Author's note: Thank you very much to Germain Naruhana, Mafungasei 'Fungi' Maikokera, and Esthery Murumbi who were kind enough to let me write this.