Archives for October 2010

Their mothers haunt more than the future

Peace Musabi

Asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga is dead, killed by G4S `escorts’ on a plane taking him from the UK to Angola. His wife, his widow, Makenda Kambana, weeps. Their five children weep. The State announces, a bit later, that the contract with G4S has not been renewed. The reason given? Cost efficiencies: “G4S is understood to have been paid tens of millions of pounds a year under the current deal, which expires in April. Removals between 2005 and April 2010 cost the Home Office almost £110m.” Apparently the rent is too damn high.

The cost is born by many, the dead and their intimate survivors first and perhaps last. Makenda Kambana is now a single mother of five children, alone, and still a political target. If children, as we are told so often, are our future, what are mothers?

Ask Irma Medrano, a 44 year old Salvadoran woman. In 1995, she fled an abusive husband. She was twenty nine years old at the time. She left her two children behind with relatives. In the subsequent fifteen years in the United States, Irma Medrano has given birth to two children. She is the mother of a twelve year old daughter, a nine year old son, both of whom are United States citizens.

Medrano’s family reports that her Salvadoran husband has heard that she is to be deported and has begun coming around, looking for her. The court decided to ignore this. Her US-born children are heartsick at their mother’s imminent disappearance. The court has decided that her children would not suffer extraordinary hardship if she were to be deported.

Finally, the court decided that Irma Medrano, despite her husband’s clear threats, faces no harm if returned to El Salvador. The court has decided that El Salvador is now safe for women, because there are more women in the legislature and judiciary, and the police are better trained. The court chose to ignore a US State Department report, in March 2010, “found rape remained widespread in El Salvador, rape laws were not effectively enforced, and domestic violence `was considered socially acceptable by a large portion of the population.’”

If Irma Medrano’s children are the future, what is Irma Medrano? In her flight to the United States, and if it happens, in her forced return to El Salvador, Irma Medrano will share a story with other asylum seeker mothers forced to leave their children behind in order to protect themselves and their children.

Women like Rahma Abukar Mohamed, Peace Musabi, Jeto Flaviah, Reetha Suppiah, Sakinat Bello.

Rahma Abukar Mohamed lived in Somalia, where she had been shot, threatened with rape, threatened with death, and injured. She fled, leaving behind her husband and child. She sought asylum in the United Kingdom, where she was summarily and `wrongly’ imprisoned, for having false papers. The reasons for her flight, the conditions of her life in Somalia, her desperate situation were all folded into her mistake of having had false papers, a mistake intensified by poor legal representation. She entered the United Kingdom on 9 August 2007. Last week, on 19 October 2010, her conviction was nullified, on procedural grounds. Rahma Abukar Mohamed was persecuted in Somalia for being a member of the wrong ethnic group. What was she persecuted, and prosecuted, for in England?

In 2003 Peace Musabi left Burundi, and left her three children, Samuel, Diana and Daniel, with a trusted friend. Musabi had to leave Burundi. Her husband had been kidnapped, her brother was beheaded in front of her, she was imprisoned, tortured, raped. She fled, pregnant from the rapes. Peace Musabi arrived in England in 2003, and, in 2007, was finally given exceptional leave to stay. She immediately began searching for her children. In 208, she was informed they had survived, amazingly, and were living in Uganda. She applied to have them come to England … and was denied, ironically enough, by the Home Office. Because of earlier procedural mistakes on the part of the Home Office and of her legal representation, Musabi was not officially a refugee but rather `exceptional’. And so she and her children had no right of family reunion. In the end, such as it is, “the immigration and asylum tribunal overturned the Home Office’s cruel refusal.” But that refusal, in the consciousness of the Home Office, was a home affirmation. What is Peace Musabi in that home?

Jeto Flaviah has a similar story. She fled Rwanda, after soldiers killed her husband, and raped and tortured her. She fled to the United Kingdom, seeking asylum. She won asylum but not the right to family reunion. Like Peace Musabi, she was `exceptional’. She still waits for her children, she still struggles and organizes everyday for reunion, she still mourns the time lost, the life together lost. What is Jeto Flaviah in the Home Office? What is asylum if she is denied forever the touch, the presence, the intimacies of living with her children?

Reetha Suppiah is from Malaysia, and Sakinat Bello is from Nigeria. They each fled to the United Kingdom, seeking asylum. The fled with their children. They were denied asylum, and immediately sent, with their children, to Yarl’s Wood, where, with their children, Reetha Suppiah spent 12 days, and Sakinat Bello 17 days. The children quickly became sick. Suppiah and Bello are suing the Home Office for the harm done to their children. That case was launched this week, Tuesday, October 26.

Children are the future. The daughters and sons of Makenda Kembana, Irma Medrano, Rahma Abukar Mohamed, Peace Musabi, Jeto Flaviah, Reetha Suppiah, and Sakinat Bello, they are the future. That future is born in asylum. That future is wrapped in death and violence and harm, all in the name and service of `asylum’. The children are the future . . . and their mothers? Their mothers haunt more than the future.


(Photo Credit: Camden New Journal)

Asylum-seeker Mandana Daneshnia and her daughter haunt democracy

Every day, The Wall Street Journal runs a feature called Photos of the Day. On Monday, October 18, the first photo was of a woman throwing confetti at Evo Morales. The second photo showed riot police hauling off a student demonstrator in Lyons. The third photo was of a mother and child. The mother looks away, the child looks directly at the camera. Here’s the caption: “SEWN SHUT: Iranian asylum-seeker Mandana Daneshnia, who had her mouth sewed shut for a hunger strike, sat with her daughter before a news conference in Athens Monday. A group of about 30 Iranians seeking asylum have been on a hunger strike in Athens for weeks.”

Here’s one version of the story.

Last year, around this time, on October 12, 2009, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the situation of asylum seekers in Greece. It was entitled Greece: Unsafe and Unwelcoming Shores. Here’s how HRW described the asylum system in Greece: “Greece effectively has no asylum system. It recognizes as few as 0.05 percent of asylum seekers as refugees at their first interview. A law adopted in July abolished a meaningful appeals procedure. The effect of the new law is that a person who is in need of international protection as a refugee in Greece is almost certain to be refused asylum at the first instance, and having been refused has little chance of obtaining it on appeal. The new law leaves asylum seekers with no remedy against risk of removal to inhuman or degrading treatment, as required by article 39 of the EU’s procedures directive and articles 13 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result of this legislative change, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) withdrew from any formal role in Greece’s asylum procedure.”

According to the report, Greece acted abysmally, and both the European Union and the United Nations did nothing more than withdraw and withhold. They did nothing to protect asylum seekers, they did nothing to intervene in either a draconian legal system or a Dickensian prison system. Everyone was found guilty: Greece, Europe, the United Nations. The entire `civilized’ and `democratic world.’

A year later, on September 20, 2010, Human Rights Watch returned to Greece to review the situation. What happened in the intervening year? Delay after delay. The year may have intervened, but no one else did. Not the European Union, not the United Nations. No one. What happened? Less than zero. The world stepped backwards.

Meanwhile, on September 1, 2010, a group of Iranian asylum seekers set up camp in the city center of Athens, demanding an audience, pleading for asylum. They began a hunger strike.

On Monday, October 18, after weeks of belligerent non-response on the part of the Greek government, a new government that had come in on the promise of change, six protesters sewed their lips together.

Mandana Daneshnia is one of the six: “Mandana Daneshnia, a former newspaper reporter, said she fled the country after being harassed by authorities for writing about women’s issues. She was one of the seven protesters who sewed their lips. `Women have no rights in Iran. They can’t wear what they want, do what they want, or even watch sporting events. Their testimony in court counts only for half of the one given by a man,” Daneshnia said, writing a statement in Persian, as her husband and young daughter looked on. `I have sewn my mouth to show that women in Iran are strong,’ said Daneshnia, 29, with short dyed-blonde hair and red-framed designer glasses, holding her lips with her hand when occasionally tempted to smile.”

The women in Iran are strong, whether in Iran or in Greece or elsewhere. For those women, the women in Iran, the institutions of democracy, as exemplified by the conditions of asylum seekers, are neither strong nor weak. They are lethal, and they are inhuman. Mandana Daneshnia haunts democracy. Mandana Daneshnia haunts Iran, Greece, the European Union, the United Nations, and anyone who cares about women’s issues and the reporting of women’s issues. As Mandania Daneshia haunts the `freedom loving’, `democratic’ nations, her daughter sits on her lap. How many smiling daughters must sit on the laps of how many mothers with their lips sewn together before asylum is realized?


(Photo Credit: Louisa Gouliamaki/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

And Jimmy Mubenga is dead


Jimmy Mubenga came to England seeking asylum, seeking life. According to his wife, Makenda Kambana, he was on a government hit list, “They killed my father and they threatened to kill Jimmy. They were looking for him. We had no choice but to leave.” Earlier this week, on Tuesday, October 12, Mubenga boarded a plane for Angola, having lost his last battle for asylum in the UK. Within 50 minutes on the plane, he was dead.

Witnesses report that the guards, G4S private deportation `escorts’, jumped on Mubenga and throttled him to death.  Escort deportation has become big business. Most of the 11 immigration removal centers in the UK are run by private firms, in particular G4S, GEO Ltd or Serco.

MPs are calling for an investigation, the former chief inspector of prisons as well. Many informed will raise their voices and eyebrows and hands in surprise and dismay at the violence. Charges of `excessive force’ and `brutality’ are heard across the land.

But Jimmy Mubenga is dead. As are …

Kenyan asylum seeker Eliud Nyenze, who collapsed in April this year at Oakington detention center, run by G4S. Nyenze complained of intense pain, so bad he was reduced to crawling around on the floor, begged for painkillers, and was denied any sort of medical attention. He died in excruciating agony.

Manuel Bravo, an Angolan asylum seeker who in September 2005 was found dead, hanged, in Yarl’s Wood.

Joy Gardner, a Jamaican woman applying for compassionate leave to stay in Britain, killed in front of her five year old son and her mother, September 1993.

These are the prominent, the recorded, names that have come up in discussions of Jimmy Mubenga’s death. Their deaths, the manner of their deaths, the impunity of those who killed them, is said to haunt the story of Jimmy Mubenga. The passengers on that British Airways flight are described as “haunted by the last cries of a dying man.” Understandably. The nation is haunted.

But Jimmy Mubenga is dead, and will remain so. He is not haunted by the past, but his name, his death, is haunted by the future. He is haunted by those who continue to seek asylum.

On Wednesday, October 13, the day after Jimmy Mubenga was killed, Malawian Florence Mhango and her ten-year-old daughter Precious were again blocked from receiving asylum. Precious is seeking asylum because she and her mother fear that if returned to Malawi, by law her estranged father can force her into marriage.

On Thursday, October 14, it was announced that the four-year ban on repatriating Zimbabwean failed asylum applicants would be lifted. Why? Because the Unity Government of Zimbabwe has worked.  That many, including the Zimbabwean diasporic and overseas communities, believe that the situation is worsening, that a bloodbath may very well be imminent, is of no matter. That Robert Mugabe, on Friday, called for national elections whether or not the constitution has been passed, is of no matter.  That the violence continues is of no matter.

What is important is that the Zimbabweans be sent back, be sent out. Take EM, an MDC member raped and beaten by policemen in her own home, send her back, because she has failed the test of asylum. Take Pauline Enagbonma, an albino woman who fears for her safety as an albino in Zimbabwe, and send her and her three young children back, children who have spent the majority of their lives in the UK. Take Nokuthula Ngazana and her famous 18 year old daughter Gamu, and send them back. Nokuthula Ngazana came to the UK, with her daughter, to study. Home Office claims she filed for visa extension “out of time”, and since Gamu was listed as her dependent on the application, she too must leave. Send them all back, along with all those whose names go unrecorded.

Seize them and you shall seize the day.

Send them all back for they have failed the test of asylum. In the protection of the State, there is no excessive force, there is no brutality. Those notions, like Nokuthula Ngazana’s application, are out of time.

Precious Mhango haunts Jimmy Mubenga, Gamu Nhengu haunts Jimmy Mubenga. The tens of thousands of children, of women and men seeking asylum and those who in the future shall seek asylum in the United Kingdom, they haunt Jimmy Mubenga.

And Jimmy Mubenga is dead.


(Photo credit:

The children of Afghanistan haunt the modern democratic nation-State

Children of asylum seekers and children who are asylum seekers in prison. What is their crime? Seeking asylum. These are children fleeing violence, in their households, in their communities, in their countries of birth. And how do `we’ respond? Prison.

Australia is bracing for a serious uptick in children in detention mutilating themselves: “Self-mutilation in Australia’s detention centres is increasing with the number of recorded cases quadrupling in the past year and mental health experts bracing for worse to come as children begin cutting themselves.” Why are the children cutting themselves? The prisons are becoming more overcrowded, the time spent in prison is increasing, and government officials are `promising’ increased rates of deportation. Who are these scoundrel children? Afghans. Sri Lankans.

According to Harry Minas, director of the Centre for International Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, the conditions for imprisoned asylum seekers and immigrants is returning to the dark days of 2001 – 2003, “when children drank shampoo and detainees sewed their lips together.” All of this has happened before, and it is happening again. We are told the first time it was tragedy.

Why are children cutting themselves? There is no school, there are no sustaining structures, there is no home life, there is no community, there is no future, and, increasingly, there is no past. There is only prison. From the State, there is only the promise that the rate of deportation to Afghanistan will increase. For the children, there is only threat and more threat.

The children are cutting themselves, they are poisoning themselves, because they are children, and self-harm is the only electoral process allowed them by the modern democratic nation-State. There are currently around 700 children in immigrant detention `facilities’ in Australia.

These children of asylum-seekers, these children asylum seekers are viewed as budget targets, as opportunities for greater efficiency. In Britain, it was announced today that “thousands of child asylum-seekers are to be removed … under savage budget cuts being drawn up by the Home Office ahead of this week’s comprehensive spending review. A briefing document sent to ministers sets out detailed proposals to remove child refugees before they reach 17 years old, and recommends bearing down on benefits given to asylum seekers…. Of greatest concern will be a policy of mass removal of unaccompanied children before they reach 17 and a half, the age when they are deemed to be adult asylum-seekers. Under current rules unaccompanied child asylum-seekers are usually granted leave to remain in the UK until they can make a fresh asylum application as an adult. There are more than 4,200 unaccompanied child asylum-seekers in Britain, with most being supported in local authority social services homes.”

The opportunity for economy here, for efficiency, is great. It is so great that the United Kingdom is willing to invest £4m in a `re-integration center’ in Afghanistan. The children of Afghanistan have traveled far, to seek asylum, to seek haven, to escape the violence of the Big War and the myriad forms of violence of the more intimate wars of the everyday. These children shall be returned to Afghanistan, after having been subjected to the democratic rule of law and of due process.

The planes are waiting, the ministers are promising swift, increasing, and ever more efficient returns. The children who have come asking for help will be returned to Afghanistan because Afghanistan is a better place … for them. It must be. It has been democratically decided. Those children who have not been allowed to kill themselves shall be sent `home’. The modern democratic nation-State is bracing itself for mass removals, for bearing down, for the mutilation of children. The children who seek asylum and the children of those who seek asylum have been targeted. The children of Afghanistan haunt the modern democratic nation-State.


(Photo Credit: Australian Human Rights Commission)

Asylum haunts the modern democratic nation-state

Pagani detention center, Greece

Asylum haunts the modern democratic nation-state.  Asylum haunts the principle of democracy by positing a citizenship of higher order than that of the national variety. This asylum citizenship is based not in identity, not in birthright, not in lineage or kin, not in relationship to the nation-state. Instead, asylum citizenship is based in the conditions of life, in need, in a will to survive, in a demand for dignity. The asylum citizenship is the unknown and unknowable stranger who demands recognition as a familiar. Asylum citizenship is of a higher order because it has given up on the structures of power and the logic of the nation-State. It is neither a superior citizenship nor a more powerful one nor a wealthier one. Nor is the asylum citizen more privileged.  Asylum citizenship is of a higher order because it has always already been with us, and so precedes the noise of national sovereignty and of national due process, as it exceeds the furor and the hurly burly of the rule of law.

Asylum haunts the modern democratic nation-state because it puts the notion of demos in crisis. Asylum haunts the democratic nation-state because it preceded the nation-state. Asylum does not participate in the nation-state historical narratives of progress, those stories that make the invention and maintenance of the nation-state the pinnacle of civilization. For thousands of years women, men, children have sought, received or were denied asylum. They continue to do so today. This seeming eternal repetition of the same does not mean that those who seek asylum today are somehow `primitive’. Asylum as an aspect of the human condition is no more inevitable than torture or genocide, and no less historical or historically produced.

Women asylum seekers haunt the democratic nation-state because they demonstrate, forcefully, the violent patriarchy that reigns supreme. Children of asylum seekers haunt the democratic nation-state because they also demonstrate, forcefully, the violent patriarchy that reigns supreme.  They step out of the shadows, ask for help, and they are punished. For women asylum seekers and for their children, the modern democratic nation-state is a tight knit and tighter fisted brotherhood, and women asylum seekers and their children are not brothers.

How does the contemporary democratic nation-state respond to the asylum citizen? Prison. Yarl’s Wood, in the UK. T. Don Hutto, in the US. Villawood, in Australia. Lindela, in South Africa. Pagani, in Greece. Via Corelli, in Italy. Opbouw, in the Netherlands. Vottem, in Belgium. Glasmoor, in Germany.  The list goes on, the construction of new `reception centers’ continues, the cells continue to grow more intensely overcrowded. This is the way the modern democratic nation-state recognizes, understands, absorbs, responds to and resolves asylum. Sequestration. Intimidation. Torture, `if necessary’. Expulsion. The nation-state calls these reception centers, residential centers.  And so, this must be the architecture of reception and residence in the modern democratic nation-state.

Fifteen years ago, Jacques Derrida was asked to discuss the ways in which the French population was “taken by surprise” by immigration of the sans-papiers, the undocumented: “Immigration is no higher now than it was a half-century ago.  Yet today it takes people by surprise. It seems to have surprised the social body and the political class, and it seems that the discourses of both right and left, by refusing illegal immigrants (immigrés clandestins), have degenerated into xenophobia in an unexpected way.”

Derrida replied, in part, “A politics that does not maintain a reference to the principle of unconditional hospitality is a politics that loses its reference to justice.  It may retain its rights … but it loses justice. Along with the right to speak of justice in any credible way. …One would have to try to distinguish between a politics of immigration and the respect to the right of asylum.  In principle the right of asylum … is paradoxically less political because it is not modeled in principle on the interests of  the body proper of the nation-state that guarantees this right.  But … it is almost impossible to delimit the properly political nature of the motivations for exile – those that … justify a request for asylum. After all, unemployment in a foreign country is a dysfunction of democracy and a kind of political persecution. Moreover, the market plays a part in this; the rich countries always share in the responsibility (if only through foreign debt and everything it symbolizes) for the politico-economic situations that push people into exile or emigration. And here we touch on the limits of the political and juridical:…a right of asylum can be null or infinite.”

From the perspective of asylum, in the modern democratic nation-state, there is no right, there is no left. These niceties are irrelevant. Instead there is only unconditional hospitality … or there is none. And where there is none, there is injustice. More precisely, there is the loss of justice and the loss of the `right’, the capacity, to speak of justice credibly.  Xenophobia cannot credibly surprise anyone, it is the national democratic politics of false hospitality. The particular `indignities’ visited upon women asylum seekers  cannot surprise anyone. They are manifestations of the patriarchy that reigns supreme in the violent and violating absence of unconditional hospitality.


(Photo Credit: UNHCR / EU Observer)