It’s not the system, it’s the heart


“Once in a while a letter of anguish makes its way out of one of the detention facilities for Haitian refugees, as this one to [the] President … did a few weeks ago: `We did not flee our country in search of food and drink, like they say. You know this as well as we do, and yet you treat us like animals, like old rags forgotten in some corner. Do you think that in acting that way you dissuade us from our purpose? Do you think that you are thus morally destroying us? You are wrong.’ The letter, signed by 38 Haitian women [in] detention, went on: ‘This is a cry of despair, a final call to your nobleness, to your good judgment, to your title as a great power. We would be honored by a satisfactory answer from you, an answer to these luckless refugees who ask only for the charity of liberty.’

Those words were published April 24, 1982. The President was Ronald Reagan. The detention center for the 38 Haitian women was Fort Allen, in Puerto Rico. The article also reported, “Thirty-three (Haitian) women have been on a hunger strike for a week, protesting for freedom. Three are being fed intravenously. Physicians there report that the long incarceration has created widespread depression in the camp.” Those women were at Krome Detention Center, in Florida. Fort Allen is no longer used as a detention center. Krome is, very much so.

It’s 32 years since those Haitian women sought asylum, since they met the hard hand of mercy, as administered by the United States. The women then understood what women asylum seekers today understand. Being a refugee in the United States is hard, being an asylum seeker in the United States is somewhere between purgatory and hell, and being a woman asylum seeker is to inhabit and to be inhabited by a hell designed for women.

Increasingly, asylum seekers, like Cecilia Cortes or Marco Antonio Alfaro Garcia, find their application for asylum has turned them into “long term detainees.”

This week, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the ACLU of Northern California, the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), and the law firm Reed Smith LLP, today filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of immigrants fleeing persecution who have faced months of detention while they await reasonable fear determinations, the first step in seeking protection in the United States when someone is forced to return following a deportation order.

That’s promising. But it’s been promising now for thirty some years, with court case after court case, individual victory after individual victory, and then the return, or worse the leap forward, to the same old same old.

What the Haitian women knew was this: it’s not `the system’ that’s broken. It’s the heart. All the clever distinctions, such as political and economic, are heartless and inhumane, because they erase the core suffering and thus the possibility of hope.

It’s that time of the year, the time for sermons and speeches about liberty, emancipation, and love. Here’s mine: Love thy neighbor. Let none be treated like animals or like rags. Heed the cry of despair and the call to your own nobility. Practice the charity of liberty. Study the wisdom of the 71 Haitian women who wrote, who starved, for your freedom as much as for theirs. Make that wisdom yours.

(Infographic Credit: ACLU)

I hear the banging of the doors and the sound of their keys

Women for Refugee Women’s latest report, Detained: Women Asylum Seekers Locked Up in the UK is hard and all too familiar reading. Women seek asylum because they have been tortured, raped, persecuted, and they are imprisoned and tortured anew.

Over 85% of the women interviewed said they had been raped or tortured. Over 50% said they had been persecuted for the crime of being a woman. Close to 20% said they had been persecuted for being lesbians. Almost all the women described despair at and depression in detention. More than half had contemplated suicide. About a third had been on suicide watch while in immigration prison. Around 40% of women asylum seekers who have been detained have spent more than a month behind bars. Almost all the women said male staff had guarded them. Half of the women said male staff had verbally abused them.

And then there’s this: “Home Office statistics released for this report show that of the 1,867 women who had sought asylum and who left detention in 2012, only 674, or 36%, were removed from the UK. The others were released into the UK. Our research suggests that this unnecessary detention has an ongoing impact on the mental health of vulnerable women.”

Here’s how Cameroonian asylum seeker Lydia Besong, a two-time resident of Yarl’s Wood and now a formally acknowledged refugee, describes “ongoing impact”: “When I left detention, Yarl’s Wood followed me to Manchester. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a trance, I feel I hear the footsteps of the officers, I hear the banging of the doors and the sound of their keys. Even though I’m out of detention, I’m not really out – I still have those dreams.”

Alice, a Cameroonian lesbian, experienced “appalling sexual violence” in Cameroonian prisons. When she was hauled off and thrown into prison in the UK, those experiences returned, with a vengeance: “There is no law in detention. You feel that the guards apply the law according to their mood and prejudices. They inflict their own feelings on the women in there and there is nothing to stop them. Yarl’s Wood is a lawless place … I would honestly die rather than go back to Yarl’s Wood. I know these people are doing a job but at times it seems as if they are actually bad people who have stopped regarding us as human beings. I have told this story because I want this treatment of women to stop. I don’t want others to go through what I went through. I am still trying to recover from what happened to me not only in Cameroon but in Yarl’s Wood.”

Story after story, history is a nightmare from which she is trying to awake.  Yarl’s Wood is filled to choking with law: the law of State violence, torture and terror. Meltem Avcil knows of the terror and the law. In 2007, at the age of 13, she, and her mother, were locked up in Yarl’s Wood for three months. At that time she had lived in England for six years. As far as Avcil knew, she was a British schoolgirl. Then the State came to teach her a lesson: “They knocked on the door so hard. Even now, if I hear the door knocked so hard, I panic. My best friend was sleeping over. Eight men surrounded a house of three women and dragged us out.”

In 2010, Avcil organized the campaign to end the detention of immigrant children. Now she’s organizing to end the detention of women asylum seekers. She’s started a petition: “Every year, hundreds of women who come to this country to seek safety from persecution are being detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire.  Research by Women for Refugee Women shows that the majority of these women say they have experienced rape, sexual violence and torture in their home countries. The impact of detention on women is devastating. Many become depressed and suicidal. These women have not committed any crime, and yet they are being locked up indefinitely. We are asking you to ensure the government stops detaining women who have come to this country to seek asylum. Women’s asylum cases can be considered while they live in the community. We are also asking you to ensure that no male staff are employed at Yarl’s Wood detention centre in roles where they come into contact with women, and that allegations of abuse made against staff are properly investigated. It’s possible to create an asylum process which treats women who have survived rape and torture with dignity and humanity. They deserve a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild their lives.”

You can sign the petition here. Women deserve a fair hearing and a chance to build and rebuild their lives.

 

(Image Credit: Women for Refugee Women)

Eritrean and Sudanese women asylum seekers protest in Israel

 

Thousands of mostly Eritrean and Sudanese women and children asylum seekers marched through the streets of Tel Aviv today, protesting Israel’s new `immigration policies’ and new `open’ immigrant detention center, Holot.

In September, the Israeli Supreme Court declared Israel’s 2012 Prevention of Infiltration Law unconstitutional. Under that law, an undocumented resident, including asylum seekers and refugees, could be held without trial for up to three years. They were previously held in the notorious Saharonim prison. One of the reasons Saharonim is notorious is the number of infants, toddlers and young children, held for what were basically indefinite periods.

When the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, the State swung into action and, first, passed a new amendment to the law. Under the new legislation, the undocumented, again including asylum seekers and refugees, can only be `detained’ for one year … but they can be held in an `open’ facility indefinitely. Welcome to Holot `open’ facility, where `residents’ can walk outside, but must report for roll call three times a day and can’t seek work. And it’s in the middle of the Negev Desert. It’s a prison.

Last week, mostly Eritrean and Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers went on a three day strike. This affected primarily restaurants, hotels, cafes, and cleaning services. One of the strike organizers, twenty-eight-years-old Eritrean Kidane Isaacs, explained: “The new law basically gives us two choices: be a prisoner indefinitely or self-deport. We have been here for years without any sort of human treatment. We are forgotten, neglected.” In Eritrea, Isaacs experienced torture, imprisonment, forced labor, and more.

Today, the women, and children, by thousands, resumed the public struggle. They chanted, “We are refugees!” They carried placards that read, “We need freedom” and “Stop racism!” As one Eritrean woman, Zabib, explained, “We are seeking asylum. We’re not criminals. Our kids have no legal documents so they don’t have any basic rights. We have no kind of support for us and the kids … we’re in survival mode.”

The women’s formal statement read, “The Israeli government treats us like we aren’t people. We live here without states, without basic rights, without hope and without the ability to support our children with honor. We are not criminals. The Israeli government summons the heads of families to the Holot detention facility in the south, separates women from their husbands, fathers from their children, and breaks families apart. The detention and arrests of asylum seekers destroys the one support we have – the support of our family and our communities.”

No one disputes that Sudan and Eritrea are under repressive regimes, but these women, children, men, somehow, despite that consensus, pose `a threat’ to the State’s Jewish character. Indefinite detention, torture, racism, inhumanity, is the threat, not the “negligible number” of Black African bodies.

 

(Video Credit: YouTube.com)

 

War against the refugees, madness, madness, war

The news today presents the two faces of a spinning coin. On one side, the direct war against asylum seekers. On the other side, the structural war against asylum seekers. Spin the coin, and the two become one.

On a morning talk show today, Australia’s Prime Minister was asked about the varieties of silence and secrecy that mark the State’s campaign against boat people reaching Australia. Boats have been secretly towed to Indonesia, according to some reports. Reporters are routinely denied access to immigration prisons. The Prime Minister’s response is telling: “The public want the boats stopped and that’s really what they want – that’s really my determination. If stopping the boats means being criticised because I’m not giving information that would be of use to people smugglers, so be it. We are in a fierce contest with these people smugglers. If we were at war we would not be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves.”

When it comes to the immigration centers, the Prime Minister continued his line of reasoning: “I am confident that we are running these centres competently and humanely … Let’s remember that everyone in these centres is there because he or she has come illegally to Australia by boat. They have done something that they must have known was wrong. We don’t apologise for the fact that they are not five star or even three star hotels. Nevertheless, we are confident that we are well and truly discharging our humanitarian obligations. People are housed, they’re clothed, they’re fed, they’re given medical attention, they’re kept as safe as we can make it for them, but we want them to go back to the country from which they came. That’s what we want.”

The public wants, we want, war. Under the new campaign, Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia militarized its refugee practices, policies and policing agencies. In permanent of border protection, all’s fair, and no need to discuss justice. It’s about winning the fierce contest. The Prime Minister bristles with military `confidence’.

On the other side of the world, the British government today received a report from its National Audit Office. The report, COMPASS contracts for the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers, suggests, in detail, that the `confidence’ placed in private corporations that house asylum seekers was, at best, misplaced.

COMPASS stands for Commercial and Operating Managers Procuring Asylum Support. As always, this outsourcing was meant to save the government money. In March 2012, the government contracted three companies: G4S, Serco and Clearel. From the beginning, Clearel seemed to meet its contractual obligations, and complaints from residents were far and few between. G4S and Serco, on the other hand, started poorly and continued in that vein. This is not surprising, given that neither Serco nor G4S had any experience in housing asylum seekers. They knew how to detain them, how to put them in cages and throw away the keys, as the Yarl’s Wood experiences have shown. But they had never actually housed asylum seekers in communities. So … how did they get the contracts?

Confidence.

The two largest outsourcing and private security corporations in the world exuded confidence. The State felt confident as well. And now, two years later, they’re failing, and the government wants to recover £7m, and that’s just for starters.

Sometimes the housing was substandard, other times the processes were inhumane. With little to no prior warning and absolutely no consultation, women and children, in particular, found themselves shunted from one side of the country to another. Women asylum seekers also reported that staff would carry out unannounced property visits. Sometimes staff would enter into the house or apartment without even knocking. Some women asylum seekers reported these intrusions “made them feel unsafe.” The majority of women asylum seekers in England, as everywhere, are fleeing sexual violence, more often than not from partners or community members, and are single. None of that mattered to the staff; they had their jobs to do.

When it comes to refugees and asylum seekers, only confidence counts. The State has confidence in itself and in its contracted confreres. In the Australian and the British cases, this confidence is intensified by the racial/ethnic dynamic of White majority governments declaring war on individuals and populations, and in particular women and children, of color.

Where once the situation was “war amongs’ the rebels, madness, madness, war”, today the song sung with confidence is “war against the refugees, madness, madness, war.”

 

(Photo Credit: AAP/Scott Fisher)

Let a thousand Yarl’s Woods blossom, and may the women be damned

Evenia Mawongera

 

On Friday, Zimbabwean activist, outspoken critic of Robert Mugabe’s regime, grandmother, long-time resident of Leicester, England, Evenia Mawongera made her weekly visit to the Border Agency. She shows up each week because she’s applying for asylum. Mawongera was detained, held and then shipped off to Yarl’s Wood, where she now awaits deportation.

Evenia Mawongera has lived in England for a decade. She went to England, fleeing persecution in Zimbabwe. She went to Leicester because her two daughters lived there. They had gone to University in England and had been allowed to stay. The daughters have lived in England since 1999. Mawongera has no family left in Zimbabwe.  Her daughters and her grandchildren are all British citizens.

By all accounts, since her arrival, Mawongera has been a model and exemplary person. A little over three weeks ago, Evenia Mawongera was awarded the Good Neighbour Award for her many contributions to the community.

And now she sits in Yarl’s Wood.

And what exactly is Yarl’s Wood? It’s Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, and, as we’ve written many times, it’s a bad place, and a particularly bad place for women: Mojirola Daniels, Aisha, Denise McNeil, Gladys Obiyan, Sheree Wilson, Shellyann Stupart, Aminata Camara, Leila. Bita Ghaedi. Azbaa Dar. Gloria Sestus. Brenda Namigadde. Betty Tibikawa. Lemlem Hussein Abdu. Marie Therese Njila Nana. Jackie Nanyonjo. Roseline Akhalu.

It’s only a partial list, which doesn’t include the names of those who must remain anonymous, to `protect’ their identities, nor the widows and widowers and children. Others have written as well of the sexual predation, of the abuse of pregnant women that takes place in Yarl’s Wood.

For example, yesterday, Tanja’s story broke. Yet another story revealed the systematic sexual predation that is the bread and butter of Yarl’s Wood. Yarl’s Wood is a designed community in which staff preys upon the most vulnerable, typically young women fleeing sexual violence. The police yet again say they will conduct an investigation.

For some, Yarl’s Wood isn’t the disease, it’s the symptom. Others have named the disease: evil. A building whose express purpose is `removal’ is a factory that produces sexual violence, torture, despair and death. It’s in the architecture of the mission. If human beings are just so much dross to be removed, then vulnerable human beings, and especially vulnerable women, are less and worse than disposable, and they are less and worse than despicable.

And this is where Evenia Mawongera sits today.

Yarl’s Wood is part of a global political economy in which vulnerability is a natural resource, meant for exploitation and abuse. Yarl’s Wood is meant for export. Just last week, the newly elected Australian government announced its plans to emulate the fast-track immigrant `processing scheme’ of the United Kingdom. Let a thousand Yarl’s Woods blossom, and may the women be damned, each and every one.

 

(Photo Credit: The South African)

Perception matters. Ask Australia’s women asylum seekers.

Recently, Geena Davis noted, “We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.”

Perceptions matter, and perceptions of those in control are typically sexist and racist, especially when the `tipping point’ is involved, when those in power feel the threat of a `new majority’. That’s why perception can’t be the motor for public policy and, even less, for the pursuit of justice, Take Australia … please.

A key plank of Australia’s asylum policy has been deterrence. This has resulted in brutality, torture, horror, despair … and big profits for the private security corporations, most infamously Serco, who run the immigrant `detention’ and `transfer’ installations. With the shift in government over the past week, some wonder if anything will change in terms of Australia’s racist and sexist asylum policies.

If anything, it looks like they will get worse. Within hours of the new government’s installation, the new “de facto Immigration Minister” declared that most refugee applicants are “economic refugees”. There’s no evidence for that statement, but who needs evidence when `perception’ is on your side?

And what is the perception? The boats. The boats keep coming, and sinking. The refugees keep `swarming’. It’s a human tsunami bearing down on Australia. These images are merely part of the `ferocity’ of the anti-refugee anti-asylum-seeker discourse. Meanwhile, the women and children pile up in the `detention centers’. They’re prisons. Detention is too fine a word. Ask the children who go on hunger strike. Ask the 16-year-old Afghan boy who ended a five-day hunger strike yesterday. Why was he barreling towards his own death? He’s an unaccompanied child, in prison, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by every form of hostility, with no visible end in sight to his torment. Perhaps that’s the reason.

The treatment of asylum seekers, and in particular of women and children asylum seekers, has been a mounting succession of cruel jokes. Each step of the way, the asylum seeker’s vulnerability and precariousness are intensified.

But here’s the thing: Australia is not drowning in asylum-seekers. Pesky numbers keep denying the `perception’. Yes, the numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers are rising. Yes, the numbers coming by boat are, for the first time, exceeding those coming by plane. BUT Australia takes a very small percentage of the world’s refugees, around 3 percent. Officially, there are 30,083 refugees currently living in Australia. That means, if you consider the size of the country, Australia has one of the lowest rates in the industrialized world. Australia has 1.4 refugees per 1,000 people. Germany has 7.3; Canada has 4.7; the United Kingdom has 2.4. (The United States has .8.)

There is no flood. Australia can stop building sea walls, prison colonies, and worse. It can. But it won’t. Rather, the new government will opt to continue, and probably fortify, the “`hard bastard’ approach.” Perception matters, as does patriarchy.

 

(Photo Credit: AAP / Julian Smith)

In the camps, the women sigh, “O brave new world”

A key plank of Australia’s asylum policy is deterrence. What happened to asylum being the key plank of asylum policy? Deterrence in this instance means “offshore camps”, particularly on the islands of Manus and Nauru Islands. Manus Island is part of Papua New Guinea, where a trial opened today to challenge the legality of the “processing camps”. The charge is that the Papua New Guinean law does not allow for detention without any charge. Detention camps. Processing camps. Or, as Marianne Evers said of the camp on Nauru, “I actually liken it to a concentration camp.” Not surprisingly, the Australian government takes offense at the likening, “I think invoking concentration camp is a disgrace.” Calling the camps on Manus Island and Nauru Island “concentration camps” is a disgrace, but the camps themselves … are fine?

No.

Last week, New Matilda published three sets of letters by women asylum seekers currently imprisoned on Manus Island. The women are from Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan. They describe terrible hardships in their homelands, terrific struggles to get to Australia, and then debilitating, crushing conditions on Christmas Island and then on Manus Island. They describe the dire mental health crisis that sweeps through the camps, especially among the younger men who are increasingly suicidal. They write about their struggle for safety for themselves and their children. They write a great deal about their children. They describe the life draining out of their children within the universe of trauma that constitutes the detention camp. They describe the cultures and public policies of violence against women in their homelands that compelled them to leave, to seek personal safety and dignity.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, issued a report last week on Manus Island, based on a January visit. The agency confirms the reports of the women asylum seekers. The physical conditions are “harsh”. The living quarters have no privacy, which is a particular concern to parents of girls; are unbearably hot; and have grossly inadequate sanitary facilities. And that’s the family compound. The conditions in the compound for single male adults are worse.

The conditions are generally and specifically traumatic. They breed mental health crises on an individual, collective and structural basis. For the adults, it’s terrible. For the children, it’s crushing.

The UN list of dehumanizing conditions goes on, but here’s the point. This is what happens when deterrence is a key plank in asylum policy. Since Australia began “offshore processing” its asylum seekers, have the numbers gone down? Absolutely not. They’ve risen, incrementally. Does that mean the policy hasn’t worked? According to the State, it means the State hasn’t arrived at the proper balance of harsh and brutal. When the Australian government can match the brutality the women, children and men have fled, then it will have arrived at what it considers to be an appropriate asylum program.

Australia has invested political capital, national identity, and hard cold cash in brutalizing asylum seekers. They have sought partners. First they turned to Papua New Guinea, and this week, they turned to New Zealand. Australia sees asylum seekers as another `opportunity’ for regional free trade agreements. This time trade is in battered bodies and dreams.

Why can’t asylum, rather than deterrence, by the key plank of the asylum policy? What would it take to move the concept of the right to asylum to the center of all asylum policy? Ask the women asylum seekers on Manus Island. Repeatedly, they say they fled violence but they sought peace. Peace, rather than `security’, must govern asylum policy.

Meanwhile, the women who sought peace sit in the harsh camps on the remote islands, look at their children, look at themselves, look at the guards, look at where they’ve come to and where they’re probably going, if the State has its way, and they sigh, “O brave new world, that has such people in’t.”

 

(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera)

The UK asylum system still isn’t gender sensitive

Participating at the Go Feminist conference earlier this month, I sat and listened to Herlinda. Herlinda was there to talk about her experience as a woman claiming asylum in the UK after fleeing persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country where rape is “commonplace” and perpetrators generally go punished.

Herlinda’s story – of claiming asylum in the UK, of being disbelieved by officials, of ending up destitute and sleeping rough – is similar to the accounts given by all too many women who seek asylum here.

Indeed, her story is dispiritingly familiar. In January Asylum Aid published our new report, “I feel like as a woman I’m not welcome”, which combines legal analysis and interviews with asylum-seeking women and their legal representatives to test the Government’s promise to make the asylum system more gender-sensitive. And while political rhetoric on this has been encouraging of late – the Deputy Prime Minister promised in May 2011 that “we’re ensuring the process is sensitive to the needs of women and girls” – the situation on the ground can still be desperate.

I spoke with women who had been denied even basic standards of privacy when claiming asylum at the UK Border Agency (UKBA) unit in Croydon, so that the information they were asked to share with officials was compromised from the start (something that has lately attracted the concern of the independent Chief Inspector of the UKBA). I talked with one woman who, having claimed asylum after escaping from sex traffickers, was asked by immigration officials how many men she had slept with and whether she enjoyed working as a prostitute. And I met with a mother who, having been forced to move cities so that she could receive accommodation and support from the UKBA, was so scared that she and her children dared not leave their unfamiliar new housing for three days. I heard story after story like this each day while conducting the research.

The stakes could hardly be higher. When someone flees gender-based violence and persecution in their home country, they turn to our asylum system in desperation. But too often they find a procedure which is dysfunctional and ill-equipped to meet their needs.

We know from previous research that women are too often disbelieved when they seek asylum, and that they have a higher chance of winning their appeal when the case is scrutinised in more detail. We know that the specific grounds on which victims of gender-related persecution might be recognised as refugees – as a Particular Social Group – is worryingly misunderstood and underused by asylum decision-makers.

The quality of decisions when women seek asylum has long been a concern, and this new research exposes how deeply other causes for concern run through the full, end-to-end asylum system. There is limited consideration of gender issues in current legislation, and where UKBA policies do provide safeguards to women they are too seldom implemented in practice. From the way asylum interviews are conducted to living conditions in accommodation and immigration detention, asylum-seeking women continue to be treated very poorly. This is morally indefensible.

The Government has tools at its disposal for addressing this. Focused work on the daily operation of the asylum system – ensured privacy for anyone making their asylum application in Croydon, for example, or accepting the need to reconsider a claim where there is late disclosure of rape or sexual violence – should go hand-in-hand with strategic leadership that places gender at the heart of the asylum system. With the position of Gender Champion of the UKBA currently unoccupied, now would be a good finally to time to invest that role with influence and real meaning.

The asylum system won’t be fair, the Deputy Prime Minister has admitted, “until we’re sure no single group is being singled out”. All of us who work with women asylum seekers will continue to hold the Government to account. We are only asking, after all, that they honour their own promises.

 

 

(This first appeared at The F-Word, here:  http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2012/02/the_uk_asylum_s. Thanks to The F-Word for sharing.)

Queen Nzinga haunts the `scales’ of Angola’s autonomy

 

Queen Nzinga refuses to sit on the floor

A week ago, November 10, 2011, Angola marked its 36th Independence Day since the proclamation of independence, November 10, 1975. So, how better to acknowledge the day than to focus on … Angola asylum seekers? By and large, the Western media paid no attention to Angola today, but then again what else is new.

The great exception was Radio Netherlands Worldwide, which sported a piece entitled, “The `Mauros’ who could not stay.” `Mauro’ is Mauro Manuel, an 18 year-old Angolan lad who was recently informed he could stay in the Netherlands, where he’s lived, with a foster family, for the last eight years. Mauro wasn’t given asylum, but, on Tuesday of this week, he was allowed a reprieve. The Dutch Parliament gave him a student visa. What happens next is up in the air.

The “other `Mauros’” are women.

Amalia is 17, Tucha is 19. Their father was killed, for political activities, and the older sister was raped. That’s when they fled Angola. They lived in the Netherlands for five years. Then, they were denied asylum and, after five years, shipped back to Angola. No matter that Amalia was 16 at the time, a minor. No matter that no one knows where their relatives are or even if they are. A year on, they still don’t know if their mother is dead or alive.

“At the other end of the scale”, according to RNI, is Engracia. 33 years old. Completed her education in the Netherlands, where she lived for 14 years. No political violence. Supported by middle class kin in Angola and the Dutch Refugee Council, who paid for her ticket back and gave her 2000 euros.

So that’s the RNI Angola Scale: weeping, terrorized, impoverished failed asylum seeking girl, on one end; successful, entrepreneurial woman, on the other. On one end, desperately poor and with no apparent means of securing income; on the other, `gifted’ handsomely, as a `returning refugee’, by the largesse of Europe.

Really? That’s the scale?

What about all those other women in Angola? What about the ones who organize, struggle, and keep on keeping on? Women like Teresa Quarta, chairwoman of the Association of Angolan Women and Sports (AMUD), who argued this week that women athletes is all fine and well, but Angola needs to attend to developing and supporting women sports managers. What about women like primary school Maria Emelia and Rosa Florinda, women who don’t deny that things are tough, that classes are overcrowded, that the country lacks sufficient numbers of trained teachers, that too many children are too hungry. Women teachers, across the country, who keep teaching, keep pushing, keep pulling. Factory workers, farmers and farm workers, nurses and doctors, women. Ordinary women. Women not defined by their encounter with the European state. Women defined as simply Angolan.

When they look for a model, when they look for a Queen, for example, they need not look to Queen Beatrix, of the Netherlands, nor to her mother, Queen Juliana. Instead, they could look closer to home. They could look to Queen Nzinga, Nzinga the Warrior Queen of the Ndongo and Matamba, that woman who overcame local structures, who defied and often defeated the Portuguese, who almost single handedly created a new state. Nzinga was not a saint, was not some pure or ideal woman. She cut deals. She allied with the Dutch against the Portuguese. She provided safe haven for runaway slaves while at the same time engaging in the slave trade. That’s life. “It’s complicated.”

Nzinga was not a heroine nor is she an icon. She was a leader. Nzinga led in war, peace, commerce, politics, and life. Nzinga was an Angolan woman who led Angolans into action. Nzinga was an Angolan woman, who presaged not only Angola’s national independence but also its national autonomy. Nzinga haunts the `scales’ of Angola, and Amalia, Tucha, Engracia, Teresa Quarta, Maria Emelia, Rosa Florinda, and so many others, are her descendants. Tell that as the story of Angolan independence.

(This post originally appeared, in slightly different form and under different title, here http://africasacountry.com/2011/11/16/angolan-independence/

 

(Image of Queen Nzinga: Amazing Women in History)

In the UK, disbelief haunts the asylum process for women

Two hundred years ago, poetic faith was described as “that willing suspension of disbelief.” At that point, a culture of disbelief meant folk cultures and fantasy were relegated to the dustbin of history by `the lettered classes.’ Today, disbelief sends women asylum seekers to prison. Progress?

In the United Kingdom, women asylum seekers encounter a “culture of disbelief.” When Asylum Aid looked into the situation of initial decision-making in women asylum seekers cases, they found that 87 percent were turned down at the first hearing. Why? The UK Border Agency agents didn’t believe the claims. 87 percent is high, but that’s actually not the higher math. 42 percent of the rejected claims were overturned on appeal. In fact, 50% were ultimately overturned. The over-all average for overturning rejected appeals is 28%. That means that women’s stories are discounted as lies, at least by the border agents who make the preliminary decisions.

And it gets worse. Women wait longer than men to hear a final decision. How do they live while waiting?

In Scotland, all asylum seekers receive free healthcare. This includes those whose claims have been rejected. This means women. First, women make up a proportionately large part of those appealing, post rejection. Second, addressing women’s health concerns and, even more, women asylum seekers’ health concerns by engaging with the women as autonomous persons helps bring them into the larger and everyday social world. It is part of a larger Scottish project of refugee integration. But Scotland is the exception. For the rest of the United Kingdom, for Westminster, the situation is toxic, lethal.

Asylum seekers do not need to labor under the additional burdens, or are they punishments, of isolation and desperation. And depression. The vast majority of women asylum seekers are fleeing sexual and physical violence. Add to that isolation and a dehumanizing process, and you have a perfect recipe for self-harm and worse.

What is the architecture of the culture of disbelief? Prison. Private prison, at that, such as Yarl’s Wood, run by Serco. The typical scenario for a woman asylum seeker is travel long distance, end up in an overcrowded room with tons of strangers, approach a person sitting, austerely, behind a glass, and then, in a loud enough voice to be heard by a bunch of people, tell him or her the story of how you were violated. And then suffer rejection, being called a liar. And then go to Yarl’s Wood … or some other prison.

Welcome to the so-called “culture of disbelief.” Welcome to `democracy’.

It’s not disbelief. It’s efficiency. If 87 percent of the storytellers are rejected, that’s because the judge isn’t listening. Anyway, it’s more efficient to reject 87 percent, even if half will be overturned. Think of the savings from those who don’t appeal and from those who appeal and don’t succeed. And then think of the profits generated through the incarceration of innocent women courageous enough to tell their stories to strangers, courageous enough to seek a better world, despite all odds. That’s extraction of value, of profit, from time, from flesh, from pain and suffering, from degradation, from women.

This system, this version of `democracy’, was established during the bubbly times, during the economically ascendant times … for some. What is coming, as the UK charges from efficiency to austerity, is predictable. More cuts. Cuts to legal aid. Cuts to health services. Cuts upon cuts.

What is needed is a national campaign of willing a suspension of the culture of disbelief. Call it …  democracy. Call it, as well, feminism.

(Photo Credit: Liverpool Antifascists)