Betty Tibikawa’s asylum nightmare

Yarl’s Wood

Betty Tibikawa is a Ugandan lesbian who has applied for asylum in the United Kingdom. She has been turned down and sits in Yarl’s Wood, waiting to be deported, struggling to live.

Betty Tibikawa’s family has disowned her. The infamous Ugandan tabloid, the Red Pepper, identified Tibikawa as lesbian, and so extended the threat to her life and well being.

And she has been tortured. Having just graduated from high school, Betty Tibikawa was preparing to go to university in Kampala when three men abducted her. They took her to an abandoned building and branded her thighs with a hot iron. They left her unconscious. She remained at home, in bed, for two months. In the home of the family that then disowned her for being lesbian.

The United Kingdom Border Agency has decided that Betty Tibikawa shall not receive asylum. The scars are real, and they do indicate having been branded with a hot iron, but she shall not remain in the United Kingdom. Has the agency decided, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Uganda is now magically safe for LGBTQ persons? That can’t be. There’s too much evidence to the contrary. Is Betty Tibikawa not lesbian enough for the UKBA, and thus not in enough danger? Being tortured, being abducted, being threatened by a national newspaper, being disowned and abandoned by one’s family aren’t enough? What would be credible enough?

Betty Tibikawa’s story is an old story, a familiar story. In pleading for asylum, Tibikawa is  “at the mercy of states not only jealous of their own sovereignty but dominant on the international scene, pressed to intervene here rather than or sooner than there”. Hers is a story of mercy, a test of the sovereign nation-State’s capacity to engage in mercy. The State has failed … again.

She has come before strangers and revealed herself. She has been prodded, poked, interrogated, poked again, prodded again, all in the name of some sort of science. In this, Betty Tibikawa mirrors Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman brought to France, an African woman who, in the end, “craved … mercy. Mercy. I was one colored woman against a thousand dead white men.” All she craved was mercy. She found none. She found, instead, European men who claimed science, who claimed mercy.

Betty Tibikawa mirrors as well Joseph “John” Merrick, the “Elephant Man”, who looked at the world of English scientists and doctors and wondered aloud, “If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?” The doctors responded that Merrick had much to learn about science, about religion, about mercy.

Where is mercy?

Is it to be found in a court of law? Does mercy abide anywhere in the processes of asylum? Do mercy and justice ever meet? What crime did Betty Tibikawa commit? The crime of self knowledge? The crime of knowing whom she loves? The crime of love itself?

Betty Tibikawa says she can’t sleep and has terrible nightmares. The current practice of asylum is a nightmare, a nightmare from which we all must try to awake. Meanwhile, Betty Tibikawa waits to be deported back to Uganda.

 

(Photo  credit: Dan Chung / Guardian)

 

Migrants: We are all children of migrants

 

Saturday, 5th of March 2011.

Yarl’s Wood continues.

The women behind the fences are saying something about their children, but it is difficult to hear what exactly.  They seem to be shouting something about their right to stay with their children.  Perhaps they are referring to the effects of recent policy changes.

In October, a case was brought forth on behalf of two single mothers and their children who were detained at Yarl’s Wood by UK Border Agency (UKBA) officers after dawn raids on their homes earlier in the year. In December 2010, in response, the government `signaled’ its intention to bring to an end children’s detention. This included closure of the ‘family unit’ at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre and the suspension of children’s detention in any immigration facility over the Christmas period.

In January 2011, a court decision established that the detention of some families, including children in Yarl’s Wood, was unlawful. This decision required the government to bring to an immediate end the detention of children in immigration removal centers. The immediate response from the Home Office was that the detention of families ‘would be kept to a minimum’, while officials drew up ‘alternative arrangements’ to ‘protect the welfare of children without undermining immigration law’.

We demonstrated outside Yarl’s Wood partly to denounce the government’s ‘skillful’ use of publicity about ‘ending the detention of children’ as a way of avoiding talking about the brutal and inhumane detention regime in general. But even among some of the civil society groups that have specifically supported the end of children detention, suspicions remain concerning the government’s version of  “alternatives” to child detention. While the plan does not include any concrete improvement in terms of early access to legal aid for refugee applicants, it does mention the establishment of ‘new family conferences’. These would ‘draw in lawyers, social workers and others’, with the aim of providing ‘realistic advice to people who had been refused refugee status on what their options were’. For those who would not accept voluntary repatriation “it would be necessary to detain them in ‘secure accommodation’ for periods of around 72 hours to ensure that their departure could be enforced’.

Migrant Rights Network argues that the ideas of ‘family conferences’ and a new ‘independent family review panel’ is dangerous.  It is quite easy to imagine that the large-scale detention of families with young children will be simply reproduced in a new form.  Furthermore, these family conferences risk turning exactly those social workers and other experts who should support migrants’ children and vulnerable adults’ welfare in their communities, into immigration control functions. Those who used to work for migrants in our communities will be absorbed into the machine of control and detention, ultimately ‘advocating’ ‘voluntary’ return and deportation.

The rhetoric of the UK government around the economic recession legitimizes increasingly restrictive policies against migrants. This then naturalizes chauvinistic and militaristic approaches towards the ‘management’ of immigration as part of the ‘big society’ discourse about having to ‘share’ the consequences of the economic downturn. Of course, `they’ must pay more than `us’. The politics of racism and gender discrimination are fully at play in this era of mobility restrictions and economic austerity.

Walking back from the fences we discuss the contradiction of today’s migration politics and how grassroots groups should respond to it in practice. Yes, we will probably have to support migrant’s individual demands for regularization but cannot afford to support the whole policy/ing logic based on the continuous differentiation of migrants, the production of multiple divisions, between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, the more and the ‘less vulnerable’, those who ‘deserve’ integration and those who do not, or simply the right to access that which seems to become an ever increasingly ‘precious good’, conceded by national governments in Europe,  that is, the status of ‘legality’.

Many women currently detained in Yarl’s Wood have worked and toiled in this county already for many years. They are fluent in English. They have kids here. Here they have built their lives. This makes us particularly angry and astonished in front of the injustice of their detention, but it does not change the unconditionality of our claim: freedom of movement for all. Everyone, independent off period of stay and status, whether escaping poverty or war, environmental disaster or political persecution, gender or racial oppression, has the right to freedom of movement, and freedom to stay and search for a new life. After all, as we would remind the small group of police engaged in their performance of ‘protecting’ the prison from us, we are all the children of migrants.

 

(Photo Credit: womenagainstrape.net)

We can’t talk to the imprisoned women, but we can chant with them

Saturday, 5th of March 2011

It is wet and foggy in the fields of Bedfordshire and our shoes fill with mud as we walk away from the group of policemen that have followed us in a circle along the fences of Yarl’s Wood migrants’ detention centre. This Saturday, the 5th March, as women demonstrate in London at the start of International Women’s Week, a group of migrant rights, no border and feminist activists travel to Bedford to bring our solidarity to the migrant women (and men) detained in Yarl’s Wood. We manage to reach the women locked in one of the units. At a distance, we can’t talk to the imprisoned women, but we can chant with them. We cannot hear exactly what they say but one message arising across the barbed wires is simple, loud and clear: ‘freedom, we want freedom’.

Yarl’s Wood is one of the seven privately run ‘Immigration Removal Centres’ in the UK, detaining ‘irregular migrants’ on behalf of the UK Border Agency. Initially the building accommodated 900 people in two blocks, making it the largest immigration prison in Europe. In February 2002 the capacity of the centre was reduced after one of the buildings was burnt down during a protest organized by detainees against staff harassment. At present the centre is composed of 4 units ‘hosting’ about 400 people.

In February of last year, the situation in the removal centre again exploded. The horrible conditions of detention were denounced by migrant detainees as some women decided to start a hunger strike demanding an end to indefinite and abusive imprisonment. In an attempt to end their protest, the management subjected many of the women to violent attacks and various forms of punishment. At that time six women detainees, accused of being ‘ring-leaders’, were moved into isolation and prisons.

On the 25th January, after almost a year in Holloway prison, Denise McNeil, one of the `leaders’, was granted bail at an immigration court. Two women still remain in jail without charge: Aminata Camara and Sheree Wilson. Activists from the campaign to Free the Yarl’s Wood 3, including members of No One is Illegal, No Borders, Crossroads Women’s Centre, Communities of Resistance, Stop Deportation Network and members of the RMT, filled the court for Denise’s bail hearing. They provided an important support and will keep campaigning ‘for Sheree and Aminata and all the people in Yarl’s Wood until the centre will be closed’. (For updates, see Free the Yarl’s Wood 3 campaign Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Free-Denise-Now/174533002581566 and Twitter feed: @freedenisenow. Also see the NCADC site: http://www.ncadc.org.uk/campaigns/DeniseMcNeil.html).

The reasons for the detention of people in centers like Yarl’s Wood are multiple, and sometimes quite different. One of the activists involved in the campaign to support the hunger strikers explained to me that many of the women who end up in detention have already served a prison sentence, often for a minor offence, such as using fake documents to travel or work. Rather than being released, these women are transferred back to detention as a ‘second punishment’ where they wait for their immigration case to be cleared and eventually granted status or deported. They are trapped in an indefinite space of juridical and existential limbo, from one prison to the other, on the grounds that their migration case is still ‘pending’: they cannot be returned to their country of origin (on complex juridical or humanitarian grounds), and yet their status as asylum seekers is not recognized either.

Denise has just been released on bail, and her status, as well as her future stay in the UK, remains uncertain. However, her case shows how important the external support of migrants’ rights activists to sustain legal individual cases can be by helping access legal advice and to build publicity around their otherwise invisible stories.  While it may appear only a small achievement, these forms of solidarity provide the migrant women with encouragement and help instill confidence as they engage in the hard battles for freedom of movement and the right to stay in a country where they have worked and toiled for many years. In many cases the women are ‘caught’ by the UK Border Agency after many years of residence in the country, where they have probably built a family, found work and made a home. This is a typical story for the women detained in Yarl’s Wood.

(Photo Credit: Open Democracy / IndyMedia.UK)

Prison labor haunts `history’

When is slavery not slavery? When the slaves are called prisoners, their condition is not slavery. It’s … history. The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution says so, and so do the United Kingdom Border Authority, UKBA, and the private prison corporation, Serco.

Last month, on December 9, 2010, prisoners in several prisons across Georgia went on strike.  According to Elaine Brown, one of the prisoners’ spokespersons, the strike involved “Augusta, Baldwin, Calhoun, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Rogers, Smith, Telfair, Valdosta and Ware state prisons.” Others claim seven prisons were involved. The strike concerned prisoners’ working and living conditions across the state. The conditions of prisoners in Georgia are famously bad. Prisoners in Georgia receive no pay for the work they perform. The possibility of going to jail in Georgia, especially for people of color, is infamously high. Georgia has the highest rate of prison `involvement’ in United States: “In Georgia, 1 in 13 adults is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole.” The national average is 1 in 31.

The strike was non violent, peaceful even. The media focused on the capacity of prisoners to organize a structured, non spontaneous, non violent work stoppage across the state. This was facilitated by the use of contraband cell phones, bought largely from guards.

The strike was called `historic’, in two senses. On one hand, it was massive. Again according to Elaine Brown, the strike was “historic in scope and in the unity of thousands of black, brown, white, Muslim, Christian and Rastafarian prisoners.” Others claimed it was one of the largest prison strikes and the biggest prisoner strike in U.S. history. In terms of scale, of numbers of prisoners involved, of numbers of kinds of prisoners involved, the action was historic.

On the other hand, the strike was historic in that it protested the history of prison labor. Prison labor has historically been part of a racially, ethnically segregated labor market, “an emblem of racial subjugation.” Prison labor, especially in the United States, has its roots in slavery. Read the Constitution of the United States.

According to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” For prisoners, slavery and involuntary servitude are constitutionally just fine. Where do slavery and justice sleep comfortably together? In prison.

And not only in the United States.

At Yarl’s Wood, in the United Kingdom, women refugees and asylum seekers are held in detention … for the crime of applying for asylum. This week, current and former prisoners, all women, revealed their working conditions and described them as modern day slavery.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work while their application is in process. But not at Yarl’s Wood. There they work, for next to nothing. Gloria Sestus, a 32-year-old Nigerian, says she is paid £1 to clean the dining room twice a day. The job takes more than an hour each time. As former prisoner Nordia Hylton, 34-year-old Jamaican asylum seeker, noted, “People who work without papers to try and feed their families are arrested for illegally working and detained. But once they get to Yarl’s Wood they can work for next to nothing. The UKBA and Serco are hypocrites. They are taking advantage of people’s situation.”

Gloria Sestus sees it as more than hypocrisy, “It is like slavery in a modernised form.”

It is like slavery in a modernized form. African women, Afro Caribbean women, women of the African diaspora know a thing or two about the history of slavery. The prison strike across Georgia was historic. The prisoners’ testimonies and protests concerning Yarl’s Wood are historic as well. Both call on us to speak and address the historic name of prison labor: slavery.

 

(Photo Credit: hiphopandpolitics.com)

 

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: irr.org.uk)

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)

Child-ghosts in the society of the spectacle

In November 2008, La Promesse, a school in Port-au-Prince, collapsed. Three stories came crashing down, at least 84 children and staff were killed, over 150 injured. It was not an earthquake that brought death to those children. It was shoddy construction, it was greed. Immediately afterwards, the mayor of Port-au-Prince stated that over half of Haiti’s building were poorly built and unsafe.

Michele Voltaire Marcelin tried to understand, to live with, the calculations that leave children suffering and dead under the weight of preventable destruction. She tried to understand the promise we make to our children:

The Promise
— For the Haitian schoolchildren who 
died under the rubble of “La Promesse”

children die
do not talk to me about prayer
or paradise
talk is cheap
children die
and my anger supercedes my grief
remember
it was a november morning like any other
when the plaster the brick the mortar
came crashing down
children die
under the rubble of the promise
women cry
the air is heavy as lead
the air is filled with dust
we live in heartless times
and children die
looking for paradise

Children die. We live in heartless times and children die. Those children become child-ghosts. We live in an age of spectacle in which children die and living children are treated as dead. Both are child-ghosts.

Sunday morning, May 16, seven year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones lay asleep in her bed, when Detroit police rushed in with guns drawn and, quickly, blazing, and killed her. An accident, they said, in apology, as explanation. `A Tragedy in Detroit, With a Reality TV Crew in Tow’, according to The New York Times. The police were participating in an A&E reality show, The First 48. For some, this is an issue about reality shows, for others police violence, for others the value of the lives of people of color, of girls of color. These are all worthy lines of lines of inquiry.

At the same time, Aiyana Stanley-Jones is precisely not a tragedy because her story is too familiar and too often repeated. She is one with the girls of La Promesse, young, Black, dreaming, and killed. A ghost-child.

The next day, Monday, the US Supreme Court decided that “juveniles who commit crimes in which no one is killed may not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.” “An incredibly important win for kids who’ve been condemned to die in prison”? Perhaps. A step in the right direction, but not a long enough nor a strong enough step? Probably. A ruling that addresses neither the inequities of life without parole nor the cynical inequalities of the parole system? Most likely.

Sentencing a child to life without the possibility of parole turns that child into a child-ghost. Once he or she, and the majority are he (and he of color, at that) is sentenced, the game is over, the play is done, the curtain is drawn. All that matters is the spectacle of society being defended, the courtroom drama that assures that humans will be protected from monsters. How? By sending them to the beyond. That those monsters actually are still alive is irrelevant. Who really cares about ghosts produced in a society of spectacle? No one.

And what of those children whose only crime is that of seeking safety?

On Wednesday, the British Home Office announced that children would no longer be held at Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre in Scotland. The decision came soon after a Pakistani woman asylum, Sehar Shebaz, and her 12 month old daughter Wania were arrested on Monday, and sent to Dungavel. People protested. The Home Office said fine … and then prepared to ship Sehar and Wania Shebaz to Yarl’s Wood.

Yarl’s Wood … again: “Anne McLaughlin, SNP MSP for Glasgow, called for an immediate end to the policy across the rest of the UK. Ms McLaughlin has been a key activist in the high profile campaign to prevent Florence Mhango, from Malawi, and her 10-year-old daughter Precious, who were held at Dungavel and Yarl’s Wood, from being deported after seven years in the UK. She said: `From Precious we know the horrific impact detention at Dungavel has on young children, but we also know that her experience at Yarl’s Wood was no better. By removing children immediately to Yarl’s Wood they are being taken away from the support networks and services they have built up in Scotland. The House of Commons has been highly critical of child detention in Yarl’s Wood and we must see this practice brought to an end across the UK as soon as possible.’”

A child seeks asylum and is sent to prison. A woman seeks asylum, with her child, and is sent to prison. Does it matter which prison? Out of sight, out of mind, out of luck, out of options, out of light, out of life. They are ghosts, and they are treated as such.

Today is May 22, 2010. May 22, 2009, seven girls perished in an altogether preventable fire in Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in Jamaica: Ann-Marie Samuels, Nerrissa King, and Rachael King, Georgina Saunders, all 16 years old; Kaychell Nelson and Shauna-Lee Kerr, both 15, and Stephanie Smith, 17. The Prime Minister called it a tragedy. Of course. A video and petition campaign has begun to make sure that the Prime Minister and the Director of Public Prosecutions work harder, work better so that the tragedy is not repeated.

These child-ghosts, these girl-ghosts, under the rubble, under the gun, behind the bars, in the flames, they are children, living, breathing, human children. In fact, they are our children. We must teach them as we ourselves must learn and live the lesson of the Griot, “You got to be a spirit! You can’t be no ghost.”

 

(Photo Credit: Herb Boyd / Voice of Detroit)

Asylum haunts the foreign service

Bita Ghaedi fled to the UK in 2005 to flee a forced marriage. Then her troubles really began.

Asylum haunts the foreign service. People face violence, persecution, torture, from the State, from partners, from various sectors. Finally, they flee. They escape. They go to the United Kingdom, say, or the United States. Where they apply for asylum. And are treated like criminals. Often they are placed in immigrant detention centers, where they are treated as immigrant detainees, which is to say where they are treated as common criminals … or worse. Then they are returned to the torture zones and the killing fields. They tell their stories, others tell their stories. Their stories circulate, in the languages of those who suffered throughout their communities. Their stories, their bodies, their scars and their memories, precede the ambassadors and the envoys.

This week Bita Ghaedi was informed that she would not be deported immediately to Iran. Further, she was informed that she could finally leave Yarl’s Wood. In 2005, Bita Ghaedi fled a violently abusive family and an imminent forced marriage. In the UK, she has been a civil rights, women’s rights and human rights activist who has publically supported the opposition to the Iranian government. She has reason to believe she would be killed if she is returned to Iran. The question is whether it would be the State or her family who would commit the deed.

In 2007, Bita Ghaedi’s application was turned down. She attempted suicide. She appealed the decision. In January of this year, she was on weeks long hunger strike. She was supposed to be deported April 20, but Icelandic volcanic ash postponed that. She was supposed to be deported this past Wednesday, May 5. That’s when the high court decided, again, to delay the deportation and hold another hearing. That is meant to happen July 21.

Bita Ghaedi’s story parallels that of Rodi Alvarado. Rodi Alvarado was born and raised in Guatemala.  In 1984, at the age of 16, she married a man, a former soldier, who immediately began beating, torturing, raping her. She went to authorities who did nothing. She ran away, was caught by her husband, and beaten unconscious. Finally, in 1995, she fled to the United States, leaving her two young children with relatives. She applied for asylum. In September 1996, an immigration judge granted her asylum.

That’s where the story turns: “The Immigration and Naturalization Service appealed the grant to a higher court, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). And in June 1999, the BIA reversed the decision of the immigration judge, by a divided 10-5 vote, and ordered that Ms. Alvarado be deported to Guatemala”

The case then lingered on until December 2009, when Rodi Alvarado was finally, and without explanation, granted asylum. For fourteen years, Rodi Alvarado waited in terror.

In March 2009, Amnesty USA released Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA. Without naming Rodi Alvarado, the report suggests that, in the context of US treatment of asylum seeking women, Rodi Alvarado’s case is not unusual. In fact, it’s almost benign.

In the United States, women asylum seekers are routinely abused. Some, like Saluja Thangaraja, can share their names: “Saluja Thangaraja fled the brutal beatings and torture that she suffered during the Sri Lankan civil war only to endure more than four and a half half years of immigration detention upon arrival in the United States in October 2001. She was granted asylum in 2004. However, immigration authorities appealed the decision, and Ms. Thangaraja remained in detention. She was finally released in March 2006 after filing a habeas petition. Despite posing no danger to the community and demonstrating a commitment to pursuing her asylum claim, Ms. Thangaraja was never given a custody hearing during the four and a half years she was detained.”

Others must continue to insist on anonymity: “A 26-year-old Chinese woman cried as she told AI [Amnesty International] researchers that she fled persecution after she and her mother were beaten in their home for handing out religious fliers. She arrived in the United States in January 2008 seeking asylum and was detained at the airport before being moved to a county jail. No one explained to her why she was being detained. An ICE Field Office Director decided that she should remain in detention unless a bond of $50,000 was paid. Neither her uncle in the United States nor her family in China had sufficient funds to meet the required amount. Her attorney told Amnesty International that the immigration judge indicated that he did not have the authority to release her from detention or change the amount of the bond set. Family members in the United States were finally able to raise the money needed to secure her release in December 2008, after she had spent nearly an entire year in detention.”

Women asylum seekers in detention centers are shackled in childbirth, placed in isolation for the crime of not speaking English, sexually harassed, abused, exploited. In other words, women asylum seekers are treated exactly the same as women immigrant detainees.

Bita Ghaedi, Rodi Alvarado, Saluja Thangaraja, the “Chinese woman”, and the thousands of other asylum seekers who are and have been abused, these are the ambassadors of the United States and the United Kingdom. Not the Secretary of State nor the Foreign Secretary. Not Hillary Clinton nor David Miliband, or whomever it will be next week. The lives and bodies of these women testify to the story of women who have sought refuge and the manner in which they have been treated in the great democracies of the early twenty first century. These women and the asylum they have sought haunt the foreign service and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

 

(Photo Credit: indymedia.org.uk)