ON THE FRONTLINE: Voices of resistance in the asylum system: solidarity, research, and actions in Sheffield UK

ON THE FRONTLINE: Voices of resistance in the asylum system: solidarity, research, and actions in Sheffield UK

John Grayson and Victor Mujakachi

I got out of Morton Hall because I spoke out loud largely through the efforts of friends, supporters, family, well-wishers, politicians and organisations with which I’m associated. It was through the strength of that level of publicity that I was released. What then is the fate of the voiceless group of men I left in there? 

Victor on his release from Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) where he was awaiting removal to Zimbabwe

We are writing this joint article as colleagues working in solidarity alongside asylum seekers and refugees in South Yorkshire. We bring the experience of an academic activist researcher and the experience of an asylum seeker still without papers, after ten years resisting and surviving the UK’s deterrent reception policies.

A deterrent reception policy and a hostile environment
Current political and racialised discourses in the UK demonise and dehumanise the ‘migrant’, the ‘asylum seeker’ and the ‘refugee’. Over the Christmas holidays 2018, there was a debate in the media and amongst British politicians about ‘migrants’ crossing the English Channel in small boats and whether they should be rescued. Home Secretary Sajid Javid warned the deployment (of Border Force ships) would “become a humanitarian and rescue mission and there’s a risk that kind of activity can encourage more people to cross the Channel”.

Simply letting people drown as a deterrent is perhaps the best example of the public, official, dehumanising of people who are already tagged as ‘illegals’ in the UK’s ‘hostile environment’. Britain’s colonial past and slavery still seem to pattern current attitudes to the humanity of Black people and people of colour.

There is, of course, another image of the refugee in the UK. In Sheffield, the first City of Sanctuary, there are many groups dedicated to ‘welcoming’ refugees to the city. Practical help involves organising social events and conversation clubs and circles. But this positive practice is in most cases negatively framed within a view of asylum seekers and refugees as ‘victims’, simply needing ‘help’ and ‘support’.

This approach recognises the humanity of asylum seekers and refugees whilst stripping them of agency and disempowering them. The groups and their projects ignore the fact that some of the men and women finding ‘sanctuary’ in Sheffield as asylum seekers are émigré career politicians, trade union officials, successful business leaders, and university professors and teachers who are often members of UK branches of their home political parties. Christian churches and chapels in the city organise social events and English classes but asylum seekers and refugees often suspect their motives. As one Sheffield Muslim woman refugee put it, ‘I have never been to an event in a Christian church in Sheffield where I have not had a Bible given to me’.

Jonathan Darling’s (2011) research in Sheffield ‘drop-ins’ and ‘conversation clubs’ still has current resonance. He pointed to the fact that looking at the power structures within the drop-in centres and clubs, white middle class people were always in the organising and educational roles. Where asylum seeker volunteers were recruited, they filled subsidiary roles, such as making refreshments at the clubs.

Currently, in Sheffield asylum support and advice organisations, paid staff are overwhelmingly white and middle class. Even amongst volunteers, those with experience of the asylum system are still very much a minority. Perhaps as Mamdani (1973) pointed out, recalling his experience as a British overseas citizen fleeing Uganda, ‘helping’ agencies are creating a disempowered ‘refugee’ identity, giving people a new, dependent role in their new country. As a result, the voices of refugee victims relating stories of suffering become more relevant than testimony from voices demanding rights as potential citizens.

Alongside ‘welcome’ agencies that tend to disempower asylum seekers, there are, in Sheffield, rights-based organisations and groups. The two largest of these are ASSIST and SYMAAG.

ASSIST, supporting and empowering destitute asylum seekers
ASSIST, a large Sheffield charity supporting destitute and homeless refused asylum seekers, engages volunteer refused asylum seekers in organising roles and on their board of trustees. ASSIST can call on the help of some 300 volunteers in Sheffield.

Refused asylum seekers live for years in the city hosted by ASSIST volunteers and their families or for shorter periods in the growing number of houses donated to the organisation. To spend ten years or more in this limbo world of the refused asylum seeker, as significant numbers of asylum seekers do in the UK, means that many refugees and their voices are silenced by anxiety and ill health. Fathers and mothers completely lose contact with children in their home countries. Where children are refused asylum seekers as well, they become traumatised by long years of anxiety and poverty, facing hostility from officials and local communities; never able to start a life. Where children in a family arrive as teenagers, they perhaps remember a settled prosperous life with their parents. Children often become resentful of parents for bringing them to a life filled with hostility and poverty.

The UK Border Agency forces refused asylum seekers, even those who they cannot deport, because their home countries will not admit them, to check in and ‘sign’ regularly in Sheffield at Vulcan House, their regional centre. For other refused asylum seekers, each signing session can mean weeks of anxiety with a real fear of being detained and sent to an Immigration Removal Centre for deportation. Living in this state of ‘deportability’ and destitution means being forced into the arms of unscrupulous employers offering poverty wages for casual labour, and therefore committing a crime – it is illegal for asylum seekers to work. Those found working illegally could be imprisoned. At the end of their sentence they can be faced with deportation as a ‘foreign criminal’. For some people, years in detention centres can still follow after prison, because they can still not be deported.

SYMAAG, solidarity campaigning and G4S
SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group) is a group with a membership of asylum seekers, refugees and activists led by Black activists and people of colour with experience of the asylum system. SYMAAG is not a charity and was established twelve years ago as an overtly political asylum rights, campaigning, and direct action organisation.

SYMAAG has a programme each year of solidarity campaigning and public critical pedagogy – public meetings, joint lectures with the University of Sheffield, street demonstrations, petitions to city council meetings, lobbying local MPs – all designed to put asylum rights back above the radar of public awareness and to mobilise different interest groups – public service professionals, trades unions, émigré political groups – for actions on asylum rights.

Since 2012, when UK asylum housing was privatised, SYMAAG and its members, many of whom are asylum tenants, have campaigned alongside tenants of the private companies contracted by the Home Office to provide asylum housing for people waiting for the outcome of their asylum claims. G4S, the largest security company in the world, was given the contract for Yorkshire and the North East of England in June 2012.

When the award of the contract was announced, a SYMAAG member, an asylum tenant from Zimbabwe stood up in a meeting and said, “I don’t want a prison guard as my landlord’. This statement became the slogan for a campaign, which gave a voice to asylum tenants who courageously spoke out to expose slum conditions and negligent and cruel management of accommodation particularly for refugee children. Research and investigative journalism promoted by SYMAAG, including articles published on Open Democracy and the Institute of Race Relations news service systematically questioned the reputational standing of the international corporation. Despite G4S’s attempt to ban a SYMAAG / Brass Moustache film “The Asylum Market” documenting G4S and Home Office intimidation of asylum tenants in Sheffield from a BBC showing, the film was made available on Vimeo. The campaigning fuelled by the voices of asylum tenants was successful and in part resulted in G4S losing their asylum housing contracts in January 2019.

Voices against Detention and Deportation
In December 2018, seven Zimbabweans, some of whom had lived in Sheffield for more than a decade – one for 15 years another 16 years – were ordered to attend interviews at Vulcan House with Zimbabwe embassy officials. The move was the result of an agreement between Britain and Zimbabwe that Britain would ‘repatriate’ at least 2,500 refused asylum seekers. At that time nobody was detained. In February some of the seven were ordered again to Vulcan House and two were detained and sent to Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre near Lincoln. Another Zimbabwean with learning difficulties who had lived for nineteen years in nearby Barnsley was also sent to Morton Hall.

In Morton Hall’s prison-like regime, the Sheffield Zimbabweans were held in cell blocks called Rosa Parks and Mary Seacole, named in the days when Morton Hall was a women’s prison; but the naming seems entirely inappropriate now as Morton Hall becomes an institution where human rights were being trampled on. The detainees were told that if they did chores like cleaning and litter picking, they would receive £1.00 an hour and that money would be deposited into their personal Morton Hall accounts. This exploitative prison labour which paid well below minimum wages had been found to be legal in March 2019, despite evidence from people who had been in Morton Hall. The judge had ruled that the labour was ‘voluntary’, and people had a choice whether they worked or not.

There was a great deal of support for the three people detained in Morton Hall from their Sheffield and Barnsley networks. An on-line petition soon gathered 80,000 signatures and after a few days, all three were released. A SYMAAG demonstration had been planned outside Vulcan House to put pressure on the Home Office to stop detaining Zimbabweans and to release the three. It turned into a celebration – with 300 people attending. (pic)

Is Sheffield really a City of Sanctuary?
Recently SYMAAG research has found that Sheffield Council although proudly proclaiming itself the first City of Sanctuary in the UK, has been actively collaborating with the UKBA ICE (Immigration Compliance and Enforcement) team at Vulcan House, using housing staff as border guards and handing over undocumented Sheffielders they found whilst inspecting private rented properties. They later admitted that Council staff, whilst clearing a makeshift camp of homeless people in Sheffield in January 2017, had handed over two Romanian nationals, one of them a Big Issue seller in the city, whom the ICE team had immediately sent to Yarl’s Wood detention centre for deportation.

SYMAAG and researcher Rachel Furnis also discovered that the hostile environment announced by Theresa May in May 2012 had immediately been enforced by the South Yorkshire Police in the city. Arrests of Sheffielders under suspicion ‘of being illegal immigrants’ soared from 67 people in 2010 to over 400 in 2014. In subsequent years, arrests continued at a high level, totalling nearly 1600 arrests between April 2013 and December 2017.

Testimony not stories
Collective action, research foregrounding the voices and everyday experience of asylum seekers, filmmaking, and demonstrations all make individual voices loudly heard. In our experience, asylum seekers themselves are clear that they want their voices to be heard, not through ‘stories’ but through testimony to change the world for other asylum seekers and refugees.

As people were leaving one of the regular SYMAAG demonstrations at Morton Hall there was a message shouted through the wire and steel walls of the detention centre.

“Thanks for coming, get it out there, tell people what’s happening in here!”

References:
Jonathon Darling (2011) ’Giving space: generosity and belonging in a U.K. asylum drop-in centre’ Geoforum, Volume 42, 408-417
Mahmood Mamdani (1973) ‘From Citizen to Refugee’ London: Frances Pinter

 

John Grayson is a retired housing academic and adult educator. He taught at Sheffield Hallam University and was Senior Tutor for Social History and Politics at Northern College for Adult Residential Education from 1986 to 2007.He has been a political activist, Labour councillor and chair of a housing committee. He has been a member and researcher for SYMAAG since 2007 and has written extensively for the investigative journalism site Shine a Light at www.opendemocracy.net, and for the Institute of Race Relations at www.irr.org.uk He has published widely in the fields of social history, theories of critical adult education and social movement studies. His latest publication is Grayson J.(2019) ‘The making and framing of solidarity campaigning on asylum rights’ in Ibrahim J. and Roberts J. eds Contemporary Left-wing activism vol 2 .London: Routledge pp. 9-27. Victor Mujakachi is a volunteer at ASSIST Sheffield and Football Unites, Racism Divides among other local projects in Sheffield. He is a recipient of the South Yorkshire High Sheriff’s Award and the Nether Edge and Sheffield Community Star Award.

Image: Victor Mujakachi speaking at a demonstration

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