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Depression, Deprivation and Death in Asylum Prisons

Immigrant Descendent | 15.08.2006 14:34 | Migration | Repression | Liverpool

A few months ago I was taking the bus into town. An old man in front of me nudged his bored wife and pointed to some workmen building some new flats. “The government are giving them to those bloody asylum seekers” he told her. A rumour or even lie had been passed on as truth, presumably because the man himself felt hard done by. I cringed, but it seemed easiest to keep silent, even though a sign clearly said the flats were for students. Today, I present the truth as told by some asylum seekers in Liverpool, to the one decent Daily Post/Liverpool Echo reporter. It is far, far worse than that old man could probably imagine. No-one should be illegal, and good housing should be available for everyone, wherever they come from.

Residents at Liverpool’s three asylum accommodation centres have spoken out after one of their number apparently hanged himself within hours of his application being turned down. They described life in a constant state of fear and anxiety.

Around 150 asylum seekers, including many at the Greenbank Drive centre in south Liverpool where Abiy Abebe was found hanged, have now sent a petition demanding answers from the Government.

On Sunday, a small delegation agreed to speak to the Daily Post at a safe location, after they said they were warned not to speak to the media about Mr Abebe's case. They described how depression and suicidal thoughts quickly becomes part of daily life in Liverpool, often after dangerous and traumatic journeys to escape persecution and torture.

They accused judges of making "hasty" decisions based on out-dated information about their home countries. They claimed difficulty finding independent lawyers to represent them during months of confusing appeal hearings. And they say they are forced to live in "prison-like" accommodation in return for £35 a week support, are constantly monitored, and are often victims of racist attacks on the city's streets.

One Ethiopian woman said she has feared for the sanity of her husband - previously a doctor in Japan for ten years - since they arrived here with their two sons.

Mother-of-two Anna (not her real name) said he now spends each day locked alone in their room, refusing to eat.

"He's very distressed and he won't eat, he just lies there. I hide his medicine and I count out his pills one at a time. This was an intelligent man and now he is going to kill himself. I am so worried."

Anna and her husband have already been refused asylum several times by Home Office workers at Reliance House, in Liverpool city centre, where the residents have to "sign-on" daily. She described how she and her fellow "inmates" fear the sound of the Home Office vans, arriving to collect people for deportation in the early hours without warning.

"You know the Home Office will have informed the authorities in your country that they are sending you back. So there is no place to hide, they will know you tried to escape and we fear what will happen if we are sent back."

One Zimbabwean woman attempted suicide at the Greenbank Drive centre after her case was rejected. Dorcas Nkomo believes she was turned down because she struggled to tell a male caseworker how she was abused by soldiers who persecuted her husband and destroyed their township.

"I was helpless, and I was frightened, I was afraid to tell a man what had happened to me. But they didn't give me any time, they took my statement and I couldn't explain everything to them. They turned down my application and I didn't know what to do."

The 34-year-old has not seen her husband since they became separated at Gatwick airport after fleeing Zimbabwe leaving their three sons with a friend, in 2004. Distrustful of the authorities, she initially went into hiding, but eventually attempted to make a claim in Liverpool - only to be interviewed by a male caseworker.

"I felt very depressed, and like I had lost control of my life", she said. “I tried to jump out of the window at the asylum centre but somebody stopped me. I was lucky, because the caseworkers don't usually come round and check on people, they don't support us. Abiy was only found because he had a Home Office appointment and he didn't turn up so they checked his room."

IT manager Malcolm (not his real name) - who was educated at an international school and speaks near-perfect English - says officials accused him of being an ‘economic migrant’. The 26-year-old fled Ethiopia with his wife and eight-month-old baby daughter, after he was named as the whistleblower in a corruption case at the bank where he worked.

"Of course I'm not an economic migrant, I'm a well-educated professional, I had a good job and I can show you my bank statements. I came because my wife and I feared for our lives. We fear if we return to Ethiopia we will be killed. I came here and I am genuine, but they say I am a liar, they say I know too much because I can speak English, and that my case mustn't be genuine."

He said he was plagued by feelings of depression, spending his days unable to work legally, in a room where he can touch opposite walls with his outstretched arms.

"All of us have contemplated suicide. "The first refusal was very traumatic for us. You are left feeling very helpless, it's like someone putting a stop on your life."

New asylum applications have dropped since the new National Asylum Model (NAM) was introduced in January this year. Malcolm and his fellow asylum seekers believe the Home Office is working fast to meet targets amid pressure to control the number of illegal immigrants coming into the country.

"The Home Office has its own problems at the moment and it has to get its house in order. But what they are doing is having a direct impact on our lives and our mental health and well-being. They are granting status to economic migrants who are arriving without any papers, because they don't know where they have come from, so they can't send them back. But for people like me who have papers, we are being forgotten. It is like the experiment failed and we are the guinea pigs, left behind in limbo. They don't have any way to deal with us, but they should find a way to grant us amnesty of some kind."

Another Ethiopian, Eric (not his real name), who also has impeccable English and worked for a diplomatic mission in Ethiopia, said: "We are treated like animals.”

"The accommodation and the situation we are kept in is very stressful. It's like a prison. We are put in a room and there is no TV, there are TVs in the common rooms but they are broken. We are allowed to go out, but we are monitored and our activities are reported. It's really inhuman, if we wear some new eyeglasses or nice clothes someone gave us then the Home Office staff already know about it when we arrive for our appointments."

"The removal procedures are also inhuman. They come at 6.30am when you are in bed, and they use 20 police officers to remove one asylum seeker. They don't let people take any of their possessions with them. Only the clothes they are standing in. One of the main problems is the attitude among the Home Office staff that we are liars, and they assume we are just after economic benefits.

"There is also this new system in the Home Office called NAM, many asylum seekers are victims of NAM. It seems to be a system which depends on the officer who takes charge of your case and whether he likes you or if he is in a good mood. They use country profiles to find out about the situation in your country. But sometimes these are out of date and they say a country is safe to go back to.”

"In Ethiopia, because Tony Blair is friends with the government and he gives them aid, they say it is safe to go back to but it is not, they don't know what it is like. There are many people like us who are genuine but who can't produce their papers because they have been trafficked and smuggled."

Eric, a member of the opposition party in Ethiopia, was arrested after he posted blogs criticising the government on the internet. He believes the Home Office has a tendency to reject more educated asylum seekers.

"We just heard about one case where they rejected a doctor from the Lebanon - from the Lebanon, and you know what is happening there. We are expected to live on a subsistence income of £5 a day. We are skilled workers and professional people and we have pride, but we are not allowed to work. Instead, we sit in our rooms with the thought that we have no control of our lives going round and round in our heads so there is no surprise someone like Abiy would kill himself."

Margaret McAdam, a support worker with Merseyside Refugee Support Network, said staff and volunteers were also deeply concerned about the circumstances of Abiy's death.

She said: "We are very worried about the impact that Home Office policy is having on all who are claiming asylum.

"It is creating huge levels of mental stress for people who have already been through very traumatic experiences, and we would like to see a review of the situation."

Private firm Accommodata houses more than 200 adults and children at the three Home Office accommodation centres in former student halls of residence, all of them around the Sefton Park area.

A Home Office spokeswoman yesterday said the new NAM model was designed to process cases faster so ‘genuine’ refugees can be integrated in to the community more easily.

Israeli cheerleader and Liverpool Riverside MP Louise Ellman met asylum seekers from the south of the city after Mr Abebe's death. She has now sent their petition to the Home Office, and written a personal letter appealing to immigration minister Liam Burns to review the situation.

On Sunday night she said: "I have written to the minister and I have said that I want the case of Abiy Abebe investigated at the highest level. I met several people who live at that centre and they were very distressed and anxious, and I am very concerned about the effect the system is having on them.

This from one of one of the Israeli’s state’s most vocal supporters in Westminster, who supports the Zionist war machine, which has recently turned an estimated one million who lived in southern Lebanon refugees!

No working class person is an enemy. The enemy is the capitalist system, which creates poverty for the overwhelming majority and obscenely decadent wealth for a few. Though asylum seekers might come from over seas (which are really just big puddles when you think about it), they are our class brothers and sisters. Even actual ‘economic migrants’ deserve our support in a world where money can move thousands of miles at the touch of a button, but people are often not allowed to move beyond borders painted in working class blood.

Immigrant Descendent