Awet spreads his hands out and shows us his scarred fingertips. “He burned his fingertips so he could apply for asylum like a new person,” explains his friend.
A group of men are gathered in the back room of a large squat on the outskirts of Rome, talking about their struggle to beat the European asylum system. They explain that it is common for asylum seekers to burn their fingers, so the fingerprint record of their entry into Italy is destroyed.
Awet mimes placing his hands on a hob. “But after five days … [he holds up his hands to show that the burns have healed] normal,” he says, clapping them together with a disappointed sigh.
The Anagnina squat, in a disused glass-fronted office block, looms large over the surrounding industrial estate. The building is home to around 700 migrants and refugees, including families, from four trouble spots of north-eastern Africa: Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia.
The satellite dishes on the front of the building are redundant and many of the windows have been smashed. Children’s toys scatter the dimly lit corridors. Beds consist of simple mattresses or cardboard on the floor, and there is no hot water or heating. Electricity is sporadic, and there are only a few toilets for the hundreds who live here.
As the other men lean in around him, keen to describe the impossibility of building a new life in Italy, Awet waves his green refugee card that shows he came from Eritrea. “Italy is bad. No work, no house, nothing.”
Like all the others, he soon left and travelled to Norway, but when it was discovered that he had already been fingerprinted in Italy he was deported back. Awet clutches a tattered Norwegian identity card as he talks.
Under EU law, asylum seekers have to remain in the first European country they enter. This is known as the “Dublin” regulation after the 1990 summit at which the original system was adopted (coming into force seven years later).
For many European countries including the UK, Dublin is a key tool in a regime of tough border controls, allowing refugees to be deported back to Europe’s southern border countries where they first entered the EU. Countries such as Italy and Greece, with minimal welfare provision for refugees, receive the most Dublin returns each year because so many of the asylum seekers who land there do not wish to stay.
To the men in this hot, dark room and to thousands more who attempt to beat the system each year, Ireland’s capital city is a dirty word. “Dublin is a virus,” Awet says. “Yes, Dublin is like Aids.”
The rest all nod – they too have been fingerprinted in Italy, and know they will never be “cured”. Sitting in a circle, they list the places they have tried to start afresh: Norway, England, Switzerland, Sweden, England again.
David, 21, arrived here four years ago, travelling overland from Ethiopia, through Libya and across the Mediterranean. “I told them I was 17, they gave me €200 and told me to go anywhere I liked. They put me in the street. So I came here.”
Finding no work, David decided to travel on to the UK. “There they gave me a one-bedroom flat, I started at Bedford college, I learned English and they gave me £55 a week. I was happy.” He smiles sadly. “Then they found my fingerprints.” As soon as he was 18, David was deported, and returned to the Anagnina squat: “I felt sad, I cried.” He says life is not possible here in Italy: “No, no life here. Just living.”
These homeless refugees are part of a legal and diplomatic battle currently being fought all over Europe. Italy, which like Greece is struggling with the twin pressures of the financial crisis and a large increase in north-African migrants from this year’s uprisings, says the Dublin regulation is adding to its burden. Removals to Greece, meanwhile, have been suspended across much of the EU because of the severe conditions there, pending the outcome of a test case in the European court of justice.
Human rights lawyers in Britain are also trying to stop asylum seekers being sent back to Italy. They say the lack of support and housing in Italy is leaving thousands, at all stages of the asylum process, living in dangerous and unsanitary squats like Anagnina, or on the street.
The Dublin regulation was introduced partly to avoid “asylum shopping”, wherein people like David and Awet might be drawn to better welfare systems in countries such as the UK and Norway. Critics of the Italian system say welfare is crucial to help integrate refugees, and the lack of welfare in Italy is an urgent problem.
“We speak about legislation but forget to translate this into a life,” says Laura Boldrini, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Italy.
“Refugees don’t know the language, they may be traumatised, they are lost and don’t know what to do – rebuilding a life is not a joke. International protection becomes a box with no key; to open it you need integration.”
The British government is, nonetheless, fighting hard to keep the Dublin regulation in place, and in a case before the high court next Tuesday, the Home Office will argue that Italy is a safe country, with enough support available for all those in the asylum system.
It is midnight at Termini station in central Rome, and the streets are still busy with tourists and late-night drinkers. But it takes only minutes to find some recent arrivals to Italy who have struggled to settle.
Siako and his friends are lying on pieces of cardboard at the back of the station. They stand out from the other homeless who sleep, often passed out from drink, all along the street, because they are young, clean and smartly dressed. Many are listening to music on headphones. But Siako, 23, is fizzing with anger. He jumps to his feet, pulls out his refugee accreditation and unfolds it, shaking it in the air. He waves his arms around, pointing at his sleeping friends: “He has documents, he has documents – over there, they all have documents. But we all sleep on the street.
“Frankly, in Africa, if someone had told me that Italy was like this, I would have said he was lying. If someone said that even when you have the legal papers you still sleep on the street, I would’ve said that’s wrong, that’s not possible. You must see it to believe it.”
As he talks, a van pulls up and hearty-looking Americans get out and pass round bags of sandwiches. The men take them without smiling. “We came from Ivory Coast to escape the war, through Libya,” Siako explains. “And now we are sleeping on the street.”
His friend looks up and says, “I was crying here yesterday, thinking about my papa at home dying. Italian people walk past and they think I’m crazy. Everybody is going crazy here because they have no home.”
Siako’s story is typical: he was given accommodation in a camp at first while his claim was processed. But once he was recognised as a refugee, he was on his own. Unlike in the UK or other northern European countries, in Italy there is almost no integration for refugees once they are given protection, and no welfare support. Many refugees describe a life that is a constant struggle for basic survival, walking for hours across Rome to get food at handouts from churches or NGOs.
Dr Lê Quyên Ngô Dình is a director at Caritas, one of Rome’s biggest refugee charities. She says the introduction of the Dublin rules changed the pressures on Italy, but the country has yet to change its system in response. There are reception camps that offer a short and limited initial stay to nearly all asylum seekers, but only 3,000 spaces in the official integration accommodation that follows. The interior ministry says there have been 10 times that many asylum seekers so far this year – plus the number of Dublin returns arriving at Rome airport alone has increased significantly – to between 10 and 20 a day.
“Ten years ago, Italy was a transit country, but since Dublin we have seen an increase in people staying here,” Lê Quyên says. “And this is a big problem for Italy. The system is the one that worked 10 years ago; 3,000 beds was enough then, now it is not enough.”
“If you get one of those, you get good care. But if not, you are on the street … You have the rights, but because the Italian welfare system is so weak – they are just rights on paper.”
Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Refugee Council, says that court cases such as those being brought in the UK over conditions in Italy are a distraction, when what is actually required is a wholesale reform of the Dublin regulation. “I am not here to defend the Italian non-system of reception. But I sometimes feel this distracts from the real issue, which is the Dublin regulation itself.”
Along with other refugee groups across Europe, Hein is working to have the Dublin system abolished.
“Human beings, a big percentage of whom have suffered violence and persecution in their country of origin or on the journey – they are just pushed from one place to another like a package … They are being re-traumatised by Dublin.”
Hein wants a common EU asylum policy that would allow asylum seekers to choose the country they want to go to. It would, he says, allow refugees to join up with family and community support networks, and enable them to build a life, and work. “This would be far less costly for the social budgets of member states because it would facilitate integration.”
One community that is drawn to the UK in particular is Afghans. Behind the last platform at Rome’s busy Ostiense station, around 80 Afghans including several children live in a squalid, makeshift camp. They sleep in donated tents, holes ripped in their sides to release some of the suffocating summer heat.
There is a small standpipe for water and a few temporary toilets have been placed outside. Children run through piles of debris as commuters wait for trains on the other side of a chainlink fence.
Arif, a journalist from Afghanistan, was deported from the UK three weeks ago. Arif says he left his country with his life in danger, passing through Italy to get to the UK, where he has a brother. “But I knew I couldn’t claim asylum in the UK because of my fingerprints”.
Arif lived with his brother in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and worked illegally in a fast-food restaurant for four years. He says he didn’t want to, but the Dublin system drove him underground. British immigration officials raided the restaurant last month and he was deported.
Arif says the British authorities told him that “everything in Italy would be OK”. But after 20 days he has been offered no accommodation despite asking for help from the Italian authorities, and has ended up homeless and back at Ostiense station.
“I’m tired, tired of everything. I want to stay with my family in England, but because of Dublin I have to sleep here,” he says, pointing at the tents under the railway bridge.
At the camp’s gate, a group of young boys gather. Feroz, 16, has recently arrived from Afghanistan by boat, landing in Rimini.
He angrily tells us about his new neighbours, some of whom, he says, have already been sent back from other European countries. Others are very young and need help in Italy.
“This guy here is 12 years old. The government are deaf, they can’t hear people. I want to ask other European countries: where is the help?”
He points at another friend, caught in the classic Dublin trap: “What can he do? He is 18, his family are in Sweden – but his fingerprint is in Italy.”
Some names have been changed to protect anonymity
Shepherd Kambadzi was detained under immigration law powers one day before he was due to be released
The Home Office falsely imprisoned a convicted sex offender in an immigration detention centre for nearly two years because of a failure to carry out regular reviews, a court has ruled.
The supreme court verdict on Wednesday is the end of a three-year legal battle for Shepherd Kambadzi, a failed asylum seeker from Zimbabwe who was detained while the Home Office tried to remove him from the UK.
Pierre Makhlouf, head of law at Bail for Immigration Detainees, which was involved in the case, said: “This is very good news for other cases we are fighting and will oblige the UK Border Agency to take the issue of deprivation of liberty more seriously.
“Detention is regularly for long periods of time and there is therefore a pressing need for full protective measures.”
Kambadzi arrived in the UK in 2002 on a visitor’s visa, which expired in 2004. In December 2005 he was convicted of assault and sexual assault and sentenced to 12 months in prison.
The day before he was due to be released, he was detained under Immigration Act powers.
Two years later, in April 2008, with Kambadzi still in detention, his lawyers took the case to the high court, arguing that his detention was unlawful because it was not reviewed on the required monthly basis. No review was carried out at all in the first 10 months of his detention.
He was released in June 2008 but has still not been removed to Zimbabwe because of conditions there.
At an earlier stage of the case at the high court, judge Justice Munby described as “casual mendacity” a Home Office practice in which the writing of monthly progress reports “seemed to have predated the actual decision”.
Giving the majority verdict on Wednesday, Lord Hope said the court rejected the Home Office argument that the failure to follow procedures did not make detention unlawful.
An order was made for compensation, although the amount will be minimal if the Home Office can argue it would have detained Kambadzi even if the reviews had taken place.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are disappointed by the court’s decision, but this will not affect our intention to deport this foreign national criminal.
“Our priority will always be to protect the public, and we will seek to remove any foreign national convicted of a serious crime.”
Foreign national prisoners became a pressing issue for the Home Office in 2006. The then home secretary Charles Clarke was forced to resign when it was discovered that about 1,000 foreign national prisoners had been released without being considered for removal.
Clarke’s successor, John Reid, introduced a tougher policy that all foreign nationals would be detained at the end of a criminal sentence.
Keith Vaz, Labour MP and head of the home affairs select committee, said: “Detaining people for long periods of time should not be an immigration solution. The current situation keeps those being held in limbo and is a waste of taxpayers’ money.”
Lawyers say the policy has led to hundreds of people being detained despite there being no way to remove them quickly from the UK.
Some countries, including Somalia, Iran and Algeria, refuse to co-operate with forced removals and it can take many months, or even years, to issue travel documents. The Home Office said detainees often refused to provide identification that would help speed up deportation.
Figures from September last year showed that 260 people had been held in immigration detention for more than a year. Most of those were former prisoners waiting to be removed.
Makhlouf said lawyers were dealing with more cases of long-term detention. “Increasingly we are getting more and more people who are being detained for three or four years,” he said. “I get the sense that the Home Office forgets people.”
Lawyer Stephanie Harrison, who specialises in unlawful detention cases, said: “There has been a move to detention which is increasingly unconnected to the limited powers that the Home Office has to detain pending examination or removal. There are significant numbers of people being detained where their cases can’t be progressed and in those situations the detention is unlawful.”
The Liberal Democrats promised before taking office to try to end indefinite detention.
But in a recent interview with the Guardian, Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes said: “If people can’t be sent back, except in the most severe criminal circumstances, they should be released. But you would have difficulty in persuading the government of any colour that there should be a fixed point at which people should be released, irrespective of the severity of the offence.”
The Home Office also faces legal challenges from detainees who have lived legally in the UK and have children here. Many are fighting their deportation on the grounds that it would breach their right to a family life under article 8 of the European Human Rights Act.
Mohamoud Jama, 25, came to the UK from Somalia when he was 13. After being sentenced to 15 months in prison for assault in 2008, he was given a deportation order. Nearly two years later, he is still waiting to be removed.
Speaking from Harmondsworth detention centre, he told the Guardian: “I am living in a nightmare. I have no release date. You have just been locked up and [they] throw away the key.”
His friends and family in Bolton, where he grew up, have been campaigning for him to be released.
Childhood friend Ibrahim Ismail said: “It’s shocking, really shocking. Those months, those years he has been detained after his sentence finished, he’s never going to get those back.”
Jama’s supporters say he should be allowed to come back to Bolton and carry on with his life. Ismail said: “There is nothing for him in Somalia; all his family are here. It’s like taking a British person and dumping them in Somalia.”
But Jama said he would rather be deported than stay in detention any longer. “When I realised their intention is to keep me in prison I said, fair enough, deport me, I don’t want to spend my life in this situation.
“In June 2010, I signed the papers to go to anywhere they want to send me. But they have failed. They have no plan other than to keep me in detention. It’s a disaster, an absolute disaster.”
Immigration minister Phil Woolas has admitted millions of pounds is being paid in compensation to migrants who have been detained in removal centres.
A Freedom of Information request to find out exactly how much was refused, but a BBC survey has found evidence of payments totalling at least £2m.
Five firms of solicitors say in the past three years they have won compensation for 121 individuals.
They say they have secured payouts of at least £1.7m from the Home Office.
That sum does not include costs.
Some of these were out-of-court settlements by the government, made without any admission of liability.
Other high-profile cases recently – including a Bolivian family who received £100,000 in January and a Congolese family paid £150,000 – bring the total to more than £2m.
Several more firms were unable to supply details of their cases because of confidentiality clauses in the compensation settlements.
In response, Mr Woolas said: “I suspect that’s of the right order, but that is a fraction of the total number of cases we deal with.”
Many of those given compensation were detained at immigration centres despite having evidence that they were torture survivors.
Every year, thousands of asylum seekers are held in centres while their claims are processed, a procedure known as the Detained Fast Track.
The government is moving towards processing 30% of claims in this way.
The Home Office’s own guidelines say that people who have been tortured or are mentally unwell should not be detained unless there are exceptional circumstances.
But campaigners and lawyers who specialise in immigration say that screening procedures are failing to protect the vulnerable.
Mr F is from Uganda. He arrived in the UK with torture scars that are still visible today, but spent nine months in detention.
He was held in Harmondsworth detention centre, near London’s Heathrow airport, and says his claim for asylum was refused without a doctor examining him.
“I told them I was tortured, but they didn’t take it very seriously,” he says.
“If you say you are tortured nobody cares. I was beaten, I was burned, plastic was melted on my chest and everywhere on my body.”
While waiting to be removed from the UK, Mr F was examined by an independent doctor from the campaign group Medical Justice.
Dr Frank Arnold says Mr F’s torture scars were very clear: “I found numerous scars, each highly consistent with the torture he described.
“Considered together, these and the psychological state indicated a very strong likelihood he’d been tortured in the ways he described.”
Mr F was released following Dr Arnold’s report. His claim for asylum is now being reprocessed and he has brought a civil claim against the government for unlawful detention.
Mr Woolas denied there were serious flaws in the screening process.
“We are not perfect, but we do provide medical assistance in our detention centres. People can also call in the experts,” he said.
“If we do make mistakes, we put them right.”
But barrister Stephanie Harrison disagrees. She specialises in unlawful detention cases and over the past two years has been involved in 100 of them, the vast majority of which have been successful.
She believes that detention in breach of the rules is institutionalised.
“The political calculation the government has made is that it’s better to meet targets for removal than it is to avoid unlawful detention,” she says.
But Mr Woolas stood by the checks and balances in the system and blamed lawyers for encouraging people to take legal action.
“I don’t accept it’s institutionalised. I think there is an inevitable problem of imperfection at the margin of the system and I think some lawyers have a self interest to highlight that because that’s how they make their money.”
Europe and US should also be responsible for millions who will be displaced by climate change, says Abul Maal Abdul Muhith
Up to 20 million Bangladeshis may be forced to leave the country in the next 40 years because of climate change, one of the country’s most senior politicians has said. Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, Bangladesh‘s finance minister, called on Britain and other wealthy countries to accept millions of displaced people.
In a clear signal to the US and Europe that developing countries are not prepared to accept a weak deal at next week’s Copenhagen climate summit, Abdul Muhith said Bangladesh wanted hosts for managed migration as people began to abandon flooded and storm-damaged coastal areas.
“Twenty million people could be displaced [in Bangladesh] by the middle of the century,” Abdul Muhith told the Guardian. “We are asking all our development partners to honour the natural right of persons to migrate. We can’t accommodate all these people – this is already the densest [populated] country in the world,” he said.
He called on the UN to redefine international law to give climate refugees the same protection as people fleeing political repression. “The convention on refugees could be revised to protect people. It’s been through other revisions, so this should be possible,” he said.
Tens of thousands of people in Bangladesh and other low-lying areas of Asia are leaving their communities as their homes and land become inundated. But this is the first time that a senior politician from a developing country has openly proposed that those countries considered responsible for climate change should take physical responsibility for the refugees created.
Bangladesh, India, and many small island states such as the Maldives face having to relocate large populations over the next 50 years as sea levels rise up to one metre. This would have profound effects on the 1.5 billion people who presently live in coastal areas. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body that assesses the impact of climate change, has said there could be 200 million climate change migrants by 2050.
There is mounting evidence in India and Bangladesh and other low-lying countries that sea levels are rising faster than the global average of 1.2mm a year. Islands and coastal communities in the Ganges delta and the Bay of Bengal have recorded rises of up to 5mm a year. In Bangladesh hundreds of coastal villagers are forced to drink salty water as tides continue to rise and the sea intrudes on fresh water aquifers.
Abdul Muhith said managed migration could be positive for Bangladesh and the west: “We can help in the sense of giving the migrants some training, making them fit for existence in some other country.
Managed migration is always better – we can then send people who can attune to life more easily.” But he added, in another warning before Copenhagen where money will be a critical issue, that current levels of aid were inadequate. “Total aid in Bangladesh today is less than 2% of GDP. It is almost the same in China and in India. So we, the most populated, least developed country, gets peanuts. This inequity is terribly intolerable.”
Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, said the Bangladeshi migration proposal should be taken seriously. “This is clearly a warning signal from Bangladesh and similar countries to the developed countries. And I think it has to be taken very seriously. If you accept that those countries that have really not been responsible for causing the problem, and have a legitimate basis for help from the developed countries, then one form of help would certainly be facilitation of immigration from these countries to the developed world,” he said.
“If you had 30 or 40 million migrating to other parts of the world, that’s a sizable problem for which we have to prepare. And if it requires changes to immigration laws and facilitating people settling down and working in the developed countries, then I suppose this will require legislative action in the developed world,” he said.
Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary, said: “As the largest international donor to Bangladesh, Britain has been urging the international community to provide extra money for climate change adaptation.” But Jean-Francois Durieux, who is in charge of climate migration at the UN refugee agency, cautioned against reworking the UN convention on refugees.
“The risk of mass migration needs to be managed. It’s absolutely legitimate for Bangladesh and the Maldives to make a lot of noise about the very real risk of climate migration – they hope it will make us come to their rescue. But reopening the 1951 convention would certainly result in a tightening of its protections.”
He said there was a danger of a backlash in rich countries. “The climate in Europe, North America and Australia is not conducive to a relaxed debate about increasing migration. There is a worry doors will shut if we start that discussion,” he said.
There is extreme sensitivity about adapting the UN convention on refugees. A UNHCR report in August warned: “In the current political environment, it could result in a lowering of protection standards for refugees and even undermine the international refugee protection regime altogether.”
As Shell settles a major legal action over protests in Nigeria, closer to home emotions are running high over a gas pipeline near the Irish village of Rossport, sparking violent clashes and bitter recrimination. Harriet Grant and John Domokos report.
It is a clear spring evening on the wild north-west coast of Ireland. Atlantic waves surge into a wide bay surrounded by open countryside. In a field close to the beach, 200 police officers are inching their way along a high metal fence as a crowd of about 100 protesters closes in, some pulling chains from under their jackets as they prepare to attack the fence. A mile up the road, police roadblocks have been stopping cars from approaching the site since late afternoon.
Welcome to Rossport, a small but divided village in County Mayo that has become yet another battleground for Shell. The fuel giant agreed this week to pay almost £10m to settle a legal action with human rights protesters in southern Nigeria, after being accused of collaborating in the execution of nine leaders of the Ogoni tribe, including the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. In Rossport, it is up against a group of protesters who have now held a gas pipeline at bay for almost a decade. This summer, Shell is due to put in place a massive security operation to help finally bring the pipeline ashore to its Bellanaboy Bridge gas refinery, a couple of miles inland from the village.
Standing in his garden looking out across the pipeline route, Noel Philbin sums up the anger and defiance of those who say they will never give in to Shell. “Everything is wrong with the pipeline. It’s unsightly, there’ll be chimneys blowing up 365 days a year and effluence pipes going back into this beautiful bay. Once they get the pipeline ashore, the battle will be here in our village. We’ll do everything we can to stop that pipe and we’re not afraid of going to jail, it’s as simple as that.”
When gas was discovered 50 miles off the deprived north Mayo coast in the Corrib field, local people thought the area would be getting prosperity and jobs. Indeed, many still support the project – they say the protesters are a small and vocal minority who oppose Shell for ideological reasons. The supporters also claim that they are afraid to speak openly, so deep are the divisions in the community.
In 2005, five men were jailed for refusing to allow Shell on to their land. The jailings sent waves of rage through the community. After three months, Shell backed down and withdrew the injunctions – and also dropped its original pipeline route. Now a new route that skirts the village is proposed and the final public hearing is under way. Once that is over, the Irish Planning Board will make the final decision, but for now Shell is pressing on with the work, determined to bring the pipe ashore.
Activists from across Ireland have been arriving to help locals launch attacks on the Shell site, attempting to tear down fences at the place where the pipe will be brought ashore. At one of the weekly demonstrations, local people – some in tears – scream abuse at police officers. But not far beneath the surface, the village is as traumatised as it is defiant. This is a community that all sides agree will struggle to recover from the bitter divisions over the pipeline.
Philbin thinks the damage done by the dispute has gone too deep to mend. “Even if Shell pulled away in the morning, this village would never get back to the way it was. There can be no harmony, no trust here ever again.”
The tension in the area has been increased by allegations of assault made by a long-time opponent of the pipeline, farmer Willie Corduff. He claims that while protesting peacefully under a truck on the Shell site, he was severely beaten by a group of men in balaclavas.
Corduff was one of the men jailed in 2005. An unlikely activist, he has lived in Rossport his entire life. With his wife Mary and their six children, he works the farm his father built out of peat bogs 60 years ago. “I was stretching my legs after lying so long under the truck when about six men in balaclavas appeared, hit me over the head, then knelt on me, blocking my throat and badly beating me,” he says. He has photos that show him lying in hospital, swollen and bruised, and says he is preparing evidence with a lawyer before he approaches the police.
Shell denies that anyone assaulted Corduff on its behalf, instead claiming that a balaclava-clad gang attacked its property that night with a digger, causing millions of euros’ worth of damage. The security firm Shell is using to protect the site, I-RMS, adds that its only concern that night was with Corduff’s welfare. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu has weighed into the debate, expressing his concern for Corduff and backing him in his fight against the pipeline. Whatever the truth of the night of 23 April, it lit a fuse under the simmering tensions in the area.
The Irish minister for communities, Eamon O Cuiv, visited the area after the alleged attack on Corduff and faced a furious meeting of more than 300 local residents, who swore to stop the Shell work. O Cuiv said the level of anger made a strong impression on him: “I know the area well and I am very saddened by the divisions there. I do think the community should have been consulted more fairly, and I believe mistakes were made right at the beginning.”
At his farm, Corduff looks broken by the long fight: “This has ruined our lives.” He waves a pile of papers. “If we didn’t have this pipeline coming, we wouldn’t know all the things we know now, about pipeline explosions and pressure of gas.”
However Paddy Cosgrove, leader of the Corrib Pro Gas group, says the majority of the community believes the project will benefit the area: “This is about bread and butter – education for our children and jobs for the future.” He says those who support Shell are too afraid to speak out. “We are avoided by people who were our friends; people say things, there is intimidation.”
One of the local priests, Father Kevin Hegarty, also complains of verbal abuse and intimidation towards the people who work with Shell. “The protesters have engaged in overt or silent intimidation of people who are supportive of the project. This is a close-knit rural community and that kind of intimidation can be soul-destroying. In terms of intransigence, there are similarities with the Troubles.”
But accusations of intimidation are rife on both sides. “You don’t know who is walking the streets at night,” says Philbin. “We have two fears here. The first was the pipeline. Now, it’s how they bring the pipeline in, what extreme measures will they go to. Who will be next to get a beating?”
In a further twist, when mentioning their fears about who might be working as security officials in the area, many villagers point to the recent death of the Irish security guard Michael Dwyer in Bolivia. Dwyer was shot dead by the Bolivian authorities, who claim he was involved in a plot to kill President Evo Morales. He had worked previously on the Shell site in Rossport – as had at least one of the other men with him in Bolivia, though none worked for the security firm I-RMS there. Shell insists it has investigated I-RMS and has found no evidence of any wrongdoing. I-RMS says it vets and trains all staff to national and international standards.
John Egan, Shell’s head of communications in Ireland, blames the need for security on the acts of violence and intimidation on their site by protesters. “We would rather work without security, but the constant attacks on our site mean we have to use a level of security that is not usual on building sites in Ireland. [The security guards] work responsibly in the face of constant provocation and abuse.”
Egan knows more than most the damage community opposition can do to an energy giant, having been the BBC’s correspondent for Nigeria in the 1990s. He says he is a County Mayo man and passionately believes in delivering the project – for the benefit of Ireland and the region. “It’s vital for Ireland that Shell are seen to succeed here. The delays here have been very bad for Ireland internationally.”
It is easy to sympathise with the protesters, looking out across the untouched beauty of this remote corner of Europe. There is a visceral horror of the industrial complex at Bellanaboy Bridge and the dangers of a gas pipe explosion. But the Kinsale gas fields that provide Ireland with its gas are close to running out.
Vincent McGrath, a well-known local accordion player and historian, is a spokesman for Pobal Chill Comáin, the main group representing locals. It believes Shell can still be persuaded to compromise and move the pipeline route and refinery further away. McGrath says that what is at stake in Rossport is worth more than the price of gas: “We are fighting for many things here: our health, environment and happiness. But we are also fighting for the right to live our lives as we have for generations before Shell came along.”
McGrath has a glint in his eyes and smiles as he promises that Shell will not get their way. “Shell do not have the consent of this community. And the lesson of history is that where there is occupation, there will be resistance.”
Campaigners say they will continue to fight the return of failed asylum seekers to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The sending of failed applicants back to the country had been suspended while an inquiry took place into whether the safety of those returning could be guaranteed, but it is set to resume on Thursday.
In December, the High Court ruled the deportations could start again but despite assurances from the Home Office campaigners say those returning will be endangered.
“I am so frightened, my solicitor says there is nothing more he can do.” Titi Nzamba from Cardiff was crying as she explained why she was terrified at the thought of being sent back to DR Congo.
She was speaking from Yarls Wood detention centre in Bedford, where she and her three children, aged three, six and nine, had been taken by immigration officers on Monday.
She said her life was at risk in the DR Congo because she had worked for a prominent politician. Her sister had been killed in her place, she added.
She is due to be flown back to to the country on Thursday at 7am – the first refused asylum seeker to be sent back since a ban was put on removals in 2007.
The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal suspended removals while they decided whether it was safe to send people back to the central African state.
They were examining claims that simply being a returned asylum seeker was enough to put someone at risk of reprisals in Kinshasa.
They decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to keep the ban in place, a decision which was appealed by solicitors acting for the Congolese asylum seekers.
Finally, in December last year, the High Court turned down the appeal, leaving the Home Office free to start sending people whose cases have been refused back to Kinshasa.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are monitoring the situation in the DRC closely. We are only sending people back to Kinshasa, which is 1,000 miles away from the fighting in the east of the country.”
But campaigners, including bishops and MPs, say that people are also at risk in Kinshasa, where – they say – the government is oppressive and undemocratic.
At a crowded meeting in Manchester, members of the Congolese community gathered to discuss how to fight the removals.
Many of those at the meeting live on vouchers and are legally unable to work.
They all described themselves as political activists, people who organised marches and demonstrations in DR Congo, where such activity, they say, is not tolerated.
Supporters mentioned a recent Human Rights Watch report, which provided evidence that many opponents of the government are being tortured or killed.
One of those at risk of deportation is Bilmi.
She has lived in the UK for seven years, unable to work and homeless for much of that time after her appeal for asylum was turned down.
She said being destitute was a better option than returning to DR Congo, where her activities opposing the Government led to her being targeted.
“I’ve been raped in the Congo, I’ve been tortured. The British government knows perfectly well what happens to people when you send them back to the Congo,” she said.
She was at pains to stress that her life in the UK was very bleak.
“If it was safe, why would people come here? I was studying law, I was in the biggest university in the country. And my father had a good position.
“I wouldn’t agree to come to a country where I can’t study, where I can’t work to earn my own money. I would have stayed if it was safe,” she said.
One man pressing the Home Office to think again is the Bishop of Winchester, Michael Scott-Joynt.
He has spoken in the House of Lords on behalf of Congolese asylum seekers and wants a moratorium on removals.
“Regardless of their immigration status, it is not at present safe to return people to the DRC.
“If we live in Britain it’s very hard to begin to imagine the utter lack of security there, what it’s like to live in a city where there are a lot of security forces that are under no kind of responsible political control,” he said.
But the Home Office say that anyone who is in danger, is given protection and that for an efficient asylum system to work, they must be able to remove those whose cases fail.
All across the country, communities are organising themselves to stop their friends and neighbours from being deported. From lobbying the Home Office to foiling dawn raids, the resistance will stop at nothing to keep failed asylum seekers safe in Britain. By Rachel Stevenson and Harriet Grant
‘We had our own little code to warn them it was a dawn raid and to get out. There’s more than one way of getting out of the flats – there’s two staircases and two lifts, so you could play games if you knew how. If we were a thorn in their flesh, then good.”
Sixty-seven-year-old Jean Donnachie flashes a mischievous smile as she describes the tactics she and her neighbours used every day to thwart immigration officers trying to arrest asylum seekers on her estate in Glasgow. A grandmother and former cashier who has lived on the Kingsway for 20 years, she makes an unlikely resistance fighter. But when she talks about how the estate took on the Home Office, there is a gleam of defiance in her eyes.
At first sight, the Kingsway seems an unwelcoming place. Wind whips around the 15-storey tower blocks, the windows in the lobby doors are broken, the corridors are gloomy and bare. Remnants of police incident tape flicker from lampposts and prominent surveillance cameras add an air of menace to its pathways. There is little to dispel the sense that this is one of Britain’s forgotten pockets of poverty.
But when hundreds of asylum seekers were placed there to live – often for years – while their cases were processed, they were warmly embraced. “We had been really going downhill – a lot of antisocial families were being put here. But after a year of the asylum seekers coming, the atmosphere became completely different,” Donnachie says. “These people couldn’t do enough for you, and I thought this was wonderful – it was like going back to when I was a child and you could leave the key in the door and if you needed help someone would come round.”
The estate became home for hundreds of families escaping persecution and torture in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, Uganda and Congo. Most had their request for asylum in the UK turned down, and when the Home Office began coming to the estate at 5am to remove them, Donnachie and the rest of the residents looked on in horror. “It was like watching the Gestapo – men with armour, going in to flats with battering rams. I’ve never seen people living in fear like it,” says Donnachie. “I saw a man jump from two storeys up when they came for him and his family. I stood there and I cried, and I said to myself, ‘I am not going to stand by and watch this happen again.’”
She got together with her friend Noreen and organised the residents into daily dawn patrols, looking out for immigration vans. When the vans arrived, a phone system would swing in to action, warning asylum seekers to escape.
The whole estate pitched in, gathering in large crowds in the early-morning dark to jeer at immigration officials as they entered the tower blocks. On more than one occasion, the vans left the estate empty – the people they had come for had got out in time and were hidden by the crowd. The estate kept this up for two years until forced removals stopped.
But what happened on the Kingsway is not unique. Over the past few years there has been a growing resistance to the government’s attempts to deport failed asylum seekers. From Manchester, from Sheffield, from Belfast, from Bristol, the Home Office is being bombarded with requests from British people all over the country asking for asylum seekers to be given another chance.
One reason why deportations are being challenged is that, despite reports to the contrary, many asylum-seeking families have successfully integrated. Inefficiencies in the system have meant cases have taken years to process, giving families, in particular, the chance to put down roots. Many of their children were born in Britain, go to school here and have close friendships with local children. The government does not allow asylum seekers to work, so many put in hours of voluntary work to occupy their time. They have forged strong links with locals, who have helped them fight to stay.
They believe this resistance is now paying off. Under pressure to speed up removals, the government has introduced a new system for processing claims and is clearing a backlog of up to 450,000 cases. It is called the Legacy Case Resolution Programme, and the latest available figures from the Home Office show that at least a third of people going through it are given leave to remain. In Scotland, more than 80% of these “legacy” cases are winning asylum status. In order to get status under the programme, applicants must show they have local support. For many communities, this is a victory.
Donnachie and her neighbours are now celebrating as families on the estate get good news. Safia, a mother of three and a refugee from Pakistan’s tribal region, is sure that without her friends she would have been sent back. “They were not asylum seekers but they want to help us. They used to come out every morning to protect us. If they didn’t raise their voice for us, maybe we wouldn’t have got our status.” After more than five years in the UK, Safia and her children can stay permanently.
Donnachie is proud of their achievement. “If what we did took early mornings, standing in the cold, standing in the rain, well, it was well worth it. It all came to a fantastic end and I’m a happy woman, and a better woman for it,” she says.
The struggle on the Kingsway has formed part of a Scotland-wide fight against detentions and deportations that is still going on for many under threat of removal.
Just a few miles away, for example, volunteers have taken over an old cornershop and turned it in to a hub of activity helping hundreds of families to stay in the UK. Known as Unity, it keeps a register of asylum seekers coming in and out of the local Home Office building, where they must, by law, report regularly. It is while reporting that many are detained and taken to a detention centre. If they don’t come back to Unity after reporting, staff at Unity raise the alarm and begin a campaign to release them.
“The idea was that there would be local people right outside the Home Office to help asylum seekers if they were detained,” explains Phil Jones, one of Unity’s founders. The strategy seems to work – a whiteboard on the wall lists names of people in detention centres awaiting deportation, but scrawled next to almost all of them are triumphant updates such as “FLIGHT STOPPED!!!” and “BACK IN GLASGOW!!!”. Up to 50 families a week in Glasgow are now getting permanent leave to remain.
But it is not just in Scotland that asylum seekers have found sanctuary in unlikely places. At the back of the Asda car park in Bury, Greater Manchester, is the Mosses community centre. Inside, along with the sewing group and the creche, Sue Arnall is working hard to protect the asylum-seeking families in the area. Born and bred in Bury and proud of it, the retired teacher was horrified to learn that children in her town were living in fear of being sent to countries some of them had never even visited. Like Donnachie, she felt compelled to act.
She and other women at the community centre mobilised local support, organising marches, getting local schools on board, barraging the local MP and helping asylum seekers with their legal cases. “Most of the children are safe now,” she says, “but not all of them. And there are new ones arriving all the time who we need to fight for.”
Families here are also benefiting from the legacy programme, but not until after years at the hands of a system taht Arnall says is cruel. “It is set up to believe that you’re corrupt or that you’re an economic migrant – rather than asking about what made people leave their homes and their families. These people are fleeing for their lives and, as humane people, we should make room for them.”
She is certain their protests played a part in getting the legacy programme started. “I think we’ve made it very hard for the Home Office to remove families that are settled. And every MP up and down the country will know that, because they will have been lobbied in the way we’ve lobbied ours. There must have been pressure to sort this out in a humane way, but to keep it quiet because if the Daily Mail finds out about this, it will be unpopular. I think they are wrong. The government should be promoting the positive aspects of having refugees in your community.”
This belief is echoed in other parts of the country. In the Shetlands, islanders came together to stop a resident Burmese family being deported, spending months demonstrating until the Minn family won the right to stay. “We won’t put up with this sort of injustice here,” Brian Smith, one of the campaigners, says. “The Home Office only seems to care about what the gutter press thinks, and doesn’t want to listen to the rest of us.”
In Belfast, the plight of two Nigerian families facing deportation united both sides of a society scarred by sectarianism. Campaigners mustered support across Northern Ireland, but the families were not allowed to stay, leaving the community furious. They, too, say the government is pandering to one side of the asylum debate.
Encouraging these local groups is the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC). Emma Ginn, one of the NCADC volunteers, holds workshops all over the country on how to fight Home Office decisions. “I can’t prove it, I can’t quantify it, but I’ve been doing this for four years and I know campaigns do work,” Ginn says. “There are people in Britain who wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for a campaign. We have to keep fighting decisions.”
But as well as resisting deportations, another aspect of government asylum policy is under attack from British people – that of leaving failed asylum seekers destitute in the UK. Apart from families with children, most people lose their accommodation and benefits once their case is refused, as government rules dictate there must be “no recourse to public funds” for those it believes are “bogus”. Failed asylum seekers are told to leave the country voluntarily or face being forcibly removed. Thousands are too frightened to return, and it can take years for the Home Office to arrange a forced removal, leaving them homeless and destitute in Britain. There is, however, a growing movement of individuals and church groups helping failed asylum seekers eke out an existence here, feeding and housing them after they have been told they have no right to stay.
One such operation can be found in the centre of Sheffield every Wednesday. As shoppers bustle through the busy streets, a band of benign-looking middle-class retirees sit behind desks in the back room of a church handing out envelopes to waiting asylum seekers. They contain £20 in cash, most of it gathered from church collections. For many, it is all they have to live on.
Organising it all is Robert Spooner, a former engineer, who abandoned all plans for a restful retirement when he heard about the destitute asylum seekers in his city. His life is now devoted to raising money for them, believing the government is wrongly denying people fleeing persecution the right to sanctuary in Britain. “Some of the people living on the streets here can’t go back,” he says. “You can imagine what would happen to people going back to Zimbabwe if they were MDC members, or to Iran if they are lesbian or gay, or if they are on the wrong side of a war lord in Afghanistan. These people face real danger.”
Tendero is one of those who would rather be destitute in Britain than face persecution, torture and possibly worse, in his homeland of Zimbabwe. He was a successful businessman until his involvement with the MDC party led to threats on his life. “I thought if I went to England, then I might find a fresh start and come back to Zimbabwe when things are OK to help rebuild my country,” he says as he helps out at Spooner’s drop-in centre. His case has failed and he now lives hand-to-mouth in the UK, sleeping on friends’ floors.
“We look to Britain as the champion of human rights but what I have seen is people being treated as less than human. I tell my friends and family back home this is what my life is like, but they don’t believe the British, with the international image they have, are capable of this.”
Spooner is also staggered such a policy exists. Like many of those involved in helping asylum seekers, the 69-year-old is a committed Christian and believes this choice of “leave or starve” is inhumane. “The government is using destitution as a tool to lower the number of asylum seekers here. It’s totally against any moral stand you have,” he says. “It makes me ashamed, ashamed to be British.”
As well as handing out cash, Spooner’s organisation, Assist, also has a system for finding shelter for failed asylum seekers in the suburbs of Sheffield. A retired couple spent their life savings on two houses for Assist to use rent-free, and Assist also has a list of families and individuals who will let failed asylum seekers sleep in their spare rooms. Rachel and Malcolm Savage are GPs who live in Sheffield with their two young daughters and Margaret, a failed asylum seeker from Uganda. She says she cannot return, and was homeless until Assist asked the Savages to take her in. “We have the space and we think that while Margaret is here, we should help her rather than see her sleep in the street. It’s not that we are against the government having a robust immigration system, but there must be a better, more humane way of doing it than this,” says Malcolm.
Groups such as Positive Action in Housing in Glasgow and the BOAZ trust in Manchester also run lists of families and individuals who will house and feed asylum seekers who have been told to leave the country. Similar groups exist in most cities, giving basic sustenance and shelter to people the government wants removed. These networks are now starting to link up, city to city, coordinating their efforts to fight destitution.
The Home Office stands by its system. Those it turns down, it says, have had a fair hearing and have failed to prove they are at risk. It says it must operate a tough removal policy, and that Britain must not support fraudulent claimants.
But Donnachie, Spooner, Jones and Arnall, and many more like them, believe the asylum system is fundamentally unjust. They say Britain is denying asylum to people genuinely in danger. Senior bishops are similarly critical of the system, as is the Independent Asylum Commission, headed by a former appeal court judge, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which have both described Britain’s asylum system as shameful. Outrage at the government’s asylum policy spans Britain’s social and political spectrum.
For many communities, asylum seekers are, simply, highly valued citizens they want to hang on to. Arnall looks around the busy, thriving Mosses centre with pride. “This just used to be an old community centre in a poor area. Now it is so rich,” she says, delighted to have families from all over the world leading safe, happy lives in Bury.
And as Donnachie sets up for the weekly women’s group she runs on the Kingsway, she, too, says the benefits are all hers. “We’ve so many people from so many different cultures and places here now,” she says. “We’re the ones who are gaining – wonderful people, wonderful families with children who want to do things for this country. Britain’s going to be a better place for them, not a worse place, so I just don’t know what the problem is.”
Claiming asylum: How the figures add up
There are between 283,500 and 450,000 failed asylum seekers in the UK.
At least 26,000 failed asylum seekers are destitute, living on Red Cross food parcels.
23,430 new claims for asylum were lodged in 2007 and 73% were refused.
Last year, 13,595 failed asylum seekers including their dependents were deported.
During 2006, 3,500 adults and 1,300 children were detained in dawn raids.
Around 27,000 people are put in detention centres every year.
There have been at least 12 suicides in detention centres.
The UK takes 3% of the worldwide refugee population and ranks 14th in the EU for the number of asylum applications
No one monitors what happens to people who are returned.
· Sources: The Home Office, Refugee Council, British Red Cross, Amnesty International, National Audit Office, NCADC
The first of more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees who have spent the last 17 years living in camps in Nepal are to leave for the US later this month – but those they leave behind are experiencing intimidation and violence.
The refugees are ethnic Nepalese forced out of Bhutan in the 1990s by the government, which was concerned with the rising influence of a sizeable Hindu minority in the Buddhist country.
Bhutan and Nepal have been at loggerheads ever since over how to solve the problem. The refugees have now been presented with the option of resettlement abroad – with 60,000 being given the opportunity to live in the US.
But this has caused divisions among the refugees, with supporters of the move threatened with intimidation and violence.
Mahindra – not his real name – told BBC World Service’s The World Today programme how a mob of 40 people came to his hut armed with knives, calling him an American agent.
“My mum was dragged to the ground; my clothes were torn, ripped up with knives,” he said.
“They did this because I support resettlement to America.”
Mahindra added that he was himself only 11 years old when he was forced to leave Bhutan; now he has a nine-year-old child.
“I don’t want to spoil the life of my children,” he said.
“So I say, let refugees decide their own fate and destiny.”
Mahindra is based at Beldangi Refugee Camp, home to some 20,000 refugees. There, the children sing about returning to a motherland they have never seen – Bhutan.
And many feel it will spell the death of their dream to return home if the refugees accept a move abroad.
As a result, a number of rumours are spread – that the flights out are to various extents a trick, with some people believing they will be used as slave labour on arrival in the US.
Tek Nath Rijal, the self-appointed leader of the Bhutanese refugees, is an outspoken critic of resettlement.
He denied any sense of responsibility for what happened to Mahindra, saying: “I am not in favour of these sorts of activities.”
He argued instead that he believes those being attacked are Bhutanese agents, working on behalf of the government to persuade people to resettle – meaning that Bhutan would not have to take them back.
“Instead of pressurising the Bhutan government, they are helping them,” he added.
But in the camp, refugees simply feel confused, with the undecided facing more threats. A man was shot in the latest violence.
As the first of them settle in America, their reports back will determine the likely future of those they leave behind.