A visit to St Aidan’s community hall in Harehills, Leeds is certain to dispel any belief that Britain’s ‘firm but fair’ [*] immigration policies so loved by all three major parties is anything but.
That’s because every Tuesday and Thursday morning it’s packed out with destitute asylum seekers requiring the most basic essentials, including a bite to eat. Thankfully, and entirely due to the co-ordinating - not to mention Herculean - efforts of a community organisation, Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, they get more than just that in the form of emotional and health support, advice on benefits and housing [for those who the project have helped gain permission to stay], as well as help with finding solicitors to work on their legal cases. Yet in truth much of this work shouldn’t be needed, as it’s clear from speaking to those seeking asylum that they have compelling reasons why they should be allowed to remain in Britain.
Certainly it’s difficult to see how anyone can deny 22 year-old Ali  the right to stay. He was aged fifteen when his parent’s house was blown up, revenge from person’s unknown for his father having worked for the government at a junior level during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Although a sister escaped unhurt, her parents, two brothers and a sister were killed, whilst Ali only survived after spending two months in hospital. I’d shaken hands with him before speaking and he’s lost most of his fingers on one hand. He slips up his trouser leg and it’s clear there are problems. His medical record reveals external and internal injuries.
Knowing if he remained in Iraq his life wouldn’t last much longer Ali was fortunate enough to have the money to be able to pay to get out and he travelled by car, train, horse and ferry before arriving in Dover where he was arrested and claimed asylum. That was in 2006 and since when he has been battling with the Home Office ever since.
With his initial application refused he found himself, after being sent to Leeds, without food or accommodation. For two years “I slept rough, sometimes in the park near here and other times at the train station in the City Centre. I did get into trouble when I took food from a supermarket and was stopped by a security guard. But what else could I do, I was starving?’ says Ali.
Homeless and starving, Ali was helped by Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers [PAFRAS] who after looking at his papers were able to find him a solicitor and also “offer me emotional support and a hot meal. People have good hearts.”
Then three and a half years ago he began a relationship with a British woman. It means he’s got a roof over his head and food in his stomach. He’s grateful but he knows the fact that he can’t, and probably never will, work and doesn’t get any benefits puts a big strain on his girlfriend’s finances.
Now he’s just been informed that the Home Office wants to deport him. He’s back to hardly sleeping saying: “I don’t know why they have taken this decision. I show them my body, my leg is damaged and painful and I don’t have fingers. I was in intensive care and I have internal injuries. I can’t go back, I will be killed.”
Anah  is also from Iraq. A resident of Kirkuk he also fled when he realised his life was in danger because his father had worked for the previous regime that was toppled when allied forces invaded in 2003. He’s never seen his father since leaving in 2004, and although he’s heard rumours that he also escaped and is now living in Aden he has no way of confirming this. What he does know is that not long after he left some friends of his were killed when their house was blown up and he has no intention of returning to face the possibility of a similar fate.
He’s the father of two children, with a third on the way, and yet his asylum application has still to be decided. Every week he has to sign on with the Home Office, a round trip of six miles that without money for bus fares he has to walk despite a severe leg injury caused by having been shot in the leg. He wanted to go to College but without the funds to do so his “dream” is as yet unfulfilled. Although PAFRAS have been able to help by providing some food vouchers he’s largely dependent on his wife for financial support, as without legal status he’s not allowed to work.
“I’d like to be given the chance to work and earn money in order to support my wife and children” says Anah.
Kuresh  is an Iranian man who came to Britain five years ago and has, with a few months exception, been homeless during this time. That still won’t be enough to force him to go back because “I know that as a result of my unwillingness when I left the army to adopt an austere religious lifestyle I would be put back in prison if I returned.”
Kuresh  spent his life savings - around £11,000 - and left his wife and two children behind in order to travel to Britain where he “hoped to be able to settle down, find a place to live, get a job and then bring them here to live with me.” When he was sent, after applying for asylum in Dover, to West Yorkshire he found himself with nowhere to live for 18 months after the Home Office turned down his application and although he then obtained some support under Section 4 of the 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act that was only for eight months.
Following which he’s done his best keep himself alive through his volunteering efforts at local churches and with PAFRAS. With nowhere to live when he does get a place to stay inside it’s in friend’s houses but he’s often forced into sleeping rough. He’s gushing with praise for PAFRAS saying: “they gave me a food, a place to relax, health support and they got me a solicitor to work on my case.”
The latter was told by the Home Office that his client needed to provide more evidence to prove he would be persecuted if he went back to Iran. He did his best; secretly contacting a relative who at great personal danger posted off the information Koresh  hoped might help his case. However when the letter arrived in Britain it was empty and the former soldier says he wasn’t surprised “as the authorities would have opened it, seen the contents and thrown it away.”
Like Kuresh , Abbas is also a former soldier, only this time from the Lebanon. Tired of the conflict there between the government and Hezbollah he escaped in 2006 and arrived in Leeds where he was homeless for two years before hearing of and seeking the support of PAFRAS. He’s been overwhelmed by the support he’s received, especially as he’s just been told his application for asylum has been granted.
“I met Christine from PAFRAS and she helped me get food and find through social services a place to live in 2008. Then I was helped legally and now I can stay. The people at PAFRAS have very big hearts. I have some ongoing health problems but if these can be sorted out then maybe in the future I will be able to work, I hope so,” says Abbas.
It was Christine Majid who was the driving force behind the establishment of PAFRAS in 2005. As a Human Rights activist of many years she was able to spot that New Labour’s policies were inevitably going to lead to asylum seekers becoming destitute especially after the Blair government removed their right to work in 2002 and later cut welfare support for those who did not claim asylum on arrival. In 2004 cuts in legal aid funding at Appeal level left many with no legal representation which she reports resulted in “losing a solicitor in Leeds who had over a thousand cases. With asylum applicants being without legal support for their cases then it was obvious that large scale homelessness was on its way” especially as soon after the Home Office put in place a new strategy to speed up asylum claims.
She tells me that the cases of Ali, Anah, Koresh and Abbas are typical of the hundreds, possibly thousands she’s heard in the last six years. She gets depressed when she reads the popular press about how easy it is to claim asylum in Britain. She’s constantly looking to get funds from various charitable organisations and trusts in order to employ people to work for the project, but to sustain the project due to lack of funding, the decision to implement 38% cuts were taken, leaving fewer staff and less capacity to deal with huge unmet needs. Unless funds can be found in the next six months it’s also likely that the health worker on the project will be moving on, and yet PAFRAS has no support from the NHS, Leeds City council or social services.
Every month the project distributes 400 food parcels, all donated by various churches and faith groups plus a number of individuals. There are around 90 people, many of them children, sitting in the large community hall when I visited. There’s hot food, a place to sit and chat, some second hand clothes and a range of advice on offer - not forgetting the emotional support. At the moment a significant number of those seeking help are Roma people who escaped harassment and persecution in the Czech Republic.
Christine admits she gets little pleasure from seeing people in abject poverty left in penury saying she feels “it’s our duty to fight an inhumane system. We are seeking social justice in a world where there are many human rights abuses. Many of the people who come here are torture victims; some are stateless and some are here because we have occupied their countries.”
|PAFRAS distributes 400 food parcels a month|
* Foreign Secretary William Hague on January 11th 2011 said, “We have to be firm but fair on immigration.”
“Liberal Democrats want an immigration system that works. A system that is firm but fair.” Taken from party website
In 2009 Labour’s Border and Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said: “My goal is a firm but fair immigration system.”
1. To protect people’s identities their real names have not been used in this article.
1. To protect people’s identities their real names have not been used in this article.