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Interview: Refugee Rights Campaign
We're fighting for the right to live and work in Britain
On 10 November the Associated Press published a new report on the torture perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government. Journalists interviewed more than 50 Tamil men who had been "raped, branded or beaten repeatedly." Following the country's bloody civil war that ended in 2009, they are seeking asylum in Europe.
Since the so-called end of the war there has been a change of government but there are still thousands of 'disappeared', most likely interned in secret camps. There is still suppression of protests, enormous repression of the Tamil people, and a denial of their right to self-determination. Political prisoners and those returned after being denied asylum continue to face violent persecution.
Here in Britain a number of Tamil asylum seekers have formed the Refugee Rights Campaign to fight for their rights in a situation of Tory austerity and racist policies. Here they set out the situation they face and the aims of the campaign.
The Socialist Party is proud to be among the first to back this vital campaign, which needs the active support of socialists, young people and trade unionists.
How did you end up in Britain?
Mathan: It's called 'Great' Britain but we are struggling here. Many people were killed in the civil war in Sri Lanka and face persecution by the government.
Before 2009 the government damaged our house with bombs. Some of our relatives died. I lost friends. I tried to move to Malaysia but Malaysia has no asylum system.
My dad was living here so I thought it would be safe. I claimed asylum here. But the Home Office refused my claim and tried to send me back to Sri Lanka. I was in a detention centre for three months. If we are sent home, we know the government will definitely persecute us.
Lawanya: I came as a student. I completed my first diploma course and applied for another but after two months the college was closed and I couldn't continue. Asylum seekers can't do full-time courses.
Sathya: I was born in Sri Lanka. We fled to India when I was ten years old because my dad's life was in danger. He was a trade unionist. In India we had no legal status, no right to travel.
In 2009 there were protests in Tamil Nadu against the massacre of over 40,000 Tamil-speaking people by the Sri Lankan government, which I joined. Eventually I came to London for a master's degree with a student visa. When it expired I was told I would be returned - but to Sri Lanka, where I have no family, no friends, nothing. I had no option but to apply for refugee status here.
Isai: Hearing your stories makes me realise how much has changed. When I came with my family in 1999, we had to flee because of political persecution of my dad. We had a council home within a few months. When I went to college I received Education Maintenance Allowance. Things have got so much harder.
Why do you need a new campaign?
Mathan: We are already political, we have no choice. Our people want the right to self-determination. I got involved in many campaigns and went on many protests here. I saw that struggles are not only necessary and taking place in Sri Lanka but everywhere people have to fight for their rights.
I interviewed asylum seekers to discuss what we can do. The first thing is that asylum seekers are not allowed to work. So what are they going to do? The solicitors ask for so much money for our cases. The Home Office pays us £35 weekly but it's not enough to survive. Some get refused even that. People have mental health problems. That's why we launched the Refugee Rights Campaign.
Firstly we demand the right to work. This is our basic right. In most European countries refugees can work legally. If we are allowed to work we can concentrate on our cases and on other things. But if we are refused everything what will we do. Nothing to do. All depressed.
There are many Tamil-based organisations, mainly founded by people who came a long time back. But they don't speak about the conditions of refugees in Britain today.
We went on a 'Refugees Welcome' march. We held banners that said 'allow the right to work', 'stop deportation', 'close detention centres'. You can say 'refugees are welcome here,' but if you demand the right to work, an end to deportations and closure of the detention centres, that would be good. Why can't all these organisations support these fundamental rights?
Refugees have the right to live in Britain. We want to connect with the workers' movement in the UK to defend this. We need to mobilise and share what we are doing.
Why do you demand the closure of the detention centres?
Lawanya: I was in a detention centre last year. I was taken there on my wedding day, in my wedding dress. We had to exchange our rings there. I had to cancel the reception. I promised to come afterwards but they wouldn't wait.
My husband had given me £25 when I was detained. I had to pay £5 for an ID card there. They gave me a food hygiene exam and an English test and after that they showed me round. I had the food hygiene tests so I could work in the kitchen for £1 an hour. I was crying the whole time. I refused to work for £1 an hour.
They booked me a flight to Sri Lanka
and said pack your things. Then my case won in the court and the judge gave me a 'stop removal order'. My lawyer sent me the order for printing. I went to the library but they were closed and they said you can't print. I waited an hour not knowing if I would get it in time.
Mathan: That's what it's like in there. One guy committed suicide while I was in there. I saw real struggles there but protests were banned. There is limited food. It's like a prison. We are in cells, locked up. They have a medical centre but it's only open for a limited time. If you miss it you can't get your medicine. They say come back tomorrow.
Why is the campaign establishing a free legal clinic for asylum seekers?
Lawanya: The legal aid system means when you win the case the solicitors get money back but sometimes they say you have to pay part.
Mathan: Solicitors keep asking for more money from people who aren't allowed to work. So many people are forced to go and work illegally to make some money, £3 or £4 an hour. People have no choice but to work for some greedy employer. Then how can they campaign - they have to work so hard to pay the rent and pay the solicitor.
Isai: Some work for 12 hours and get £50.
Lawanya: When I had the student visa I was allowed to work ten hours a week - I got a job in a clothes shop where they paid me £1.25 an hour! It was really bad.
Sathya: Refugee Rights Campaign is very important because it gives the chance for refugees to get together and talk and to hear about what everyone's been through. We can tell asylum seekers about legal aid and also how to approach the legal case and what are the different parts of the process. Solicitors don't do this.
The Refugee Rights Campaign brings awareness of our rights. That's the start of fighting for rights. Before this campaign no one else was bringing this into the open.
Isai: We want to link up with groups from other countries to develop this campaign for all refugees' rights. We hope everyone reading this can help us.
Model motion: for asylum seekers' right to work
This trade union body notes that:
- We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been uprooted from their homes by war and environmental catastrophes. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
- 80% of the refugees remain within their country of origin or in neighbouring ones.
- Those refugees who reach Britain usually find themselves in dire circumstances. It often takes many years for asylum seekers to be accepted by the system as refugees. They have to go through different screenings and interviews for their cases to be heard. Most of these have inadequate language translators and lack of opportunities for the individuals to explain their cases.
- They are also denied the right to work and are forced to live on a bare minimum of £5 per day to pay for their basics such as clothing, food, drinks, transport. Most asylum seekers are living in poverty and experience poor health and hunger. Many families are not able to pay for their basic needs.
- Thousands of children seeking asylum in the UK are being denied access to education, according to organisations who work with refugees. There is no legal requirement for local authorities to provide education for children waiting for dispersal from initial accommodation by the Home Office.
- Adult education facilities are restricted to certain fields only.
- No advice is given on what healthcare may be available and the lack of such information means that some asylum seekers are made to pay for treatment.
- The UK is the only country in Europe that does not have a limit on the length of time that someone can be detained. There are individuals in detention centres who have been detained for years that are still not given the results of their case.
- In the UK, asylum seekers are encouraged to work within the detention centre for £1 an hour yet they are not allowed to work when they are outside and are forced to look for alternative ways to earn some money to live on. This makes them vulnerable to being exploited by bosses who employ them illegally on slave wages, some on as little as £3 per hour.
- The vast majority of these super-exploited workers are outside of the organised trade union movement.
- Until a decision is made the lives of asylum seekers are left in a limbo.
This trade union body further notes:
- The Refugee Rights Campaign was set up by refugees who have decided to come together to organise, campaign and fight for their rights.
- This campaign has participated in national demonstrations including UN international anti-racism day, the United for Education demo and May Day as well as numerous protests including for the closure of Yarlswood detention centre.
- Refugee Rights organises free law clinics with legal representation and provides free advice and access to information.
Refugee Rights campaign calls for:
- The right to work
- Access to education
- The closure of detention centres
- £10 an hour now
- An NHS free for all
- Language and adequate medical help - including mental health facilities - for asylum seekers and refugees
- The right to join a union
This trade union body:
- Demands that asylum seekers must not be treated as criminals or held in detention centres. Their fundamental human rights need to be defended.
- Supports the demand to allow the right to work for all asylum seekers/refugees.
- Agrees to affiliate to the Refugee Rights Campaign, including financial support.
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