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Safe Harbours

Safe Harbours

Issue 2 Nov / Dec 2003

Asylum is a burning issue within UK society. Whether in the screaming sensationalism of the media, or the myths and misconceptions peddled by politicians, the asylum debate remains impassioned.


Islam is not new to the concept of asylum. The Prophet left Makkah for the security and safety of Medina in 622BC in a seminal journey, known as hijra, which marks the first year of the Islamic calendar. His migration from the place of his birth in search of sanctuary resonates with the undertakings of contemporary asylum seekers.

Destitution is important to James Johnston. Poverty is his yardstick, the standard by which he measures the people in his care. From his office in run-down London Road, Hastings, he is responsible for the 248 refugees and asylum seekers from 27 countries who have been housed in a decrepit Victorian complex of hotels and maisonettes.

Every day, as the borough’s asylum seeker coordinator he confronts the realities – and myths – of Britain’s burgeoning asylum community. “This is what asylum seekers get when they arrive here,” he says whilst guiding me into a small flat on the fifth floor of the bleak Adelphi Hotel on Warrior Square. It has one bedroom with two single beds and no other furniture, a living room with a cheap, three-seat sofa, a small table with two chairs and a small kitchen and bathroom. “We don’t provide washing machines, TVs or videos or any additional seating. This is a flat for two people so there are only two chairs. “They get their heating, water rates and council tax paid and then 70 per cent of the income support rate. We provide what they need, not what they want.” Warrior Square is not somewhere the native sons of Hastings aspire to.

The square gained a fearsome reputation for drug-related crime in the early 1990s, which is why the council was able to offer 300 empty rooms when the government began dispersing asylum seekers away from London in 2000. The locals are not sympathetic: “A lot of British people can’t get benefits, yet these asylum seekers just walk in and get anything they want, even mobile phones and nice cars.”

Car ownership looms large in the local prejudice – and it is a myth James is quick to dispel. “Asylum seekers are supposedly destitute, if they have a car, they are not destitute,” he says. “If I see someone with a car, I report them to the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) and support is withdrawn.”

The confusion, he says, arises because once an asylum seeker is granted leave to remain they become a refugee – this applies to 79 of Warrior Square’s residents – they can get a job; buy themselves a car and a mobile phone. “Sadly, Joe Public doesn’t differentiate. If they look foreign, they must be asylum seekers.”

According to some, this lack of respect and dignity is being trickled down from the highest levels, from precisely where the principle should be enshrined in law: government. There are, however some initiatives being undertaken by the government to show sensitivity to the needs of asylum seekers. The provision of wudu (washing) and prayer facilities at courts across the UK where many asylum cases are heard is one such example.


Manny Adam; Operations Manager of the Refugee Council's One Stop Shop

Manny Adam, an operations manager of the Refugee Council’s One Stop Shop, in Brixton, London, is at the front-line of support provision for newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees, providing health, immigration and welfare advice. In addition to its role as Britain’s largest organisation working for the asylum community, providing vital care and orientation for many exhausted and bewildered asylum seekers arriving on these shores, the Refugee Council also campaigns for their representation. It highlights the voice of the asylum community through a combination of research and publicity, and the production of information on refugee issues worldwide to ensure they remain high on the political agenda. The Refugee Council is also one of the foremost and vocal groups challenging legislation which it perceives to attack the asylum community. “On a practical level,” says Manny, “one such example is Section 55 of the Government’s Nationality, Immigration & Asylum Act 2002.

Since this was introduced my work has become increasingly difficult. What this legislation actually does is to deny asylum seekers accommodation and financial support if they fail to put in their asylum claim as soon as is ‘reasonably practical.’”

‘Reasonably practical’ has been taken to mean failure to claim asylum at the port of entry. The only exceptions to this very confusing process are those asylum seekers with children or with identifiable special needs. “Not everyone is familiar with the rules when they get here,” says Manny, “consequently, hundreds of asylum seekers fall into destitution which charities like the Refugee Council attempt to support, but are unable to.” He hopes that the government will undergo a change of heart over Section 55 in order for him clients to be given emergency accommodation and support pending a final decision from the Home Office on a claim.


Steve Symonds; Qualified Barrister and Caseworker at Asylum Aid

For Steve Symonds, a qualified barrister and caseworker at the national charity Asylum Aid, which provides representation for asylum seekers in preparing asylum applications and appeals, the system is further undermined by “woefully inadequate resources.” He says: “For those people trying to access competent representatives, there remains a severe shortage of support workers, translators and specialist advisors. This is primarily a consequence of the ill-thought through government policy of dispersal which has seen thousands of people sent around the country with woefully inadequate resources to support such a scheme.”

In addition to this, Steve and his colleagues at Asylum Aid are worried that the specific welfare needs of asylum seekers are not being met, amongst whom there are a high prevalence of trauma victims, who require the support of community groups to recover. The most significant thing that the government can do, according to Steve, is for it to “stop meddling with the system every few months, and instead focus on the incompetence at the initial stages of the asylum process.” An example which he recalls is that of a woman who got two letters from the NASS refusing her asylum. One contradicted the other, in terms of reason for rejection. When this mistake was highlighted to the Home Office-run NASS, the initial letters were retracted and a third one issued with an entirely new set of justifications being introduced, and this mid-way through the appeal proceedings. “This made it difficult for the woman to have faith in the British system, and in me as someone who was advising her to help make sense of it,” says Steve.

Sadly, a lack of perspective and positive interaction with asylum seekers and the wider community has generated high levels of anxiety in Britain today, whilst providing food for racist organisations like the British National Party and their ilk. When the BNP won a local council seat in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, it was on the back of a campaign criticising the burden the local asylum community was placing on local resources. As it transpired, in details published after the election, not a single asylum seeker had been dispersed there, giving a lie to the BNP’s rhetoric of ‘a nation overrun.’


James Johnston of Hastings

For James Johnston in Hastings, this is an all too familiar story. “Most of the people who comment negatively have never actually met an asylum seeker. They base their prejudice on what they’ve heard. If they get to know a person who has claimed asylum, and take the trouble to understand their predicament, they begin to recognise that legitimate asylum seekers should be allowed to stay.”


Lauren Watts; Service Manager of Slough Borough Council's

Lauren Watts, the service manager of Slough Borough Council’s asylum team, has extensive experience of the challenges faced by newcomers to Britain. She is also acutely aware of the specific needs of Muslim asylum seekers, “Around the time of Eid and Ramadan and other festivals in the Islamic calendar, asylum seekers remember the homes and families they have left behind. It is a difficult time for them.” She firmly believes the image of asylum seekers that is often portrayed reinforces negative images of the asylum community. “The media compound feelings of low self esteem and self worth felt by people who are forced to leave their home country and loved ones,” she says.

In Slough, Lauren’s team has built up a  partnership with the local media to present theasylum debate in a responsible and balanced manner. Slough’s proactive communications strategy has generated tangible improvements in social inclusion within the town, and stands as an example to others. “In addition to providing the housing and welfare support to those in the process of applying for asylum in the UK and living in Slough, we raise awareness of their positive social, cultural and economic contributions to our communities,” she says.

Slough, like other towns across Britain, has a long and proud tradition of new communities settling there. The Welsh did so in the 1930s, Eastern Europeans in the 1940s, West Indians in the 1950s and those from the Indian subcontinent in the 1960s. In recent years Kosovans, Somalis and Afghans are amongst those seeking a place of safety. Lauren believes there is a great deal to be gained by meeting people from around the world. “Everyone’s story is unique and often filled with sadness, terror and isolation. I could never begin to imagine how it would feel to have my nice life taken away from me because of war, or to be unable to express my views out of fear of persecution,” she says, underlining the stress caused to vulnerable asylum seeers from seeing hysterical media coverage and public misinformation.

Asylum - In their own words


Zijad Veletanic

Zijad Veletanic 48, fled the Former Yugoslavia after being imprisoned in the Omarska Concentration Camp. He lives in North London with his wife and two sons. “I had to leave my country after spending seven months in concentration camps, one of which was at Omarska. The UNHCR brought me to the UK because of the continued Serb occupation in my home town. It was horrific – people were regularly tortured, women were being raped, it was absolute anarchy. I had to get out so I could secure a safe passage for my wife and children.

On 26 February 1993 I came to London and one month later my wife and two children were able to join me. Those first few months after being re-united with my family, we were just so relieved to be together and to be away from the frightening situation in our home town. We were also full of hope to return to the former Yugoslavia before long, but it soon became clear our beautiful, once-peaceful country would remain divided and it would be nearly impossible to return to the life we had once lead, so we made the difficult decision to stay in England.

Learning English was a matter of priority, because we wanted to make something of ourselves and live normal lives in this country. We attended lessons and it was not long before we were communicating well with English people. We received a great deal of support from Asian people in our local community who gave us advice and helped us to find work. My wife was an accountant in Bosnia but it has been hard for her to get work with the same level of authority here, however, she is working part-time in an office. Although I have had many health problems, including a recent stomach operation, due to the injuries I received in the concentration camp, I too am working. Our hopes and aspirations now lie with our two sons. The oldest has recently graduated from university with a degree in politics and languages, and the younger is also an excellent student. We have endured much in our lifetime, but we can see our children are making the most of the opportunities here, and that makes our struggle worth while.”


Robina Qureshi

Robina Qureshi, Director of Glasgow based Positive Action in Housing, is furious at recent legislation laid down by David Blunkett. These so-called tough measures on asylum seekers have directly lead to 167 people who have exhausted the appeals process, finding themselves, “utterly destitute” and flung out onto the streets of Glasgow where, “the only support they can hope to receive is a bowl of soup and a blanket.”

According to Robina the situation is desperate. “These people need alternatives and the Council has a moral obligation to provide support, otherwise the Red Cross should step in.”
Robina is also disappointed at the response of the Muslim community to the plight of asylum seekers, a number of whom come from Muslim countries. Indeed, she has found inherent prejudice and cynicism in their attitudes to refugees, “Many members of the Muslim community often say of refugees, ‘they don’t look poor, they have a mobile phone.’ To which I would argue what is a poor person in the 21st Century supposed to look like?”

There are many ways people can help refugees, and Robina is keen to encourage the Muslim community to open itself up to those in need. “We have luxuries and we should share these privileges. It is not enough for us to sit on the prayer mat. As Muslims we are eager to condemn George Bush and Tony Blair but our activism does not seem to extend to the people who are directly affected by these policies and are driven from their homes.”

George Ekontang

40, is originally from southern Cameroon. He has been in Britain since 1993, and is working as duty officer at Southwark borough council in London. “The problem with the asylum issue is that many of those that are against it have confused the meaning between an asylum seeker and an illegal immigrant. This is not helped by politicians and elements of the press, some of who have made it their duty to convince everybody that ‘foreigners are invading their land.’ I am a southern Cameroonian. My country was annexed by the Republic of Cameroon. I came to Britain in August 1993 with my wife and son, who is a British national, with valid visas. After finding my family a house, we applied for asylum, or, protection, because that is what asking for asylum actually means. When I was in Cameroon, I worked as an accountant in a private company, while my wife, also an accountant, worked with the Cameroonian equivalent of the Social Security.

I was also a secretary of the leading opposition party (the Social Democratic Front) in the Yaounde province, in addition to being an activist for the southern Cameroon Anglophone Movement. It was for these activities that I was harassed, imprisoned and tortured. I dared to express my political beliefs and speak my language, English, in my community. My wife, thought not politically engaged, was also harassed because she spoke English too. Her harassment included being accused of leaking information to the press, exposing the corruption in her company. Things deteriorated when the government began killing its own people in an attempt to discredit the opposition. This was used as a justification to harass and torture activists on a daily basis. For me, the final straw came when a bomb went off in a hotel where our party was hosting its convention. We had to leave. Our claim went in three to four weeks after our arrival. We underwent the usual waiting period of six months, without permission to work, and dependent on income support. After six months elapsed, my wife and I were granted permission to work and we both took up cleaning jobs. Typically, this is the kind of work that asylum seekers are constantly accused of taking from Britons. When I went to the Home Office for the interview about my claim for asylum, the official responsible for my case did not even know  where Cameroon was. I had to correct his belief that Cameroon was a town in Nigeria. This was an insult, but one which I had to bear as I explained the complex situation in Cameroon to him. For a person supposedly knowledgeable of the area, he had no idea that Cameroon had even been a trust territory of Britain. It did not look too promising. The worst possible news arrived on the day the Home Office wrote to my wife and I, informing us that our application for asylum had been rejected because as low-ranking members of the political party there was little threat to us. I was astonished. The official who adjudicated our claim had a pitiful level of knowledge of our country, the political set-up or the experiences we had endured. To compound the issue, during my appeal, the then Cameroonian ambassador to Britain had responded to an enquiry by the Home Office about the evidence I had presented. He did not dispute the facts but advised against granting me refugee status -clearly an example of political intervention. We successfully underwent a process of appeal, and have now been given indefinite leave to remain in Britain. We are free to work and take an active part in this country. During all these years, apart from the initial six months, we have worked and contributed our fair share to this society. I have been back to school, earned a qualification in Business and Finance, and am about to apply for an MA, while my wife has re-educated herself and is now in the final stages of MA in Business Administration. I am currently working as an emergency duty officer at Southwark borough council in London. This entails me co-ordinating a wide range of out-of-hour emergency services, such as linking people to the police, social service workers and doctors. With my new life in London, I hope to continue contributing to society, and try to share with and educate people about southern Cameroon and issues around asylum.”

Samira Said

22, came to the UK as a Refugee from Somaliain 1993. She is studying for a Bsc in Media Technology and has just been granted a British passport. I came to this country when I was 11 years old with my two younger brothers. We left because of the political war that broke out between the Somali people. This affected me and my brothers in a major way although we were too young to understand the reasons behind what was going on so it was a confusing and frightening experience. We endured the pain and insecurity that comes with war for about a year, not knowing which one of us the bullet was going to hit next.

Eventually my mother took a very painful decision and decided to put us on a plane and send us to England to live with my Father. The journey to England was both a mixture of a nightmare and a dream come true. It was a nightmare because it meant we would be leaving my mother behind, and at that young age you see your mother as your whole world. I haven’t seen my mother since. It was also a dream come true because it meant that we would be reunited with our father who we had not seen for three or four years. Once I arrived here, I was full of excitement and yet at the same time I was terrified. Starting school was the scariest point in my life at that time; I was worried about the language barrier between me and the rest of the school. When people use to talk to me I used to think that they were making fun of me. Now I look back and I find it funny but it was daunting at the time.

Making friends was hard at first but after a while I became close to four English girls and I found myself learning the language quite fast although I have to say that TV was my main teacher in English. Living here in the UK has provided me with many opportunities and for that I am grateful. My ambition is to become a journalist, and eventually a documentary-maker, so I can report the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees accurately and with humanity instead of the hateful lies that get printed.

Mesar Hamed

18, is originally from Iraq. He has lived in Britain since 2000, and is beginning his degree in computer science at the University of Bath. “I was born in Iraq in July 1985, but at the age of six had to flee because of the political situation that was developing in my country. The Shia uprising in the south had been quashed by Saddam after the first Gulf war, and as Shias, my family’s safety could not be guaranteed if we remained. In the end, we had no choice but to leave for Saudi Arabia. It was in Raffha, a refugee camp in the Saudi desert, whilst aged seven that I originally developed an eye infection caused by the extreme heat and dust.

This was treated with steroids, but the pressure in my eyes rapidly built up, ending in my losing the ability to see. At this point my father asked for us to be let back into Iraq so I could get some help, even though going back to Iraq would mean certain death for him. But he was determined to get me proper medical attention. When the Saudi guards eventually let me go to a local hospital, I underwent an emergency operation to try and save my sight. Sadly, only two to three per cent of it could be restored. From there, with the aid of the Red Cross, my family and I moved to Sweden where I was integrated into a mainstream school.

In 1995, I was provided with a computer that had Braille and speech in Swedish. This was a catalyst for my thirst for knowledge and enabled me to access many subjects independently, especially mathematics. This inspired me to learn more about computers and how they are used in  roblem solving. At the time, my knowledge and use of the Swedish language was better than most Swedes the same age as me. My family moved to the UK in the summer of 2000 for me to start at the West of England School for Young People with little or no sight, in Exeter. Within one year I had learnt the English language and English Braille, achieved four GCSEs, and passed the Senior English Test for students learning English as a foreign language. Whilst at the school I really enjoyed AS and A-level subjects which involved more in-depth study.

I used my knowledge in computing to help solve problems in mathematics, for example, I developed a program that illustrated operations with complex numbers on an Argand diagram, including matrix transformations. It was with a great deal of determination and the support of my parents that I recorded all A’s in my A-level exams this year. Over the summer holiday I was working with British Telecom at their research and development centre in Ipswich. I wrote a computer program to control a phantom force feedback system, enabling people to reach and touch objects in cyberspace. In Sweden I played goalball and show-down - sports for visually impaired and blind people, and I represented Sweden. In Britain I have also been involved in five-a-side football. In July, I did a sponsored sky dive from 10,000 feet in aid of the Devon Air Ambulance. I enjoy interacting with people of all ages and from diverse walks of life. I find it easy to accept their views and beliefs - one of many benefits I have gained from the many different people I have met, and the cultures I have experienced.”

What you can do

Donate items.

Instead of throwing out clothes you no longer need, or other household items such as blankets and tableware, donate them to your local refugee centre or charity. Arrange for you and your friends to give gifts to refugee children during Eid. Encourage your local mosque to organise collections. 


Offer Support.

Many people who claim asylum are in need of emotional support and friendship. Perhaps you have time in the day to pay a visit to a refugee in your area. You can involve them in your own social circle by inviting them to your home for the breaking of the fast during Ramadan, or tocircles or talks.


Offer Practical Support.

Can you spare some time to help someone fill out an official form, or help them to register with a doctor? Perhaps you have a spare room and are able to provide a family with temporary accommodation.


Spread the word.

Public support and awareness-raising of the asylum issue are essential in ensuring the government implements fair asylum policies. You could organise a local event or meeting and invite a speaker from a refugee charity. Include an article in your organisation newsletter.


Lobby your MP.

Write to your MP and express concern at the way refugees are being treated. n Lobby the media. If you read an article or watch a programme which you feel unfairly represents the asylum issue, formally complain in writing to the appropriate authorities.


Lobby the media.

If you read an article or watch a programme which you feel unfairly represents the asylum issue, formally complain in writing to the appropriate authorities.


Asylum - The Facts

By Stewart McPhillips


The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that there is a worldwide population of 12million refugees.  

A MORI poll carried out in May this year asked respondents what word the media most uses when referring to asylum seekers and refugees. The top answer, mentioned by 64%, was ‘illegal immigrant.’ ‘bogus’ was cited by 22% of respondents.

A joint study by Oxfam and the Refugee Council shows that the asylum system, far from making the UK ‘a land of milk and honey’ for asylum seekers, institutionalises poverty. 85% of asylum seekers
reported experiencing hunger, 95% cannot afford to buy clothes or shoes and 80% are not able to maintain good health.

72% of refugees flee to a developing country (e.g. Pakistan has a refugee population of 2 million). n  In a Readers’ Digest poll, respondents estimated that a single asylum seeker receives on average £113 per week in benefits. The actual rate in 2003 is £38.26

It is estimated that there are 8,500 applications for asylum from unaccompanied minors.

54,295 asylum seekers were housed in National Asylum Support Service (NASS) accommodation throughout the UK. To be able to receive this support, people have to apply for asylum on arrival or “as soon as possible”. This is to deter “bogus” applications by leaving those who do declare later in danger of destitution. 

In 2001, twice as many people who did declare themselves asylum seekers later were eventually granted refugee status, compared to those who declared on entry or “as soon as possible” (7,500 vs. 3,600) 

37,840 asylum seekers do not stay in NASS accommodation. They stay with friends or family or support themselves by other means. 

At any time during the application process, an asylum seeker and their dependants can be housed in an Immigration Detention Centre.  Under the European Convention on Human Rights, a person can only be detained on immigration reasons if they have entered the country illegally or if it helps in their removal. A House of Lords ruling allows, though, for asylum seekers to be held for administrative purposes so as to assist in the processing of their claim.

In 2001/02, 60% of all applications were initially determined within 2 months, and 84% within 6 months. However, 50,000 were refused on “non-compliance” grounds, the majority of which was due to not completing the Statement of Evidence form within 10 days. This form is long and complicated and is in English. Many interviews are conducted as soon as the asylum seeker arrives in the UK and without legal advice.

No full figures exist for what happens to those who are not eligible for refugee or exceptional leave to remain status. However, in 2002, 13,335 including dependants were removed either voluntary or otherwise.


Further information:

The Institute of Public Policy Research:
“Asylum in the UK” at
Refugee Council at

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