As the Leveson Enquiry is showing, there are an awful lot of journalists who wouldn’t recognise basic human decency if it stood up in their soup and bit them on the nose. The enquiry into press standards has however done nothing to improve the media treatment of the most misrepresented group in our society: asylum seekers. As a political comedian, I’d like to find something funny to say about how they are portrayed, but there’s not much to laugh about in human suffering.
I get my information about asylum seekers, not from the press, but from a much more direct source. I’ve been working as a volunteer, teaching English once a week for several years to a group of incredibly inspiring female asylum seekers from a group called WAST – Women Asylum Seekers Together.
The papers would have you believe that being an asylum seeker in the UK is an easy ride. The facts say otherwise. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work and no funding is offered for education, not even for something as basic as learning the language of their new country.
The only income they receive is the asylum seeker’s allowance. It’s £35 a week, £5 a day. And that’s supposed to cover food, clothes, utilities, transport and everything else. You get an extra £7 a week if you are a single parent. Y’know because raising, feeding, clothing and educating a child costs about £1 a day, right?
Accommodation, when provided, is generally in a state of disrepair, damp and drafty and located wherever the government randomly sends you, regardless of support networks, friends or family.
Oh and did I forget to mention? About half of them don’t even get that. Depending on their stage in the asylum process many of them don’t get the asylum seeker benefit. Or accommodation. Or anything else.
And there’s a backlog of asylum claims that means cases can take ten or twelve years to be dealt with. Imagine living on nothing but one-day-to-the-next charity for a decade.
The lucky ones live with friends or relatives or in charity-run hostels. It might be a bed for the night but it carries it’s own risk. When you can’t pay rent it’s easy to end up being treated as a servant, and feeling you’re a burden. The unlucky ones are on the street, in overcrowded rowdy mixed sex homeless shelters or sleeping on night-buses while serious medical conditions deteriorate.
On top of this are repeated trips to the Home Office to be ignored, kept waiting, disbelieved, criticised and threatened with deportation. And then occasionally, without warning or apparent logic, I hear that a member of WAST has been imprisoned in Yarl’s Wood detention centre.
Given the above the other popular media notion that many asylum seekers lack a legitimate claim and are here purely as system-cheating economic migrants starts to look flimsy. Many of the asylum seekers I’ve met through WAST have in-demand skills and might well have been welcomed as key workers had they applied as such. Any asylum seeker wishing to escape the grinding poverty and destitution of the system can return to their home country if they wish to. They do not. The hell we offer them is better than the hell they have fled.
My class is the advanced class, so includes mostly those women who already speak French. More than half of my group is from Congo. The same papers who dismiss asylum seekers as greedy liars casually refer to Congo as the “rape capital of the world”.
One of my group who is brave enough to speak out was quoted in a newspaper as saying if she was sent back to Congo she would be put in prison and men instructed to rape her. When the others in the group read her quote in the newspaper, no-one questioned or doubted it. No-one, except me, was shocked. This is rape on an industrial level, not a matter of one or two individuals who are not to be trusted, but of the systematic use of rape as a means of intimidation and of suppressing dissenting political voices.
On top of the violence they have left behind and the wretchedness of the treatment they receive here, these women are also acutely aware of the image the media has built for them in our society. A few weeks ago a woman from Cameroon asked me what she could write on her voluntary work CV to disguise the fact she had been waiting seven years for her asylum application to be processed.
Voluntary work is not the only way these women continue their struggle to make a difference. They have recently completed a fascinating and shocking photography project about their lives in the UK asylum system. They speak movingly at events and rallies and attend protests and conferences.
Lydia Besong from the sister WAST Manchester group actually wrote a play about being an asylum seeker which has been performed in Manchester, Liverpool and London. The last I heard she was in Yarl’s Wood, facing deportation back to Cameroon where she has described being raped after going to prison for criticising the political situation.
Achievements on this level are remarkable, but all of the women in their own way show remarkable inner strength. The beginners class includes many women from Eritrea. The language they speak (Tigrinya) is very different from English and literacy levels low. Imagine on top of the insulting treatment, the enforced poverty and the PTSD from the torture you escaped, you are also facing learning to read and write for the first time, in a new and completely unfamiliar language, at the age of 65. I know these women, their spirit and dedication is incredible. One has worked so hard, she’s now in the advanced class!
We should be grateful these women turned to us to support them in their epic struggle against a whole world of oppression. We should strive to always represent them fairly and truthfully in the media. Their commitment to improving the world for all of us by standing up for the truth even when their own lives are in danger puts the corrupt journalists at the heart of Leveson to absolute shame.
To find out more about how you can support refugee women go to http://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/index.php/what-we-do/home-sweet-home/home-sweet-home. Also read about Women for Refugee Women
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