That Brave Walk: Asylum seekers meet the locals in Belfast
There was a protest outside Belfast City Hall last week. That’s not unusual, of course, but this one was attended by QUB STAR - Students Together with Asylum Seekers and Refugees. They were protesting another appalling move by the UK Home Office to humiliate asylum seekers.
Open about what it calls a ‘hostile environment’ policy - one designed to make living here so unbearable that those seeking refuge would willingly return to the arms of persecution and violence. The Home Office are pissing on the destitute and calling it rain.
The 2018 annual evaluation of asylum support determined that criminally low support levels are in need of an increase of £.80/week. The new level, £37.75, provides a living allowance of £5.39/day. Some gems of this policy include, £1 a week for ‘toiletries’, including soap, toilet roll, feminine hygiene products, shaving materials and over the counter meds. Organised by a group in Belfast called Housing4all, the STAR participants were standing in solidarity with asylum seeker activists who were fighting for their own human rights. At least one of the protest organisers was persecuted in her home country for political activism; in other words, they know what they’re doing. It is a stereotype of white, university students and the usual liberal activist that we feel the urge to speak on behalf of “the oppressed”. But there are a number of movements in both the UK and Ireland that, like Housing4all are asylum seeker led and STAR, smartly, has their back. No facile, white liberalism there, then… Something I’ve learned to expect in the neighbourhood corners of Northern Ireland.
I intended to be at the protest, but I knew when it was scheduled that something would delay me; I didn’t know what, but it’s always something. In the event, it was a human trafficking case - phone calls to be made about support, conversation with the victim to help increase understanding of a system that had been governing her life for three years, questions to be answered. It happens every time there is a march - I want to be there, but the timing means I will have to cancel an appointment with, well, an asylum seeker.
I migrated to Belfast in 1997. I first arrived as a visitor from the United States at the tail end of the peace talks, and when I moved over I would say I was exercising my right to live as a citizen in Ireland (privilege duly noted). By 2008 I was no longer caught up in matters ‘orange’ or ‘green’ but had returned to my previous work, refugee-immigrant matters. It quickly became ‘asylum’ matters - that is, support and assistance for those seeking international protection after arrival in-country. Being an asylum seeker is no picnic, but if ever there was a place where people can understand what it is like to have only a few hours to get out of town or be killed, it’s Northern Ireland.
Since the 1990s, in different parts of the world, I have been sitting across from and listening to people seeking protection from cruelty. Personal disclosure (of torture, rape, imprisonment or just sheer exhaustion) is a regular occurrence and subsequently my patience with facile, self-satisfying political responses to refugee crises is long gone. Before you think to ask, asylum seekers generally don’t choose Northern Ireland. Many are stranded by agents/smugglers because they’re ‘in the UK’. Some are looking for relatives in a sad and lonely journey grounded in hearsay. Some of them are adolescent. A handful are elderly. They are required to live in Belfast as a result of Home Office guidelines and they’re given accommodation in neighbourhoods one could refer to as ‘challenging’. As they say here, “it’s a brave walk” from there to just about anywhere in the city.
Understanding asylum issues is no simple thing. STAR sought my assistance in 2016, in order to learn about how asylum seekers arrive in Northern Ireland, how they live and how the Home Office treats them. It was inspiring to see they were interested, eager even, to influence a system so contradictory, unjust and cruel. They continue to do it in a way that goes beyond the nicey, nice of bourgeois liberalism. Many in Northern Ireland have looked with horror on the criminalisation of seeking protection, its extensive surveillance of people’s personal lives and a removal process that itself teeters on the brink of human trafficking.
The reality of UK policy demands something different of us. Local solidarity isn’t the tear-jerking conversation and sad story performance that one can easily encounter with organisations supporting asylum seekers. STAR participates in a local detention centre visitors group, with a few of them taking provisions trips to Calais or to Greece. In 2017, after a year-long campaign, they convinced Queen’s to provide scholarships for asylum seeking students. They encourage volunteering with a street outreach organisation, HomePlus, NI that focuses a lot of its support work on refused asylum seekers who are street homeless.
It would be easy to say that STAR represents some ‘beyond orange and green’ change in NI society, but in fact they are like many here who didn’t position justice in those terms. The old joke I heard on arrival, “Are you a Catholic Buddhist/Muslim/Jew or a Protestant Buddhist/Muslim/Jew?” has been overtaken by the local observation, (also heard when I first arrived) “the people are ahead of the politicians”. Local solidarity with asylum seekers ranges from a room for the night (or the month) or a ride to the Home Office to petitions, scholarships and marches.
The recent reception is not without its complications. Britain First and its local contingent generally try to rouse the racists, intimidating and harassing families. A number of Trust and NHS employees would happily take on the Home Office's wish for them to be border guards. There’s often a headline grabbing story that makes the rounds and people are suitably outraged. Someone goes missing probably once a year. The resulting tension is often described as Irish ‘inexperience’ with incoming communities, but actually, the policies underpinning ‘asylum support’ are designed to generate tension. Most practices found therein disrupt social solidarity by making asylum seekers subject to random forms of surveillance and designed transience. They can be moved at the will of the Home Office, thus robbing them of local human resources, which is often done to more easily facilitate deportation.
Community network organisations generally fly under the radar of most analysis about Northern Ireland. If you’re distracted by the louder green/orange debate here you can miss their constructive effects. I know them because I often need them. These include: anti-racism networks, programmes for building capacity within refugee communities, support strategy sessions with neighbourhood organisations, women’s support groups and, of course, cross-cultural neighbourhood groups. And asylum seekers aren’t entirely unaware of the divisions of ‘this wee place’. I once chatted with an Iraqi man who happened to mention he is Shia Muslim, then joked, “Yes, that’s right, we are the Protestants of Iraq.” It was his case that kept me worried and networking through many a day - he is an elderly man, threatened with deportation regularly. It was only neighbourhood support that prevented it. Twice a year I was on the phone with a local community worker, who did what she could to respond to another petty gesture by the Home Office; find medical evidence, take court action... whatever worked.
I encounter Irish people who ‘want to help’ every day. We might not have agreement about the wider political circumstance and they’ll never bump into me in church, but I’m surprised by the strength of desire to help someone in need; it goes against all the stereotypes they repeat about themselves. They help in ways that are both simple and substantive. STAR protests and Church ladies (and gentlemen) sit down with a cuppa and some chat. They do both sincerely, too.
I often bump into former asylum seekers who have been granted the right to remain in the UK. It has been a brutal journey and it included a long period of humiliating, Kafkaesque assertions by the government. When they get the right to work, most run out to find it - any kind of work. Many go on to education, including university. A lot want to leave here for Great Britain. Not long ago, I bumped into a man I knew had moved to England after his positive outcome.
“Hi! Long time, no see.” I said.
“How ya keepin’?” he answered.
“I’m well, thanks. I thought you moved to England?”
“I did,” he answered, “two years I was there.”
“You’ve come back here?” I asked, puzzled.
“Yes,” he said, then gestured toward the city, “the people here, they’re just nicer.”