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Freed after public outcry

On 7 December Siva, a 26-year-old father of two, went to sign at his local Bristol police station. Siva came to the UK from Sri Lanka when he was 14, after his parents were killed. For asylum seekers, like for unemployed people, signing on is a regular part of life. Unlike unemployed people, asylum seekers never know whether they will come out again.  

Siva did not come out. Neither reason nor warning was given for his detention. None was needed; he is an asylum seeker, not a British citizen. He was then moved between detention centres five times in a month.

He went on hunger strike. He refused water for three days and food for 11 days. He was put in solitary confinement at Colnbrook immigration removal centre for three days; allowed into a concrete yard for half an hour a day. No reason was given for such especially inhumane treatment, but perhaps it was due to other detainees’ growing interest in Siva’s resistance.

On 22 December, UK Border Agency (UKBA) staff told him he would be attending a bail hearing in London. In fact, he was taken to the Sri Lankan High Commission to confirm his identity.  

On 31 December Siva received his bail papers just moments before the bail hearing by video link. He had no legal representative. The Home Office statement opposing bail was full of omissions and inaccuracies:

* No mention was made of the facts that Siva has been in the UK almost half his life; he has two British children, but no family in Sri Lanka.  
* The Home Office representative stated that he was ‘brought by family’ to the UK. He was not. A family friend helped him to leave Sri Lanka. An unknown couple helped him into the UK.
* The representative exaggerated the severity of the petty theft for which Siva was convicted in 2009, stating that he was sentenced to 39 weeks’ imprisonment, instead of the factual 26 weeks. No mention was made of the fact that his crime was stealing food while he was destitute.
* It was stated that if he were to be given bail he would not reside with the surety. The surety was present and able to contradict this.  

When Siva tried to correct the facts he was not even allowed to complete his sentences.

It is unconvincing to assume such numerous inaccuracies and omissions were down to error. The term ‘kangaroo court’ would come to mind if it were not so clearly associated with courts in foreign lands.

Siva was refused bail and still threatened with deportation.

Deporting Siva would prevent his children (aged two and four) from having access to their father, perhaps for ever. This would contravene the Human Rights Act, Article 8 of which states that everyone has a right to family and private life. Deporting him would also remove him from his friends, his community and the only place he has known as an adult.

Siva is immensely likable; he is extrovert, energetic and kind-hearted. He is actively involved in his local ‘Big Society’, often cooking for 130 people at the Bristol Refugee Rights welcome centre, and a member of two local cricket teams.

This, combined with the blatant violation of his human rights, means that a sizable campaign developed, with petitions, meetings with a local MP, Facebook campaign, regular protests and frequent coverage by local media.  

On 9 January Siva was informed that the Sri Lankan high commission could not confirm his identity. He was also told his detention would continue until his removal could be carried out.

The UKBA estimates that a fifth of the outstanding pre-2007 asylum claims ‘cannot currently be resolved as there are external factors which prevent the Agency from either removing the applicants or allowing them to stay in the UK’.[1] In June 2010 the Home office reported having 245 people in detention for over a year.[2]

On 12 January, 37 days after being detained, Siva was told he was free to leave. No reason, no warning. But at least it was good news.

We can only speculate as to why Siva was released. Was it the level of public protest?

The treatment Siva received is not uncommon. Thousands of asylum seekers are held in detention every day. Many simply disappear from their local community when they sign at the police station.

The double standards in the treatment of asylum seekers are blatant. While politicians discuss how long to hold terror suspects, thousands of asylum seekers are detained for weeks, months, even years, without charge, often without legal representation.

Earlier this month Justice Secretary Ken Clarke announced the closure of three prisons. He questions the cost of custody and whether ‘ever more prisons for ever more offenders’ produces better results[3]. One of these prisons, Morton Hall, will instead be used as an immigration removal centre, bringing Britain’s capacity to lock immigrants up without trial to nearly 3,500 places[4].

This government is committed to cutting costs. Detaining someone at Colnbrook for a month in 2005 cost £5,667 (US$9,000) [5]. Siva, like many other asylum seekers, would like to work, to contribute to the British economy and to his children. But in the case of asylum seekers, being a ‘hard working family’ would be a criminal offence.

In Siva’s case we can celebrate – at least for now. But his case is not resolved; he could be detained again at any time. He will resume his regular trips to sign at the police station.

Asylum seekers in the UK today are increasingly treated as sub-human, as unworthy of the protection offered to other human beings. Colnbrook detention centre is directly next to a Sheraton hotel. How can people enjoy their luxurious beds overlooking such atrocity? Perhaps they do not know what is going on next door to them.   But why do they not know?

It is time we as a nation stopped tolerating or turning a blind eye to the violation of the human rights of people like Siva who attempt to find sanctuary in the UK.

The campaign to stop Siva’s threatened deportation continues. Please sign the petition www.petition.co.uk/protect-the-human-rights-of-siva-rajah and see the blog at savesiva.blogspot.com/

Rebecca Yeo is a social action researcher and a regular volunteer at Bristol Refugee Rights.

1 National Audit Office, Management of Asylum Claims by the UK Border Agency, 23/1/2009
2 Home Office, Control of Immigration, Quarterly Statistical Summary, UK, April – June 2010.
3 ‘Ken Clarke to attack ‘bang ‘em up’ prison sentencing’ Alan Travis, The Guardian, 30 June 2010.
4 ‘Outdated’ prisons to close as immigration centres expanded’ Alan Travis, The Guardian 13 January 2011
5 In 2005 the Home office quoted the cost of Colnbrook as £68,000 (US$108,000) per detainee per year (response to a Freedom of Information Act request, January 2007, quoted by Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, Detention of Asylum Seekers in the UK, 2007, p6).

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