Mischa Wilmers is a freelance journalist.


Mischa Wilmers is a freelance journalist.

Critical thinking should be taught in schools

Critical thinking mindmap

Jean-Louis Zimmermann under a Creative Commons Licence

The level of debate around whether Britain should bomb Syria demonstrates why critical thinking should become a compulsory subject for children in British schools. To give an example: if someone puts forward the argument, ‘Bombing Syria will strengthen, not weaken, ISIS and make things worse for all of us,’ the standard reply, ‘so what are you proposing; that we just do nothing?’ is not a logically valid counter-argument.

The question of whether we should bomb Syria or whether bombing will be counter-productive is entirely separate from the question of whether or not there are other policies – that do not involve bombing – which could have a positive effect. The onus is on those defending bombing to demonstrate that their policy is likely to have positive, rather than negative, consequences. Merely asking their opponent what they would do instead adds nothing to their argument whatsoever.

This is understood in almost every other sphere of life outside of politics. If you remain unconvinced, try the following thought experiment: if you are ill and I prescribe you some medicine, the onus is on me to justify why I am confident my remedy will make you better, rather than worse. If you have good reason to believe the remedy I am prescribing you is actually poisonous, and will therefore make you worse, and when challenged I fail to provide any evidence to relieve your suspicions, does it help my case to exclaim: ‘Well, what else are you planning to take other than the poison I’ve prescribed?’

Similar tactics are frequently used by religious people debating atheists. The conversation tends to go like this:

Atheist (A): I do not believe life is the product of intelligent design since there is no evidence to suggest this is the case.

Religious person (R): Well, if god didn’t create life, then how did the first life forms come into existence?

A: Scientists are working on this problem. There are a number of plausible theories but we are not yet certain...

R: Aha! You don’t have a definite alternative! Therefore you are wrong and god must have created life.

Mainstream political discourse is riddled with this kind of muddled thinking. One solution to this would be to promote critical thinking in education as a skill of equal importance to numeracy and literacy. Encouraging children to engage critically with world affairs from an early age would certainly do no harm. Unfortunately, the few (mostly private) schools which do teach critical thinking courses basically teach their students to pass an IQ test, full of puzzles grounded in mathematical logic with no application to the real world.

In my critical thinking course, pupils would learn about, debate and discuss world affairs freely – with minimal input from a teacher other than to correct muddled thinking, flawed logic and factually incorrect statements. Attendance would be compulsory but learning would not be assessed – an alien concept to many policymakers.

The chances of anything of the sort ever being implemented in the national curriculum are non-existent, of course, since it wouldn’t profit those in charge of education policy to have a nation of razor-sharp minds scrutinizing their record. But there’s no harm in dreaming.

Mischa Wilmers is an independent journalist. This blog originally appeared on his website.

 New Internationalist's NoNonsense Rethinking Education will be available in April 2016.

Five reasons why Jeremy Corbyn is electable

18.08.15-Jeremy Corbyn-590x500.jpg

Jeremy Corbyn at Stop The War protests, Trafalgar Square, London, 2007. David Martyn Hunt under a Creative Commons Licence

The mainstream warnings against the British Labour politician do not hold up to scrutiny, argues Mischa Wilmers.

Just 2 months ago nobody in Britain could have predicted that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign would morph into the political movement that it has since become. While it looks increasingly likely that he will win the Labour leadership contest, his detractors within the Labour Party are growing anxious. Corbyn, they tell us, is unelectable and what Britain really wants is a (Blairite) centre-ground politician capable of winning general elections. Here are 5 reasons why they are wrong:

Corbyn occupies the centre ground: Alistair Campbell recently warned Labour members that Corbyn is espousing ‘positions that the public just are not going to accept in many of the seats that Labour is going to have to win to get back in power’. However, like many of Corbyn’s Blairite detractors, he declined to mention which policies he was referring to. This is because Campbell and his friends are aware that across a range of key issues – including foreign policy, the economy and the nationalization of public utilities – Corbyn’s views are actually largely in line with public opinion. If the ‘centre ground’ is defined by majority opinion, Corbyn occupies it better than any of his rivals by some margin, and the more discerning of his opponents acknowledge this. Earlier this month the veteran Conservative Ken Clarke warned his colleagues not to underestimate Corbyn, whose popular policies he admitted ‘will be difficult to campaign against’.

Popular political movements are gaining traction globally: All over the world popular political movements are emerging. Whether it’s Bernie Sanders in the US, Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, people are seeking alternatives to ‘centre-left’ parties whose failure to offer an inspiring vision to counter the Right’s neoliberal narratives and austerity policies has led to a sharp decline in their popularity. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn has provided a strong focus point for a number of previously scattered grassroots organizations, groups and unions that are campaigning against social injustice and austerity. The likely outcome of this is that Corbyn will mobilize and attract support from sections of the population – particularly young people – which refused to vote at the last election out of a profound disenchantment with mainstream politics.

Corbyn stands the best chance of winning back Scotland: Perhaps the biggest factor which caused Labour to lose the 2015 election was the party’s performance in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party won 56 out of 59 seats on a leftist anti-austerity platform. Unless Labour heeds the advice of Nobel Laureate economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz and presents a strong, unequivocal stance against austerity, it will stand no chance of regaining Scottish seats. Reversing such a resounding defeat will not be easy. But as the only Labour candidate to reject austerity and vote against the recent Welfare Reform Bill, Corbyn is surely best placed to win back Scottish voters who turned their backs on Labour out of frustration at previous leader Ed Miliband’s confused economic message.

Corbyn is well placed to attract disillusioned voters from the United Kingdom Independence party (UKIP): According to conventional wisdom, if Labour wants to win the 2020 election it must regain support from working-class voters in England who voted for UKIP because they felt Ed Miliband was too leftwing. Yet contrary to popular belief, many of UKIP’s 3.8 million voters at the 2015 elections actually hold political views which are to the left of Miliband. A YouGov poll in 2013 found that 73% of UKIP supporters would like the railways to be renationalized and the British Election Study revealed that 77% of UKIP voters agree with the statement that ‘ordinary workers do not get a fair share of the nation’s wealth’. This suggests that Corbyn’s promise to clamp down on corporate tax avoidance and set up a national investment bank to launch a ‘people’s quantitative easing’ programme’ may well prove more popular on the doorstep than his political foes would have us believe.

The mainstream media are not as powerful as they think: Corbyn’s main barrier to power will arguably be the corporate media which is already doing everything in its power to echo the smears of his detractors while avoiding any meaningful discussion of his policies. Yet the more the media attack him, the more his popularity soars in the leadership polls. It is also difficult to see how the press’s savage treatment of ‘Red Ed’ Miliband prior to the general elections could be outdone. This merciless and highly personal onslaught clearly had some effect, with many potential Labour voters choosing to vote for the Conservatives on the grounds that they couldn’t envisage Miliband as a credible prime minister. But despite losing, Miliband – a more awkward figure than Corbyn – still managed to increase Labour’s share of the vote by 1.4%, and that was without the support of a mass movement which Corbyn will likely have behind him.

Furthermore, the power of the mainstream media is being steadily eroded by the emergence of popular social media channels, with important figures on the Left who are supportive of Corbyn – such as Russell Brand and Owen Jones – now able to reach a potential audience of millions without relying on corporate outlets. On the current trajectory it seems likely that by 2020 the power and influence of social media activism will be even bigger than it is today and play a much more important role in the next general election than it did at the last one.

A version of this blog was originally publish on the author’s blog.

The psychology of climate change


Fikret Onal under a Creative Commons Licence

Few climate activists were surprised when a Yougov poll published in late September confirmed what many had already suspected: the British public are not particularly worried about global warming.

A minority of 39 per cent responded that they believed climate change posed a serious problem affecting the world as a whole, compared to 61 per cent for poverty and 77 per cent for terrorism. When asked which issue they believed presented the gravest global threat, only 6 per cent of those polled selected climate change.

Contrast this with the words of UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon who, just two days after the poll was released, warned that humanity has never in its history faced a challenge greater than that of confronting climate change.

‘The human, environmental and financial cost of climate change is fast becoming unbearable,’ he declared in his opening address to the UN climate summit in New York.

A month later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its most comprehensive study to date - a collaboration between thousands of climate scientists drawing together all the available evidence in one synthesized report.

‘Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks,’ the report concluded.

The contrast outlined above poses some obvious questions. Why does the disparity between expert opinion and public concern over climate change remain so great and what can be done to address it? Are humans psychologically incapable of facing up to the horrific likely consequences of global warming as described by scientists?

These are the themes explored in a recently published book by climate activist George Marshall, titled Don’t Even Think about It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. The book argues that society’s apparent lack of concern over global warming is largely down to popular narratives which portray the issue as less immediate than other problems like terrorism.

The title of the book, Marshall concedes, is slightly misleading, since he doesn’t believe that we are innately incapable of paying attention to or comprehending the issue.

‘It’s not so much that we’re wired to ignore climate change… The problem with climate change is that because it does not have immediacy, it’s not something that readily works with our inbuilt threat detectors,’ he explains.

To give a contrasting example, Marshall cites sensational media stories about immigration which have captured the imagination of millions of people in the UK and fuelled the rise of UKIP.

‘I live in a rural part of Wales, where there’s quite a lot of concern about immigration, despite the fact there are virtually no immigrants here,’ he says. ‘Immigration is a very powerful socially conveyed narrative. The issue is that there are things about climate change which make it hard to form a compelling social narrative.’

Whereas stories about immigration and terrorism involve real experiences of real people living in the real world, stories about climate change tend to involve predicted events which could possibly occur to people living in a hypothetical future.

Although temperature rises and changes in climate patterns over the long term can be attributed to anthropogenic global warming, scientists are unable to draw a direct link between climate change and individual extreme weather events.

Furthermore, the victims of such events – who would make compelling protagonists – are often unwilling to accept that anthropogenic climate change is real.

After spending time with survivors of floods and hurricanes in the US, Marshall found that many of them were understandably intent on restoring their lives to the way things were before the storm and were hostile to narratives which focussed on the need to change their lifestyles in order to avoid similar disasters in the future.

Marshall says that the dominant narratives on solving climate change tend to appeal to socially liberal people meaning that those with socially conservative values are quickly turned off. The key, Marshall argues, is to create narratives which speak to the full spectrum of human values and concerns.

‘A lot of my work at the moment is to work with people with right wing political values and see what climate change would look like from their point of view. And it looks very different,’ he says.

'70-80 per cent of people know exactly that climate change is occurring, that it’s a real risk and that it’s going to get worse' - Professor Stephan Lewandowsky

‘Climate change then isn’t a threat to polar bears, but it’s a threat to their landscape, their culture, their sense of continuity, it’s a threat to freedom. I quote for example, an anti-abortion campaigner who has taken climate change as being a threat to the unborn child.’

Marshall’s observations are backed up by wealth of research which shows a strong correlation between people’s political affiliations and attitudes to global warming.

‘People’s world view is clearly the strongest predictor of their attitude towards climate change,’ says Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, of the University of Bristol, who has conducted extensive research on the psychology of climate change.

‘I can ask people four questions about the free market and if they tell me in their responses that they really care about the free market as the best way to distribute goods in a society, then I can be almost certain that they will also say climate change isn’t happening and is nothing to worry about.’

Many supporters of neoliberal economics recognize that any solution to climate change would have to involve greater interference with and regulation of global markets – a solution which, to their mind, is more dangerous than the problem.

Responses in climate change polls also vary widely depending on the way the questions are phrased. ‘The tricky thing is that you have to ask people in a way that doesn’t trigger their political identification,’ explains Lewandowsky.

‘When you do that, you find that 70-80 per cent of people know exactly that climate change is occurring, that it’s a real risk and that it’s going to get worse.’

But how do you get people to care? Marshall wants us to rewrite the narratives in a way that makes climate change appear more urgent and real. But there may be psychological dangers in this approach too.

According to CRED – the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions – a growing body of scientific evidence shows that attempts to scare people into action with fear-based appeals actually result in increased climate scepticism.

‘Anybody who runs a fear campaign will always combine that appeal to fear with a presumed solution to the problem,’ says Lewandowsky. ‘Fear campaigns are very effective if they offer you the solutions.’

A fear campaign over the spread of ISIS in the middle-east, for example, will swiftly be followed by a proposed bombing campaign in faraway lands. Regardless of whether the strategy is effective or morally virtuous, the solution appears simple. In the case of global warming, Lewandowsky argues, the solutions are complex, nuanced and less easily digestible.

There are some signs that the green movement is taking note of this. Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party in England and Wales, says that over the years there has been a gradual shift within the environmental movement, away from fear-based appeals and towards a greater focus on people’s primary concerns.

‘Putting more fear into the system really isn’t a constructive way forward. It’s very important for the Green movement to talk about how we can have a better quality of life, because people are living with a sense of insecurity and we’ve got to provide solutions for that. For example, fuel poverty can be tackled by things like home energy conservation, home insulation and other measures,’ she says.

Climate activists clearly face a number of challenges in communicating their message. But looking forward, Bennett is hopeful that attitudes to global warming will improve.

She cites polls which show that around 70 per cent of people in Britain now believe that human activity is contributing to climate change despite large sections of the media remaining skeptical.

She also insists that the current political climate makes it easier for politicians like her to deliver this message. ‘I think it’s so much easier now than it would have been before 2007, in that people really are acknowledging that our current system is broken in all sorts of ways,’ she explains.

‘The economic and social inequality, the fact that young people can’t get jobs they can build a life on. That actually makes people much more amenable to new ideas and new ways of thinking. If you go back to 2007, people were feeling relatively comfortable and safe about the economy and their jobs and that made saying: “Right! We’ve got to change everything!” a lot more difficult than it is now.’

Benny Wenda: ‘West Papuans are living in a prison’

Benny Wenda

AK Rockefeller under a Creative Commons Licence

If someone were to describe a brutal military occupation of a region whose people are routinely attacked for demanding their right to self-determination, it’s unlikely Indonesia would spring to mind as the oppressor. The Western media continuously fawns over the progress made by the world’s ‘third largest democracy’ since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship 16 years ago, the dominant narrative being that expressed by David Cameron when he visited the country in 2012.

‘Indonesia has transformed itself in the past decade into one of the world’s most important democracies, with a free media and elections,’ he declared. ‘The military no longer plays a role in politics, but fulfils its proper role defending the country from external attack.’

Breaking the arms embargo

In his speech, Cameron announced plans for Britain to break its arms embargo with Indonesia, imposed by the Labour government in 1998 following the revelation that British-built Hawk aircraft had been used by Suharto to slaughter the people of Timor Leste. The following day, BAE Systems and other arms companies began trading with the country for the first time in over a decade.

To many West Papuans, however, the description of Indonesia as a responsible democracy with a benign military is wildly inaccurate. Last month, as 180 million Indonesians prepared to participate in the country’s presidential elections, dozens of activists in West Papua were reportedly arrested and beaten by security forces for handing out flyers urging local people not to vote. Despite the threat of violence, the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) estimated that around 80 per cent of eligible West Papuan voters chose to observe a peaceful boycott. All of this went virtually unreported in the international press.

Benny Wenda, the exiled leader of the Free West Papua movement, was among those leading calls for the boycott. Granted asylum in Britain in 2003 after being persecuted by the Indonesian authorities, he lives in Oxford but retains close contact with friends and family who constantly update him with news from the region.

‘My people are living in a prison and are discriminated against in many forms,’ he protests, though the latest attacks are nothing new to Wenda, who has been struggling to bring similar incidents to the attention of Western governments for more than a decade. A search of the BBC website reveals just two articles referring to him – an indication of the lack of mainstream media interest in a region many in Britain have little or no knowledge of.

Yet his remarkable life story is worthy of far greater attention than it has received, serving as a poignant reminder of a forgotten colonial struggle spanning several decades of Western-backed exploitation and slaughter.

He was born in the West Papuan highlands in the 1970s, several years after the ‘Act of Free Choice’ – a vote to decide whether West Papua should relinquish its sovereignty to Indonesia – led to the annexation of the region by Suharto’s Indonesia. Despite the massacres that ensued, Wenda has fond memories of his early life in the highlands.

‘When I was a little boy I would play in the forest and help my mum in the garden. I didn’t have any fear, surrounded by nature,’ he says, describing his short-lived experience of childhood innocence.

The neglected genocide

In 1977 the military moved into his village, terrorizing his family and raping his aunt in front of his eyes. In its recent report, ‘The neglected genocide’, the Asian Human Rights Commission estimates that at least 4,146 Papuans were killed between 1977 and 1978. As the UN stood by and did nothing, Benny’s village was one of those bombed by Indonesia following a rebellion by 15,000 highlanders. Those who survived fled to the jungle.

‘Our house was burned down and the Indonesian military were killing my people,’ he recalls. ‘At the time I didn’t know what was going on, but I just followed my mum and my dad. We tried to survive in the cold, at risk of malaria. I always asked, “Why did we leave our village? Why are we here?”’

The US ambassador in Jakarta, wrote in a secret memo: ‘Possibly 85 to 90 per cent [of West Papuans] are in sympathy with the Free Papua cause.’ The Act of Free Choice had in fact been an act of no choice

Wenda and his family hid in the jungle for five years before eventually surrendering to the Indonesian military and returning to their village. Shortly afterwards they moved to Jayapura, the provincial capital of Papua, where Benny grew up. But the questions that plagued him in the jungle persisted throughout his adolescence and it wasn’t until he embarked on a sociology and politics degree course that he came to understand the historical context of his suffering. ‘I started looking back at what happened in my village and I started to discover who I am… I didn’t know any of the history.’

His search began in the university library, where he quickly found that books on West Papua were heavily censored. Then, in 1999 a German student with an interest in indigenous cultures introduced him to the internet. Online he discovered that West Papua had been a Dutch colony until 1962 when control of the region was temporarily transferred to the UN. He read accounts describing how the Dutch had previously prepared West Papuans for independence and how in 1961 his forefathers had raised the Morning Star flag and sung the national anthem in anticipation of their sovereignty.

But the celebrations were premature. Eight years later, the UN turned a blind eye as Suharto moved in and held a sham referendum in which 1,022 tribal elders were selected by special forces and coerced at gunpoint into voting for an Indonesian takeover. A month before the vote, Frank Galbraith, the US ambassador in Jakarta, wrote in a secret memo: ‘Possibly 85 to 90 per cent [of West Papuans] are in sympathy with the Free Papua cause.’ The Act of Free Choice had in fact been an act of no choice.

What followed was the genocide Wenda witnssed as a child. It became apparent that over a period of three decades, thousands of West Papuans had been massacred by Indonesia for the purpose of acquiring the region’s natural resources – including the world’s largest goldmine and third largest copper mine – all with the full support of Britain and the US. Armed with this knowledge, he vowed to dedicate the rest of his life to liberating his people from colonial rule.

Fifteen years on, he remains true to his word. Last year he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and, although he is unable to return to his homeland, he has become a global symbol of the West Papuan cause – much to the chagrin of Indonesia’s ruling élites who launched an unsuccessful international arrest warrant for him in 2011. He has created a base for the Free West Papua movement in Oxford and has just opened a new office in Melbourne where he hopes to establish a strong presence, despite Prime Minister Tony Abbott declaring that West Papuan activists are ‘not welcome’ in Australia.

Exploitation is rife

Though the Suharto dictatorship which bombed Wenda's village is gone, the current regime faces similar charges of exploiting the region for economic gain at the expense of West Papuans. According to the World Bank, Papua province’s regional GDP is 50 per cent higher than the national average, while the people living there are among the poorest in all of Oceania. Around 30 per cent of West Papuans live in poverty – nearly triple Indonesia’s national average of 12 per cent.

‘Some 500,000 West Papuans have been killed since the Indonesia occupation and nobody knows what is really happening. I call West Papua “little South Africa”. The apartheid regime is the same as what Indonesia are doing’

Accusations of exploitation are not solely aimed at Indonesia. British oil giant BP, which has invested billions of pounds in the construction and operation of gas plants in West Papua, has been accused of destroying forests, polluting rivers and employing workers from outside the region rather than creating jobs for local people. ‘The British have a big investment in West Papua,’ Wenda tells me. ‘they ignore my people and are operating in the middle of the genocide.’

Those who complain are dealt with harshly by security forces. In its latest annual World Report, Human Rights Watch states that violent attacks (including killings and torture) on protesters are commonplace and estimates that approximately 70 activists are presently incarcerated for their peaceful involvement in the independence movement. In July, five political prisoners were released after serving three-year sentences in a Jayapura prison. Their only crime had been to read out a ‘declaration of independence’ from Indonesia at a rally in 2011. But these stories rarely make it outside of West Papua – a situation which is not helped by the fact that foreign journalists are heavily restricted from entering the territory.

‘Some 500,000 West Papuans have been killed since the Indonesia occupation and nobody knows what is really happening because Indonesia is able to ban the Red Cross, Amnesty International and all the media so they can get away with murder and discrimination,’ laments Wenda. ‘I call West Papua “little South Africa”. The apartheid regime is the same as what Indonesia are doing.’

Hope for the future

Indonesia’s newly elected president, Joko Widodo, spoke in support of indigenous peoples in the lead-up to the general election. But Wenda's central demand is for Indonesia to respect West Papua’s right to self-determination under international law. He argues that the only basis for Indonesia’s claim to the territory, the Act of Free Choice, has been thoroughly discredited and that his people must be permitted to determine their own future with a new, fair referendum. Indonesia continues to resist these demands, while the UN remains silent despite urgent calls from human rights groups for a Special Representative to investigate the situation.

While the international community continues to ignore Indonesia’s abuses, there is no doubting the magnitude of the task ahead for the Free West Papua movement. Yet Wenda appears remarkably positive, drawing inspiration from the likes of Gandhi and Mandela and from the experience of Timor Leste, which obtained independence from Indonesia in 1999 – though not before a third of the population had been slaughtered.

The challenge is to capture the attention of the world before it’s too late.

‘I’m doing it, I’m campaigning and I know something will happen in the future,’ he says. ‘While my people are dying nobody can stop me. Not until they are free.’

This article first appeared on Contributoria. Cross-posted with permission of the author.

Hart Island, New York's secret graveyard


Elaine Joseph at the grave of her daughter. © The Hart Island Project/Melinda Hunt

Few visitors to New York are aware that a wooded island off the coast of the Bronx is home to one of the world’s largest burial grounds. Since 1869 over 850,000 corpses have been buried on Hart Island, yet the site – which is run by the Department of Correction and dug by prison inmates – is shrouded in so much secrecy that even relatives of the dead are denied the right to visit the graves.

Many of the dead buried on the island were homeless, destitute or never claimed by friends or relatives. However, an unknown number of corpses – including many stillborn babies – are interred there against the wishes of family members who are only allowed access to a memorial Gazebo erected nearby the graves.

Melinda Hunt, founder of the Hart Island Project, an organization which advocates for relatives seeking access to the graves argues that New York City Council should transfer control of the Island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks.

‘They’re really the wrong city agency to be managing visitation. They view it as a threat to the sense of total control that they feel they need over the prison system,’ she says.

In March, after successfully petitioning the Department of Correction for proper access to the site, Elaine Joseph, a retired nurse and former lieutenant commander in the Navy, became one of the first relatives to visit the site.

Joseph’s baby, Tomika, died shortly after she was born prematurely in 1978. Tomika had been transferred to another hospital to undergo heart surgery and when her mother phoned up days later doctors told her the baby had already been sent away for a public burial. It wasn’t until 2009 that she discovered her daughter was buried on Hart Island.

‘She was not poor, she was not unwanted, she was not a criminal to be in the criminal justice system. It was a real travesty of justice for this to happen to me and many, many other people,’ she protests.

While Joseph was eventually granted access, others have been less fortunate. Growing up in the Bronx, Belinda Brecska’s father was rarely around during her childhood. He left home when she was four years old and was frequently in trouble with the law. When she was 16 his parole officer got in touch with her to arrange a meeting and in 1992 they were reunited.

When Brecska discovered she was pregnant a year later, she phoned her father’s parole officer to get hold of him only to receive devastating news. ‘She said to me “your father passed away, he’s buried on Hart Island”. I was the only living being that could have identified him and she said they couldn’t contact me. They make you feel like you’re lost, you will never be able to visit any grave site because now he belongs to the state.’

Last month Brecska discovered the Hart Island project. Through the website she was able to acquire details of where her father was buried but remains unable to visit the island herself. Brecska has applied for her father’s death certificate after which she hopes to make an appointment with the Department of Correction to arrange a visit. She remains aware, however, of the large numbers of people who have been turned away in the past.

‘If they can open up their hearts and put themselves in the situation…and make it possible for us to visit regularly when we like. We don’t want any trouble, we just want to have the privilege to freely visit the gravesite,’ she pleads.

No-boss Britain: entrepreneurs or out of options?


The self-employment dream. But the reality often involves long hours and little pay. www.thearmchairgenealogist.com under a Creative Commons Licence

Britain’s self-employed army can no longer be ignored. For the first time in the country’s modern history, a significant proportion of the labour market (one in seven) has no boss. According to official figures, the number of registered self-employed workers has risen by more than 600,000 since 2010 – an unprecedented increase of around 15 per cent that shows few signs of subsiding.

Many have welcomed the trend. Last month, the Bank of England suggested benefits cuts were creating a new generation of entrepreneurs by pushing more people into self-employment – a view unsurprisingly shared by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who told the Telegraph that the Coalition was reviving Britain’s ‘entrepreneurial spirit’.

As a freelance journalist, it’s tempting to be flattered by such rhetoric. Yet it seems unlikely that Britain has created 600,000 budding Alan Sugars in the space of six years – a somewhat disturbing prospect, in any case.

While few serious attempts have been made to properly analyze the statistics and explore what conditions are like for the self-employed, the studies and surveys that do exist paint a rather different (and less entrepreneurial) picture of our plight. Some of the most comprehensive research to date comes from the Resolution Foundation, which published a report earlier this year showing that the median annual income for self-employed workers fell by £4,000 ($6,750), or 28 per cent, between 2001 and 2010, dropping to below £12,000 ($20,250) by 2011.

Meanwhile, the number of people out of work has been steadily declining over the past 2 years. Unemployment reached a five-year low of 2.24 million in the three months to February, prompting George Osborne to commit to targeting ‘full employment’ – an impressive-sounding term which, when challenged, the Chancellor conspicuously declined to define. During the same period, the number of people classed as self-employed rose by 146,000.

Yet while self-employed workers often experience financial insecurity, many enjoy their professional freedom. A Mori poll published in April asked 985 self-employed people whether or not they would rather be an employee. A majority of 79 per cent responded that they would rather be self-employed, with only 16 per cent preferring the employee option. The survey also found that the longer that workers had been self-employed, the less likely they were to desire a different employment status. But a quarter of people who have been self-employed for fewer than five years say they began working for themselves due to an absence of better alternatives.

Conor Darcy, a researcher at the Resolution Foundation, which commissioned the poll, says the results don’t fit neatly with popular media narratives: ‘The discussion tends to get polarized, with some people projecting that it is all people who were forced into self-employment and don’t want to be there, and then other people saying it’s great, there’s an upsurge in entrepreneurial spirit. What we’ve found is that the truth is probably somewhere in between.’

‘Somewhere in between’ can be a difficult concept to comprehend in a society that is used to clearly define boundaries between secure employment and the dole. My own experience has taught me that not everyone is able to grasp the conceptual distinction between self-employment and unemployment. No matter how many times I explain my situation to friends, some of them still send me emails suggesting jobs to apply for – often comically unrelated to my skillset and interests. I also receive comments like ‘so, are you still freelancing?’, and, perhaps even more infuriating, ‘I truly believe you will get your big break [job] one day.’

All of this would be more understandable if I complained about my employment status or income, but I don’t. These comments are borne of a patronizing assumption that anybody who isn’t contracted to a company must be profoundly miserable and helped into a job immediately. This is even stranger when I consider the frequency with which these friends complain about being overworked and depressed in their ‘proper’ jobs. Yet no matter how I qualify it, the word ‘freelance’ is invariably interpreted by them as code for ‘absolutely desperate for any job going’.

It’s doubtless an experience shared by many. A picture is now emerging of a fast-growing army of the 4.5 million self-employed workers in Britain, many of whom enjoy their liberty yet are poorly understood and extremely vulnerable to exploitation. There is barely any safety net protecting the self-employed, who rarely qualify for a decent pension or Job Seekers’ Allowance (should they ever need it) and are typically forced to put up with late payments and extortionately low freelance rates.

The unions charged with fighting the battles, which will need to be won if the model is to be at all sustainable, have little influence. But securing these rights is a matter which concerns us all, regardless of employment status.

Failure to adapt to the interests and demands of the self-employed could have disastrous consequences for a society whose reliance on our labour is accelerating at pace.

Looking East: could meditation help cure the West's addiction to antidepressants?

Man meditating

Impaulsive Photography under a Creative Commons Licence

Over the past decade, the West has experienced a mental-health crisis on an unprecedented scale. Diagnosis rates for depression have risen steeply and charities inform us that in the course of a single year one in four people will suffer from a mental-health problem. The standard line is that the pressures of modern life are to blame for this epidemic. We are told that rising unemployment, debt and relationship breakups – exacerbated by the economic crisis – have caused increasing numbers of people to fall ill.

Yet according to the author of a report published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in December, this narrative tells only part of the story. Chris Dowrick, Professor of Primary Medical Care at the University of Liverpool, argues that the global surge in the diagnosis of depression is a consequence of what he calls ‘the medicalization of unhappiness’.

In the US, 11 per cent of people over the age of 11 take antidepressants. In Britain five million people are now labelled depressed or suffering from anxiety

His report contains some disturbing statistics. In the US, 11 per cent of people over the age of 11 take antidepressants. In Britain the figure is lower but it is estimated that five million people are now labelled depressed or suffering from anxiety – twice as many as in 2002 – and the prescription rate of antidepressants doubled between 1998 and 2010.

One possible explanation for this trend is that, under pressure from the pharmaceutical industry, successive editions of the Diagnostics Manual (DSM IV and DSM V) have been updated to include forms of sadness which are actually just common reactions to ordinary life events, such as grief or financial worries. ‘What that now means is that if somebody has lost a loved one and they have common symptoms of depression which last for more than two weeks, then you can be given a diagnosis of depression,’ Dowrick explains. ‘Very often the diagnosis then leads to treatment and the most common treatment is medication.’

It is not that these forms of unhappiness should not be taken seriously; rather, Dowrick suggests, it is unhelpful to view them as illnesses and medication is unlikely to help.

Drugs no better than a placebo

Research has shown that bestselling drugs like Prozac are no better than placebo at alleviating mild symptoms of the kind grieving patients may present. ‘The evidence is pretty strong that antidepressants are not useful for mild depression. There may be some use for moderate depression but they’re only helpful for sure with much more severe depression,’ he asserts. Instead, Dowrick feels greater attention should be paid to the potential of therapies which are free of negative side-effects. Among the most promising of these, he claims, is mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness traces its origins to the teachings of the Buddha, who lived in India in the 4th century BC. The Buddha taught his followers the importance of establishing an awareness of the present moment on the path to enlightenment – an ability he acquired with the help of meditating. Over centuries, numerous variations of mindfulness meditation have developed, most of which involve training the mind to focus on a single object of attention – typically the sensation of breathing – with the aim of letting go of any desires, cravings or anxieties related to past or future events.

At first approximation it may seem strange that Western medicine, with all the benefits of modern technology, should look to a 2,500-year-old Eastern tradition for inspiration. Yet Professor Dowrick is hardly the first scientist to have expressed an interest in it. At the University of Toronto, Professor of Psychiatry Zindel Segal has been researching the potential of mindfulness meditation to help depressed patients for over a decade.

Segal first became interested in mindfulness in 2000 when he was given a grant by the Macarthur Foundation to develop a new approach to the treatment of depression. His mission was to modify Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – a talk therapy involving one-to-one sessions between a psychiatrist and patient – in order to design an intervention programme which could reduce the risk of relapse in patients with a history of recurrent depression. He used the grant to gather two colleagues, John Teasdale and Mark Williams (both of the University of Oxford), who had published research into the nature of vulnerability to depression. In the process of developing their model, the three scientists came across the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn who had created a radical programme in the US for patients with chronic pain. His Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) sessions used simple breathing meditation techniques to help participants heighten their awareness of the present moment and manage their symptoms better. The patients were then given guided audio tapes which they could use to practice mindfulness meditation in their spare time.

Clinical trials had recorded promising results for MBSR and Segal and his team believed similar techniques might be helpful for patients with a history of depression. ‘We spent time with Jon Kabat-Zinn and his group, watching their teachers teach this material in MBSR. So at a personal level we felt there was something here that could be useful if we could help our depressed patients do the same thing,’ he explains. And so it was that by merging elements of CBT with techniques inspired by Kabat-Zinn’s sessions, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was born. All that was left was to see if it worked.

An important step forward

All the participants in MBCT’s first clinical trial had been diagnosed with depression and 80 per cent had experienced three or more depressive episodes. They had all been treated to a point where they were in remission and were not taking anti-depressants at the time of the trial. The results marked an important step forward. While MBCT proved ineffective for patients with two depressive episodes or fewer, those who had suffered three or more episodes recorded a 34-36 per cent reduction in relapse over a one-year period compared to usual care – similar to what other studies had found for the use of antidepressants.

Subsequent trials conducted at Cambridge University and the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (part of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry) replicated these findings.

The comedian Tim Minchin once quipped, ‘You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine’

‘It gave us a lot of confidence because we weren’t trying to outperform drug treatments. We would be happy with an equivalent benefit as some drug treatments because we knew that many people who start drug treatments will not continue them if they’re feeling better. We also knew that drug treatments carry significant side effects that people can’t tolerate,’ says Segal.

Indeed, the strength of conviction in MBCT is now so high that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends it and the therapy has been available on the NHS to a limited number of patients in Britain since 2004. The comedian Tim Minchin once quipped, ‘You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.’ Mindfulness meditation, it appears, has already made that leap.

Yet Segal doesn’t believe MBCT should replace drugs altogether; rather, he would like MBCT to run contiguously with treatments involving antidepressants during different phases of severe depression. MBCT, he stresses, is not designed to treat patients while they are experiencing depressive episodes, rather to prevent future relapse in those who have already recovered by other means. His research therefore sheds little light on whether mindfulness can, as Professor Dowrick hopes, help people with mild depressive symptoms feel better. In fact, until recently, doctors and scientists have been unsure whether practising mindfulness has any effect on symptoms of depression at all. Now, following one of the most comprehensive reviews ever published on the effects of meditation, the evidence is clearer than ever before.

Gaining clarity

Led by Dr Madhav Goyal, medical researchers at John Hopkins University in Baltimore sifted through more than 19,000 peer-reviewed papers on meditation. Segal’s trial was among just 47 that met the standards required to be included in a meta-study collating data on the effects of meditation across a wide range of outcomes. ‘The majority of trials looking at depressive symptoms were mostly in populations that had mild symptoms, so Segal’s trial was one of the ones that looked at patients with major depression,’ says Goyal. ‘The studies that didn’t adequately control for placebo effects got excluded and that’s why we see so small a number of randomized trials in our review.’

Perhaps disappointingly for those who had promoted meditation as a miracle panacea, the results showed mindfulness therapies had little or no effect across a majority of outcomes. But when the researchers looked specifically at depression they found moderate evidence of a 10-20 per cent improvement in mild symptoms over an average period of eight weeks. These results were, once again, similar to those recorded for antidepressants, and mindfulness was also the only form of meditation to record any positive effects.

However, mindfulness therapies failed to outperform CBT and exercise, which were also associated with similar improvements. So how encouraging were these results and what did scientists learn about the relationship between mindfulness and depression? ‘I think that the evidence to this date has been so mixed that physicians really weren’t sure if this was something that was helpful or just a placebo effect. This review helps to put some clarity to that. We’re seeing a fairly consistent effect that mindfulness meditation reduces symptoms of depression. That is a fairly strong finding which at least to me suggests that this is something that is helpful,’ says Dr Goyal.

Those who are involved in mindfulness research are almost unanimous in their desire for it to become a more accessible healthcare option

Professor Segal suggests that MBCT may yet boast significant advantages over other drug-free therapies. Firstly, mindfulness-based group sessions are probably more cost efficient than talk therapies like CBT, which tends to be delivered on a one-to-one basis.

Theoretically, this should make MBCT one of the most accessible options (particularly in countries without free healthcare like the US) for patients who can’t afford the cost of a personal shrink. Segal also suspects people who learn mindfulness techniques may be better equipped than CBT participants to put their skills into practice over the long term. He admits this is speculative, since very few studies have followed patients for more than a year after completing therapy.

Those who are involved in mindfulness research are almost unanimous in their desire for it to become a more accessible healthcare option. Yet while the clinical evidence on which they base their hopes is sound, further studies are required to determine which phases of depression mindfulness is most effective at treating, and whether more intensive and longer periods of practice would yield greater results. Quite how this crucial research will be funded is a matter of some concern. In September, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry identified ‘the elephant on the table’:

‘Psychotherapy is one of the most widely used classes of treatment, but unfortunately there is no commercial entity analogous to the pharmaceutical industry to support research and development of the current and next generations of interventions. The impact of this state of affairs is particularly evident with respect to the ability to conduct larger-scale studies of comparative treatment effectiveness, for which there are only a handful of relevant studies.’

This is particularly alarming in the light of concerns about pharmaceutical drugs raised by Professor Dowrick in his BMJ report. But even if – as seems likely – the necessary funding isn’t secured, Dr Goyal believes the current evidence, whilst moderate, is sufficient to justify the expansion of mindfulness-based therapies within healthcare systems around the world:

‘In medical practice we don’t wait for high strength of evidence for every single therapy that we use, because not everything has a high strength of evidence for its use. So moderate is pretty good. It’s telling us that we didn’t find any bad side effects; we’re moderately confident that this is going to be helpful and so that’s a very reasonable place to start and I don’t think anybody would fault a physician for recommending a therapy that has moderate strength of evidence for improving symptoms.’

Professor Dowrick agrees. In his capacity as a GP he regularly recommends mindfulness meditation to patients who come to him with symptoms of depression. ‘All interventions have limited benefits; there’s nothing that’s a panacea for everything. But if the benefits are as good as the first-line treatment which is an antidepressant, that is in itself an important finding. I would be very happy to see more mindfulness approaches available on the NHS [National Health Service],’ he concludes.

Benjamin Zephaniah: ‘It is my duty to help and inspire’

Benjamin Zephaniah

Poet turned professor Benjamin Zephaniah David Morris under a Creative Commons Licence

As professor of poetry and creative writing at London’s Brunel University, you are surrounded by and can inspire passionate, creative young people. Is this your dream job?

Yes! But I’ve always mentored people. A lot of the time by post: they send me their poetry and I talk about it or they meet me every now and again. So when this position came up I thought: yeah, this is a kind of formalized version of what I do anyway.

A couple of week ago I saw a poster for a poetry gig and the guy who was headlining it was my student. And I thought: yes! I stood next to the poster and started posing.

As a young boy you wrote to Bob Marley and received a reply that really inspired you…

I remember how pointed that reply was for me. I’m paraphrasing now, but it said something like: ‘Britain needs somebody like you.’ And I thought, gosh, he’s not even here and he’s telling me Britain needs somebody like me.

Everything that I do [at Brunel] is about passing on my experience. And I love doing it. I love bringing up another generation. As I said, when I saw the poster with my student’s name on it, I felt great about that – that was a great reward. So I see it as part of my duty to help and inspire.

What role do creative pursuits like poetry and art have to play in the current climate of global poverty, conflict and economic hardship?

There are many roles. First of all, look at something like the Nicaraguan revolution. By the time the Sandinistas had achieved victory, so many of their leaders had been killed that when it came to picking a government they basically picked lots of the playwrights and poets and people like that – because those were the people that were inspiring them.

When people ask me, ‘Are creativity and art and poetry relevant in political struggles?’, I used to say, ‘Go and ask Mandela. He knows the importance of poetry and arts in the struggle against apartheid.’ I’ve seen lots of liberation struggles where poets have said, ‘I don’t want to write anymore; I want to go and fight.’ And the revolutionaries have said: ‘No, keep writing, because we need you! We need our poets.’ People need somebody to articulate what the struggle is about. Politicians can get on a soapbox and say that we dream of a better land and all that stuff, but poets can visualize it better and put it into words and into the imagination of the people in a much better way than politicians can.

You’ve often described yourself as a ‘revolutionary’. What does that word mean to you?

I think that the way we run the world right now, in the majority of places – certainly the big governments we have – are just so corrupt. We have to tear it down and start again.

There was a time when the Labour Party wanted me to flirt with them… Now I’ve realized that I hate them all. I think I’m an anarchist

I left school when I was 13. I didn’t study politics. All the politics I know are from experience. So I’m not very clever and I’m not very educated and I haven’t read lots of Karl Marx and all that stuff. I do get inspired by Noam Chomsky. People who hear me talk and talk about things I care about would label me leftwing. There was a time when the Labour Party wanted me to flirt with them… Now I’ve realized that I hate them all. I think I’m an anarchist.

A lot of people don’t really understand what that means. But to me it means the African village before the white man came. It wasn’t perfect; there were tribal wars and stuff like that, but for the most part problems were solved locally, people got together. People are scared of that; people don’t want to take responsibility.

One of the political issues you’re most passionate about is racial equality. Are you encouraged by the level of progress that has been made in your lifetime?

I always get worried that if we say ‘nothing’s changed!’, people will go: ‘you’ve got a black president!’ And if we say ‘we’ve got a black president!’, then they’ll say: ‘but somebody’s just died!’ So you see what I’m getting at? There is a black president in the US, but you’ve still got racist people.

But things have moved on, there has been progress in some ways. I remember the days when in Britain you never saw black people in the media; now you do. And now we have a black British person [Steve McQueen] making a film – 12 Years A Slave – that’s mainstream, that Hollywood has recognized. So that’s progress.

But for a 16-year-old black kid in London, who’s walking around with baggy trousers, who may just want to hang out on the streets because that’s where the girls are… when he is stopped by a cop and asked: ‘What are you doing here?’, and he says: ‘I’m just looking for girls, why do you want to search me?’ – that’s when the tension starts. You can’t go up to that kid and say ‘well, Barack Obama is president!’

You mentioned Nelson Mandela, who is an international symbol of progress and racial equality. How did you feel about the media’s portrayal of his legacy following his death?

I had problems with it actually, because Mandela was a revolutionary. I remember days when me and some other people were doing benefit gigs for Nelson Mandela and the press said we were supporting a terrorist. People have this sort of ideal version of Mandela that he’s all about peace and love. No. At one point he said: we’ve got to take up armed struggle. He tried non-violence, he tried the Martin Luther King way and then he realized that they were just getting killed and they were defenceless and he said, ‘We’re going to take up arms.’

Mandela was a pragmatist. He was a real human being. I know for a fact that when he came out of prison he didn’t want to be president, but the country needed him

But when he came out of prison he didn’t say, ‘Right, we want revenge now.’ He was a pragmatist. He was a real human being. I know for a fact that when he came out of prison he didn’t want to be president, but the country needed him.

When Barack Obama first campaigned to be president, people drew comparisons with previous iconic black figures like Martin Luther King and Mandela. How do you feel about Obama’s legacy now?

It’s absolute bullshit to suggest that Barack Obama is anywhere near Mandela. The day that Barack Obama was at Mandela’s funeral saying that we have to learn from his example, he was sending drones to Pakistan. On the very day. I remember looking at him and thinking, you hypocrite, it’s just words.

And yet Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize…

Yes, I find that bizarre. I used to have respect for Nobel people but I just think that is perverse. I think there’s the realpolitik that when you get into office you have to deal with the reality of it, but to give him a peace prize was crazy. It just sends out the wrong signal.

Where do you stand in debate currently raging about state security and the right to privacy following the National Security Agency spying revelations?

I think [Edward] Snowden is a real hero. You can’t say to the public: we want you to be honest and truthful, and then somebody tells you the truth and you say, ‘Well, you’re a traitor.’ It’s not as if he committed terrorism against the US. I understand that they have to protect their citizens but, in real terms, many security experts have said that knowing people’s phone numbers has done nothing to protect anybody; it hasn’t stopped one bomb from going off.

How do you get in touch with your spirituality?

My family were Christian and then I became a Rastafarian at a young age, through the inspiration of music. And it was political, as well. Now I believe in God without religion.

I meditate in a room where you can hear the radiator clicking and there’s a clock going ‘tick-tock, tick-tock’. And when I meditate slowly that clock becomes really loud, and then it fades away and then it’s my heart which is the loudest thing I hear, and then it’s my breath, and then I can literally feel the blood going through my veins.

We’ve talked a lot about human rights. But are animal rights equally important to you?

One of the things that frustrate me is that in the human rights world, I know some people that are not really into animal rights, and vice versa. They say they are, but you know they’re not really active. I think you make a better case when you’re active, especially now when it comes to the environment and how important the environment is to us. And that means animals and land and humans. But yeah, I’m as passionate about animal rights as I am about human rights and I do think they overlap and connect.

Are you optimistic about the future of humanity?

Yes. This is something that I can’t really explain, and maybe it’s the spiritual part of me. I do think in the end that good will overcome evil. And if I didn’t, I would just give up. I would make a lot of money, I’d take my poetry and I’d concentrate on doing rap or something like that and get lots of girlfriends and just have a good time. But I want to contribute to good in the world.

I do really believe that good will overcome evil. And it’s so nice when you see good. Sometimes I’m amazed at some of these people that go to war zones and do medical work. I’m not talking about the political people; I’m talking about the people that just do humanitarian work helping people. So there are all these evil forces out there, but there are good ones, too, and I think the good ones will win in the end.

Asylum denied to teenager at risk of FGM


Sarah G under a Creative Commons Licence

Olayinka was 14 when she came to live in Britain with her mother and two brothers. She fled Nigeria in 2009 after attempts were made to kidnap her and subject her to female genital mutilation (FGM).

According to UNICEF, more than 30 million girls are at risk of being subjected to FGM over the next decade and around 125 million women have undergone the procedure. Olayinka was one of the lucky ones to escape, or so she thought. Three years on, the family find themselves embroiled in a legal battle against deportation after their asylum claim was rejected by the UK Border Agency (UKBA).

Olayinka’s mother, Abiola, is sure that if they are deported her daughter will be genitally mutilated. She has reason to be concerned. Twenty years ago she watched as her first daughter bled to death following a botched procedure in a remote Nigerian village.

‘They did FGM on her and she started bleeding,’ she tells me. ‘I knew something was wrong because I’ve experienced it before… so I was nervous and crying. Three days after, she passed away. I was helpless; there was nothing I could do.’

More than 30 million girls are at risk of being subjected to FGM over the next decade and around 125 million women have undergone the procedure

Neither Abiola nor her husband reported the eight-year-old girl’s death to the authorities. Although FGM is illegal in Nigeria, its practice is widespread – in some regions the proportion of adult women who have undergone it exceeds 50 per cent – and deaths are not uncommon. ‘I know a lot of cousins and family members that have passed away through FGM,’ Abiola says. ‘Everybody goes through it so it looks stupid if I go and report it.’

Naturally, when Olayinka was born four years later, Abiola was determined to protect her. Her husband, however, continued to insist that she be subjected to FGM, so Abiola divorced him and went to live alone with her three children. But his conservative relatives refused to give in and when Olayinka was 13, her uncle – the family chief – launched a violent kidnap attempt.

‘One day in June, I wasn’t home and the family chief came home with three family members; two men and a woman. They became violent, so my eldest son went to the nearest phone booth and called me to say that they’d beaten Olayinka,’ Abiola recalls.

Not just a family matter

Olayinka’s injuries were so severe that she remained in hospital for three weeks. Yet when Abiola approached the police for protection she claims her ordeal was dismissed as ‘a family matter’. Soon afterwards the family travelled 150 miles east from Lagos to Ondo State to stay with Abiola’s mother, but it didn’t take long for the family chief to track them down.

‘We were there for about three weeks and I sent Olayinka and her brother to the corner shop. About 40 minutes later they came back running and crying. They said they saw the family chief and he asked them to get inside the car. How they managed to know where we are I don’t know.’

In desperation they escaped to Britain, arriving on six-month visas in November 2009. After settling in Rochdale they claimed asylum based on their fears that Olayinka would be subjected to FGM if they returned to Nigeria. To their distress, their claims were denied.

The threat of FGM does constitute grounds for claiming asylum in Britain. Nevertheless, according to a recent BBC report, hundreds of vulnerable women have had their applications rejected by UKBA in recent years.

Although FGM is illegal in Nigeria, its practice is widespread – in some regions the proportion of adult women who have undergone it exceeds 50 per cent

A document detailing the reasons behind Olayinka’s failed asylum claim reads: ‘You fear you will be forcibly circumcised by your father’s relatives if you return to Nigeria…The reason you have given for claiming a well-founded fear of persecution under the terms of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status or Refugees is not one that engages the UK’s obligations under the convention.’ Although her story is not contested, UKBA insists that the Nigerian police can be relied upon to protect Olayinka and it has advised her to relocate internally, away from her husband’s family. A judicial review upheld the initial decision and the family have been told they may now be deported at any time.

Cases like Olayinka’s appear to contrast with the government’s official stance on FGM. The Home Office has supported a campaign by the NSPCC to help protect children in Britain from mutilation, as well as launching its own initiative, the Violence Against Women and Girls Action Plan. The document boasts of significant government investment in ‘scaling up international work to tackle violence against women and girls’. A message on the Foreign Office website reads: ‘If you think that a girl or young woman is in danger of FGM…contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office if she has already been taken abroad.’

Dr Rhetta Moran of human rights organization RAPAR says Olayinka’s case exposes the government’s rhetoric as disingenuous: ‘At a fundamental level it’s in complete contradiction to their commitment to safeguarding the child. It also runs utterly counter to what is becoming quite a high-profile, if limited, government campaign about female genital mutilation, and it continues to further demonize the refugee as somebody who is intrinsically threatening to this country.’

Psychological stress

The psychological stress Olayinka has been forced to endure led her to attempt suicide earlier this year. A clinical psychologist who assessed her concluded that she suffers from ‘significant, chronic and complex mental-health needs’, adding that ‘it is highly likely that this psychological distress will remain high unless the physical threat to her safety is addressed’.

The 16-year-old is now beginning her first term at a local sixth form college and dreams of one day reading medicine at university. Meanwhile, the family’s legal team are submitting further evidence – including a report from a Nigerian human rights expert – in the hope that UKBA will reverse its decision.

‘If any of those making the decision are women, if they have children… the worst thing that can happen to any mother is to lose a child,’ Abiola pleads. ‘For that reason alone, I’m appealing to them, and for the fact that Olayinka did not commit any crime, it’s not a crime for her to be a girl. She shouldn’t be crucified for that.’

Caroline Lucas: ‘The People’s Assembly offers hope’

Aimed at mobilizing Britain against austerity, The People’s Assembly is a growing movement supported by a broad coalition of trade unions, campaigning organizations, politicians and journalists. The coalition aims to make national and international links with the potential of calling a national day of civil disobedience and direct action against austerity.

On Saturday 22 June, the national People’s Assembly is to be held at Westminster Central Hall, opposite the Houses of Parliament in London. Bringing together thousands of activists, the event aims to begin a democratic process, leading to a second People’s Assembly in early 2014. There have already been a number of local rallies in cities across Britain.

You’ve been speaking at rallies for the People’s Assembly including the one in Brighton recently. What has the reaction from the general public been like so far?

There has been an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the general public. I think people are delighted to hear the views that they’ve been working towards being reflected back at them from so many different perspectives; whether that’s from unions or different people in the Labour Party, Green Party or no party.

Caroline Lucas is the former leader of the Green Party if England and Wales

Edinburgh Greens, under a CC License

More and more people are challenging the austerity ideology that we’ve been hearing, not just from the government but sadly increasingly from the Labour front bench. People want the confidence to believe that alternatives are possible. One of the great opportunities for the People’s Assembly is to make that tangible, to demonstrate that alternatives are possible and to challenge the economics of the government. Even the International Monetary Fund is saying that at a time of deep recession, the idea that the best way to tackle the deficit is by reducing demand even more and cutting public sector jobs is completely the wrong way forward, that there’s been far too much austerity.

Through the People’s Assembly, we’re able to arm people with strong arguments, demonstrate that they’re not alone and increasingly to connect up all the different local campaigns that there are around the country. It’s important that the Assembly doesn’t seek to duplicate what’s already happening, but I think we’re a body that can help join up all the energy and be greater than the sum of the parts.

An open letter published in the Guardian newspaper in February states that the People’s Assembly will ‘provide a forum for anti-austerity views which while increasingly popular are barely represented in parliament.’ How do you think this can be achieved in practice?

Well, I’m hopeful that the meeting planned for 22 June in London will not just be a one off meeting, but the beginning of a process. What that process will look like has to be decided by the individuals who are there. At the minimum, we will identify the ways to connect up the different campaigns with something everyone can agree with in terms of what’s wrong with the government’s approach and the direction of a better way forward.

‘Everybody seems to realize that what’s at stake here is urgent and important’

Hopefully we will attract more people to join us who may not be 100 per cent convinced by the government’s line that there’s no alternative, but aren’t sure what the alternative is. I think that applies to a huge number of people out there. We have some very good economic voices on our side who are saying, yes, we need to address the deficit, but you don’t do it by throwing half a million public sector workers out of work – with the knock on effect that has on the private sector. The Assembly offers an agenda of hope at a time when there is a great deal of hopelessness.

Opinion polls suggest people are losing faith in the British government’s austerity programme. However there are still a significant number of people – backed by the rightwing media – who disagree with your position and some are calling for even deeper cuts. Is the role of the People’s Assembly to persuade people to an anti-austerity position or merely to mobilize those already converted?

I would say it’s both. I think we need to recognize that, for many on the right, this economic crisis isn’t really a crisis at all – it’s an opportunity for them to roll back the state. They use the constant refrain of what caused the economic crisis was too much borrowing by Labour, conveniently ignoring that what actually caused it was an international banking crisis. So it’s not surprising that a lot of people feel confused, because some of the messages they’re receiving are completely disingenuous.

The People’s Assembly aims to unify and grow the anti-austerity movement in Britain

Roger Blackwell, under a CC License

There is now a real opportunity, not only to mobilize people who would already oppose austerity, but to help with the strong arguments to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the pro-austerity camp. As well as challenging the idea that a) it’s inevitable and b) it is to do with over borrowing, I hope we can also get information out about the money supply, because most people don’t know how money is created. Take the $16 trillion that was found to bail out the banks globally a few years ago. That wasn’t found through taxation and it wasn’t found down the back of the sofa – it was through a process of credit creation. I think we need to have greater discussions and debates to better understand how credit creation works, and that it can work in our favour if we ensure that money goes directly into the economy and doesn’t just get made by central banks, then passed to private banks who speculate with it.

How important will it be for the People’s Assembly to synchronize with similar movements around Europe and internationally?

It was an international banking crisis and this is an international crisis – and although each country has very different circumstances, international solidarity and working together is absolutely crucial. Capitalism is international and people’s movements need to be international as well. So we’ve spoken to organizations like the World Social Forum and demonstrated that there’s a real appetite for making those connections across borders.

You’ve also been working closely with the leaders of the Occupy movements. What do you think can be learned from Occupy and are there any areas that could be improved on?

‘For many on the right, this economic crisis isn’t really a crisis at all – it’s an opportunity for them to roll back the state’

What was positive about the Occupy movement was that it began to articulate alternatives to the status quo. There was some criticism that it knew very much about what it was against, but not very much about what it was for. I don’t think that criticism was fair, but to the extent that it may have taken a while to get closer to the positives, it is something to learn from. We’re very much a People’s Assembly with positive proposals, as well as being against austerity.

Given the Left’s history of division and squabbling, what would you say to the sceptic who might think this assembly is just more of the same?

Given that the issues on the table are so hugely important, I hope it will rise above party political posturing or point scoring. The rallies that have taken place around the country so far have included people of some parties and no party, and it’s crucial that we don’t slide back into party silos. We need to be very mindful of that and I know, for example, when Owen Jones has been chairing his meetings, he cracks down on sectarianism of any kind. Everybody seems to realize that what’s at stake here is urgent and important.

Some people are concerned about the controlling influence of former Socialist Worker members in the Peoples’ Assembly, and are concerned about whether it is truly democratic. What would you respond?

I haven’t witnessed a controlling influence of former SWP members in the meetings. Is it truly democratic? In a sense, no it isn’t yet because this is only the very beginnings of a coming together. It’s certainly not a top-down thing – there is a genuine recognition that this has to be a bottom up process.

The People’s Assembly will be from 9am to 5pm on Saturday 22 June at Westminster Central Hall, London, SW1H 9NH. Find out more at the People’s Assembly website.


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