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).

'I don't have a problem - the problem is theirs'

Image 1 - Santa Cruz mural

‘A disabled person finds themselves in a dark place where there is no sun. To reach the sun they have to spend days, weeks, months, years, they have to walk in whatever way they can, to pass mountains and rivers where they are not supposed to walk, and to communicate with other people. In this way they will reach a path where they find blind people, deaf people, non-disabled people and walk together, struggle together, build a country for the good of not just disabled people but also for non-disabled people, blind people, deaf people. For me, everyone is equal.’

Wheelchair user in Sucre, Bolivia

Internationally and throughout history, visual representations of disabled people have been rare, and positive representations even more so. When disabled people have been represented, it has usually been negatively, or in such a way as to hide their impairments. The Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial in the US, for example, which was unveiled in 1997, hides the ex-President’s wheelchair under a large cape.

Research into the priorities and aspirations of disabled people was carried out in Bolivia in 2006, using public and community art as a means of determining and conveying the main messages. The work includes the voices of disabled men, women and children living in a range of economic and social circumstances. These were not leaders or the conventionally articulate, but ordinary disabled people talking about their lives, their aspirations and what they would like to change and how. They also expressed their ideas in drawings that were combined into mural designs. Groups worked together to paint murals in prominent places to draw attention to their situation. Inauguration events were held at which local authorities, NGOs, media and the public came to listen to participants explain the messages of the murals.

Six different murals were created, each in prominent public locations. Some examples of this work:

Image 2 - detail from Santa Cruz mural

Image 1 & 2 – Santa Cruz mural On the right hand side (main picture top of page, and detail above) there is a tower with neither steps nor ramps. On top of this tower are people from NGOs and authorities. They are drinking fine wine, with bags of money beside them for disabled people and poor people. A lonely figure reaches out from the tower, but he is too distant and isolated to reach the people on the ground below. At the base of the tower, a blind man bumps into a pillar in his path. A disabled woman searches in the rubbish to find some way of surviving.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the picture, disabled people are organizing for a better world. They are cultivating the ground, building an inclusive school and campaigning to get work, justice, equal rights and recognition of sign language. In the sky above, there is a flock of geese. A member of an association of parents of disabled people described how, to him, the association provides support in a similar way to the solidarity of geese. If one goose has a problem it comes down to earth with two others. They support each other until all are fit to fly again. The sun represents the idea that no person should feel superior to another. The same sun rises and sets for everyone.

Image 3

Image 3 – mural by deaf people A wall divides deaf people from the justice they are working for. A girl looks into a mirror and sees herself as a teacher. The current education system rarely provides teaching in sign language, excluding most deaf people from the opportunity to gain the qualifications they need to become teachers themselves. The person looking into the mirror would teach deaf people about their identity if she could become a teacher. A boy, dressed ready to play, watches a football game from the other side of the wall. He would like to play professional football, but as they use a whistle he is excluded. If only they would use visual signs then he would be able to play.

Image 4

Image 4 – Mural in Tiahuanacu In this mural a bus leaves behind a wheelchair user. Using public transport is a major difficulty for disabled people both in rural and urban areas. Other passengers often abuse those disabled people who do get on buses and complain about the extra time it may take to get a wheelchair user on board.

Image 5

Images 5 and 6 - Tupiza Mural In the centre of this mural is a tower (above), made accessible with ramps. Disabled people have climbed to the top and are calling on others to join them in campaigning for a more just society. The walls of the tower are covered with their messages such as: 'Come, friends with disabilities, come and join us' and 'Law 1678' (The law to protect the rights of disabled people).

Image 6

The full report by Rebecca Yeo and Andrew Bolton, ‘I don’t have a problem, the problem is theirs’: The lives and aspirations of Bolivian disabled people in words and pictures is available from the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds. It was printed by the Disability Press. The analysis is that of the authors. More details of the work, including pictures can also be found at www.artofthematter.org.uk.

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