We must go big, bold & migrant-led, says New Sanctuary Movement

27 January 2017

This is the second instalment of the Still We Dream series, where we’ll hear from grassroots migrant rights and racial justice organisers across the United States. They’ll share how they’re building their movements in Trump’s America and tackling racial privilege not just beyond the movement – but to transform it within. 

The City of Sanctuary movement in the US goes back to 1979, when Los Angeles introduced a policy banning police officers from asking arrestees about their immigration status. Throughout the 1980s this was replicated in many states and hundreds of religious congregations hid and transported refugees fleeing conflict and US-backed death squads in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. At the movement’s height it operated an underground railroad reminiscent of the one that operated during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In the 1980s, more than 500 congregations were secretly hosting refugees, moving them from Mexico to find sanctuary in cities across the US.

Today, there are over 200 sanctuary cities across the US; outposts of a principle treasured and upheld by a powerful, national movement. This week, we’re interviewing Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia (NSM). This migrant-led, inter-faith organisation is developing a rapid response systems to raids, taking the sanctuary movement on to the streets.

Marienna: It’s been a few days now since the inauguration, how are you guys feeling?

Peter: We had our People’s Inauguration on Friday and it felt really good to focus on something active. We had 20 different groups there: Catholics speaking alongside trans people and former sex workers and it felt really good to see everyone coming together like that. In a way, now Trump’s actually here, after all these months of anxiety and anticipation I feel like we can engage, which is good. But it’s a mixed reaction. There’s a lot of anxiety and fear about what he’s going to do and how that will impact our communities – but the flip side is that we’re seeing more people coming out than ever, ready to fight.

Click here and scroll down to see what the People’s Inauguration looked like

Marienna: How did the NSM get started and how has it evolved?

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Peter: Here in Philly we started in 2007: clergy, immigrant members and folks from other migrant rights organisations. It was all volunteers. No one was organising the faith community even though many congregations were being hit by the fallout of immigration policies. We started with education and accompaniment – walking through the process with families facing deportation, making sure they had trustworthy lawyers and going with them to court, or visiting them in detention. That was all about building relationships. We work with 21 congregations at the moment, half are migrants. And the same with our staff, we make sure at least half the board is migrant and becoming more migrant-led has been really important.

It’s one of our key values: that those affected are the experts in what they need. Ultimately we’re working towards a shift in the balance of power in favour of those most marginalised, and if that’s what we want to see we need to do it in our own organisations.

It’s a solidarity structure we’re continually working on – being a mixed organisation of migrants and allies – but how it’s worked developing strategy is that we start with listening campaigns, interviewing migrant members about what issues affect them. And then for each campaign we do strategy retreats with migrant working groups and they set the direction. Then we found we were creating a lot of segregation, with our migrant members and white allies really working in quite separate spaces and we were like ‘well this isn’t really working, we need to figure out how to bring them together.’ So we did shift a little.

Marienna: NSM was central to ending collaboration between local officials and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). How was that victory won and what did it mean for the community?

Peter: This is something that really started after 9/11. The collaboration between immigration agencies and police started under Bush but really escalated under Obama. At first it was opt-in but they kept changing the rules. In Philly our mayor kept stalling, sympathetic in meetings but never taking action. He wanted piecemeal changes, tied very much into this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant’ narrative, but we wanted everyone to be protected from the impacts of collaboration, whether people were pulled over for having a broken tail light or had been arrested for violent crime.

Marienna: Here you have some quarters wanting to protect refugees only or ‘good immigrants’ only, so it’s contentious to come out and say: ‘no, this shouldn’t be happening to anyone and we want protection for everyone.’

Peter: It was and it still is. Some of our members still aren’t 100% on board, though being in a faith organisation really encourages us to reflect on the ideas of forgiveness and redemption. I remember, we were working a lot with the Cambodian community, whose kids were getting beaten up in school and formed gangs to protect themselves, and later got involved in drugs and some violence. That also pushed us to challenge this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant,’and highlighted how many people get left behind by that.

Marienna: Talk about Sanctuary in the Streets.

Peter: Sanctuary in the Streets started under Obama when he announced an escalation of raids against central American communities. The sanctuary offered by a congregation is no good if ICE come and raid your house, you can’t get there. So the idea was to bring the congregation to them, holding an interfaith service outside the house. We have a raids hotline open 24/7, the idea being we get a call and mass-text everyone who’s signed up to show up at the address and show solidarity and shine a light on what’s happening. We had 64 sign up, then Trump won and suddenly hundreds of people were signing up in hours. There’s over 1000 people on the list now. So now we’re running trainings, with people willing to risk arrest also signing up for civil disobedience: to encircle the house or the vans and block their path.

Marienna: what do you think has raised the courage or the determination for so many people to be signing up to risk arrest?

Peter: It was really a response to something much bigger, with Trump coming in and the programme being a concrete way of getting involved in standing up to everything he represents. I think it’s been successful, again because it’s so bold.

It’s disruptive, but in a way that fits with and communicates the peaceful values we hold.

It’s not the whole answer, though. Stuff like Sanctuary in the Streets, which is very defensive, is also very draining and hard to sustain. Moving forwards we need to make sure that while we’re fighting back against Trump we’re doing something positive locally. We learned under Bush that even when things are terrible at the federal level, we can have a real local impact. For example, we have another campaign to stop migrants’ cars being towed because they’re not allowed to have a driver’s license. We had people being left on the side of the road with their kids at 2am. Plus it costs like $1000 to get the car back, which for many of our members is a month’s wages. And we were able to get the city to reinterpret the law in a softer way, to at least give them 30 minutes to call someone to come and get the car. Again, that’s solid, concrete results for people in the here and now and that balance is important: between fighting back but always pushing for something positive.

Marienna: You’re organising across not just boundaries of race and class but also faith, and one of your next priorities is incorporating more mosques into Sanctuary in the Streets.

Peter: We have not been successful in organising mosques. It’s something we’ve been trying for a couple of years, and I think I’ve learned some big lessons about the importance of who you have in the room when you start, because that does form the culture immediately, whether you want it to or not, and many of the things facing the Muslim community are quite unique. To form something and then invite other people and groups into it is much harder.

We are building relationships with mosques but it’s very challenging also because of the level of government spying and intimidation of the Muslim community. There was this one mosque I was working with and I’d swing by for Friday prayers and then suddenly this big story broke about the New York Police department infiltrating mosques in New York and Philadelphia and there I am, this random white dude walking around probably looking like a cop, which wasn’t very helpful. There are very high levels of mistrust, and for very good reason. I think we’d really need to start with that tried and tested method of a listening campaign within the Muslim community to identify what they want to work on, and work on that rather than bringing them into what we’re already doing. We haven’t had capacity for that yet, but it’s something we’re trying to figure out.

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Marienna: What’s going on in American hearts and minds? How did we go from Obama to almost-Bernie to probably-Clinton to Donald Trump?

Peter: When Trump came on the scene 18 months ago, we dismissed him as a clown who’d have his moment and then go away.

Marienna: – that’s what a lot of people here said about Brexit.

Peter: Exactly. I remember reading about UKIP and the resurgence of neo-Nazis in Germany and right wing nationalist groups popping up in Europe, and here we just have Republicans and Democrats, but watching that enabled us to put a name to it, to see: ‘oh, Trump, he’s a nationalist if not a fascist,’ and after that we started taking him a lot more seriously. It’s been a challenge for us to name what he is, but listening to Europe has really helped us to see what’s happening here in the US with a clearer lens.

To answer your question, there’s these census reports showing that in 20 years white folks will lose majority in the States and that has a lot of people very scared. They’re scared of losing their power, and there’s been this trend recently in poor white communities getting that life spans are getting shorter, there’s a lot of drug addiction and for the first time the next generation’s quality of life is worse, not better. People see themselves as victims, somehow.

Marienna: Looking forwards, where do you think the movement needs to be a year from now and what are the key principles that are likely to get us to that critical mass moment?

Peter: Wow, that question makes me realise that with managing crises like we are right now we’re maybe a little too stuck in the moment, putting out fires – Trump, the election – and we do need to keep looking forwards, too.

We’ve been talking about the importance of going beyond defence, beyond ‘Trump’s terrible’, to put forward an alternative vision.

Marienna: Trump’s terrible, but here’s something beautiful.

Peter: Yeah, I like that! And nobody’s really moving on this because it’s really difficult and really contentious, but there are a lot of poor, white people that voted for Trump, and who’s going to start organising them? The trade policies that allowed all the factories in the US to go abroad, they left a lot of people here unemployed and are also devastating the global south, so they migrate to the global north and come up against a really hostile environment. So someone needs to reach out to them and start effecting change there. And nationally, I think we need to do some soul searching, especially with so many people coming out onto the streets for the first time, we need to know: what are we really fighting for? And how do we channel all this energy in a way that’s sustainable?

Marienna: What’s your message for migrant communities over here, and their allies, who might be looking at what you’ve achieved and wondering: how do we get there?

Peter: I feel what’s been most important for us is to be deeply grounded in our values and take risks based on those, whether it’s Sanctuary in the Streets direct action or hiring people who are undocumented. Looking back at the things I’ve been most proud of in our past, we’ve been at our best when we’re really bold. Bold things that connect with people’s values and give people the space to play that out.

Also we recently went to a racial reconciliation workshop, evaluating organisations on a spectrum from ‘no people of colour’ through tokenising through to being led by people of colour and having authentic engagement. Now in our history we definitely moved across that spectrum, and prioritising that and being ready to slow down to protect and strengthen those principles, in the long run we’ve built a stronger organisation because of it. What’s helped more than anything is listening and being ready to change. I mean really make big changes to our organisation according to what migrant members and communities are saying.

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Originally published by Red Pepperand produced for Right to Remain

The extended interview transcript is available on the Right to Remain website

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Refuse. Retract. Resist borders for children!

18 January 2017

The fight against borders in our schools stepped up a notch this week. Against Borders for Children (ABC) hosted its first open conference on Saturday and yesterday they sent an nationwide email, in conjunction with renowned civil liberties group Liberty, to every headteacher in England. The letter requests parents be informed of their right to opt out of the new nationality questions in the census, which even the House of Lords admits has “all the hallmarks of racism”, and retract any data already given without full knowledge of those rights.

To opt out of the nationality data collection on behalf of your children, complete this form and submit it to your child’s school by Thursday this week. For more information, take a look at ABC’s frequently asked questions.
#BoycottSchoolCensus

On Saturday parents and teachers came together with students and campaigners for the 100 strong, first open conference of ABC. The coalition, started in August 2016, has launched for a national boycott of the Department of Education census collecting the country of birth and nationality data of 8 million children. The census promises to make our schools part of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ and would subject children as young as five to the census – and its potentially devastating consequences.

Thanks to public scrutiny brought to bear by ABC, in November the government agreed to remove children under 5 years old from the ‘foreign children database’. But the campaign continues , and is also calling on the government to commit to safeguarding children “from the stigma of anti-immigrant rhetoric and the violence that accompanies it.”

Parents reminded of their rights and schools of their obligations under the Human Rights Act

The Guardian reports that Department of Education officials have an agreement, since June 2015, to share the personal data of up to 1,500 schoolchildren a month with the Home Office.”

Since this policy has come into force, some schools have asked only non-white pupils to prove their nationality, also others to bring in their passports – which updated guidance has confirmed is not only unnecessary, but not allowed.

The letter reads: “The Government provided inadequate and confusing guidance to schools about their duties to provide this data and this has led to misunderstandings between schools, parents and pupils about what they are and aren’t legally obliged to do.”

Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty, said: “It shouldn’t have fallen to campaigners to inform schools and parents about their right to refuse to give this information – but the Department for Education wasn’t going to step up.

“Parents and guardians deserve to know they do not need to be complicit in this Government’s ‘foreign children list’ experiment, which uses children’s education to enforce border controls. If enough of them take a stand, we can make the playground off-limits to border police, defend every child’s right to education and begin to reunite our communities.”

ABC adds: “According to the DfE’s own guidelines, providing this data is optional and does not affect school funding. By the DfE’s own admission, if large numbers of parents refuse to answer the new questions in the January and May censuses, the data collected will be useless and they may be forced to scrap the data collection entirely. This means parents and schools can legally work together to stop this information going to DfE and the Home Office.

If a significant minority continue the boycott then this policy will fall.”

The conference: building a movement against borders for children

As well as raising awareness of these issues and planning future actions, ABC’s first open conference featured broader discussions about ‘the hostile environment’, imaginative discussions about how race and migration should be covered in schools and the grave civil rights implications for everyone’s data privacy rights slowly but surely disappearing.

Representatives spoke from a range of organisations including Liberty, Latin American Women’s Rights Service, Freedom from Torture, the National Union of Students (NUS), defenddigitalme and Southall Black Sisters, giving some indication of how widely the census is seen as a threat to civil liberties and to children’s wellbeing.

NUT general secretary Kevin Courtney highlighted the corrosive effects of government policies that co-opt schools and universities into the surveillance of people they are supposed to be educating, warning of a “culture of fear & compliance” taking root in schools. He also commented on the high proportion of Jewish teachers who object to the data collection on children’s ethnicity, often with reference to the rise of Nazism in pre-war Germany and sentiments like: “this has happened before.”

Both he and NUS president Malia Bouattia linked the census to PREVENT, the government’s ‘counter-extremism’ strategy which co-opted schools to root out ‘radicalisation’ in the same way they are now being drafted in to root out undocumented migrants. Malia strongly condemned both programmes as part of a wider shift to a total surveillance state. Pragna Patel, director of Southall Black Sisters, put it in no uncertain terms: ‘the powers the police are going to have are similar to those in apartheid South Africa.’

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Stories were shared of the enormous impact this has on children’s education; of grades ‘falling off a cliff’ following the deportation of parents or children being taken out of school for years at a time because of their mothers’ fear of Home Office surveillance. Another teacher condemned some schools that have bypassed parents altogether and asked children to submit the data themselves and making teachers ‘unwittingly complicit’.

Young migrants from Let Us Learn, Jawaab and Sin Fronteras shared their experiences of discrimination and their struggles to overcome it, and Ajay from Freed Voices shared his letter to his pre-detention self, adding:

“on paper, this government calls for integration. In reality, they cause division.”

There was also a sobering discussion about the astronomical rise in discrimination and hate crime since the Brexit vote, and the day ended with a strong international focus: a photo taken in solidarity with the Dreamers movement in the USA, ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration on 20th January.

To opt out of the nationality data collection on behalf of your children, complete this form and submit it to your child’s school by Thursday this week. For more information, take a look at ABC’s frequently asked questions. #BoycottSchoolCensus

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Stop Charter Flight Deportations: international weeks of action launch today

9 January 2017

The forced removal of over 50 people from their homes on a charter flight to Jamaica in September last year renewed outrage over the mass forced removals being carried out via charter flights – and heated debate. Those with young children were advised by the Home Office to “do their parenting via Skype” 4,500 miles away. Most had spent their formative years in the UK and have British families. One of the fathers from that plane writes:

“I feel like I’ve been kidnapped.”

“I was one of the 42 people deported, taken from my partner and kids to a country where I have nothing and know no one. I lived in the UK for 17 years, since I was 14… The lawyers in the UK took all my money, and now I have so little I can’t even afford a bed to sleep on. I can’t find a job and I have no family here. My kids in the UK need clothes and food that my wife can’t afford with the small support given to her. I don’t care about myself I just want to help my kids. Why hurt my kids too?” – anonymous blog post, Deported Voices

But stories like this one have galvanised grassroots resistance to charter flight removals and today marks the beginning of two consecutive and international weeks of action against this government’s policy of mass deportation.

What’s it all about?

Charter flights are about the routine and systematic removal, by force, of large numbers of people to a select list of countries, decided and enforced at the highest political level. As many immigration raids and arrests will occur as needed to fill up these massive planes, in order to minimise costs. According to the Corporate Watch report, these mass removals are a motivated by: the need to meet immigration targets; stifling rebellion; as a so-called ‘deterrent’; and as a bargaining chip in foreign policy negotiations with destination governments.

“Charter flights are targeting long-established African, Asian and Caribbean communities in Britain – dividing families and deporting people who have built lives in the UK, who have parents, partners and children here, people who have lived most of their lives in Britain, students who have not finished their courses, those who have sought asylum and protection, people with serious health problems and others who are long-term carers to elderly and disabled relatives. Targeting so many people who are integrated members of their communities and wider society is a divisive act of racist discrimination.” – End Deportations

Forced removal charter flights currently run to Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Pakistan and Albania. Afghanistan is soon to be added to the list. In August 2015 there was an emergency ban on charter flights to Afghanistan due to escalating conflict in the country, but it has now been lifted. As former barrister and renowned immigration expert Frances Webber writes, this is the first formal ‘deal’“to stipulate the return of citizens whose country is in the grip of an intensifying war” although the British government admits that since 2007, “over 3,000 child refugees had been forcibly returned to countries at war once they turned 18 – including 657 to Iraq and over 2000 to Afghanistan.”

What’s going on during the weeks of action?

Several migrant-led demonstrations have been called at key sites across London and are listed below. If you cannot join the protest, please help spread the word.

There are also protests planned in Nigeria and Jamaica, and various actions planned in local communities across the UK. In addition, organisers are appealing to independent groups and individuals to target and apply pressure to Titan Airways, which provides many of the charter planes, and Tascor who provide the ‘escorts’ which independent investigators have found to be employing ‘inhumane’ practices including lying to detainees about whether and when they will be forcibly removed.

TAKE ACTION: See below for the list of key actions planned, but the End Deportations events calendar is being constantly updated – to check for updates click here. You can also email watchdeportations@riseup.net

LEARN MORE: to find out more about charter flights and mass removals, check out our summary of Corporate Watch’s 2017 factsheet based on its report: Collective Expulsion: the case against mass deportation charter flights.

 

Published by Right to Remain

 

Blurring the line between slavery & migration: Operation Magnify goes public with 97 workers arrested

5th January 2017

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Image: The Asian Post

Trigger warning: rape

Trafficked to the UK as a slave, you live an invisible life. Not only are you subjected to slavery by the traffickers, as an undocumented migrant you have very limited rights to healthcare, housing or any social support. If you are being exploited, beaten or abused and you go to the police, you face being arrested, imprisoned and deported back to a home country you risked all this just to escape. And what happens to the perpetrators, who traffic human beings as slaves? They will be “warned that they could face fines.” So, not much.

Just after Christmas, the government revealed 97 arrests had been made at 280 nail bars in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh as part of ‘Operation Magnify’. Most of those arrested were Vietnamese nationals, along with people of Pakistani, Indian, Nigerian, Mongolian, Chinese and Ghanaian origin. The operation is a government initiative to crack down on illegal and slave labour in what the Home Office identifies as ‘risk sectors’ including construction, cleaning, agriculture, car washing and domestic work. It led to 65 companies being threatened with fines of up to £20,000 per worker: that’s less than the maximum fine for fly-tipping.

In 2015 there was a 40 percent increase in the number of people referred to British authorities as potential victims of slavery: over 3,200 people, almost a third of whom are children. But even those referred and recognised as victims are usually just detained and deported in debt and crushing poverty, vulnerable to being enslaved all over again. Globally, nearly 46 million people remain are subjected to slavery and the government estimates there are over 13,000 people enslaved in Britain.

As Tansy Hoskins writes for Vice: “People trafficked to the UK could typically have been promised a job or a new life abroad, but once they arrive they are told they cannot stop working until the debts they have incurred have been paid off. The International Labour Organization estimates that the total illegal profits obtained from the use of forced labour worldwide amount to over $150 billion per year.”

Many expert commentators have complained that the prevailing attitude of one of denial, with immigration officers incentivised to ‘find any possible excuse’ not to identify victims of trafficking. “The problem is it gives traffickers yet another tool of control over their victims,” Jakub Sobik, spokesperson for Anti Slavery told VICE News. “They can tell them ‘if you don’t do what I say I’ll report you, and not only will you be deported but you’ll be prosecuted too’.”

This attitude will be familiar to anyone familiar with the UK asylum process, where the Home Office finds any excuse possible not to identify someone as a refugee. This is due to a shared conflict of interest: the job of immigration officials is to send people home, not find the truth and uphold human rights.

Yet, in service to this anti-immigration agenda, the lines between migration and human trafficking or modern-day slavery are increasingly blurred. Fiona Mactaggart, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern-day slavery, says the Modern Slavery Act passed in 2015 is not being enforced. “The Home Office still sees trafficking as an issue of immigration … these are people who are being sold, they are slaves, but we just look the other way. The state is completely failing in basic human responsibility to these victims.”

The legal merging of slavery and immigration forces some of the most vulnerable into an unforgiving system. Ahmed Aydeed, from law firm Duncan Lewis, describes the repetitive cycle of deportation and enslavement trapping many of his clients. One such client, a young Vietnamese woman, was deported after being found working in a nail bar in 2012 “despite clear indicators that she had been trafficked, which were not explored.”

Just 11% of Vietnamese workers referred to the government as at risk of slavery were offered any kind of support or protection, according to the National Crime Agency, even though they are identified as one of the most vulnerable groups. Mr. Ayeed told the Guardian his client was re-trafficked to the UK the following year, raped and forced into a British brothel. She escaped following a miscarriage and was detained for 16 months without being assessed as a trafficking victim, despite scarring on her body consistent with torture and the fact she told authorities she had been forced to work in a nail bar and brothel where she was repeatedly raped.

“I have seen a lot of women being raped and sold as sex slaves,” she said. “We left Vietnam with the promise that we could find work and make a lot of money. We didn’t know we would have to have sex with anyone … If I was ever sent back to Vietnam [again] … I’d rather die here.”

General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress Frances O’Grady said: “Victims of trafficking should be freed, not arrested… We want bad bosses arrested and fines raised so they are a genuine deterrent. Unions and victims of modern slavery should be helped and encouraged to blow the whistle on exploitation.”

As long as the criminalisation of undocumented workers takes precedence over punishing the people who exploit them, modern-day slavery will continue. Simply condemning it as “the greatest human rights issue of our time” is not enough to clean the hands of a conservative party that, let’s not forget, opposed the abolition of the slave trade back in the 1800s. Its arguments haven’t changed much over the past two centuries, either. The owners of the West Indies slave plantations once held as much sway over parliament as today’s international corporations and high street banks; then, it was the plantation owners considered ‘too big to fail’ or for that matter, to jail.

The global financial crash of 2008 – billions of pound worth of fraud, millions of jobs lost, whole economies ruined – shows where corporate immunity gets us. Undoubtedly, it’s time for governments to stop protecting those with wealth and power at the expense of vulnerable workers, be they British or foreign, documented or not. And what better place to start than providing a sanctuary for those enslaved right here in Britain – something it’s hard to even comprehend the need to ask for in the year 2017?

Thousands gather to demand #ShutDownYarlsWood and #EndDetentionNow!

Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault

6 December 2016

The walls of Yarl’s Wood were surrounded by unprecedented numbers on Saturday as up to 2,000 people from all corners of the country joined a protest at Britain’s most infamous detention centre, mired for years in accusations of systematic psychological torture, deprivation, sexual assault and rape. The protest was organised by Movement for Justice, and was probably the biggest ever at a UK detention centre.

While representing a much broader system of abuse and injustice – with over 30,000 people incarcerated in Britain every year just for not having correct immigration papers – there is a reason Yarl’s Wood looms large over the migration justice movement; a reason no journalists or cameras are allowed inside; a reason even representatives of the United Nations were barred from entering. It holds hundreds of women indefinitely, in prison-like conditions which compound the psychological impact of past trauma; more than half of these women are survivors of rape and sexual violence, one of whom describes her treatment there as “like being raped all over again.”

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Over a year after the chief inspector of prisons called out Yarl’s Wood as being ‘of national concern’, nothing has changed. This year alone three guards were brought up on fresh sexual assault charges, and Theresa May’s administration refused to reveal what it knows about further rape allegations and the actions taken against 28 Yarl’s Wood staff since 2007. Healthcare and food standards are also notoriously poor and reports of racist abuse by staff and self-harm by the women detained there seem endless. Asylum seeking women are also legally more vulnerable with their claims twice as likely to be unfairly rejected.

“I know what the women inside are facing. This place is a house of horror!”

Lucy’s powerful voice carried over the fence towards the centre. “I know what the women inside are facing. This is a house of horror!” Beyond, arms waved through gaps in the windows, which barely open; shut tight like a prison; like the eyes of a nation that can’t bear to face them. The arms waved socks like banners – it’s all they have – and one, a scrap of paper that simply read: ‘helpless’.

Lucy was once detained here; on Saturday, she returned at the head of a 2,000 strong crowd of protesters to demand Yarl’s Wood be shut down.

“There is nothing to compare it to. They don’t treat our people like human beings,”

Lucy continued: “There is nothing to compare it to. They don’t treat our people like human beings,”  She recalled how when guards used to come and gather women up for charter removal flights (secretive mass deportations flights), they would resort to stripping off their clothes – so male guards couldn’t abduct them – and standing together in the middle of the room, gripping each other’s hands to stop anyone being torn away. Hearing that story right outside the foreboding place where she once lived it, was chilling. And as she directly addressed her sisters still inside, her voice broke; she closed her eyes and pushed forwards.

“Please, don’t be scared! They can’t kill you. So don’t be afraid of anything! Fight the fear in your mind. Don’t be afraid to talk about what you are facing… And outside we will all join hands to fight this battle!”

On Saturday, that fight entered a whole new phase. It was the biggest ever march on Yarl’s Wood, and probably as big as the 2005 protest at Dungavel, (during the G8 summit in Scotland), but protesters also reported that the mood has changed. And this is to be expected. The sheer scale of this crisis has forced the most barbaric elements of our asylum and immigration system into the cold light of day: from countless drownings in the Mediterranean and slave-like conditions in Libya, to our own government’s racist and xenophobic Hostile Environment programme.

On top of that, the rising tide of hate crime and racist scapegoating by politicians and the media is opposed by the majority of young people in this country. We understand that demagogues like Theresa May and Nigel Farage, while they also threaten our public healthcare, housing and education systems, will build their power base on one issue: immigration enforcement. And this is also part of what brought such staggering numbers of young people to Yarl’s Wood on Saturday, chanting: “money for jobs and education, not for racist deportations!”

But money is still being wasted on this abuse. Despite growing consensus that urgent, systemic change is required, the government has completely ignored the recommendations of the 2015 All Party Parliamentary inquiry into detention, and its own internal Shaw review, published in January. Since these reports were published, people are now being held for longer periods, more torture victims will be detained, and despite a time limit being introduced on the detention of pregnant women, the government refuses to reveal how many are being held under an “exceptional circumstances” loophole. No wonder people are angry.

The march had snaked across several fields, through the frozen mud to the back fence where it could make itself heard from inside. While some hung a rich tapestry of banners along the outer walls to be viewed from the windows, hundreds of people lined up along the inner fence, scaling ladders, and attacking the fence with kicks and kitchenware.

“The women aren’t allowed social media or news access online and many will be locked away unable to see us,” one student explained. “So this is how we tell them we’re here – and how many of us are here!”

People hung balloons from the fencing and wrote messages of love and solidarity on the walls. Despite freezing temperatures the chanting, dancing and banging went on for hours, spurred on by a rising tide of outrage as the crowd heard live testimony from women inside via the sound system.

“There’s a tuberculosis outbreak inside right now, and the disease is spreading, but no one cares!”

“I want to thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, ever single one of you who came here.”

added an older woman, her voice brimming with gratitude.

And lastly, a young mother:

“We just want freedom! We want our human rights, to go to our children, we want justice! And we won’t surrender, ever! We’re gonna tell the truth!”

In a remorseless move by SERCO, who hold the £70 million contract to manage Yarl’s Wood, this time the centre was put on lockdown, with detainees stopped from moving freely inside to see and hear the protest. This proved to be a mistake. As the sun was setting, hundreds of protesters flooded around the front of the building to the front entrance, to be heard by the women kept locked on that side. As darkness fell, a group of demonstrators managed to pry off the metal plating of the vehicle entrance. The group gained access for a short time; just long enough to make some noise within the walls before retreating. While brief, controlled and peaceful, it was like watching the invasion of some medieval fortress.

Tearing into those walls was a powerful symbolic act. But if we want to see them fall we must declare war on the walls we cannot touch: the borders going up in our hospitals and our schools, our workplaces and communities, dividing us into deserving and undeserving of basic rights; the politicians that hide behind corporate responsibility and the corporations that hide behind the state; the racism that divides our communities and will make excuses for the most appalling abuse.

That will be a longer fight. That will be a harder fight. But we must commit to it now with all our strength, for ourselves, the women at Yarl’s Wood, and the tens of thousands like them being failed by a brutal, unfair system being enforced in all our names.

Originally published by Right to Remain

Stand-off with prison profiteers at the Tower of London

November 17 2016

The Tower of London has been a tourist attraction for as long as anyone can remember. But on 15 November the infamous tower was back in action, opening its doors to host the European Custody and Detention Summit. Despite the talk of progressive reform, the £1,500 per head summit was a closed-door trade fair for private security corporations and their public partners.

Migration justice and refugee rights

In a complete reversal of the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle, the life and liberty of migrants and asylum seekers in the UK are routinely stripped away. Our government detains them more often and for longer than any other European nation – including war refugees, torture survivors and those with special needs. Britain is the only European nation with no time limit on immigration detention and over 30,000 people are incarcerated every year in a system rampant with abuse. Meanwhile, the government continues to ignore its own experts and wriggle out of endless human rights obligations and outsource responsibility for its devastating policies to private security companies like G4S and Serco.

It’s a far cry from the international persona Britain projects as a nation of individual freedom, human rights and equality before the law. But today in the UK, being undocumented means being criminalised while legal aid cuts make access to justice through the courts increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, communities are divided as we are pressured to police each other. Hospital staff, teachers, employers, local authorities, charities, contractors, travel operators and now banks and landlords are all coerced into playing border guard.

Incarceration is a costly and inhumane response to people forced to cross borders by conflict, climate change and crushing poverty – all deep social crises in which countries like Britain have long been and remain deeply complicit. Yet instead of taking responsibility for the consequences of its actions and the lives destroyed by them, the government continues to build new prisons, erect new walls and incarcerate men, women and children for nothing but the “administrative convenience” of the Home Office – and the profit of private security companies.

Protesters made their presence felt

A few days ago, organisers agreed to hear what the summit’s hosts, International Research Networks, had to say. IRN facilitates exclusive networking events for almost every sector undermining climate and social justice, from arms dealers and oil companies to investment banking. Their representative expressed regret that several participants had pulled out after the protest was called – including delegates from G4S and Serco. They also claimed to have cancelled their business matching sessions and some immigration and border enforcement events.

IRN explained their recent decision to enter the industry by reference to its rapid expansion in Britain and Europe. They emphasised the role of reform and NGOs becoming “key providers of criminal justice and security services,” but denied that privatisation helped drive this expansion, in stark contrast to the figures and widespread concern amongst civil society that Britain has become the ‘mercenary kingpin’ of the global private military industry. They refused to reveal how much profit the summit would make and warned that no attempt should be made to enter the tower or block the walkways, reminding organisers that there were armed police inside and that they would “hate to see anything happen” or anyone “fall foul of a broken criminal justice system.”

The protest, called by Reclaim Justice Network, brought together a range of groups campaigning on migrant rights, criminal justice and the arms trade. We turned out before work to stand handcuffed at the entrance for the opening of the summit, demanding an end to privatisation in the sector and calling for ‘social justice not criminal justice’ and returned again that evening. One protester was aggressively confronted by a participant from the summit. “He squared right up to me,” she said, “shouting that he couldn’t understand why we’d be protesting. I suggested he listen to what we were saying.” But the public response was overwhelmingly supportive, if shocked.

The campaign has made a real impact and cut into the summit’s profits. Though the Tower of London trustees refused to cancel, its effect on their public image forced a prompt change of advertising, with all references to the Tower of London as “the world’s original high-security prison” swiftly deleted and an apology for any offence taken. But this isn’t about slogans offending political correctness. It’s about an unjust, racist and violent system making profit from people’s misery.

Social justice not criminal justice

The creeping privatisation of criminal justice should concern us all. Its impact in the USA, where the experiment has been most widespread, has been devastating both socially and economically. It led to a drastic rise in incarceration for non-violent crime – more African American men in prison now than were subject to slavery – and solitary confinement, dangerous conditions and forced labour have become routine. Of course, you are vastly more likely to be affected if you come from a low-income background – even in some UK prisons, more than half of inmates were never taught to read and write properly.

The knock-on impact of all this on families, loved ones and communities is immeasurable and by 2016 even the Department of Justice was issuing damning reports. Obama pledged to end the use of private prisons. Meanwhile, in countries like Norway where the criminal justice system puts rehabilitation before punishment and profit, societies have been rewarded with drastically lower rates of re-offending, creating safer communities and stronger economies as a result.

It is deplorable that at this moment, when more people are forced to leave their homelands than ever before, multi-billion pound companies present militarisation on our borders and incarceration within them as the solution when there are so many just alternatives. Now, the kind of technological ‘security solutions’ promoted within the industry are even being used to keep humanitarian volunteers out of Europe’s refugee camps and obstruct lifesaving operations at sea. And when state-sanctioned violence is outsourced to private companies, creating a profit motive for punishment, the government thinks they can’t be held to account. They “see no evil, speak no evil.” But we see it; the families and communities torn apart, they see it; and we came together to speak against it, because this isn’t the migrants’ crisis – it’s ours. It’s about taking responsibility for the kind of society we’re creating and willing to live in; about asking us what it means to think of ourselves as ‘civilised’. Because that defines who we are, too.

 

The protest was organised and supported by a range of organisations including:Right to Remain. Reclaim Justice Network. SOAS Detainee Support. Campaign Against Arms Trade. The London Latinxs. Brick Lane Debates. Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol). Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants. NUS Black Students’ Campaign. Stop the Arms Fair. Global Justice Now.

Originally published by Red Pepper online

Right to Remain group launches in Sheffield

It started with just a handful of locals, as these things often do. Like many international volunteers, Fran, who has been organising supply runs to Calais over the past year with her Unite Community branch, is turning her attention to the home front: Fortress Britain, where so many people risk and endure so much to reach in what Theresa May proudly calls her ‘hostile environment’. And Rosie, having spent many months collecting donations for Calais, came to realise how much solidarity work was needed here at home after attending a Right to Remain workshop.

On 19th October I met them both in a cafe in Sheffield, just a few days after I joined the team at Right to Remain. These women had ambitions to launch a new local group to fill the gaps in Sheffield’s solidarity infrastructure, and had organised an open meeting for existing volunteers and interested locals. Right to Remain has supported the development of local groups like this for more than twenty years – but this time things were a little different: they wanted to build a group based on Right to Remain’s model of mutual aid and practical solidarity. “It feels really good to be part of something so collaborative, that’s about humanity and solidarity,” Rosie explained.

At the meeting hall, I met her dad, Tom Heller. His parents had been refugees from Nazi persecution in Europe. They had fled together at the last moment, forced to leave everyone and everything behind.

“When they arrived in England they were put into a detention camp,” Tom said softly. “They never talked about what happened there… I don’t have to say anything else about why I want to help.”

Tom had been to Right to Remain’s annual gathering in Manchester a few weeks earlier and shared his thoughts with the group. “Being there helped me imagine that it’s possible to create a community of common interest and that together we can actually do something positive. This is a moment of enormous social upheaval, forcing mass migration all over the world and so many challenges for us here, too. How we react will define us as nations, communities and individuals. But as an individual, it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed. It can be paralysing, that sense of: ‘what can I – or we few alone – really do about all this suffering?’ But at that national gathering I felt a strong common bond was formed. People from all over the world, many of whom have had experience of displacement and seeking asylum, made personal contact with each other and together we looked for ways to overcome.”

What followed at the Sheffield meeting was similar. More than thirty people attended from a range of backgrounds: students and pensioners, those seeking asylum and locals from the community. Much of the time was spent exploring their questions. We talked about how Right to Remain would support and complement existing local groups; the range of different ways everyone could contribute; and the importance of local work linking into a national network to share knowledge, resources and mutual support.

Michael from Right to Remain also shared a little of the organisation’s history. Starting as the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, it represents over 20 years of solidarity work. Over time, with the system becoming more treacherous to navigate, campaigning against individual deportations simply wasn’t achieving enough.

“I joined Right to Remain in 2009 and much of the work was on our helpline for people in increasingly desperate situations. Sometimes we were able to delay deportations – but it was heartbreaking, frustrating work because it just wasn’t winning people what they needed: the right to remain.”

So, those involved decided to re-define their approach. They travelled to migrant communities and the solidarity groups that supported them across the country, to find out what they really needed. The overwhelming response was: solidarity, not charity; and early-stage support, because when things go wrong at the start it’s often impossible to undo the damage. Part of what defines Right to Remain is this understanding: that the system is set up to send people back, not to find the truth.

That’s how the toolkit was born: Right to Remain’s comprehensive, clear and honest guide to the British immigration and asylum system. The toolkit now forms the heart of the training Right to Remain offer to migrants, asylum seekers and their allies, since it was first tried in Calais back in 2011. In European camps I’ve seen first-hand what a difference such guidance can make. People are thrown into a bewildering legal system it takes English-speaking law students years to get their heads around. Often there’s no independent advice on regulations, but failing to obey can mean assault, family separation and detention.

Many participants at the Sheffield meeting were keen to attend the training session Right to Remain will host there on 10th November, for supporting people through their initial asylum interview. Lisa, from Right to Remain, shared her conversation with someone seeking asylum in Liverpool the previous day: “He told me, ‘When you go into that interview, they all tell you that you’re this thing; this thing that you’re not, because they don’t believe you, they don’t believe your story. And then you start to become this thing, that the Home Office says you are.’ And so our approach is all about fighting back for the person that person actually is; it’s about having people around you who say I believe you and I stand by you.”

I felt her conviction being quietly taken up by the rest of us. “And he’s about to get a decision, so it’s not an abstract point for him whether he gets the right to remain,” she continued.

“But he said ‘even if I get refugee status, the way the Home Office treats you, if that’s all you have… it changes you.’ That’s why we need to see mutual support happening all over the place. It’s not just the person going through the process that’s important in this approach, it’s about us as well, it’s about having stronger communities at the end of it. And that’s the kind of thing that really threatens people like Theresa May.”

Originally published by Right to Remain