Two men squatted on the dock, in the shadow of a London policeman. I do not know if they had just arrived in one of the rust red shipping containers stacked along the riverside, or if they had simply walked off a ship.They might have been dressed for a lad's night out, but resembled more the aftermath, their t-shirts yellow with dried sweat, hair overgrown and oily. Only when they stood up did I see how thin they were. The policeman handed me his notebook and asked me to sign my name beneath a scrawled sentence: TWO KURDS RECEIVED IN GOOD ORDER.
If it hadn't happened, I could never have made it up.
It was the summer of 2002. Growing unrest in Iraq was driving Kurds from their homelands. I do not know what route these two young men had taken to arrive on Tilbury docks, but like most of the men I saw, they had contracted scabes on the journey. They sat in the back of my Home Office Vauxhall Astra, stinking of rotting feet and scratching themselves raw as the traffic on the M1 slowed, and Birmingham seemed to get further away, not closer.
I had been out of employment and responded to an advert in a New Street temping agency window: WORK WITH REFUGEES. GOOD SOCIAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE SKILLS REQUIRED. TRAINING GIVEN. The 'training' in Croydon was an afternoon of powerpoint graphs which utilised a dizzying variety of 'transition' options, but told me little about the purpose of the National Asylum Support Service (or NASS). Over the next few months it would transpire no-one was quite sure what NASS should be doing.
The traffic between Tilbury and Birmingham would have bothered me less if the English man sitting in the passenger seat wasn't covered in Chelsea Head Hunter tattoos. Most of these could not be seen beneath his Reservoir Dogs suit, but when he hung his arm out of the window to air a cigarette in the traffic fumes, the 'Blood and Honour', pseudo nazi symbols, showed beneath his cuffs. He was my 'close protection officer' - or CPO in the acronym heavy language of the HO.
NASS employed local security companies up and down the country who provided ex-doormen to accompany its 'support officers', as we visited refugees awaiting asylum case decisions. It was an interesting feature of Birmingham's CPO's, that a good number of them came from London, and while they very much supported Chelsea, they very much did not support the idea of asylum.
In the rear-view mirror, I could see the eyes of our Kurds longing for my CPO's cigarette. But this was a man who knocked on the doors of asylum seeker accomodation as if he wanted to knock them down, who had all the interview skills of a concentration camp guard, and who had once confessed to me that if it was up to him, he'd bomb all the Arab bastards back into the stone age. He was not amused when I suggested we pull off the motorway at Watford Gap and treat our new arrivals to a square meal.
On a normal day, new arrivals were not our business. On a normal day, my Vauxhall Astra saw only the back streets of Perry Barr, or Winson Green, the high rises and red brick terraces of refugee Birmingham. We travelled with lists of names from the Home Office central database, cross checking the inhabitants of hundreds of addresses with lists provided by accomodation providers.
The first job was to establish refugees were living where listed, then to see whether they had received food vouchers, or indeed, any contact from the accomodation providers who were partly responsible for connecting them to services. Had the refugee attended their first screening interview in Croydon, or even received the letter informing them of the date?
It was a clever feature of the Home Office asylum seeker 'dispersal' policy, that no matter whether a refugee had been dispersed to Aberdeen or Bangor, they had to travel to Croydon for their first interview. Add to this the fact that refugees are forbidden to work while claiming £35 per week, and many of them failed to understand how they were supposed to get to Croydon. 'Sharing the burden on the South East' through dispersal, had only made things more expensive for the government, and more difficult for refugees.
Some of the Birmingham refugees were newly arrived and hadn't even met a solictor, some had been waiting for decisions on their asylum applications for months, or even years. That is, years, in which they were to exist on £35 per week.
Understandably, some had given up and abandoned their accomodation in search of jobs in a shadow economy.There is no doubt some of the people we visited were working, supported by strong networks of migrant communities who no longer required, or never had required, asylum status. But for such migrants, it makes little sense to use the asylum system, to risk visibility and removal for the sake of so little. Other, frustrated young men, had taken out their anger on the accomodation itself. In some houses, holes had been punched in the doors, or fires had licked the walls black.
I had imagined when I started the job that I might be satisfying a liberal instinct to - you know - actually help people, but it soon became clear the Home Office were mostly interested in passing on the data we collected to the Immigration Service, who might then identify 'failed' asylum seekers, or those who couldn't navigate the unnavigable system, and could therefore be removed from the country. The refugees knew this, and came to hate young temps turning up in their hired Vauxhall Astras with clip boards and bouncers.
At Watford Gap my Kurds nibbled at their Burger King Whoppers with little enthusiasm. They scratched at furious scabs on bony elbows and withering arms. They spoke no English, so I couldn't ask them if there was anything wrong with the meal, (although it did occur to me that a shrunken stomach would find it hard to digest normal amounts of food). My CPO had no trouble with his own expenses-paid burger, but did keep reminding me this rest stop was totally against protocol. I wondered what protocol he meant. We shouldn't have been transporting refugees in the first place.
NASS seemed to have been devised by a man suffering a nervous breakdown in response to a situation beyond control. On reaching the country and claiming asylum, refugees were supposed to be allocated some kind of accomodation. But despite the number of empty properties in the UK, and despite the ability of analysts to predict increases in refugee numbers, the government was, and is, never prepared. We do not see the world as our problem.
Responding to refugees is, in the first instance, a matter of housing, something British governments, leaving everything to the marketplace, have failed to deliver adequately to natives, let alone new arrivals.
The Blair government's instinct was to create a market for refugees, to use a profit incentive, to part privatise rather than use the full power of the state. This meant my two kurds were headed for an over-crowded property run by a private landlord who acted as part of a conglomerate which monopolised the government contracts. Nearly all the properties I visited in Birmingham were owned by Mr 'X'. On some days it felt as if half the city were run by this man, who got paid whether his homes were empty or full, who got paid for rooms seething with damp, or without working electricity and functioning sanitation.
A lucky few lived in good houses - and there were responsible providers too - but most of the properties I visited were surely below the standards expected by any council - adults sleeping four or five to a room. I did on one occasion, meet an employee of Mr 'X who turned up in Selly Oak in a Mercedes XL, stepping out of the car, and straight out of central casting, with gold bracelets and a gold-plated mobile phone. I should be careful of jumping to conclusions, but investigations since have revealed millions were made by accomodation providers at the time.
The desperation and misery of refugees aren't just a source of profit for people smugglers sending them to their deaths. They are a source of profit to privateers providing for them in Europe.
My CPO was convinced our Kurds would make a bid to escape at Watford Gap. I wouldn't have blamed them if they did. I was taking them to Birmingham, to an over-crowded accomodation where they would join other scaberous souls, where they would live on £5 a day for up to 12 months, maybe more, unallowed to even find useful employment or the dignity that comes with it, waiting in a months long queue for an interview in Croydon which they couldn't afford to attend.
Tony Benn said that a government's treatment of refugees is a true sign of how it would treat the electrorate if it could get away with it. While a Brit on income support can claim almost £60 a week, an asylum seeker who cannot work, can still only claim £35, the same amount as nearly 14 years ago. Last week, Local Government minister David Simmonds asked how we could put refugees ahead of our own people in the housing queue. We are not. And he should know this.The rooms rented from private and social housing landlords are paid for by central government, not local authorities, and asylum seekers cannot even join council housing queues until they are given status, in which case, they join like anyone else, at the back.
If the support system for refugees works at all, it works because of the charities. It is the charities who often end up paying for a refugee's travel to Croydon, who help facilitate interviews with solicitors and advocate for rights. I was reminded of this last week, as people pledged to open their homes to Syrian refugees. I wondered where, in the current dispensation, such an act of generosity would fit into the system? Perhaps, for a short period of time, to alleviate pressure on some of the refugee centres used when even the profitting landlords cannot find space? Perhaps to give refugees a better standard of accomodation than the landlords provide? In the end, this generosity will do little to change a broken system, even though that little must be done. Burgers aren't much, but a warm welcome is the best start we can give to anyone who is destitute.
As photo-journalism and social networks did their bit to turn the tide of Government policy last week, I was reminded of how my work at NASS had connected me to the world. And how difficult it can be to maintain a sense that we are part of a larger humanity, beyond the identity of a tribe and a nation. Communities thrive on proximity. Most refugees arriving here do not want to be dispersed from their own refugee community, and value its bonds as much as a Chelsea fan values the community of his team. But the closeness of these communities can also be a sponsor of fear and isolation. The refugee crisis is an opportunity to renew our belonging with a wider world. To affirm the bonds of humanity. To think not just in terms of national policy, but European, and global policy.
In 2002, no-one was talking about the Kurds I saw arriving every day. No-one was talking about our asylum policies. Now that we are, we need to keep talking, and we need to keep making our government listen.
The right wing press is fond of telling us how much we are spending on asylum seekers, especially those who are in the process of appeal - those it casts as refugees who have been refused asylum, and therefore are no more than 'immigrants'. These articles never mention the bar to work, or the fact that, having waited for years on appeals, many asylum seekers simply give up, leave their known address and become usefully employed. It was true in my experience that some economic migrants posed as asylum seekers to take advantage of free accomodation. But this is specific, systemic problem that needs to be tackled. Not a an excuse to evade the difficult business of identifying and giving refuge to peope who are really in need.
Shouldn't we simply accept that if our system has failed a refugee, it might be better to let them get on with their lives, as taxed citizens? The Red Cross estimates the current system costs each taxpayer in the country £5 a year. Wouldn't we be willing to pay more? Shouldn't we lobby our government to allow asylum seekers to work? To become useful members of society? At least until their cases have been decided? Shouldn't we separate the problems of our migration system from those of our asylum system?
I don't know what happened to the two Kurds I met on Tilbury dock in the summer of 2002. I bought them a packet of cigarettes as we left Watford Gap and let them smoke in the back of the car. "Welcome to Birmingham," I said with a bit of local pride as we hit the M6. "Thankyou," one of the men managed to smile. I have never felt good about that smile. I don't think he did either.
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