The Cast. Lydia Besong's play "How I became an Asylum Seeker". Photograph by Shaheda Choudhury.

As this blog reaches it’s first anniversary the stories that have been whispering in my ear over the past twelve months are drawn together: 

The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike. The forthcoming election. War and refugee movements. The unsavoury ways in which political parties capitalise on people’s fears about immigration.  A lack of funding for investigative journalism, censorship – and  recurring, stereotypical images of asylum seekers in the press.   

 Attending the “Arise and Shine” woman asylum seekers self-advocacy event in Manchester last week addressed all of these narratives.   

 The play and workshops were billed as a ‘Professional Development Opportunity’.  As a trained teacher in Adult Education as well as a journalist I had  a critical eye on how the event was organised. I was impressed from the start.   

The picture on the left, (copyright Shaheda Choudhury) – shows a cross-section of the audience as viewed from the Zion Centre gallery.   

Amongst the two hundred delegates – I found Sure Start staff, the manager of a hostel for homeless women, at least one NHS manager, members of the police force and the manager of a council unit responsible for child protection. Concrete proof that this event would be  reaching and educating vast sections of the community.   

"How I became an Asylum Seeker". Drama by Lydia Besong. Photograph Shaheda Choudhury.

 Having conducted interviews with hunger strikers at Yarl’s Wood and researched the fast-track asylum process – I found the story depicted through drama was tragically familiar.   

A woman and her family encounter extreme violence and oppression in their country of origin. If she is to save herself and her child the woman is forced to leave. And so she begins to navigate U.K. border control and the asylum system.   

The play is authentic. The actors tentative perhaps – but their performance will surely gain in strength as the cast tour other towns and cities such as Liverpool.    

"Taking the Details" Photograph by Shaheda Choudhury. Drama by Lydia Besong

For me the most telling moment of the play came when the main character reached an immigration detention centre. The actor in the yellow jacket is playing the role of the employee of a private security company in charge of taking the details of what has happened to our detainee.  

At first, I didn’t think this photograph was a particularly good one, simply because the clip board obscures the face of our main character. But then maybe it conveys the essence of the scene. The security officer is asking the woman for her mother’s date and year of birth. The woman says she doesn’t know – says she is too stressed to remember. Not just her face is obscured by the form the officer is filling in. The truth of her story is hidden too.  The audience quickly realises she is in danger of being dehumanised by the process.   

This is the violence of the fast-track asylum process. People are put in a position where it is extremely difficult or impossible for them to share their truth. And this is how our government makes judgements about their future.  

Watching this scene – I put myself in our main character’s shoes for a moment. I realised I don’t even know my own mother’s exact date of birth and would not be able to give that information anyway. How much more difficult would it be to hold things together and communicate clearly in the aftermath of rape, violence and the trauma of being separated from loved ones – in a language which is not your mother tongue?  

Responses to the Play "How I became an Asylum Seeker". Photograph Shaheda Choudhury

 In the hour long workshop that followed the performance we were asked for reactions to the play. You can see some of these in this picture:  

We were also asked to pinpoint how our perceptions had changed as result of watching the performance.  

Each of the workshop groups was attended by a member of the cast.  

In this next photograph I’m discussing perceptions and issues raised. One of our groups included a Sure Start worker.  A lack of child care hits asylum seekers and mothers with children under three particularly hard. Asylum seekers are not entitled the free fifteen hours a week provided by the state that other women living here can access as a matter of course. 

Women spoke of how their independence had been curtailed by the fact that they were not allowed to do paid work. In countries of origin it was not unusual for women to be the bread-winners in their families.  

Some delegates at the workshop had not known about the voucher system for asylum seekers and how it works. Asylum seekers can only use their vouchers at certain stores. They are often asked for I.D. On a practical level this means that each time you go shopping you run the risk that the whole store finds out that you are seeking asylum. Often the assistant holds up their hand and shouts for assistance from the supervisor. Vouchers cannot be used on public transport.  

Workshop. Picture by Shaheda Choudhury. Photograph by Shaheda Choudhury

One of the cast members I spoke to had a child aged one. I know from personal experience how challenging the birth of a child can be for a mother and her family.  

I’ve heard some mums describe this experience as nothing less a “bombshell dropping” on their lives. How strong then, did this brave young woman need to be – who was not only bringing up her child with confidence  – but who was also still dealing with the trauma of the violent situation she had left behind.  

Some of the issues raised. Picture by Shaheda Choudhury

Of the two hundred so so delegates that attended the conference – I was the only person displaying  press I.D. Why? This is a significant question, especially in a city like Manchester, where there are literally thousands of journalists, reporters, photographers and film-makers.
We know that editors and managers of newspapers are cutting back on travel expenses and training costs.
I mention all this as part of my virtual ‘feedback form’ for WAST and GAP the organisations who organised this event. I really hope that you’ll steam ahead with this important work – and succeed in getting more journos and perhaps the NUJ and even the entertainment union (BECTU) on board.
 Popular misconceptions about how journalists work (and how their work is funded) are directly relevant to the issues at hand. When I said I was a “journalist” the taxi driver who dropped me off at the Zion Centre asked me for a  “diamond ring”. Perhaps he’d been reading too many celebrity magazines. I didn’t tell him that in fact I wasn’t getting paid for attending the WAST event or indeed, for writing this blog post. And that’s part of the problem. Funding for quality journalism.
Managers of newspapers are increasingly curtailing the frequency with which reporters are sent out to the field and covering such events is often left to intrepid freelancers like me. We can be fairly certain a lack of access to professional development opportunities like this affects the quality of reporting in the long run.
 Immigration and asylum issues can be  complicated. If your boss says they can’t afford to send you to an event, you cannot be there in person and have to use the telephone and the internet – there’s a danger that your information will be second-hand.

Women Asylum Seekers Together. Picture by Shaheda Choudhury

Members of the media, the unions and the voluntary sector should be working together to counteract dangerous and misleading stereotypes through training. This type of event is really needed.
I’ll leave you with a few pointers about some really handy leaflets I picked up at the event.
The first one is called: “”Mobiles, money and mayhem. The Facts and Fibs about Asylum – a witty pop-it-in-your-pocket-guide” available from who will come and give a free talk if your organisation fancies finding out a bit more about asylum in the U.K. This page debunks the myth: “All asylum seekers are blowing their benefit on leather jackets”.

Mobiles, Money and Mayhem. The facts (and fibs) about Asylum. Picture by Frances Laing. Publication by

In reality “Because asylum seekers are not allowed to work they’re given basic  financial support to live on. In Britain if you’re a single person aged 25 or over and on Income Support you’re entitled to get £57.45 a week. But if you’re an asylum seeker in Britain you get 30% less than that. You get £40.22 a week. Which you’d probably want to spend on some of life’s essentials, like say, food rather than blowing it all on a leather jacket…
All asylum seekers come into the country with clothes on their back, and maybe those sporting a leather jacket got it from a market in Kabul rather than at the January sales…”

"WAST recommendations for good practice for agencies working with women asylum seekers". Picture by Frances Laing

The last picture in this blog post features a booklet of interest to many of us. The WAST recommendations for good practice for agencies working with women asylum seekers. Ideal reading material for Gordon Brown or Phil Woolas the immigration Minister…   

“Women’s Asylum News” Issue 88, published by the Refugee Women’s Resource Project tells us: 
 ” A culture change in the asylum system is urgently needed to ensure that women asylum seekers receive a comparable standard of treatment to women settled in the U.K. in similar situations”. 
Since the Women’s Asylum Charter was published in June 2008 at asylum Aid’s AGM the UKBA Chief Inspector stated that:
“gender will be a golden thread running through his inspections”.
Something tells me we’ve got a long way to go. Arise and Shine seemed a brilliant way to kick-start the culture change that is so desperately needed.
Useful websites:
The WAST and GAP event was funded by North West Together We Can.
The play “How I became an Asylum Seeker” was written by Lydia Besong and directed by Magdalen Bartlett. The event is being filmed for a DVD which will become part of an awareness training pack.

See this piece published by the Guardian online today:

Israeli air strike overnight

In this VisionOntv video – released on YouTube just eight hours ago – representatives of the organisation “London No Borders” and SOAS detainee support group give eye witness accounts of conditions at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. They have been visiting each week and explain how important it is to support a strike and how this strike and previous strikes have changed government policy and contracts.

London No Borders website can be found at this link:

London No Borders


Women Asylum Seekers Together Banner. Wednesday 24th. March. Manchester

I travelled to Manchester yesterday to attend an event organised by “Women Asylum Seekers Together” (WAST).
 There were about 200 people there. We watched a play called “How I became an Asylum Seeker” by Lydia Besong and attended a workshop afterwards. As you can see from the WAST website, the High Court has recently ordered that Lydia is not be removed from the U.K. 
I’m not content with writing a single blog post about this event – there is so much to say about it and I need to order my thoughts – wait for more photographs – and sort my papers out. I’m aware that lots of people reading this blog might appreciate having this information quickly though – so I’ve decided to do a whole series of reflective posts about the organisation involved, about the play, what we talked about and how I think it relates to the events of the past six weeks at Yarl’s Wood and my previous posts.
The event was billed as awareness-raising and a professional and reflective development opportunity. I’m going to kick off in this first blog post of the series with some background about the organisation: “Women Asylum Seekers Together”.
Women Asylum Seekers Together was “founded in 2005 following the initiative of “failed” asylum seeking women whose applications for asylum had come to the end of their legal process and who faced potential deportation.
This group of women came from diverse backgrounds. Some belonged to poor families back home while others came from a more privileged background, some had never been to school, while others had received university education, some were still in their teens while others were already grandmothers. They spoke a number of different languages and belonged to a number of African and Asian countries.
Their reasons for fleeing their countries were as varied too. The list was long and bleak. Domestic violence, rape, political affiliation, the threat of honour killing, forced marriage, Female Genital Mutilation, sexual orientation e.t.c
But what had brought these women together was the fact that they had all been persecuted in their own countries, often because they were women in societies that did not accept the rights of women, their governments and in most cases their own families had not been willing or able to offer them protection and they had not received the protection and the support they had come searching for in the U.K.” (WAST).

Yarl’s Wood detained baby for 100 days according to a report due to a report published tomorrow and quoted in “The Guardian” newspaper today.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers said:

“”What was particularly troubling was that decisions to detain, and to maintain detention of, children and families did not appear to be fully informed by considerations of the welfare of children, nor could their detention be said to be either exceptional or necessary,” she says.

 See this link for more: Yarl’s Wood detained baby for 100 days

and this BBC report

Response from Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. 19th. March, 2009

Received a response today from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Joan Meredith and I made a joint citizen’s complaint about the letter Meg Hillier wrote to all M.P’s. For the text  of the letter see this previous post: 

Parliamentary commissioner for Standards

The Commissioner “considers complaints where the complainant has provided sufficient evidence to justify an inquiry into whether a particular Member has breached the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament and its associated rules“. 

Unfortunately – the letter tells us the Commissioner is unable to help in this instance. The reason being “the Commissioner has no powers to investigate the actions of a Minister acting as a Minister, or indeed the expression of a member’s views and opinions. It follows he will not be able to look into your complaint“. 

Are we seriously calling this a democratic process? Does that mean that Ministers can say anything they want to say, including making statements that are factually incorrect or misleading? Isn’t there anyone who calls them to account? This letter is positively Orwellian.  

Thankfully there are other democratic mechanisms at work in the Yarl’s Wood matter. Firstly Public Interest lawyers have succeeded in securing a judicial review see this Guardian article: 

Court allows judicial review over Yarl’s Wood detention 

Secondly, medical staff at Yarl’s Wood detention centre are also having to deal with complaints made to the General Medical Council. See this Guardian piece:   

Yarl’s Wood Doctor’s investigation 

“It is now also clear that Meg Hiller’s scathing letter to MPs was not the result of an investigation but a product of the same culture of disbelief and contempt that permeates the whole system of immigration detention.” (Public Interest Lawyers)

See this link: Human Rights Lawyers lodge legal action over abuse claims.

Tuesday 16th. March, 2010
To: Mr. John Lyon
Officer of the Parliamentary Commission for Standards
House of Commons

Dear Sir,

We should like to make a joint citizen’s complaint regarding the content of a letter sent by Meg Hillier to all M.P’s. We feel Meg Hillier has misled our elected representatives in this matter and would like to point out the following statement in Meg Hillier’s letter in particular as a cause for concern:

“I should make it clear that detention is only used when people have refused to leave the country voluntarily despite support being offered for them to do so, and we have to enforce that removal. Detention is a vital tool in the removal of failed asylum seekers, ex-foreign national prisoners and others whose application to stay have been fully considered by the UK borders agency and the independent courts, BUT HAVE FAILED”.

In this statement to parliament Meg implies that all the people in Yarl’s Wood have failed in their court cases. This is misleading. Not just for Members of Parliament – but for the general public. In the second letter attached – (see references in the second letter attached and addressed to Frances Laing) Meg Hillier openly admits that Verna Joseph for example ‘won’ her case in January. Despite the fact that the Home Office is appealing on Verna’s case – Verna is therefore not someone who has “failed” in the courts as Meg Hillier seeks to imply.

Put simply we believe someone who has won their appeal at tribunal cannot accurately be described as having failed in the courts. We believe Verna is not the only detainee in this situation and that Meg’s statement to parliament is therefore simply untrue. We feel our elected representatives have a particular duty to provide the general public with accurate information. As citizens and in the current climate, we feel it is very important to guard against perpetuating stereotypes of this nature. We thank you for considering this matter.

Yours faithfully,
Frances Laing
p.p. Joan Meredith.

Updates on the Yarl’s Wood hunger strike and the fast track asylum process.

The following press release was received from hunger strikers today:

“This is to inform the authorities and the public that the on-going hunger strike is to be suspended on the 19 March 2010 at 9.00 am. We are giving the authorities and immigration the chance to look at all the issues raised before and during the strike. We are hoping that management at Serco will review problems at Yarl’s Wood. Also, we expect immigration to carefully look at the cases of women held at the detention centre.

The suspension will last for three weeks until something is done to all the issues that had been raised. Our position will be reviewed on suspension of the hunger strike if there are no changes to the problems and issues. Nobody wants to go on hunger strike, but if the authorities and immigration do not listen to us then we can resume the hunger strike on the 9 April 2010. This letter will be sent with a copy of the problems that we face at Yarl’s Wood.

 We are demanding the following actions 

*There should be a full investigation into what happened during the peaceful protest on 8 February 2010.

*Any travel arrangement for the women who were involved with the protest should be suspended until after the investigation.

*End the frustrations, physical and mental torture at the centre

*Allow enough time and make resources available to residents who need to fully present their cases.

*To end all false allegations and misrepresentations by the UKBA regarding detainees in order to refuse bail or temporary admissions.

*Access to appropriate medical treatment and care as in the community, access to edible and well cooked food, cancel weekly mobile phones charges and allow phone connections, with camera and recording facilities to back up cases.

*To stop the forceful removal and degrading system of deportation of detainees

*To put law into practice, European rules governing standard of conditions of detention for migrants and asylum seekers and the length of time in detention.

*Detention should be by a standard procedure prescribed by law, authorized by judicial authority and be subjected to periodic judicial reviews.

*To end the detention of children and their mothers, rape survivors and other torture victims, to end the detention of physically, mentally sick people and pregnant women for long period of time.

* Stop the fingerprinting and taking photograph of our visitors (Even real prisons don’t do this to visitors)

*To end the separation of children from their mothers being detained whether in detention or by destitution.

*There should be an interpreter for non English speaking women in the wings to help them with their queries.

*To end the detention of women after serving time in prison.  Women served their sentence they should not be punished again by detention or deportation.

* The extortion of Yarl’s Wood shop must end. The shop charges us extra 20p per item, even though the centre knows we have no money.

* To abolish the fast track system, in order to give asylum seekers a fair chance with their application, while understanding the particular needs of victims of torture, and access to reliable legal representation which the fast track system denies.

 *There should be more female officers and black officers. The centre is 80 percent black detainee and only female offices should search our rooms.

*There are very little activities in the centre. There are 12 computers (very slow to use), 10 chairs in the arts room with small material to work with. This is suppose to cater for more than 400 women. The library have no popular books and all the books are very old. We are not allowed to order books from other library.

*To end the repeat detention of women granted temporary admission while reporting or signing after a short period out of detention.

*To a set period of time allowed to detain women, which should be no longer than one month, while waiting decision either from UKBA or court proceedings.

*Finally instead of detention of foreign nationals, there are alternatives to detention stated by the *Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). ‘The detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants in Europe ‘, Adopted on the 28th January 2010, extracts  below.

9.1.1.       detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants shall be exceptional and only used after first reviewing all other alternatives and finding that there is no effective alternative; placement in special establishments (open or semi-open); registration and reporting; release on bail/surety; controlled release to individuals, family members, NGOs, religious organizations, or others; handover of travel and other documents, release combined with appointment of a special worker;

Full Text: Council of Europe – Parliamentary Assembly Resolution 1707 (2010)1
The detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants in Europe  
This letter is sent to the following organisations and individuals
Immigration, UKBA, Crossroadswomen, national coalition of anti deportation campaigns (ncadc), All African women’s group, BID, Liberty, Black women’s rape Action project, Member of Parliment, Medical Justice, Legal Action for Women, Amnesty International, No Borders, Action for women

Copy Ends.

According to the Guardian/ Observer online:

“Sonya Sceats, a spokeswoman for one charity that carries out medical assessments for the government, told the Observer: “It’s very clear there is a systemic and increasing problem here. The corollary of …dismissal of independent medical evidence is that the protection [asylum] claim is invariably rejected and this means a survivor of torture is at risk of being returned to further torture or at risk of detention.”

The allegations come in the wake of strong criticism last week of the UK Border Agency, which was condemned for failing to investigate claims of mistreatment by failed asylum seekers in abuse allegations up to July 2008. Ministers now plan to review the use of force against asylum seekers by British security guards after a Border Agency report on abuse conceded that serious injuries were suffered by detainees who had been handcuffed or physically restrained”.

For the full article see this link:

Letter from Meg Hillier at the Home Office. Dated 11th. March. Received today. Picture by Frances Laing. To see the full text of the letter click on the image. Page 1 of 2.

New Labour want to be seen as tough on immigration. They think this allows them to be dishonest . Of course – it doesn’t. In an article for “The Friend” the international Quaker journal published in last week’s  print edition  – I wrote:

“With the launch of Early Day Motion 919 in support of Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers this struggle for truth and justice has reached parliament. In a backlash – Meg Hillier Junior Minister in the Home Office wrote to every M.P. claiming the media were “misreporting”…

…I believe Hillier’s letter was dishonest.”

I queried Meg’s statements for a second time via David Hanson at the Ministry of Justice (see previous posts). In her original letter to all M.Ps and parliament – Meg wrote:

“I should make it clear that detention is only used when people have refused to leave the country voluntarily despite support being offered for them to do so, an dwe have to enforce that removal. Detention is a vital tool in the removal of failed asylum seekers, ex-foreign national prisoners and others whose application to stay have been fully considered by the UK borders agency and the independent courts, BUT HAVE FAILED. The cases of those in detention continue to be examined, however individual detainees frequently prolong detention and removal with the use of judicial reviews or obstructive behaviour”.

In her statements to parliament Meg implies that all the people in Yarl’s Wood have failed in their court cases. This is misleading. Not just for our Members of Parliament – but for the general public – how many people know enough about immigration detention systems to fully understand the implications and background to this? If journalists are good for anything we are supposed to support education for true democracy…so I’m going to try to explain this to you all in plain english:

In the letter I received from the Home Office today Meg Hillier openly admits that Verna Joseph ‘won’ her case in January.

Despite the fact that the Home Office is appealing on Verna’s case – Verna is not someone who has failed in the courts as Meg Hillier has claimed. Put simply SOMEONE WHO HAS WON THEIR APPEAL AT TRIBUNAL IS NOT SOMEONE WHO HAS ‘FAILED IN THE COURTS’.
I believe that Verna is not the only detainee in this situation.

I stand by the comment piece published in “The Friend”. With her letter to all M.P’s Meg Hillier is misleading parliament itself. Verna is just one example of a detainee who has not FAILED in the courts. Meg’s statement to parliament is therefore simply untrue.

The grave humanitarian and political problem we have is this: New Labour want to be seen as tough on immigration. They think this allows them to be dishonest . Of course – it doesn’t.

Meg’s original letter to M.P’s is published on the U.K. Borders Agency website. Read it here.

To read the full text of Meg’s letter to me – enlarge the images.

Page Two of Meg Hillier’s letter. Received today.

Chester, International Women’s Day 2010.   Picture by Frances Laing

International Women’s Day in Chester opened around nine a.m. on Saturday. By the time the event closed, around six hundred women had passed through the doors of the venue.

 The event was opened by Christine Russell, M.P. I made a short speech announcing the workshop I was leading and appealed for messages of solidarity for the hunger strikers at Yarl’s Wood.  These have now been posted to Yarl’s Wood women. Many people came to the stalls we had to find out more about Yarl’s Wood.

Christine Russell M.P maintains she cannot sign an Early Day Motion. As I said on the day perhaps she can do something else which is useful…
The whole event was initiated, facilitated and coordinated by Chester Women’s Aid. For more information about what they do, follow this link to their new web site. Chester Women’s Aid. For local newspaper coverage click here

The following news release was received from the Black Women’s Rape Action Project today:

“We spoke with nineteen women yesterday who confirmed they remain steadfastly on hunger strike”. Guardian Letters: • Detaining children is finally being condemned (Letters, 18 February). But what about the detention of mothers? Either children suffer alongside their mother in detention or they suffer the pain of separation. Ending the detention of children has to mean ending the detention of families. This issue has been thrust into the headlines by mothers on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood removal centre. We were attacked by guards, “kettled” for hours, denied access to toilets and water and locked outside in freezing conditions. A couple of us got out and some of us face removal in the next few days. We call on anyone who cares to press for an independent investigation into reports of violence and racist abuse from guards and a moratorium on all removals and deportations pending the results.

 Adeola Omotosho Yarl’s Wood hunger striker

 Stella Mpaka All African Women’s Group

 The Independent: “The scandal that is Yarl’s Wood “ To those familiar with our detention centres, a hunger strike comes as no surprise more


6.30 – 7.30 Wednesday 3rd March – Holloway Prison, Parkhurst Road, London, N7 0NU  Demo in support of five women who were transferred to prison from Yarl’s Wood as well as the twenty women still refusing food at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. Contact:

 FRFI Close Communications House!
Tuesday 2 March, 1-2pm

Old Street, EC1 (just off Old Street roundabout) Nearest tube Old Street

Contact: Statement of support from women on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood for the 1st March Immigrants Strike in France, Italy and other European countries against racism and exploitation.   EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES FOR ALL MIGRANTS IN THE WORLD!! In this day and age when society claims to be at the peak of civilisation equal opportunities should be a must.

 All migrants should be treated equal, with dignity and given the same opportunities as the rest of the world regardless of background, colour, ideologies, and situation thereby given everyone a fair chance in life thus enabling every one to nurture and achieve their goals, aims and objectives.

 This promotes peace, harmony and a progressive and productive society instead of discrimination, segregation, alienation and maltreatment.

 The women of Yarl’s Wood, can relate to the strike because we face the situation of inequality, discrimination, indefinite detention, poor conditions to name a few because we are migrants and although we are not there in body we are in spirit and it is only by standing up for our rights, believing in ourselves can we make changes not only for us but generations to come.

See the following  comment by  Hugh Muir  published in the Guardian today:

“There will be no whitewash in the White House, said Tricky Dicky Nixon; and since then we have learned to take official denials at face value. So when ministers say – despite detailed claims to the contrary – that there are no women on hunger strike at the pleasure palace that is the Yarl’s Wood detention centre (prop: Labour event sponsors Serco), all our concerns are immediately put to rest. And when we learn that the ministerial board on deaths in custody is meeting on Thursday, and just happens to have on the agenda the whys and wherefores of force feeding of hunger strikers, one sees how ministers can be plagued by sorry coincidence or aided by good fortune”.

See this link: