Guest post: Fighting for refugee and migrant rights

[This is a guest post from Walton. Trigger warnings: violence, sexual abuse, child abuse and neglect, hyperskepticism, racism.]

In January 2013, Jackie Nanyonjo was forcibly returned to Uganda on a charter flight, escorted by guards from the private security contractor Reliance. Jackie was a lesbian woman from Uganda who had come to the UK to claim asylum, fleeing the wave of horrifying anti-gay violence in her home country. In common with many other LGBT asylum-seekers, her claim was rejected, authorities refusing to believe that she was “really” a lesbian. She was detained, and eventually put on a plane back to Uganda. With no options left to her, she resisted – and was beaten so badly by her security escort that she later died of her injuries.

Jackie’s story illustrates the full horror and cruelty of the British immigration enforcement system. Like many other women asylum-seekers, Jackie was detained at the infamous Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, a privately-run detention camp surrounded by barbed wire and notorious for its hellish conditions. Hundreds of people are held at Yarl’s Wood, most of them women of colour. In August 2013, a Roma detainee, Tanja, came forward to describe the sexual assaults she suffered at the hands of detention centre guards. Tanja’s description of her experiences, which may be triggering for many readers, is a chilling insight into a deeply sick and abusive institution. According to the campaign group Movement for Justice, five other women who had experienced or witnessed sexual assault at Yarl’s Wood were deported to Pakistan on a charter flight at the beginning of October.

Nor were these the first cases of abuse reported at Yarl’s Wood. In 2010, fifty detainees, many of them rape survivors, went on hunger strike to protest the conditions of their detention. The guards responded by locking them in corridors without access to water, medical care or toilets. This came on the heels of a 2009 report by the Children’s Commissioner for England which condemned the abuse and neglect of child detainees at Yarl’s Wood. Children were arrested in dawn raids along with their families, and forced to watch their parents handcuffed and humiliated by immigration officers. They were caged in prison vans stained with urine and vomit, denied water and toilet breaks, and taken to Yarl’s Wood, where they endured a living hell. Children with critical illnesses were given paracetamol instead of being taken to hospital. Conditions were so bad that in 2011, two families with children who had been detained at Yarl’s Wood sued the Home Office, and won. Yet Yarl’s Wood has not changed for the better. Samantha, who was detained at Yarl’s Wood with her fourteen-month-old daughter while pregnant with a second child, has spoken out about the degrading conditions she experienced.

Many of the women held at Yarl’s Wood are asylum-seekers who have come to this country fleeing horrifying persecution – including rape, torture, forced marriage, female genital cutting, and anti-gay violence. Many have been forced to flee their countries through dangerous means, hiding in the back of lorries, as visa requirements make it impossible for them to enter legally. And when they arrive here, the British government puts them through a second traumatic ordeal. Some are held in detention on the “Detained Fast Track” while their claims are processed, and are given very little time to gather evidence and prepare their cases. Frances Webber’s excellent book “Borderline Justice: The Fight for Refugee and Migrant Rights” describes how Home Office caseworkers and immigration judges frequently accuse asylum-seekers of lying about their experiences, sometimes ignoring clear evidence of torture and post-traumatic stress. A whistleblower who formerly worked for the UK Border Agency revealed shocking levels of racism and anti-migrant prejudice among asylum caseworkers. LGBT asylum-seekers get a particularly raw deal, being subjected to unreasonable demands to “prove” that they are telling the truth about their sexuality. As Clare Bennett’s research has shown, some immigration judges displayed worrying ignorance and relied on homophobic stereotypes in hearing the cases of lesbian asylum-seekers. The end result is that many genuine refugees are refused asylum, and face forced return to countries where they are in danger of violence. And those who can’t be returned, for example because they have no travel documents, are deliberately forced into destitution on the streets, barred from working or claiming benefits.

And what of the people who are not entitled to asylum, the “economic migrants” and “bogus asylum-seekers” of the public imagination? Many of those people, too, migrate because they have no other choice. As Frances Webber puts it, “among the undocumented, the ‘irregulars’, are also those who have migrated here over the past 30 years because increasingly there is no land, no work, no possibility of feeding, clothing and educating a family, no future at home and no legal routes to earning a livelihood anywhere else… One way or another most of those who come to these shores without official permission are refugees from globalisation, from a poor world getting poorer as it is shaped to serve the interests, appetites and whims of the rich world.” In this way immigration controls compound the injustice of a profoundly unjust world, a world shaped by capitalism and the legacy of colonial oppression.

Unfortunately, there seems little prospect of things getting better. Our Conservative government is deeply hostile to immigrants, even boasting “IMMIGRATION DOWN” on posters at their most recent party conference. The Home Office has adopted increasingly harsh anti-immigrant policies in an attempt to force undocumented migrants to leave the country. In August, the Home Office deployed vans in some of London’s most racially diverse areas carrying billboards which exhorted undocumented people to “GO HOME OR FACE ARREST”, a slogan disturbingly redolent of the racist chants of past decades’ National Front marches. The government has also turned to more violent means, with immigration officers outside railway stations conducting “spot checks” to identify alleged “immigration offenders” – racially profiling people of colour , and intimidating and verbally abusing people who tried to stand up for their rights. And legal aid for immigrants has come under attack, with help no longer being available for most non-asylum immigration cases, and further cuts planned.

It gets worse. The government wants to limit migrants’ access to NHS health care – a policy already adopted in Spain, where a Senegalese man died of tuberculosis after being refused treatment. And the new Immigration Bill is designed to crack down even further on undocumented people – among other harsh provisions, the Bill will make it illegal for landlords to rent housing to undocumented people, and for banks to allow them to open accounts. The government is well aware that this will force undocumented people deeper into destitution. Many are already living precariously and struggling to feed their children: a new blog, Life Without Papers, tells the human stories of undocumented families living in Britain, including one man living on just £12 a week. Meanwhile, the conservative press cheerleads for these oppressive policies, and demonizes asylum-seekers and undocumented people. Emma Briant has written about how the media’s common practice of referring to refugees as “illegal immigrants” contributes to the stigma and marginalization which refugees face. As Elie Wiesel famously asked, how can a human being be illegal?

I have thus far concentrated on Britain because it is where I live and work, but these horrors are not unique to Britain. Flavia Dzodan has written powerfully about the horrifying state violence experienced by refugees across the European Union. At a time when desperate people are crossing the Mediterranean on dangerously overcrowded boats, Italy has even criminalized undocumented migrants, punishing them with a fine or prison sentence and deportation. In Greece, the situation for refugees and migrants is more terrible still, with migrants held in inhuman conditions in overcrowded and filthy detention camps. In Canada, the Harper government’s Refugee Exclusion Act has cracked down harshly on asylum-seekers. In the United States, the number of deportations has soared in recent years, tearing families apart, and continuing despite the current government shutdown. And the Australian government detains refugees in hellish conditions on the Pacific island of Nauru.

We need an international movement seeking justice for refugees and migrants. No one should be condemned to the living hell of detention and deportation simply for crossing a border to seek a better life.

Walton is a law graduate who will soon be starting pupillage at a set of barristers’ chambers in London, and plans to specialize in immigration and asylum law. He blogs under his real name at The Feminist Hivemind and Shining Artifact of the Past, and parts of this post are adapted from his writings there. He is writing in a personal capacity and his posts represent his personal views and opinions, not those of his current or past employers or of any other person.


  1. The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical says

    Thank you for writing this, Walter. It’s absolutely dreadful. And even for those who manage to avoid the horrors of deportation, immigration policies make it possible for exploiters to reduce migrant and undocumented workers to slave labor.

  2. ianeymeaney says

    I thought that England and the rest of the EU were civilized places where people were treated decently and with respect, unlike the US, and now you are telling me that they are just as racist and hateful as we are? You are going to make me break my rule against drinking before noon.

  3. says


    This is a great piece. Thank you for writing it. These are some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and yet the subject gets little attention. “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” And what we in the West routinely walk past does not speak well for capitalist democracies.

    ianeymeaney #3:

    You are going to make me break my rule against drinking before noon.

    I have already broken that rule. But hey, it’s always past noon somewhere on the globe.

  4. Walton says

    Mellow Monkey,

    And even for those who manage to avoid the horrors of deportation, immigration policies make it possible for exploiters to reduce migrant and undocumented workers to slave labor.

    QFT. In fact a study in the US indicated that undocumented farm workers are regularly sexually assaulted and harassed in the workplace with total impunity. I’ve also written for The Feminist Hivemind about how immigration controls make things worse for victims of trafficking and for migrant workers exploited in the workplace.

  5. kesara says

    This is horrible…

    We need an international movement seeking justice for refugees and migrants. No one should be condemned to the living hell of detention and deportation simply for crossing a border to seek a better life.

    I think we should also start holding the press accountable for their complicity in demonizing asylum-seekers. For every article that documents the terrible ordeals these people have to go through, there are a hundred articles demonizing asylum-seekers as moochers who “just want to exploit our welfare state” (and not only in countries with right-leaning governments, this also happens in the more liberal european states).
    Promote articles like this one:
    and call out articles that uncritically cheer for right-wing anti-asylum propaganda in the comment sections or with letters to the editor.

  6. Walton says

    I agree wholeheartedly, kesala. Over here, the Daily Mail and Daily Express are the worst – they print racist scare stories demonizing asylum-seekers and migrants on a near-daily basis.

  7. says

    The Netherlands has very similar issues, with Amnesty International writing some scathing reports on our immigration policy. I really don’t like this trend.

  8. says

    “With no options left” — that’s the phrase from Walton’s post that sticks with me. The UK and many other countries are mistreating people who have no more options. It’s a sickness. This mistreatment and the attitudes behind it are a sickness.

  9. says

    Yeah, it’s really not like things are so dire here that we absolutely couldn’t afford to give a few more people a residence permit.

  10. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Great article, Walton and thanks to PZ for letting Walton write a guest post!

    I’m afraid most (all?) European countries have a very negative attitude towards poor immigrants, especially poor immigrants of color. The attitude may be getting less press and political outlet in countries that attract lesser numbers of these immigrants, but it’s there nonetheless.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Two words: Jörg Haider. Took over his party in 1986, led it from victory to victory (with one small setback in ’95) and finally into government when it reached 415 more votes than the conservative party. He showed all of Europe that xenophobia wins you votes in large amounts.

    even boasting “IMMIGRATION DOWN” on posters at their most recent party conference

    Please tell us again about the context – what the other posters said.

    I thought that England and the rest of the EU were civilized places where people were treated decently and with respect

    Not if they’re too foreign – or rather if they look that way.

  12. Walton says

    Please tell us again about the context – what the other posters said.

    The full poster was “BENEFITS CAPPED, CRIME DOWN, IMMIGRATION DOWN”, alongside this year’s party conference slogan “FOR HARDWORKING PEOPLE”. Because apparently the Tories don’t think that the immigrants victimized by their policies count as “hardworking people”.

  13. Happiestsadist, opener of the Crack of Doom says

    Thank you for this post, as hard as it is to think about.

  14. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    For some light reading on the topic:
    “Right-wing populism in Europe: Populism and discourse” collection of essays edited by Ruth Wodak, Majid KhrosaviNik and Brigitte Mral
    (Amazon link)

    While it talks about a wider problem of right wing parties getting power in Europe, hate for immigrants is one of the common threads in a lot of right’s political campaigns. And the masses love it. *pukes*

  15. tomtethys says

    The immigration issue is coming to a head in Europe. Next year the European elections are likely to bring a slew of far rightist parties into the Parliament. Europe has never had an immigration ‘policy’ it has always operated piecemeal and what is happening now is a consequence of our disunity.
    As for Yarl’s Wood, it certainly needs more oversight perhaps the International Red Cross need to have permanent offices there, I believe there was talk of this when it opened.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Thank you for this post, as hard as it is to think about.

    I like your way with words.

    Next year the European elections are likely to bring a slew of far rightist parties into the Parliament.

    I don’t want to think about it.

    Europe has never had an immigration ‘policy’ it has always operated piecemeal and what is happening now is a consequence of our disunity.

    Worse. Not only does each country have its own immigration laws, none of them has a tradition – as the US does – of considering itself an “immigration country”! Nowhere are the laws made to reflect the situation that large amounts of people immigrate. They all assume immigration is really rare, as it was 120 years ago when everyone emigrated from Europe to America instead.

  17. Gregory Greenwood says

    Thanks for writing this Walton. More people need to be made aware of what is happening

    I knew things in the UK immigration system were bad, but I had no idea they were that bad. That this can happen in modern day Britain is an abomination, but that it goes almost entirely unreported is very nearly as bad. We have had all these arguments recently about the proper balance between press freedom and responsible reporting practices, but when what can only really be described as government run anti-immigration concentration camps can go unremarked upon by the mainstream media, I have to ask what profit is there in that debate? What use is press freedom when the press can be so totally relied upon to keep the government’s dirty secrets in any case? Why waste words on responsible reporting when the media is so rotted by xenophobia that this kind of hell on earth is not only not the biggest story around, but has been so assiduously swept under the carpet that it barely gets any column inches at all.

    I am regularly ashamed of the monstrously unethical actions of the UK, and of this Conservative government by, for and of the rich and privileged in particular, but this is a whole new low.

  18. Infophile says

    @1 vaiyt:

    Human nature, sadly enough. There are a lot of psychological biases that come into play here to result in this horrifying situation. In no particular order, a non-exhaustive list (Google the terms for more info):

    The Just World Hypothesis – People like to assume the world is fair, and that bad things only happen to bad people. If it weren’t fair, bad things could happen to good people, and I’m a good person, so that’s unthinkable. Put in these terms, it seems ridiculous, but a ton of people accept it without really thinking about it. Having to flee your country and seek asylum is a horrible thing, and so many people don’t want to imagine that it could happen to a good person. They then resolve this by assuming these asylum seekers can’t be good people.

    System Justification Theory – Related to the above, people will defend the status quo as fair even when they’re the ones getting the short end of the stick. It helps maintain stability, and keeps them from confronting the question, “If the system isn’t fair, why aren’t you trying to do something about it?” (The answer to that question is usually a lack of willpower, which is a finite resource that people at the bottom of the social ladder have to spend more of. But most people don’t understand this well enough, so they justify the system instead to resolve the cognitive dissonance.) So even the poor will often fight to defend an exploitative status quo.

    Projection Bias – People project their own experiences onto others. How often have you heard a Republican politician tell the poor to just “Get a job”? They had it easy, most likely, or they got lucky and attribute it to skill. They then project their life experience onto others and assume anyone else can get a job if they want to. This allows them (and anyone else who buys into this logic) to demonize the poor as lazy, as they can’t comprehend that their experiences may have been different. And when it comes to migrants, most people in the destination country have no basis for comparison at all, so it makes it almost impossible for them to empathize.

    Tribalism (and all its related bigotries) – People tend to divide this world into “Us” and “Them,” where “We” have to fight against “Them” for limited resources. Migrants are automatically catalogued as “Them” and seen as competing for the limited resources in one’s home country, so people fight against them coming in.

    Racism (and often sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and religious bigotry as well) – The world has a history of racism, much of it arising from tribalism. People then pick up the patterns they see in the world around them and pop culture and assume this must reflect the real world (For instance, a consistent portrayal of Middle Easterners as terrorists leads to distrust and assumptions about them). Since migrants are very often of a different race from the native population, all these biases come up and play against them.

    Ignorance – Okay, not a psychological bias, but many people simply don’t about this kind of thing happening. Many in fact go out of their way not to know, as it would lead to cognitive dissonance of why they aren’t doing something about it.

    Note on the above factors: No one is immune; these affect all humans naturally, but it’s possible to overcome them. Thinking you’re immune and you’ve solved it all is possibly the worst thing you can do, as it keeps you from trying to improve.

  19. unclefrogy says

    I would not be surprised in the least that you could right a similar article and change a few words to put some other country as the subject and it would true.
    Many years ago back in the 60’s the idea was to turn on tune in and drop out.
    I did that in an informal way and I can see that there is much that has remained the same. I read here about all the same negative, wrong headed crap is still happening.
    This post highlights immigrants it includes sexism and sexual abuse that is at best ignored, which is not new in any way. Other stories we share here cover anti intellectualism anti-science the whole area of anti reality engendered by religion, economic exploitation in the form of libertarianism, of course the entire subject of sexuality and the negativity connected to it, At the same time as all of that is going on the entire world ecosystem is edging toward a catastrophe as a result of global warming and the pressure of population and development.
    Like I said at the top I did the turn on tune in and drop out once it did not change anything except my attitude. The problems are still here and getting worse. Are they worsening as the result of the population increasing? maybe?
    My question is what to do now?
    In the novel Lathe of Heaven the protagonist solves the problem by dreaming that 3/4 of the people on earth die in a huge pandemic and they do. Is that where we are headed?
    uncle frogy

  20. billforsternz says

    It’s deeply disturbing how compassion and empathy can be so readily suspended. Political parties of all hues often compete with each other to come up with the harshest policies, because apparently that’s what the electorate wants (case in point: Australia). Reality TV shows featuring people being rounded up and dragged off to the airports are popular. Not humanities finest hour. Good for you Walton for making a career of fighting a good fight.

  21. says

    Unfortunately this is normal for European countries, in spite of our shared histories and nominal commitment to human rights principles.

    The EU immigration system is pure class war carried out on the poor, simply because they are poor.
    It’s not really racist, wealthy people, of any color, have no problem with visas. We insist on free movement of capital and then attempt to restrict movement of labor by lunatic laws. The modern globalized economy leads inevitably to the Rana Plaza factory and the waters around Lampedusa.

    At the beginning the asylum process is all so official, so polite, so distant. Information is carefully gathered and it takes quite a while to realize that it’s all designed to build a case for refusal of refugee status. In Ireland only 10% of asylum applications are accepted.

    Then, at the end of four or six or ten years, the four o’clock in the morning knock comes. You find yourself and your family in Yarls Wood or the equivalent awaiting the flight back to a land your children have never known.

    It’s all legal though.


    ‘TIS not when I am here,
    In these homeless homes,
    Where sin and shame and disease
    And foul death comes;

    ‘Tis not when heart and brain
    Would be still and forget
    Men and women and children
    Dragged down to the pit:

    But when I hear them declaiming
    Of “liberty,” “order,” and “law,”
    The husk-hearted Gentleman
    And the mud-hearted Bourgeois,

    That a sombre hateful desire
    Burns up slow in my breast
    To wreck the great guilty Temple,
    And give us rest!

    (Francis Adams 1862 – 1893.

  22. katybe says

    Walton, thank you for writing this, and working so tirelessly to raise awareness and try to improve the situation. About 10 years ago, I had a job for a few months with a legal charity based on site at a “Reception Centre” (and, no, that’s nothing like a Detention Centre at all, honestly – except for the G4 security, the barbed wire fences (the hardest part for me was seeing young children playing out behind the barbed wire), the controlled access, etc…). I wasn’t usually dealing with people directly, but did sit in on a couple of meetings. More usually, I was logging new arrivals onto our system, typing up the notes from the in-house lawyers, booking interpreters and helping to find new lawyers for them in the areas where they were due to be sent to live after their initial rejection. At this centre, we weren’t supposed to get torture victims, but we did; we weren’t supposed to get women fleeing from FGM, but we did.

    In the 4 months I worked there, with up to 20 new clients added each day, we had one person who was given leave to remain after the 4 weeks in the reception centre. Everyone else, with cases as strong, or even stronger, was rejected because the home office officials making the front line decisions were not empowered to say yes, only no. If they wanted to say yes, it had to go up the chain of command. I’d be very interested to hear if this is still the case, because it strikes me as the best argument for reforming the system to use on people with a right-wing economic slant – it would be cheaper to agree the cases at a lower level. Invariably, a lot more people won after expensive, publicly funded appeals, at sessions decided by highly paid judges, and after months or years of being in limbo, unable to take a job, and always marked out as an asylum seeker whose status was not yet determined, by having vouchers to pay for everything in the local supermarket. They’d be sent, at random, to a town elsewhere in the UK, with no consideration of where they might have relatives or an existing community of people and translators who could help them to settle in, with just a train ticket, an address, and whatever possessions they’d either brought with them or received as charity on arrival. But if they wanted to relocate, it meant going underground and giving up all hope of ever being granted their appeal.

    And the low level officials were unbelievably ignorant. We had a christian convert from a muslim country who was asked to prove his christianity by saying which one book of the bible Jesus was in, and when he said more than one because the NT is many books, he was told he was wrong, and clearly lying about being in danger for his religion. Even as a then apathetic atheist I knew that was rubbish. We had a woman who had been in an abusive relationship with someone important in the community and well -connected outside it since she first reached adulthood. When she finally plucked up the courage to flee with her small child, they disbelieved it had been abusive because it had taken her 7 years to leave, and if it was true, she’d have left the first time he hit her. Please, imagine that last bit in italics, because I haven’t learnt enough HTML to really express how absolutely disgusted I was by that particular report when it came in.

    Every so often, we had an escape. You have no idea how much it used to cheer us up to hear someone had got away over the fence.

  23. says

    Thanks for writing this Walton. Over here in Australia, we can do without private security firms, because we pay our neighbors a fuckton of money to lock up our asylum seekers for us, including children and pregnant women, who get put in detention centres on places like Nauru without any prospect of ever getting asylum in Australia.

    The new government calls asylum seekers “illegal”, and anyone arriving here by boat gets tossed onto some tropical island where as far as we are concerned they can rot in hell. Needless to say the politicians enforcing this are good Christians.

  24. opposablethumbs says

    Thank you for writing this, Walton. How I wish it were not possible to write it.

    It took me quite a while, I’m ashamed to say, to even start to grasp how profoundly unjust it is that capital can move freely around the world while labour cannot. And yes, papers like the Daily Mail play so hard on people’s fears of poverty or unemployment – so easy to fear and hate people of the same class who look different and sound different, instead of those of the class for whom we are an expendable resource but who mostly look and sound like us.