"We need justice, we need freedom”. Their voices were raised in unison, echoing off the striking architecture of Liverpool's docks as they marched quickly and determinedly through the streets.
Last Tuesday, during Refugee Week, the annual UK-wide event which celebrates the stories and resilience of refugees, some 500 Eritreans from across the UK assembled in the dock city of Liverpool to demand justice, freedom and sanctuary. Eritreans currently make up the single largest nationality of people seeking asylum in the UK with 3,552 applications for asylum made in the twelve months up to March 2015. The applicants are individuals who have fled a country which is known among the organisers of last week’s demonstration as 'the North Korea of Africa'.
Having left behind their homeland and made perilous journeys to the UK, Eritreans are now finding that their asylum claims are being refused by the UK Home Office. This recent trend is down to a discredited report which the Home Secretary is using to argue that Eritrea is largely safe and free from persecution.
The discredited report was produced for the Danish Immigration Services, but was subsequently withdrawn when the researchers responsible distanced themselves from its findings. The Danish report has drawn fierce criticism from many organisations including the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
One of the chants reverberating around the buildings during the Liverpool march was “We support the UN report”. This refers to the UN report released just last week, that found that the human rights abuses of the Eritrean dictatorship continue unabated and that returnees are almost always arrested, imprisoned and undergo abuse to the point of torture. The UN report also details that the Eritrean government is carrying out extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, indefinite national service and forced labour “on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere”.
The Eritrean protesters gathered in Liverpool, where, following a recent reform, all asylum-seekers must travel to submit fresh evidence for their asylum claims. This holds even for those that live hundreds of miles away and have no money for transport.
The march began, appropriately enough, at the International Slavery Museum – the location's poignancy reinforced by the banners protesting 'modern slavery' in Eritrea. The site-specific symbolism was made clearer still when the demonstration organisers had to negotiate passing across the private docklands around the museum – docklands that one of the Liverpudlian organisers pointed had been built by her ancestors, African slaves who had died in slavery.
So began a passionate and extraordinarily well-organised march. The pace was fast and the chants were loud. I was moved to tears as my fellow marchers declared, loudly and proudly, “WE ARE ASYLUM SEEKERS”.
It was a necessary tonic to the sentiments that had been shouted by a racist group the day before who were opposing the Refugee Week dignity march that took part in Tyneside. Some of those marching in Liverpool had been with us in North Shields as a small group shouted “illegal immigrants off our streets”. The targeting of migrant activists is just one symptom of the current ‘hostile environment’ towards migration and refugee issues which reigns in the UK. In North Shields we had risen, sung and danced above it and in Liverpool it felt like we once more reclaimed the soundscape.
After several twists and turns around the busy streets, the demonstrators arrived at their destination: the Home Office's Capital building. As the marchers filled the narrow back-street, a small delegation asked the security to bring a senior manager to receive an open letter for the attention of the Home Secretary, highlighting the concerns of the Eritreans. When no manager was forthcoming, the protesters settled in, sitting in the road and listening to delivering powerful testimony and speeches.
After some time, the handful of police who had been looking on withdrew to their vehicle and the local Assistant Director, Ian Macdonald, appeared and took to the microphone.“We are dealing with fluid situations all the time”, he conceded. “Circumstances change and that affects people around the world including the United Kingdom. We need these type of events to enable us to review our policies.” As he accepted the open letter, MacDonald shook hands with the organisers to applause and cheers from the crowd. The message was loud and clear: you cannot ignore the voices of 500 Eritreans.
In part, a celebration of strength, survival and solidarity, the demonstration seemed to encapsulate many of the themes of Refugee Week. But it also highlights the terrible ordeals that many refugees have survived and continue to experience. As the Reverend Howson reflected on the Sunderland Sanctuary walk event: “Refugee Week is a chance to give thanks for the gifts that people bring to our region, but also a chance to reflect on the horrors of what they are fleeing from”.
The demonstration was also a commemoration – of the many lives lost in the journey to Europe, especially crossing the Mediterranean, and of those left behind. And finally, the march was a cry for justice, for things to change. This kind of grassroots pressure is not often visible in the UK’s refugee rights landscape, and goes unmentioned in the media. But in the current context it is a powerful and resilient force; one that will remain until the lives that need to be saved are saved by the government, and until there is genuine reform. Yacob, one of the Eritrean organisers, put this call for change very simply and powerfully: “We are asking the Home Office to be truthful about the regime in Eritrea and not just issue some report about how it is safe there. We are people who have been ruled by fear.”