UK: life in limbo for Sudanese democracy activists

Britain remains blind to the reasons why threatened minorities and activists are forced to flee hostile regimes, treating those who seek asylum with hostility and disdain. We must recognise the bravery of those who want for their country the freedoms we take for granted.

Olivia Warham
3 February 2014
Sudanese Protest Outside London Embassy, 2013 / Lee Thomas

Sudanese Protest Outside London Embassy, 2013 / Lee ThomasSudan is among the world’s most repressive nations, with one of the worst human rights records. The indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilians by the Sudanese Government continues in Darfur and along Sudan’s southern border in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile states. But Government repression is not limited to the war-zones on the periphery. Freedom House awards Sudan its worst ranking, with the detention and torture of journalists, lawyers and democracy activists commonplace. One such journalist is currently seeking asylum in the UK, having been arrested and tortured four times for his work highlighting human rights abuses across Sudan.

Women are targeted by the Islamist regime: each year thousands of young women on their way to and from college are harassed, detained and sometimes raped. Or they may be charged with indecent behaviour because they are wearing jeans. One 25-year-old, Safiya Ishaq, defied Sudan’s conservative social conventions when she posted a video describing her rape at the hands of the security services.

Two recent incipient Arab Spring movements have been crushed in Sudan with unhesitating brutality. As one protester, choosing to remain anonymous, told NBC News, ‘Some people were shot in the back as they ran’.

Sudanese dissidents escaping one of the world’s most brutal regimes have been among the victims of what has become known as the UK’s ‘hostile environment’. This environment is named after a Government Committee which explicitly sought to make circumstances more difficult for immigrants (including asylum seekers). Like other asylum seekers, Sudanese dissidents can face years of legal limbo once they reach the UK. They are denied the right to work, and many live in destitution, waiting for years for their cases to be reviewed by the Home Office. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s immigration legislation, including the restriction of legal aid for judicial review, will make their future even more uncertain.

Persecution in Sudan: well-founded fear

For most of Sudan’s troubled history since its independence from Britain in 1956, individuals from ethnic minorities have been persecuted by Khartoum’s Islamist elite. Drawn from three Nilotic groups self-identifying as Arab, the elite have tried to create an Arab and Muslim state. In doing so, more than two million non-Arabs in what was the south of Sudan are thought to have died, as have hundreds of thousands in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. The regime-sponsored violence continues to this day, with the systematic aerial bombardment of villages in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. Given the extent of intermarriage, attempts to create a homogeneous population are absurd. Yet, central to the regime’s aims is the elimination of dissent in areas which are marginalized from its centralizing power and lack the wealth of Khartoum.

Since the civil war in Sudan started in 1983, waves of refugees have left the country.  The genocide in Darfur accentuated this trend, and now hundreds of Sudanese democracy activists and survivors of ethnic cleansing campaigns have sought asylum in the UK. In 2013, 635 Sudanese applied for asylum in the UK.

Often traumatized by torture in detention or suffering from painful experiences when militias attacked their communities, they come to the UK because they hold it in high regard for its human rights track record, its constitutional separation of powers, and its legal system. Together with Britain’s reputation for tolerance and diversity, Sudanese dissidents say they aspire to create a system based on the same values in their homeland. As one asylum seeker told me, ‘one thing, in the UK I am safe”.

This safety comes at a price. 

Seeking safety in the UK

Many refugees want to play an active and useful role in UK society and provide for their families. However, as they wait for the Home Office to evaluate their claims for leave to remain in the UK, unable to work, they feel disorientated and powerless, aware that many regard them as ‘scroungers’. Article 1 is a charity that helps Sudanese asylum seekers navigate the UK’s complicated immigration system. It helps them to access good legal representation and to gather supporting evidence to prevent removals where that person would be in danger if returned. Article 1 also provides briefings to UK officials on the current human rights situation in Sudan.

 As explained in an article by Sonal Ghelani this week, most asylum seekers in the UK receive just over £35 per week; others, nothing at all. Many dissidents who we work with sofa-surf, taxing the kindness of friends and strangers as they wait what can be years for their cases to be processed. Such is the scale of Home Office backlogs that it may be years before an applicant knows whether or not they will have a future in this country, or will have to return to Sudan and the dangers they face there.

One such Sudanese dissident is Waleed, who lives in the city of Plymouth. He organises a group of asylum seekers to help local elderly people with jobs in their homes, thereby integrating the asylum seekers and overcoming some of the prejudices held by local British residents. Waleed’s work was prompted by stories he heard from friends of unprovoked assaults, as well as his own experience when a woman in a restaurant threw a glass of water over him and told him to ‘go home’.

Opinion polls consistently indicate the public does not distinguish between economic migrants and asylum seekers, and hostility is often based on misconceptions about the level of benefits given to asylum seekers. An ICM poll found 71% questioned believed asylum seekers were given at least £100 a week in benefits.

Another Sudanese dissident is Ramy, a thirty-three year old opposition activist from East Sudan who still bears the scars from torture at the hands of the Sudanese authorities. He came to the UK in 2005, and although he is an accountant, he is unable to work and was reduced to sleeping rough. Ramy finds it difficult being unable to support himself and not being productive: ‘Every day I feel worse. I ask myself the same question; how long am I going to wait? How long will I be in this situation?’

Moaz, age 30, was also involved in opposition politics in East Sudan, and was detained by state security agents who made it clear he would not be safe in Sudan. He arrived in the UK in 2005, was put in detention for 25 months for reasons that were never made clear to him, and was subject to a failed removal by the Home Office. In Sudan, Moaz had run a business; now he sits and waits, frustrated by the enforced inactivity, and by the uncertainty each day brings.

Future prospects for Sudanese dissidents in the UK

The coalition government has restricted legal aid for asylum seekers, and plans to restrict access to judicial review. The Immigration Bill also targets the right to appeal government decisions, allowing for the removal of asylum seekers, even in situations where human rights questions are unresolved. The legislation has rightly been seen as a means to prevent the government from being held accountable.

 In addition, UK politicians and media relentlessly portray the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights as a ‘scroungers’ charter’, perpetuating myths and exaggerations to feed the anti-EU debate and hostility toward immigrants. The coalition is now floating the idea of scrapping the Act. This would remove the final barrier for asylum seekers who are desperately fighting to halt removal back to Sudan, into the hands of the regime which they are trying to escape. On several occasions Sudanese dissidents have been at Heathrow airport, resigning themselves to the prospect of instant detention upon arrival at Khartoum airport, never to be seen again. A fax from the European Court has then arrived to put a last-minute delay on their removal, possibly saving their lives.

The root of the problem

If the UK was serious about reducing asylum applications from Sudan, it would use its leverage to address the root of the problem, which is the human rights abuse conducted by the Sudanese government. The UK should work with its UN partners to apply smart sanctions, targeted against the architects of Sudan’s misery. To date such sanctions have been approved by the UN, but not enforced. The UK should also stop negotiations to cancel Sudan’s $45 billion debt, and insist that it fulfils its obligations under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Failing that, let’s recognise the integrity of brave Sudanese dissidents and oppressed minorities who want for their country the freedoms we take for granted.

It is widely believed that the British are proud of their history of helping persecuted people find sanctuary. When told the circumstances which specific groups and individuals are escaping, the public is often sympathetic, as seen of late in relation to popular support for the resettlement of Syrian refugees. However, politicians still lack the courage to disaggregate asylum seekers who have arrived in Britain fleeing torture or oppression from the emotive yet misunderstood category of ‘illegal immigrants’. And the media are usually more than happy to muddy the waters. It is up to us to provide positive narratives about the importance of offering sanctuary to threatened minorities and democracy activists, explaining why individuals are forced to leave hostile regimes. Unless xenophobic rhetoric is challenged through such narratives, valuable elements of the UK’s human rights architecture, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, will be eroded, if not lost. And this will affect us all.

Surely history has taught us that appeasing isolationists is never to our long term advantage – we must challenge them in every way we can.

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