If you’ve sought asylum in a distant country, who are the last people you’d want to meet? Representatives of the government that persecuted you. Yet this is exactly what happened to Sudanese refugees, at the hands of the UK asylum system.
From March 2011 Sudanese asylum seekers in South Yorkshire began receiving letters from UKBA asking them to attend interviews to “verify personal data”. “Failure to do so” the letters warned “may affect any outstanding claim you may have with the Home Office”.
People “requested to attend” were worried that such interviews were a prelude to their deportation after a questioning by Sudanese Embassy officials. When staff from the Northern Refugee Centre in Sheffield explained these concerns, verbally and in writing, to UKBA on April 15th they were led to believe that:
- the interviews were simply to verify identity and nationality
- two UKBA officials would attend each of the interviews
- all information resulting from the interviews was confidential and would be kept on file by UKBA only
- no questions about people’s families back in Sudan would be asked
- those people interviewed had asylum applications which were “appeal rights exhausted” ie they had come to the end of their asylum claim
But, according to reports of the interviews received by the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), highlighted by Waging Peace, the reality appears to be very different. It seems that no UKBA officials were present at the interviews, while two or three Sudanese Embassy officials asked detailed questions: the whereabouts of people’s families in Sudan, why they left the country and what problems they had with the Sudanese government.
At least three interviewees were awaiting the results of their asylum appeals – that is, they were not “appeal rights exhausted”. One man told us that he was offered £20 by a Sudanese Embassy official as an inducement to help them gather information on government opponents.
“The Border Agency is playing a game to scare us” was one Sudanese asylum seeker’s assessment. The experience left some people too scared to sleep in their own beds and exacerbated feelings of anxiety and depression. “I don’t want to go back to that dark room” one man told me, fearing deportation and renewed torture in Sudan.
Not the First Time
But this isn’t the first time UKBA has done this. In 2007 UKBA promoted “re-documentation interviews” between Sudanese Embassy officials and 101 Sudanese people seeking asylum.
Since then, Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. Recent news of aerial bombardment of the Nuba people, sympathetic to newly-independent South Sudan, seems to confirm the accuracy of these charges.
One result of the UKBA-sponsored interviews of 2007 was a national campaign against this practice, based on dozens of individual testimonies collected by Waging Peace and SYMAAG and reported in The Independent.
A protest demonstration was held outside UKBA’s regional HQ at Vulcan House in Sheffield. At a public meeting UKBA itself faced a grilling from those subject to these interviews. Parliamentary questionswere asked about this practice and meetings with UKBA officials seemed to establish that they would review how these “re-documentation” interviews were to be conducted in future.
National Network Formed
A lasting result of the 2007 campaign were the links that were established between Sudanese community groups and local and national campaigning groups. After the April 16th 2011 interviews this loose network was joined by local immigration law experts, advice and support workers and asylum-rights activists from Sheffield’s wide range of campaigning groups.
We were also joined by a number of Sudanese refugees who had been subjected to this treatment first time around in 2007. They wanted to support those people who – like themselves – had been told that they were “appeal rights exhausted”, but had subsequently won their cases, appealing against UKBA’s wrong initial decisions.
Face-to-face and telephone interviews to collect testimonies have been conducted by respected members of the Sudanese community, local asylum-rights activists and Waging Peace.
Relevant ministers and nearly 200 MPs have been contacted and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sudan briefed on the events of April 16th. There are plans to hold a meeting in Sheffield of representatives of this national network and to establish a phone distribution list for ease of communication in emergencies.
There have been tangible results of this network already: when three of those people interviewed were detained and threatened with deportation, support efforts were speedy, co-ordinated and successful. Since the interviews, people are worried that they will be detained when they report to UKBA’s Vulcan House. Now they are accompanied by support workers and activists.
The campaign against these intimidating – and possibly illegal – interviews has educated us all about the persecution which follows asylum seekers when they leave their countries. At SYMAAG meetings, people from Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Uganda and Libya shared their experiences of intimidation, extortion and disruption of their community organisations by “embassy officials” and their agents.
They felt that this behaviour had been stepped up recently, their respective governments fearing that the Arab Spring revolts threaten their countries’ ruling elites too.
A letter from Waging Peace to UKBA re-stated our serious concerns about the April 16th interviews. Many of those subject to the interviews feel that UKBA’s response does not answer the questions put to them. They continue to feel threatened and are afraid of what they see as collaboration between UKBA and the Sudanese authorities.
But an unintended consequence of the UKBA-sponsored interviews of April 16th has been the formation of a broad local and national network in support of Sudanese people seeking asylum in this country. For that we thank the UK Border Agency.
Stuart Crosthwaite is a campaigner, writer and researcher in Sheffield. He is currently Secretary of the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG).