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On International Migrants Day… what Martin Luther King said

Namely, this from his last speech in the world, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’

The things that have mattered to me this year include: income inequality, health inequality, access to education, cyclists being killed in London, and the terrible behaviour of the Department of Work and Pensions towards benefit claimants.

The last month has seen much of my headspace being taken up by something new: migrants and specifically those that claim asylum in the UK. Today is International Migrants Day and there are far better people than me writing about the issues that face migrants all over the world. Who can forget all those who have lost their lives in boats, or the bodies washed up on Italian beaches? For a global perspective read this excellent article by William Lacy Swing who writes that ‘migration can be summed up by a series of D words: Demographics, Disasters, Demand, Disparities and Dreams. This year I am adding a new D: Desperation.’ As a former Ambassador in Africa for the United States and the current Director General of the International Organization for Migration, I think we can accept that Lacy Swing knows what he is talking about.

After the last month, I have realised that yes, indeed, to seek asylum in this country, not just migrate, you have to be desperate. It’s a complicated picture, not helped by the UK’s poisonous discourse on the topic, where the public have no idea about the difference between an asylum seeker or an economic migrant with full EU rights to be here. Where the media and politicians have colluded so that the general public conflate migrancy with benefit scroungers, and being housed in luxury at their own expense. Thanks to the politicians and the media, the public have completely lost the plot on what it means to be in the EU, what it means to be a migrant and what it means to flee your home in fear of your life.

Politicians, the media and the public seem also have short memories. If you mention that many migrants come from countries that Britain exploited economically in the last centuries, leaving a legacy of language and Commonwealth that links far away lands and their people to our own, then that is an inconvenient historic fact that bears no relation to the present moment. Except… that it does. History cannot just be swept away when it no longer suits us.

Take Nigeria as an example. If you are a man fleeing persecution in Nigeria, you may choose the UK. Not because it will open its arms, give you benefits and offer you a mansion. No, you may choose the UK because Nigeria was a British colony, because you speak the language, you may have worked in Nigeria for an British or American oil company, you may have family in the UK, Nigeria is part of the Commonwealth – the Queen being its head… What will happen to you, if you are a man from Nigeria, is that when you land in the UK you will be put straight into detention. That’s a prison to all intents and purposes. You will be put on what’s called the Detained Fast Track and then within ten to fourteen days, often without proper access to legal representation, the UK Border Agency will consider all the aspects of your case. 99% of people on this Fast Track are then deported. This 99% bears no relation to the merits of the case of the asylum seeker. It says everything about the UK’s policy towards people in genuine distress and desperate circumstances.

Would you, for example, on the promise of a cold welcome in a prison cell spend everything you had on a plane ticket to the UK unless you had a very good reason? I wouldn’t. Those not on the fast track can still be detained. Some people are in detention for over a year. There are around three thousand people currently detained in immigration centres in the UK. Some are on hunger strike; some attempt suicide.

Last night a plane left the UK with a number of Nigerians on board. The flight was chartered by the Home Office to deport them. The UK considered that their cases for asylum were ‘failed’. This does not however prove the veracity, or otherwise of their claims. I believe that the UK is making inhumane decisions in many of these cases. The following information about five of the people on the flight is from Ian Dunt and the whole article can be read here.

Simon (not his real name) is gay. When he arrives back in Nigeria, he expects to be arrested right off the plane. In Nigeria, sex with someone of the same gender is illegal.

In certain northern states, it is punishable by death by stoning. In the more liberal, secular courts of the predominantly Christian south, it is punishable by up to 14 years in jail.

Not long after he arrived in the UK Simon met another Nigerian man and started a relationship. They’ve been together for over a year.

He made an asylum claim in June last year on the basis of his sexuality. He says it was only after the interview that he was told how much evidence he should provide to show their relationship was genuine. He claims to have plenty – statements from family and friends, photographs of them together, statements from the Unity LGBT team saying Simon was an active member. He just wasn’t told he had to provide them.

That’s often the way with asylum cases. Gay refugees often have to go to extraordinary lengths – including showing UKBA case workers pictures of themselves engaged in gay sex acts – to convince them of their sexuality.

The Home Office appeared more convinced on the basis of his second claim, but rejected him because this time they refused to believe his partner was gay.


Josephine Atiri met and married her partner, a British citizen, in July 2011.

It was a far cry from the trauma of her childhood, when she says she was raped and sexually assaulted by members of her adopted family.

She asked to stay on the basis of her Article 8 right to a family life. It was rejected. She applied for a spousal visa. That didn’t work either. The Home Office accepts the relationship is genuine, it just thinks it can be a genuine relationship elsewhere.

The week before last, UKBA arrived at her house. They took her away from her husband, to a detention centre, and put her in a cell.

“I’m pleading with them to let me stay with my husband and have a good life,” she told her caseworker. “I’ve never had a good life. I’m begging them.”


Gabriel (not his real name) met his British fiancé three years ago when he was still a student.

He was refused further leave to remain after his course finished. By the time they were due to have a marriage interview last October, he was already in detention. He asked for permission to go but it was declined.

They gave evidence about their relationship, including statements, letters and photos, but the test only gave them 13 points out of 30. Their names were not on the lease, as they share the house with others, and the bills are in the landlord’s name.

As I wrote about Gabriel, his fiancé was travelling to meet him in the detention centre.


Joshua (not his real name) had gone to register a fresh submission for an asylum claim when he was suddenly detained.

Without warning, he was put in Harmondsworth detention centre. As a sufferer from end-stage kidney disease, anaemia and hypertension, he desperately needed his medication, but staff said they did not stock it. For six days he went without.

Supporters say they have seen the doctor’s letter warning that he needs the medication to keep his condition under control. Regardless of the medication, he requires dialysis, which would increase his life expectancy by 30 years. Without it, he will die.

Once detained, the Kafkaesque games began. He was informed there was no record of a fresh submission, despite proof from his lawyer. With all the delays, lawyers were given just a day to make the legal case before the flight.

Joshua says he came to the UK because he was kidnapped in Nigeria, an episode which involved torture. The rest of his family have already fled the country.

“I’m scared of being removed,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen if I get home.”


Isa Muazu had been in detention for a long time before he started his hunger strike.

At first it was a protest over food. He needs specific foods because of his stomach ulcers and haemorrhoids, but when he informed staff he was told they “do not have children in here”.

So he went on hunger strike, first as a protest against the food he was offered and then against a system which imprisons a man without charge.

He had been on hunger strike for 90 days by the time he was deported. He could not see or stand. A doctor’s report said he was not fit to fly. Theresa May deported him anyway.

When the plane reached Nigeria it became clear the Home Office had failed to secure landing authorisation. It was turned back and returned to the UK.

Now, weeks later, his remaining legal avenues dwindling, he will be forced onto a chartered plane with several other Nigerians and be returned to his home country.

There, he expects to be targeted by Boko Harem, the extremist Islamist group which he says has already killed several members of his family.

Can we all sleep more soundly in our beds now these individuals are off our soil? I can’t. Do you wonder how much it costs the tax payer to detain three thousand men, women and children rather than allow them to survive in the community with family or friends. What I wonder more is: what will happen to the people who are deported back to dangerous situations, if they will be alright. In some cases you have to wonder if they will survive the deportation flight. I think of Jackie Nanyonjo, a Ugandan woman who claimed asylum in the UK because she was gay and had been forced to marry in her own country. She was detained in 2012, deported at the beginning of this year and injured so severely on the deportation flight back to Uganda that she subsequently died. I think of Jimmy Mubenga, the Angolan man who was ‘unlawfully killed’ by guards on his deportation flight from the UK in 2010. If the people on the flight yesterday are able to lead peaceful lives henceforth, it will be no thanks to the UK. Some have arrived back in Nigeria in poor physical health, to say nothing of their mental wellbeing. Isa Muazu is in a Nigerian hospital as I type.

So you see, our country, the UK, the country that I heard one man claim this month on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme ‘invented freedom’ does not agree that black people, especially from Africa, should be free to claim asylum in this country. It does not think that EU economic migrants should be free to travel here to look for work, as we are equally free to travel within the EU to enjoy the benefits of their countries too. Perhaps we should leave the EU, call back all those UK citizens working abroad and pull up the drawbridge on our island nation – then will we all sleep soundly in our beds without worrying that we are being robbed blind by ne’er do wells from Eastern Europe? This in a country that exported its criminals to Australia…

My answer, is that building high walls and adopting a siege mentality is not the the answer. Although it appeals tho those who believe Britain is full up’ the evidence suggests that this is not the case. That is not to say we have got it all right with how we manage the movement of people, but with net migration levelling out since 2010 and an ageing population we may need migrants in the future to help pay for pensions and healthcare. There is also the ethical view, that the state, in enforcing its boundaries should not diminish human rights. The Pope wrote to David Cameron eloquently on this subject earlier this year saying, ‘the goal of economics and politics is to serve humanity, beginning with the poorest and most vulnerable wherever they may be, even in their mothers’ wombs. Every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one’s own human potential. This is the main thing; in the absence of such a vision, all economic activity is meaningless.’

People have moved countries, crossed continents for as long as we have had the means to migrate. It’s what some people do. But the facts are that most people don’t. The UK is not some honeypot for migrants, and I don’t think it ever has been. Take the experience of my children’s grandparents: they came from the Caribbean to do jobs the UK workers didn’t want to do and to be greeted by racism and signs that said ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’. Take my own grandparents who migrated, first to Turkey and then back to the UK a generation later. My grandmother’s first impression of the UK was sufficient for her to wish that she could turn round and go back to Istanbul.

But she didn’t. And neither did my children’s grandparents. People who migrate are the brave ones, or the terrified ones – the majority lie in between. Those who migrate are the kind of people with guts that the rest of us can only dream of. Yesterday I ate a magnificent goulash cooked by a German who is running a small cafe that is a real community asset. Last night I met a friend with rock solid ideals who gives a huge amount of time in voluntary work to the community. She was going home to make her traditional Finnish bakes for Christmas. She and her family have experienced racism for the last two decades in this country. Over Christmas I have been invited to the home of a Polish couple who work in social work and childcare – they have fostered British children and run a community group to encourage sustainable living. I live next door to migrants who work hard and of those that I have met claiming benefits, far from living high on the hog at the taxpayers expense, they usually live in pitiful accommodation and are in poor physical and mental health. I would never swap my circumstances for theirs. My life and yours, whether you acknowledge it or not, has, at some point been enriched by people who have migrated to the UK.

And to return to Martin Luther King, this post is about my commitment to challenge the statements I hear, almost constantly, about ‘these people’ which translated means immigrants. ‘These people’ taking our jobs, our benefits, our housing, our healthcare. There is no ‘these people’ to me. To me, those that fear people from different countries are simply victims of the national discourse. That is a discourse that can be changed: in the classrooms, in the street, in the shops, at work, with our friends, on social media. I, along with many others, have started that change where I can; I hope that on International Migrants Day there is at least one person who might read this, and decide that they might do the same.

Everything starts with a conversation. Let that conversation be you.

A Team GB medal winner or one of ‘these people’?