The charity Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) asked me to speak at their AGM last night and I was delighted to accept. It was held at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch. I expected the auditorium seating to split open and launch Urgent Action One at any moment. It never happened, but was an interesting night nonetheless.
The highlight was listening to Toomaj, a former detainee and now a recognised refugee. On arrival here in the United Kingdom he was given handcuffs rather than a handshake, as he put it. The detention centres in which he was incarcerated were full of broken men. Like him they had fled their countries to protect something very precious, their dignity. It was all too easily taken away from them once here, he said sadly.
Only today David Cameron suggested that we have offered a haven for those fleeing tyranny and persecution. The absence of persecution does not a haven make, and those who are detained and mistreated by the UK Border Agency and the private companies it contracts to do its dirty work do not experience their stay in the UK as even the absence of persecution. Putting refugees through the ringer of our asylum system, with its stultified bureaucracy, low quality of decisions, prolonged periods of detention, squalid housing, meagre subsistence payments and prohibition on working, is hardly designed to elicit gratitude.
Toomaj seemed to me to be forgiving of our past trespasses against him. It is telling, though, that he has devoted himself to voluntary work on behalf of those now going through his own past experiences. He certainly has not forgotten what we did to him when he came here to seek sanctuary. Nor perhaps has he yet found peace.
BID do excellent work. As a flavour of what they have achieved in the last three years the organisation has:
- Provided 6,724 people held in immigration detention with legal advice, information and representation
- Prepared 754 bail applications
- Seen 1,774 people they supported released
- Run bail workshops which 2,709 people attended
As I said yesterday it is work that is hard, emotionally draining and unpopular. They are always seeking volunteers, particularly barristers. Details of how to help are on their rather excellent website.