Home Affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 71

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 25 June 2013

Members present:

Keith Vaz (Chair)

Nicola Blackwood

James Clappison

Michael Ellis

Dr Julian Huppert

Steve McCabe

Mark Reckless

Chris Ruane

Mr David Winnick


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Serge, Survivors Speak OUT, and Saron, Women for Refugee Women, gave evidence.

Q122 Chair: This is part of the Select Committee’s inquiry into asylum and this particular session at your request is going to be in private. We will, of course, record it for the purposes of our report but we will not broadcast it, so things that you say in answer to us will appear in our report. Can I just start by saying we are extremely grateful to both of you for giving evidence to us today? You have been through some pretty appalling sets of circumstances and I think none of us can appreciate what you have been through but I would like to start with you, Serge. I am interested in how the process has been for you. If you can give us some timelines, when did you arrive in the United Kingdom?

Serge: I arrived in the United Kingdom on 29 March 2005. I arrived through Heathrow Airport and I was taken through the check-in service and taken out of the airport, and we got to one train station and I was left on the bus to get to the UK Home Office.

Q123 Chair: Let me just take this in stages. You arrived in 2005?

Serge: Yes.

Q124 Chair: When did you finally get the leave to remain?

Serge: Unfortunately, I have not had any leave to remain up to now. I will just try to emphasise here that I would like to represent here our network, which is Survivors Speak OUT network, so most of my intervention will be talking about the experience of all the group in general.

Q125 Chair: Sure, this is very helpful but since you are before us, you arrived in 2005 so you are still seeking asylum?

Serge: I am still an asylum seeker.

Q126 Chair: After eight years?

Serge: After eight years, I am still waiting.

Q127 Chair: For that period of eight years, have you been on any financial support?

Serge: Thanks for asking that question.

Chair: We will go into greater detail later on, but just a yes or no is fine.

Serge: Yes, I had a financial support. I have been destitute. I have been in the situation where I have nothing at all.

Chair: We will come on to more of that. I am not cutting you short. We will come back to that in a moment.

Serge: All right.

Q128 Chair: Which country are you from, Serge?

Serge: I’m from an African country.

Q129 Chair: Saron, for the purposes of our record, when did you arrive in this country and when were you given leave to remain?

Saron: First of all, thank you for giving me this chance to speak.

Chair: The acoustics in this room are really bad. I know you are very nervous. We are all very friendly, I can assure you. No matter what they write in the papers about Members of Parliament, we are really quite nice people. You will need to speak up just a little so we can get a proper recording.

Saron: All right. Thank you very much for giving me this chance to speak of my experience. I came here in April 2003.

Q130 Chair: When did you get leave to remain?

Saron: Five years later, 2008.

Q131 Chair: Do you have indefinite leave or are you a British citizen now?

Saron: No, it was refugee status for five years.

Q132 Chair: You are on refugee status now?

Saron: Yes.

Q133 Chair: Your problems in the African country -very briefly describe what they did to you that meant that you could not stay there and had to come to Britain.

Serge : Thank you for being interested in what happened to me back home. Each time I am asked the question, it is painful to explain or to take any one true words of when I suffered but so that you understand, however difficult it is, I will try to explain to you.

Chair: Right.

Serge: In 1997, I got myself involved in political activities. Unfortunately, I chose the wrong path with the opposition because I believed what was going on was not right and something had to be done about it. I will say from my first year entering into the political domain, it has never been easy because in that first year I got arrested. It was the year that I was supposed to go to university.

Q134 Chair: We have read the brief about the history.

Serge: Yes.

Q135 Chair: Can you just briefly describe the elements of torture that you had to-I know it is painful.

Serge: Yes, it is.

Q136 Chair: We all know that you were involved in an opposition area. What was the torture that led you to come here?

Serge: I was imprisoned for quite some time where I was left in a confined room where I was on my own, and usually I was beaten because they wanted information that I could not provide. So I would be taken to another police station where I would be beaten at night during interrogation if I did not answer the question the way they wanted me to answer.

Q137 Chair: Were you beaten with sticks or with fists?

Serge: They had a rubber. It was like a long rubber. I was beaten on the sole of my feet most of the time and-sorry, it is very difficult. Sorry.

Q138 Chair: No, it must be very painful. I do understand. I think we have a flavour of it. You do not need to go on. I think we have a flavour of what you had to go through.

Serge: Yes, it is very painful.

Q139 Chair: Of course, it is. Of course. Saron, we have been told by Women for Refugees that you were a journalist in Ethiopia, that you were arrested on a number of occasions when you were there in Ethiopia, and that you suffered serious violence and that you were raped by one or more police officers. Is that a correct statement?

Saron: Yes.

Q140 Chair: How soon after this appalling attack on you occurred did you then leave the country?

Saron: Yes, I was arrested twice, once for five months, once for four months. I do not remember which year because I lost memory. Because of the demonstration, I reported news, that is what happened, and then the Government wanted to cover it up so that is why I was imprisoned.

Q141 Chair: The terrible assault that you were subjected to, was that routine as far as the Ethiopians were concerned? Were there a lot of other women in that same position?

Saron: In Ethiopia, everyone knows, even until now, there is no freedom for journalists or for free speech, and every journalist in the entire world, the most exiled journalist is from Ethiopia because there is no chance to speak or you cannot tell the true story of what happened.

Chair: Sure.

Q142 Mr Winnick: When you came to Britain, Serge, you applied for asylum obviously, as all people do who have a claim, or believe they have a claim, to asylum. You were, as I understand, detained in the fast track. Did they explain to you that your case would be dealt with quickly?

Serge: They never explained to me, or to most of the members of the network group that we talked about. When you arrive at the Home Office, they first take you through the screening interview, which is itself a very robotic and intimidating system where it does not give you that human contact with people. The feeling you have from the screening interview is, first, that you are rejected or you are just a liar. People have reported, including myself, a situation where you explain how you managed to get here and the interviewer on the phone tells you, "You are lying. No one will believe you." All the interviewers, in a very intimidating manner will tell you, "Why did you come here?"

Q143 Mr Winnick: An intimidating manner?

Serge: Very intimidating. I will take the case of one of my members who said she went into screening without really knowing what it is because most of us, we do not really know what it is until we are routed into that system. The way she was being asked those questions, she was coming from a difficult background where she has been subjected to very difficult use by men in the region, and yet they put her to have men to question her. Yet she managed to go through and say, "Look, I have been through a situation here, for example, the scar," because the men asked her, "Show us the scar", which is already painful and difficult for women-not just women but us men as well-it is difficult that you find yourself in the situation where they say, "Give us the proof." Yet when you give the proof, they do not believe it. You do not have the proof they do not believe it. In the case of this woman, this lady, she-

Q144 Mr Winnick: Do you take the view, however, Serge -we have a brief about what you and Saron went through-

Serge: Yes.

Mr Winnick: -certainly, none of us would wish to go through it in a million years-but do you accept that immigration officers have a responsibility to make sure that the person who is claiming asylum is genuine, and it may well be that during the course of their work, immigration officers will conclude that certain people are not genuine-they may or may not be right-but do you accept that if a country has an immigration control system, there are bound to be questions and trying to find out through such examinations whether the person is genuine? Do you accept that?

Serge: Yes, it is the right purpose of having an immigration office and making sure whoever comes in is a very genuine person, but if we rely on the intimidating manner or the culture of disbelief, when people are saying to you, "We do not believe it," then it sets back a bit that system where we are building to try to get the trust or to get the real thing. But if we set up a system where we can approach, we set up a system where it is more of a customer-based system, this means the person in front has to really understand the story. Go through the story. Try to get the answer from that story and make the analysis. But what tends to happen with the immigration system is they do not want you even to answer the questions. When they ask you a question, they are trying to get your no to be a yes and your yes to be a no. The example when you have interpreter, you have come in to the system, you have already a barrier in front. If you have been subject, if you have been fragilised morally, as most of the people we have been talking to have been, it does not give you the chance to really express what is happening to you. It does not give you the chance. You are not prepared to exactly explain because you come from a situation where torture is a shame on the person. When you have been tortured, it is a shame on you, where you find it difficult to relate it to someone, to tell somebody exactly what has happened to you, and most of the time what people are trying to do is to hold back on that because they do not want everyone to know.

Q145 Mr Winnick: You have been here since 2005. As you have said to the Chair, the situation is that your application has not been finalised, has it?

Serge: No.

Q146 Mr Winnick: But you are allowed now to work?

Serge: Yes. Coming to that situation is one of the questions we ask ourselves every day. In our group, we have members that have been granted refugee status just after three days of them arriving in the country. Some people have waited 15 years. Some people have waited 10 years. Some people have been rejected four or five times and at the end they grant them, so the question is, what do we rely on? Myself, I have submitted two medical evidence to the Immigration.

Chair: We will be coming on to some of these points in later questions. That is very helpful.

Q147 Chris Ruane: What is your view on what would have happened if the interview had been screened? You may have felt that you would have been treated with more respect if the TV cameras were on you and the interviewer, or you may have felt intimidated by the presence of a camera. What would you, Saron, and you, Serge, feel about having your interview filmed or videoed?

Saron: In the past or-

Chris Ruane: If you were to go through it again, would it be a good thing to be filmed so that you would be treated with respect, or would you feel intimidated?

Saron: It would feel very intimidating from my point of view because women come from different cultures and they might have a problem and also, in some cultures, you cannot communicate, "Where is the camera?" or something like that. So it might feel very intimidating if that camera is there.

Q148 Chris Ruane: But if you were trying to get something across and you did not quite get it across, and they made notes that did not add up to what you were saying-

Saron: With the camera in front of me, I would feel very intimidated.

Q149 Chris Ruane: What about if it was audio?

Saron: Audio probably would be much easier because they cannot see. Yes.

Q150 Chris Ruane: All right, Serge?

Serge: Yes, at the present time where I am at the level of moving on from what has happened to me, I will not perceive that as a problem. Instead I would perceive that as an add-on into my interview.

Q151 Chris Ruane: So you would see it as a good thing?

Serge: At the present time, depending on the level of the state of mind of the person.

Q152 Chris Ruane: Yes.

Serge: But when you are just coming in, you are a very fragile person where probably your level of torture involved one of these. At that particular point, I think it will become intimidating. You will become worried. First, you do not know how that is going to be used. Let me explain why-

Chair: Sorry, we have other witnesses so we do need to be quick with your explanation.

Q153 Chris Ruane: Would you prefer video or audio?

Serge: At the fragile moment, I will not prefer because in my case-and it is most people’s case-that has been used against them. It is a very fine line where we have to really check who will be able to access the video or audio, but it is a process that would have to be worked out.

Chair: I think Mr Ruane’s question is this. If you are saying that people are intimidating you in the way in which they ask their questions, is not the best way of ensuring that these interviews are properly conducted if they are recorded, not necessarily by cameras but certainly in an audio recording, so people can hear the way questions are asked? On a piece of paper, you simply do not know the intonation of people.

Q154 Chris Ruane: If there was an appeal later, you could have said, "I was not treated with respect. I was intimidated. He shouted at me," and you would have access to the audio and you could say, "I can prove it. He shouted here and he shouted there."

Serge: You could certainly prove it with the audio but my problem is, with that audio present there, would there not be a barrier as well to full disclosure? Whereas if we establish a very human contact with the individual who comes, giving them the chance to really explain themselves, then they can have the time where they can move on and think. The video is what I want.

Chair: Thank you. May I just say to my colleagues, we do have another five other witnesses to come in and we have about five minutes left on this?

Q155 Dr Huppert: Firstly, thank you both very much for coming in to share your experiences. I hope one of the things that will be able to come out of this is making sure that other people do not have to go through the same problems that you and so many others, including many of our constituents, have. I will have to try to be brief. Can I start with Saron? You mentioned that you had five-year limited leave to remain. Have you started the process of reapplying for that?

Saron: It is going to be in September. I am going to apply next September.

Q156 Dr Huppert: Because I have heard concerns about that process. Have you come across those yet or is it not yet?

Saron: Not yet.

Dr Huppert: Maybe we should hear from you a bit later.

Saron: All right.

Q157 Dr Huppert: Can I ask, do both of you have certain views about the asylum support system? I do not want to put words in your mouth. How would you describe the amount of support there has been from the period when you came and applied to the period where you were given leave or in your case, Serge, the whole period?

Saron: Yes, I was only for five months on asylum support and then I was destitute after that for two years, and then I was detained three times because I do not have a place to stay, and they tried to forcibly deport me in 2006. When my application was dismissed for asylum, they stopped the asylum support. I had to be destitute for a long time.

Q158 Dr Huppert: When you say "destitute", how much money did you have to spend?

Saron: None, nothing.

Q159 Dr Huppert: So what did you-

Saron: I had to go to the charity to collect food. It really affected my mental wellbeing because I used to earn my own money and then going to charity to charity was really painful but I had to do that for almost two years, and that was really difficult. Most women now in Women for Refugee Women, they have that kind of problem. There is no support after your application is dismissed.

Q160 Dr Huppert: It has been suggested that this country tries not to have too much support for fear of attracting people to come here and live off asylum support. You presumably chose to live for two years on no money at all rather than go back home. Do you think that people who are forced into being destitute, realistically the point is that they could not go back home?

Saron: If they could go back, they would. They maybe can’t go back because it’s not a safe place to go back to. For me, it was not a safe place to go back to so I could not go back. That is why I was left destitute.

Q161 Dr Huppert: Thank you. Serge if I could just hear-

Serge: Can I add on on that? Thank you for the question because we have looked into that at Freedom From Torture and the Survivors Speak OUT network sat on the panel during the Poverty Research Project that will be launched by Julian Huppert on 17 July and we would be grateful that you Members can be there.

Chair: Dr Huppert certainly will be there.

Serge: It would be a good thing, so you all are welcome.

Chair: Thank you. We look forward to being there.

Serge: But talking about-the support itself is a world of-they just put you into a difficult situation. The poverty itself plunged every member who goes through, and it is difficult for rehabilitation. It does not allow you to rehabilitate or give you that window. It is a process. You have the cash support. I went through the cash support, which is £36 a week that you get given. This money usually is not enough for somebody who is a stranger to the environment to be able to feed themselves, leaving many members to rely on charity. Then you need accommodation as well. There needs to be a system where those accommodations can be checked because sometimes even the housing given is not liveable.

Chair: Yes, we are going to look at this issue later.

Serge: Yes.

Q162 Steve McCabe: It has been suggested to us that both of you at times during your years in this country have had suicidal thoughts because, presumably, things have been rather grim. Is that true? From your experience, is that a common situation for asylum seekers to find themselves in?

Saron: Yes, in my experience, I have been detained three times and I have made two suicide attempts. That really still affects my life but I have moved on from that situation because of the help I get from different organisations and I am able to start living now. I am all right now.

Q163 Steve McCabe: Is that common for other people you have come across?

Saron: Yes.

Serge: I will say that given the essence of what everyone goes through, if you are talking about support or destitution-which many members on our network have gone through-having to sleep in the street does not give you any other feeling than that life is not worth living. From the moment you get in the country, as we just said, the type of treatment you receive does not make you feel like a human. You feel that what you have just fled from, it just carries on. You have the feeling that it will never end. In my personal case, I went through the point of ending because I could not see anymore where to go. It just took somebody to step up and say, "What are you doing?" for me to realise, to save me. It is very common around the network where we have many members who say, "Look, I went through that situation."

Q164 Chair: Thank you. What would be very helpful is if you could get other members of the network, before this inquiry ends, to write to the Committee. We would be very keen to have them. As you know, time at Committee meetings is quite limited. You have now been here for about 25 minutes. It has given us a flavour, both of you, as to the kinds of problems that you have experienced. People like Mr Winnick, Dr Huppert, Ms Blackwood and Mr McCabe have a lot of immigration cases, but we do not have the kind of time that you have given us today, and we are extremely grateful. You are welcome to stay for the open session because we will now open it up and we will have questions for a number of other groups, another asylum seeker, and indeed G4S and Serco, who run the accommodation that you have just been talking about. So thank you very much.

Serge: I just want to thank you for taking your time to listen to us. We are very grateful and as you said, members of the network, we are really happy to welcome you to have more open evenings at Freedom From Torture, we would like it that if you can make it, we would really appreciate to share what we went through.

Q165 Chair: We will. We are going to do it. Dr Huppert, I know, and I and others are very keen to come and visit. Thank you very much.

Serge: That will be lovely. Thank you so much.

Prepared 10th October 2013