Today I went up to Leeds with my daughter. While we were there we visited the Thursday morning drop-in for destitute asylum seekers run by the charity Positive Action for Refugees (PAFRAS). Though PAFRAS isn’t a religious organization, its activities are supported by the church, and it holds these weekly sessions in the annexe to St. Aidan’s church in the Harehills district, just a mile or so from the designer shops and cafes that have transformed the coal-caked city I remember from my childhood into a consumer hub.
For two hours, anywhere between one hundred and two hundred people can get free food provided by volunteers, some medical advice, and the chance to hang out with other people in the same situation and get a break from the endless waiting room that so many of them are trapped in.
Some of PAFRAS’s clients are street homeless. Others have been staying on the floors of friends or volunteers. Most have had their asylum claims rejected, but either can’t or won’t go back to the countries they came from.
Many of them have been in this situation for years, unable to work or study legally, rent a place to live, marry, start a family. Some have been separated from their families back home through flight and exile. Others have relatives in Europe, who they can’t visit, and who can’t come and see them.
They come from all over the world, blown by the world’s political storms to this bleak corner of Leeds. Today the hall was packed, just as it was three years ago. I met Jafar, an Iraqi writer and journalist who had been imprisoned three times under Saddam Hussein, and who fled Baghdad recently to escape the ongoing violence.
Jafar’s daughter is also a writer and a poet, who lives in Egypt. She wanted to come here too to live with her father, but the UK government wouldn’t allow it, so now she’s applying for a green card in the US instead, and Jafar has no idea when he will see her again.
PAFRAS’s clients include many Iranians, who can’t return to their country even if they want to, because the Iranian embassy in the UK is currently closed and Iran and the UK have no returns agreement. I was happy to hear that two guys I interviewed back in 2009 got positive decisions at last. One of them was an Iranian named Reza, who had been destitute for ten years when I met him, even though he had two kids in the UK, and now has residency.
The other was Germaine, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who had also spent ten years in legal limbo in Leeds after some of the most traumatic experiences that anyone could imagine, and who has finally been allowed to go to Australia, where his wife and children were also living as refugees.
These happy endings are a personal triumph for them and a tribute to their tenacity, though why anyone should have to go through what they did, God only knows. There is no sure pathway to such ‘victories’, in the lottery-gauntlet that successive UK governments have established to keep out an imaginary army of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers who seek to ‘abuse’ our generosity.
No one knows how many people are in a similar situation. Last September the ‘services’ company Capita won a contract to seek out 174,000 migrants who have been denied permission to remain in the UK but have disappeared from UKBA’s records. Some of them may have left the country. Others will be destitute, and dependent for their survival on their friends or on charities like PAFRAS.
It says a great deal about the kind of government we have, that a company like Capita can make money hunting down and bullying migrants to get out of the country, while charities and NGOs like PAFRAS that deal with destitution are struggling to find funds to keep their services going.
Such are the realities of Britain’s ‘soft touch’, as our cuddly Prime Minister put it the other day. Much of the UK public is completely unaware of the dire circumstances in which destitute asylum seekers find themselves, nor are they likely to be enlightened by reading newspapers that talk only of ‘benefit tourists’ and asylum seekers living in luxury homes in Hampstead, or listening to cynical politicians with silk ties and smooth tongues who boast of their efforts to kick out ‘illegal immigrants’ in order to rake in a few more votes.
This is the kind of society we have allowed ourselves to become. The unacknowledged work of PAFRAS and other organizations who perform similar services across the country is a reminder of the kind of society we could be.