Disabled asylum seekers have faced appalling injustices for too long – action is needed.
In July 2016, four years after he arrived in Bristol, Kamil Ahmed – a disabled man – was murdered by his neighbour, in the Knowle supported accommodation scheme where they both lived.
Jeffrey Barry, who has schizophrenia and is now serving a life sentence, had been released from a secure unit just a few hours earlier, having been sectioned after attacking and threatening to kill Kamil.
Kamil arrived in Bristol in 2012, seeking peace and safety after facing torture and imprisonment in Iraqi Kurdistan. But his application for asylum was denied and, at the time of his violent death, he was fighting for a judicial review of his circumstances while facing eviction and the withdrawal of his support.
His death came three years after Bijan Ebrahimi, an Iranian refugee who was also disabled, was killed in Brislington by neighbours after his complaints that he was being subjected to hate crime were ignored by the police. Reviews into both murders, which were found to be racially motivated, highlighted bias on the part of agencies involved with the men.
I met Kamil soon after he arrived in Bristol. He was one of the people who introduced me to the extreme injustices faced by disabled asylum seekers in Britain. What he and others taught me became the motivation for the PhD I am working on.
I have interviewed people in the immigration sector and the disability movement – including disabled asylum seekers and refugees, people working in asylum support and disabled people’s organisations, campaigners, legal representatives, the Home Office and politicians.
Their insights have illuminated some of the causes behind the oppression disabled asylum seekers face – and how some current initiatives actually reinforce the core problem. But they also shine a light on what really needs to change.
‘I am bleeding’
When I met Kamil in 2012 he drew a picture of what he wanted people to understand. He explained: “This is my heart that has been stabbed with a dagger. The Home Office did this. I am bleeding and no-one can stop it.”
This was long before Kamil was murdered, and he wasn’t predicting the future but describing what he felt was already happening. Kamil had no secure place to live, no knowing where or when his next meal would come from and, perhaps hardest of all, no knowing how long this situation would continue.
The suffering Kamil had been through was not enough to persuade the Home Office he deserved sanctuary. This is not unusual – last year, 66% of asylum applications were refused.
Kamil’s mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, made it difficult for him to remember and provide evidence of the minute details of his experiences. This is not unusual either. Mental distress is so common among asylum seekers as to be considered normal. There are obvious barriers to gathering evidence, when a person has fled their home, often without packing a bag.
When I first met Kamil, I was trying to bring together a group of disabled people seeking asylum, as part of a bigger project with the UK Disabled People’s Council. My first hurdle was finding people.
I spoke to the disabled people’s organisations I knew but found none that were aware of asylum seekers among their members. I rang a major charity working with refugees and was told, “Disabled asylum seekers … don’t really exist”.
I had been involved in the disability movement for many years. I was prepared for the everyday barriers and routine disregard for the needs of disabled people.
I am also the daughter of a refugee and grew up with stories of the traumas of losing one’s home. I had been volunteering in the asylum sector. I was prepared for the injustice and hostility of asylum policy.
I was not prepared for the casual denial of people’s very existence, even within organisations designed to provide support.
Injustice beyond comprehension
When I listen to disabled asylum seekers and refugees speak of their experiences in the UK, I wonder how we have come to a point where people can be treated so appallingly. For example, among people I have met:
- A blind man was released from immigration detention and left on a street corner with no assistance, in a town where he knew no one. He was only helped after collapsing and being taken to hospital.
- A woman was in hospital ready for an operation when her Home Office papers were checked and the operation was cancelled. She then relied on painkillers and struggled to walk as far as the foodbank. As she explained, “The Home Office know what they are doing”.
- A young person with haemophilia was detained and denied medication until after he had been bleeding for three days. He was then taken to hospital and treated – in handcuffs.
Denying rights to asylum seekers, including disabled asylum seekers, is nothing new. Since the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, there have been 16 immigration acts, each reducing the rights of migrants, including disabled asylum seekers.
There appears to be increasingly widespread acceptance that some people deserve human rights, but others do not. If our commitment to universal human rights is broken, it’s a short step to removing rights from more and more people – as recent laws demonstrate.
In 1999 the Immigration and Asylum Act removed the rights of asylum seekers to access mainstream benefits. There was no longer any financial recognition of the costs of being disabled for people also seeking asylum. People also lost the right to choose where to live and could be forced to move to areas of cheap housing, away from support networks.
There was no organised resistance from the disability movement. Perhaps people’s attention was set on the more positive goal of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was passed in 2006, after many years of campaigning. But when the British government signed the convention it added a reservation excluding immigration policy from the government’s obligations. Again, there was little organised resistance. Perhaps the reservation was seen as a minor issue in comparison with the ground-breaking international recognition of disability rights.
Just a few years later, the Welfare Reform Act 2012 drastically cut support available to disabled citizens. This legislation, together with wider cuts to services and support, led a UN investigation to report the British government’s austerity policies as inflicting “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights.
There have of course been many protests. Yet even now, similarities with policies imposed on disabled asylum seekers more than a decade earlier are rarely mentioned. Even within the disability movement, different standards seem to be accepted for citizens compared with for asylum seekers.
I would suggest that the removal of rights from disabled citizens is the price we are paying for the lack of resistance when the rights of asylum seekers were removed.
Degrees of shame
I am sometimes told that the problems faced by disabled asylum seekers stem from the stigma associated with disability in their countries of origin. There are of course places where disabled people are treated worse than in Britain – but also places where people are treated better. Ranking degrees of shame is an unhelpful distraction. Britain is where we are.
A disabling system
Some of the problems faced by disabled asylum seekers in Britain stem from oversights (which is bad enough) but many injustices stem from deliberate policy. The hostile environment is designed to be hostile.
The asylum system itself is disabling. Some people I have spoken to became disabled when here – with many describing the system as psychological torture. The despair one person felt led him to jump off a bridge, adding physical impairment to the ongoing mental distress. Another person developed serious back problems after being made destitute and having to sleep on park benches.
The Safeguarding Adults Review into Kamil’s murder concluded that the inadequate attention paid to his needs may, in part, be explained by unconscious bias against people whose asylum claims have been refused. This may make a person’s position even more precarious. But ultimately, the destitution of refused asylum seekers is not due to individual acts of oversight but to deliberate government policy.
When Kamil was murdered, he was also being threatened with eviction from the hostel where he was living. According to Bristol council social services, his mental health had improved, and he no longer met criteria for support, leaving him facing homelessness, with no means of income, within months.
As disabled people – whether citizens or refugees – know too well, if support is provided and barriers are addressed then our conditions may improve. If support is removed, then conditions may deteriorate.
In Kamil’s Safeguarding Adults Review it was reported that staff were unaware of how traumatic it would be to be made street homeless – suggesting a puzzling lack of knowledge or empathy. Again, this issue is not unique. Voluntary organisations supporting asylum seekers in Bristol are aware of at least three disabled asylum seekers who have recently been evicted by Bristol Social Services, leaving them with nowhere to live and no statutory support. Bristol’s MPs will be meeting in September to discuss what can be done to address this problem.
With the help of mental health services, legal support and friends, Kamil was lobbying to get Bristol council’s decision reversed.
It was reversed. The morning after he was murdered.
One of the big problems faced by disabled asylum seekers is that it is often unclear how official decisions, are made.
Some people get provided with care, while others, with seemingly similar needs, do not. Some get bus passes, others do not. Some people get refugee status, others do not.
Decisions sometimes appear based on arbitrary views of who is deserving and who is not. Asylum seekers fear speaking out against individual injustices in case doing so affects wider decisions.
Deserving and undeserving
The negative effect of labelling someone as undeserving may be obvious. But labelling certain people as particularly deserving also implies that others are not.
- If Syrian families selected for resettlement are particularly deserving, does that mean asylum seekers are not?
- If the children of Calais are particularly deserving, does that mean single adult men are not?
- And most relevant to the experiences of disabled people: If someone deserves support because they are labelled as ‘vulnerable’, does that mean that others do not?
Of course, sometimes we have to use any means necessary to save the lives of those affected, but the basis of our campaigning must be about solidarity and equal rights, not anyone’s exceptional status.
The issues faced by asylum seekers also challenge wider campaigning goals.
Sometimes it is assumed that the solution to the exclusion of disabled people must be inclusion. But inclusion in an oppressive system is no solution – we do not want ramps in detention centres, we want rid of detention centres. Or, as one disabled activist put it, campaigning for inclusion in the asylum system is like campaigning for sign language interpreters at the gallows.
The problem with ‘vulnerability’
Some initiatives are already taking place or have been proposed in relation to disabled asylum seekers’ experiences. Doing something may be better than doing nothing, but I’d suggest that some actions distract us from the fundamental causes of the problem – and can even reinforce divisions.
In theory, the Home Office and other institutions aim to identify and safeguard asylum seekers labelled as ‘vulnerable’. Kamil’s Safeguarding Review refers to vulnerability 23 times in a 43-page document. Similarly, the multi-agency review into the circumstances resulting in Bijan Ebrahimi’s murder includes 21 references to vulnerability in a 38-page document. Yet, neither of these men died because they were more vulnerable than others. They died because they were denied protection from people intent on killing them.
Of course, support should be provided to people in crisis. And of course, this is better than ignoring people’s existence. But if I could make one instant change to institutional responses, it would be to delete the word ‘vulnerable’ from the vocabulary.
Labelling disabled people as ‘vulnerable’ takes us back to before the disability movement began. All humans are vulnerable. Disabled people have the same needs as anyone else. The issue is whether people face barriers getting those needs met.
Focusing on safeguarding vulnerable people risks labelling the person as the problem, distracts from the barriers faced and, again, reinforces ideas that some people are more deserving than others, which I suggest is the core of the problem.
Power to change
We can, and should, blame the government for many things – but until now the government has known that removing rights from asylum seekers, and particularly disabled asylum seekers, will not cause protests. Changing that perception is our collective responsibility – and is within our power.
The Home Office labels people in Kamil’s position as failed asylum seekers. Kamil did not fail. But it was Kamil who was failed, in the country in which he had hoped to find peace and safety.
Yet almost exactly two years on from his murder, amid sadness and anger I also feel a sense of hope.
Disabled people in the asylum system still experience systematic and inhumane denial of basic rights. The hostile environment is still designed to be hostile. What has changed is that there is now wider awareness that disabled asylum seekers exist.
Small progress, perhaps. But today there is determination among disabled citizens, asylum seekers, refugees and allies, to work together.
If we had had a movement strong enough to resist the removal of rights from disabled asylum seekers in 1999, perhaps those policies would not have been extended to citizens a decade later. Today we recognise that united we stand, divided we fall.
At a time of horrendous injustice, this is what gives me hope for a better future.
Some elements of this article originally appeared in a shorter piece published by The Conversation.