Friday, 8 February 2013

Indifference to asylum seekers’ property

Written by Frances Webber
As if being detained for removal is not trauma enough, asylum seekers in the North East are finding it impossible to reclaim their property from their asylum hostels.
Laptops, cameras, cash, a family Bible and photographs of loved ones are among the personal possessions that have been destroyed or disposed of by landlords when asylum seekers have gone to report to their local UK Border Agency (UKBA) office, and have not come back.
Asylum seekers who are not detained are generally required to report regularly to a local UKBA office while their claim is processed. The same conditions apply to refused asylum seekers. Whether they have been waiting for months or years for a decision on their claim, or have exhausted their appeals some time ago, they never know, when they approach the building, if they will come out of it, or be detained for removal. Dorothy Ismail, a seasoned volunteer at the charity Friends of the Drop-in (FODI) and with the North of England Refugee Service, says ‘It’s a bit like lining up at a random slaughterhouse – refused people scared to go in, scared not to sign – not sure who will come out again.’
Those who are detained for removal have another shock in store. They cannot go back to their accommodation to collect their belongings. Unless they have taken the precaution of bringing all their possessions with them every time they come to report, on the off-chance that they might be detained, they are left with nothing but the clothes they stand up in. Their landlord – Jomast, in the North East, a G4S subcontractor, clears out their rooms and destroys or disposes of property unclaimed after a month. (Read an IRR News story: ‘G4S, Jomast Stockton hostel and the mother-and-baby market‘.)
The G4S accommodation contract (whose terms bind Jomast) says nothing about what should happen to asylum seekers’ property in this situation. As Dorothy points out, it is quite reasonable for a landlord to dispose of a tenant’s unclaimed property after a period. What is not reasonable, though, is for UKBA not to give those it detains the opportunity to reclaim their possessions – which range from valuables such as laptops and cameras to items of sentimental value such as family mementos, and identity or tax documents which are vital to them to re-establish themselves in their home countries.
Not only is it unreasonable, it is also unlawful for UKBA to make no provision for people’s property to be secured. Article 1 of the first Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights requires signatory states to respect the right to ‘peaceful enjoyment of property’. It would be easy for UKBA to stipulate that detained asylum seekers and others who need to collect property should be able to do so, under escort if necessary – but no such requirement apparently exists, and in its absence local officials won’t lift a finger to ensure that at least people get their property back before they are sent home.

Needless difficulty

To recover their belongings, those detained need friends with patience, tenacity and funds. Many asylum seekers have no friends they can ask to pick up their belongings for them – but even for those who do, recovery of their property is fraught with difficulty. Landlords and hostel staff are understandably reluctant to give access to people claiming to be friends without written authorisation from the tenant, which is often impossible. Then, tracking someone through the detention system to find out where to take the property can be a nightmare. The North-East doesn’t have detention centres, and so people detained there may be taken to a holding centre in Manchester, Morton Hall in Lincolnshire, Dungavel in Scotland or even further afield – and is quite likely to be subjected to repeated moves. A Mexican asylum seeker in Newcastle was distraught at his inability to collect his belongings, which included national insurance records without which he would find it virtually impossible to work back home. Dorothy was able to pick up his property through hostel staff bending the rules, and she arranged to go to Dungavel the following day to hand it over – but was stopped in her tracks by a message that he was being moved to the Manchester holding centre. When he finally arrived at the holding centre, many hours and many phone calls later, she was told it was pointless coming to Manchester, as he was being moved to Colnbrook (near Heathrow) during the night. Eventually she was forced to sell his possessions and send him the money and the precious document. But this can’t be done for everyone – and she was lucky to get access to his hostel room in the first place.
Not allowing those to be removed to take their belongings with them is another instance of the petty and vindictive treatment of refused asylum seekers against which Dorothy and thousands of others regularly battle. She hopes the issue will be raised in parliament. It may not be important to politicians, but it matters.

A conference to tackle the crisis in the provision of free legal advice.
  • Saturday 9 February 2013, 10-4pm
  • Friends Meeting House, Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS
Speakers include:
  • Steve Hynes – Legal Action Group
  • Julie Bishop – Law Centres Network
  • Lord Bach
Workshops include:
  • Disability and sickness
  • Housing, employment and unemployment
  • Migrants and BME communities
  • Family and debt