In defense of Freedom — T4K Jan Update

We have been busy as always supporting people to build their home in Brighton. Because it has been particularly cold, we helped people buy heaters and blankets and other useful things to help you get through the cold snap. It was particularly important for the men housed in Brighton by the Home Office. The houses are so poorly equipped and in at least one the boiler is on the blink that some heaters and blankets and a very long way.

Making Clothes

The Berkson family sport their masks

Nazrine has been busy making masks and we have been busy distributing them. If you need, do put your order in. Nazrine, who is an extremely skilled seamstress and dressmaker, is just starting to run her own business. If you want her to work her magic on your fabrics, the best way to get in touch is through us. You will not be disappointed.

Sharing Ideas

We also enjoyed the third of our “citizens of the world in conversation” series. This time it was a conversation between Mohamedsalem Wared of Sahawari Voice and my brother, Sam Berkson, author of “Settled Wanderers”. They were talking about creativity and resistance and life in the Western Saharan refugee camps in Algeria. It was a fascinating conversation. We will be back at the end of February with another conversation, quite possibly talking to Alarm Phone activists from Senegal working to support people on the move in Morocco and Western Sahara. The details are to be confirmed, but watch this space.

Making Homes

The big news this month is that the Home Office plan to up the number of asylum seekers housed in Brighton under the various statutory provisions. Last year there were 4 such houses. Voices in Exile tell us that there are going to be at least 11. That will be 60 to 70 people. In some ways, this is great news. Brighton is a city of sanctuary. It’s good that asylum seekers get to live in a city that actively welcomes them. In other ways, it’s problematic. The most obvious way in which it is problematic is the lack of legal support available to people in the city. Brighton Housing Trust do sterling work representing asylum seekers on legal aid, but they were at capacity with the first tranche of people who arrived. Voices in Exile provide amazing pro bono immigration advice, but they are stretched and, anyway, don’t represent people in asylum claims. We are not equipped to take on a legal aid contract or provide immigration advice.

One thing that we can do is provide an Internet connection. Unfortunately, despite the obvious need to have an Internet connection, especially if you’re trying to instruct a lawyer who isn’t in Brighton, the asylum housing providers are not contractually obliged to provide Wi-Fi. Surprisingly enough, Clearsprings Ready Homes, who have the £662,000,000 10 year contract to provide accommodation in the south of England, would rather pay their owner and boss, Graham King, the best part of £1 million a year then fork out £3 or £4 pounds per person per month to give a sucker an even break.

Just to be clear, there are not very many people housed through the asylum housing contracts. There are seven such contracts with a total value of £4.5 billion pounds. I can’t find the answer to the number of people currently accommodated under the “South” contract, but at the end of March 2020, 48,042 people were housed under the three main statutory provisions for accommodating asylum seekers. I suspect that that number will have gone up a little bit, in part because Covid makes evicting people from asylum accommodation or removing them from the country very difficult, but mostly because the Home Office are very slow at making decisions. Almost all of the people we are supporting have waited well over a year for an asylum interview, let alone a decision. 83% of those people were in England. England is divided into four regions, of which the south is the smallest contract, though in the most expensive region. It represents 18% of the value of the contracts for England. There are just very few people dispersed to the south of England. I would be extremely surprised if there were more than 7000 people (roughly 16% of those in England) accommodated for that money.

Being extremely generous to Clearsprings, they are charging about £700 per person per month. Despite not thinking it acceptable to dump 5 to 9 traumatised, destitute people together in bottom of the market housing without an Internet connection, we are better value for money. It costs us about £600 per person per month to provide homes, including Wi-Fi, to people without leave to remain.

Edit: I’ve since been sent a link to more detailed statistics. There were 6492 people housed under S95 in the south west, south east and London in Sept 20. A further 16,389 were accomodated under S4 and S98 (intial accomodation, hotels and barracks). My estimate may be a bit low. Perhaps Clearsprings are averging £600/person/month. We still provide better value for money in one of the most expensive parts of the country.

Our problem though is that we need more money. We have a contract until the end of April on a two-bedroom flat. We have the money to cover that. If we are going to carry on housing those two people, it looks like we going to need another £200 a month. That is doable, but you need to ask your friends to help. If we are going to take on something like another 11 Wi-Fi contracts for these asylum seekers that have been dumped in Brighton, it’s going to be about another £275 a month.

A button with coffee cup and £3 on it
Click to donate £3/month

Here comes the ask for money. A 12 month contract for a fibre-optic connection costs about £25/month. That’s not something that everybody can afford, but it is something that some people can afford. Many of us have suffered enormous financial hardship through this pandemic. Jobs have been lost. Businesses have gone to the wall. It has been tough. Weirdly, though, some people, including myself, have managed to save money through these times. With entertainment venues closed, travel next to impossible, social life at a minimum, those of us who have maintained our income are probably feeling richer. We are looking for individuals who can sponsor some or all of a Wi-Fi connection. If that’s you, or somebody you know, you can get in touch or simply set up a standing order to our bank account with a reference that makes it clear is for Wi-Fi.

Struggling for Freedom

Now, you might think that we shouldn’t be letting Clearsprings and the Home Office off the hook by providing essentials like Wi-Fi and the community support that just about keeps people with us. It’s a question that bothers me a lot. I do, though, think that our approach is the right one. There is no sense in which this system is designed to look after people. The system is not failing. It is working as intended. The easiest way to see that is by recognising that it is a completely unnecessary system. The government only has to provide asylum support to people because it has made them destitute. If the government let you work and claim Universal Credit, then you would sort out your own accommodation. You might need a bit of emergency accommodation on first arrival, but, at a net gain to the Exchequer, you would soon find and fund your own home.

The asylum “support” system was introduced by Blair’s first government. They did it as part of their attack on asylum seekers. It was explicitly designed to reduce the number of asylum seekers through deterrence. Those attacks on asylum seekers have hardened and worsened since the Immigration Act of 1999. The current state of play is that if you want to claim asylum, you are may well be held in disused barracks or, possibly, a semi-permanent camp built on the site of an existing detention centre.

I am fed up with the pretence that this is an emergency measure brought in because of a shortage in asylum accommodation caused by Covid and channel crossings. For a start, there is no evidence that asylum numbers are up this year, even if more people are choosing to come by boat. Much more importantly though, if you wanted to solve that problem you would simply let people work. The asylum system is unnecessary and serves only to punish you for claiming asylum. I think that charities and other organisations working to support asylum seekers would do well to avoid collusion in that pretence. We need to be clear that everybody who lives here is part of our community. We need to insist that you have a right to try to support yourself and that the welfare system is a safety net for all, not a privilege reserved for the chosen few.

Fortunately, where there is oppression there is resistance. I have previously mentioned the union of residents in Penally. There have been hunger strikes and other protests by the inmates at Napier barracks in Kent. This is hardly surprising when you are sharing 20 to a room and Covid has broken out. Those protesting inside were joined by their fellow humans when people poured red paint over the gates. In fact, it seems that things have got so bad, that the residents tried to burn down the camp. The detention centres have ways been a site of struggle and they continue to be as people organise to resist the proposed expansion at Yarls Wood. There is a movement and we are winning.

Making Space for All

When I was about to write this newsletter, I was feeling miserable. Then I saw the news that the Stansted 15 had won their appeal. These are a bunch of people who had taken direct action against a charter flight, in so doing they kept 11 people in the UK. These are 11 people who each had insisted that removing them from the UK would be a breach of their human rights. In some cases they feared for their lives. By delaying the flight, those 11 people were able to establish before an immigration tribunal that they were right. Incidentally, that’s no small hurdle. For their courageous action, the 15 were charged under legislation introduced to combat terrorism. They were convicted, but sentencing was postponed. They could have faced years in prison. In the end, they receive community orders and suspended jail sentences. They didn’t let it rest. They took on the law once more. Their determination has been vindicated with the appeal court quashing the convictions. They were not terrorists.

I have no doubt that this victory rests on the back of the people that came out in their support. Of course, that support was because their cause is just, but there are plenty of just causes that are neglected. People came out in defence of the Stansted 15, in part, because of the absolute clarity and honesty of the 15 individuals involved. They believed in truth and justice, they spoke of truth and justice and they acted in truth and with justice. They never said that it was about them. They used every opportunity to highlight the fact that if they were to go to prison, when they were released they would be returned to their families. If they had lacked citizenship, the Home Office would have tried to deport them. Their courage, their conviction and their kindness brought people to support them. It is humbling and it is empowering.

Of course, the support for the Stansted 15 needs to be transferred into support for their cause. On a personal level, I’m sure they wanted to avoid prison, on a public level, what they wanted to do was to end the racism of the U.K.’s border regime. They wanted people to be free to pursue their own fulfilment irrespective of the colour of their skin or the colour of their passport. They wanted a world in which people were not punished for seeking sanctuary. It’s that world that we’ve got to build. That’s why we exist. It’s why you step up to bring in those whom the Home Office wish to exclude. It’s why you provide Wi-Fi work when Clearsprings fail. It’s why you provide homes.