Visibility and solidarity: campaigning for justice and the right to remain

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This blog post is based on a talk by Right to Remain at From Silence to Solidarity, Violence to Visibility, Lesbian Immigration Support Group‘s conference in Manchester, July 2015.

solidarity

Campaigning for the right to remain has changed a lot over the last decade, partly because of how the asylum and immigration system had changed so much, and also because we are now operating in what one of our friends has called a ‘post-compassion’ environment. Campaigns based on asking the Home Secretary Theresa May to reverse a decision, stop a removal or give someone immigration status aren’t going to succeed.

Public Campaigning

Previously, most of our work was supporting people who wanted to go public with their story in order to try and get the right to stay. In the past, the publicity was just the public-facing bit of a strong community campaign but over the years, people started contacting NCADC, asking them to put their story on the internet, without a clear idea of what this could achieve and what were the risks, and often with little support from people they knew.

It is a legal action that will, if successful, result directly in the right to remain. A campaign may help the legal case, but the benefits of campaigning are hard to quantify, because they are often indirect. Because there is no guarantee a campaign will result in the right to remain, it is essential to think not just about the benefits of campaigning, but also the risks.

The decision to go public should not be based on a legal case being turned down and in desperation not knowing what else to do. It needs to be the result of a careful, thoughtful discussion.

Telling the media or the public about what has happened to you is not the same as having a campaign – a campaign requires people taking action in order to work towards getting the right to remain.

Risks of public campaigning

Sometimes LGBT asylum seekers are advised to ‘go public’ about their story because that would be a way of proving they would be at risk (if they are publicly stating themselves to lesbian, bisexual, gay that means they could be at risk in their home country). It is not unknown for even some lawyers to recommend this. However, it is a very risky strategy. The asylum system is so broken that it does not protect people at risk – so you may tell the world about your story, which could put you at risk, and still be removed/deported.

Going public could possibly:

  • put you at more risk if you are returned to your country
  • put your family back home at risk, or cause difficulties for you and your family here in the UK (does your community know about your sexuality? Is your story something you really want to share with the world?)
  • be stressful, dealing with media and public attention
  • make the Home Office try harder to remove you, more quickly (to shut you up)
  • have a negative impact on your legal case (if you have a lawyer, ask them first!)

Read more about the possible risks of public campaigning here.

Having said all that, for some people going public can be a very positive thing to do. Some people have got the right to remain through a public campaign – but it wasn’t the publicity in itself that got them that. The publicity helped the legal case. Here’s an example to explain:

Eve’s story

This is the story of Eve, a lesbian from Uganda. Details of this story have been changed to protect the person’s identity – even when someone has a public campaign, that does not mean sharing all of their story or information.

Eve was a member of her local church and also an asylum support group, so she had discussed campaigning and had campaign materials for a public campaign ready. This meant that when she was suddenly told, when she went to report, that her court case had been refused and she was likely to be detained and removed very soon, the campaign was ready to go public straight away as this had been agreed with her support group.

Eve decided to launch a public campaign for her right to remain in the UK, not only because she would be in very serious danger if returned to Uganda and so wanted to do all she could to get the right to remain; but also because she wanted to raise awareness of the plight of lesbians in Uganda. She was also outraged at her treatment in the UK, particularly in detention, and wanted to let the British public know about the abuses and injustices of the asylum and immigration system.

Some of Eve’s campaign actions:

(1) spreading awareness of her campaign through a website, social media, local media

This meant that more people heard about the campaign, including an expert on the treatment of lesbians in Uganda.

The expert offered to write a report, commenting on Eve’s case. This expert would not have heard about Eve’s case if it were not for the public campaign, and also might not have been so ready to offer support without the credibility/persuasiveness that a campaign can add. This expert’s report, in turn, then gave the campaign group and Eve credibility.

(2) legal research

Eve had a lawyer doing the basic things necessary for her case, but the lawyer had a very heavy caseload. Eve’s support group said they could do legal research – gathering human rights reports on the treatment of lesbians people in Uganda and gathering support letters from LGBT groups Eve had been involved with in the UK.

(3) Airline campaigning

Eve was issued with removal directions.  Her campaign group asked supporters to contact Kenya Airways – the airline who would be carrying out her forced removal – to tell them to not be complicit in a human rights abuse.

The pilot has the legal right not to carry an individual if they do not feel it would be safe – and this can be interpreted very widely. When deportees have managed to speak to the pilot or other airline staff, they are sometimes taken off the flight.

Eve was issued with removal directions but the lawyer obtained an injunction meaning there was no attempt to put her on a removal flight. However, the airline campaigning was still important – Kenya Airlines would be primed to know they were carrying someone being taken against their will. This has in the past resulted in airlines refusing to carry an individual, being more responsive if that individual explains to them why should not be on the flight. If Eve had been given removal directions again, Kenya Airways may have refused to take the booking. It also made Kenya Airways aware that people knew of their involvement in these unjust removal flights.

This action may soon not be possible as the Home Office intend to stop issuing removal directions documents that have the flight number on, which is how you find out which airline is going to be removing the person, and from which airport.

(3) Facebook virtual vigil

Eve’s lawyer was worried a large presence at her judicial review hearing might have negative consequences on her case, but Eve was feeling very anxious and depressed at the prospect of a daunting hearing.

Her campaign group organised a Facebook Vigil at the time of the judicial review hearing – instead of attending in person, people clicked online, on Facebook, to say they would be ‘attending’. This was a pledge that they would be thinking of Eve at the time of the judicial review hearing. They also posted messages of good-will. This boosted Eve’s morale, knowing so many people out there were supporting her, and she felt strong enough to keep going with her legal case. It was also a good event to organise around and raise awareness of Eve’s case, giving her campaign group a focus and a structure to plan around.

Benefits of the campaign

All of these actions, with their associated outcomes, in Eve’s campaign meant that Eve had a stronger legal case and felt strong enough to keep fighting her case and this in turn resulted in Eve being granted leave to remain.

All the campaign actions contributed to winning the right to remain. No one action on its own would be enough – it was the combination that made it a successful campaign.

Taking action for the right to remain

Eve’s campaign was a great success – but such stories are rare. Public campaigning actually isn’t the best option for most people – and indeed most of the actions that lead to concrete outcomes take place behind the scenes.

Watch our new video to find out more about this ….

You can find out much more about this in the Right to Remain toolkit on our website.

Here’s one story to show just how much people can do to support each other:

Daniel (not his real name) is a gay man from Sierra Leone, whose asylum application was initially refused under the old rules that allowed the Home Office to rule that LGBT people could return to their home country and be ‘discreet’ about their sexual orientation to avoid persecution. He refused to return, and was surviving without any state housing or benefits, and suffering from depression, always worried about being detained and removed.

Daniel approached Right to Remain for help, and we signposted him for support to a gay men’s health group, and a local community organisation. Following the change in asylum case law, where the ‘go home and be discreet’ rule was overturned, Daniel was referred to a solicitor, to prepare a fresh claim under the new rules.

Despite the change in case law, the Home Office intensified their efforts to remove Daniel, requiring him to sign more frequently, and demanding that he attend weekly interviews to discuss returning to Sierra Leone, getting photographs taken to prepare travel documents. Daniel found this experience, which went on for several months, very intimidating and stressful.

Daniel began to text his support group every time he went to report and sign at the Home Office, so that they would be able to act quickly and contact his solicitor and friends if he was detained, with a list of actions to take agreed in advance. Eventually, his solicitor submitted a fresh claim. It was accepted, and refugee status was granted.

Daniel told Right to Remain that without the support during this period he would not have been able to stand up to the Home Office, or engage with his solicitor to put in a fresh claim, and he would probably have been removed.

Campaigning to change the system

As everyone we work with knows, the immigration and asylum system is extremely complicated, deliberately difficult to navigate, designed to prevent people establishing their right to remain. It is unfair, it is unjust, it can be traumatic, it can be violent. It can and does deny people their basic human rights. Sometimes it seems that with every step you try to take towards getting justice, getting the right to remain, the system puts a barrier in your way.

And the system is getting worse, harder to get through. A lot of groups now are not just trying to help each other get through the system, but also to challenge the system, to try and change the system. If we don’t fight to change the system, we’ll be going backwards.

There are a lot of things wrong with the asylum and immigration system, and we can’t change them all at once. We need to be smart and determined in our campaigning, and work with others to succeed.

As someone at one of our recent events said:

One person cannot do it all. You can’t just have a bank of knowledge in one person. Its important to share knowledge with other people, and you can learn from them too. We can work together and make it good. We have to believe in networking.

There are issues facing LGBT+ migrants that other migrants don’t have to face. But there are also issues that all undocumented migrants have in common, and indeed issues that are shared by people facing discrimination and oppression for lots of different reasons.

Homophobic abuse in detention is an ordeal that heterosexual migrants are unlikely to face. The injustice and harm of detention itself, however, is shared by all those detained and those at risk of detention.

The interviewing process and decision-making for LGBT+ asylum seekers is notoriously problematic, with explicit questions asked and shocking assumptions made. It is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of interviewing and decision-making that fails almost all asylum seekers.

The dispersal of asylum-seekers away from communities, families and friends they know well and from whom they get essential support, to a new location many miles away on a no-choice basis is distressing and difficult. As is the dispersal of British families being housed by local authorities far from the areas where they have lived all their lives and where their support networks are.

As we decry the inequality that means the poorest in the UK are dependent on food banks to survive, we think of destitute migrants also reliant on food-parcels from their local drop-in.

At a time of unprecedented attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable, when a government can say with pride that they are deliberately trying to create an environment so hostile that migrants are forced to leave the UK out of despair and degradation, we need allies to protect our rights and to be able to live with humanity and dignity.

Unity and solidarity have never been more valuable.



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