Fresh questions today about the way our society treats vulnerable children.
Firstly, the Welsh Refugee Council has taken the unusual step of going public with concerns about an individual case – an Afghan refugee named Mashal Jabari, an orphan who arrived in the UK last October.
At the heart of the case is a dispute over Mashal’s age.
When Mashal arrived in the UK, he was assessed as being over 18 and was sent to Cardiff where he was initially placed in a hostel for adult new arrivals.
The Welsh Refugee Council was convinced he was clearly only 14 rather than 18. It says that both his GP and social workers in Cardiff also believe he is under 18 (although social workers never got to carry out a full age assessment).
However, they have not been able to persuade the UK Border Agency.
In November, Mashal was refused asylum. On Monday, Mashal went to the Border Agency office in Cardiff with documents from his brother, Zaki, asking for his case to be reassessed because his brother has been given refugee status.
Mashal was taken into detention and spent a day in a police cell. He has now been sent to Campsfield detention centre in Oxfordshire ready to be “removed” on March 9.
According to the Welsh Refugee Council: “Our children’s advocacy officer visited him in Cardiff Bay police station and he was distraught beyond description. He had been put in padded clothing for fear of self-harm.”
One wonders how our society could treat a traumatised person of any age like this.
Secondly, figures revealed by the office of South Wales West AM, Alun Cairns, today again highlight the desperate shortage of social workers in Wales. The shortage means that hundreds of children have not been allocated a social worker.
“These figures show a worrying number of at-risk children in Wales have not been allocated a social worker,” said Mr Cairns.
“I was very concerned to learn that councils in my own region had large numbers of at-risk children, with 116 unallocated cases in the Swansea Council and 120 in Bridgend.”
The figures reveal a snapshot of the situation on September 1 last year but council funds are going to be squeezed further and recruiting social workers remains a difficult task.
And while vulnerable children wait to be allocated a social worker, it is impossible to know whether or not they are at serious risk.
Around 1,000 children are locked up every year by the UK’s immigration system.
They have often fled countries where they experienced violence, war and discrimination.
The children have committed no crime but, according to the Children’s Society, many experience “depression, weight-loss, bed-wetting and even self-harm”.
The Society has joined with Bail for Immigration Detainees to create the OutCry! campaign to demand an end to this Government policy.
It has already gained a great deal of support.
The Royal Colleges of Paediatrics, GPs and Psychiatry, and the Faculty of Public Health last year issued a joint statement which said the “immigration detention of children is harmful and unacceptable” and demanding that the Government “stop detaining children without delay”.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has called on Gordon Brown to end “what is, in effect, state sponsored cruelty”.
And just before Christmas Dame Anne Owers, chief inspector of prisons, published her report on an unannounced visit to Tinsley House immigration detention centre, at Gatwick Airport, calling the conditions there “wholly unacceptable” for women and children.
At the time of that report, the UK Border Agency issued a statement to say that “treating women and children with care and compassion is a priority (for us)”.
But it is a Government policy without compassion and OutCry! believes that General Election year 2010 should be the year politicians shut the door on it.
Nearly a quarter of people in Wales believe 100,000 or more asylum seekers come to the UK every year – four times the actual figure.
The figure is revealed in a special ICM poll commissioned by the British Red Cross to mark Refugee Week.
Accoring to Sir Nick Young, chief executive of the British Red Cross: “There are many myths and stereotypes around this vulnerable group, and that is why this year the British Red Cross is urging people to look beyond the refugee and asylum seeker labels, and see people as the individuals they are.”
He said the ICM poll found that 23 per cent of people in Wales believed 100,000 or more asylum seekers come to the UK each year, when the actual figure is around 25,000.
“On average people in Wales also think the UK is home to 28 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers, when in fact only around three per cent seek refuge in this country,” he added.
“Reassuringly, however, 92 per cent of people in Wales have positive associations with refugees living in the UK. Confusion and misunderstanding should not be allowed to erode the UK’s long tradition of providing sanctuary for people fleeing persecution.”
The British Red Cross is using Refugee Week to highlight the positive contributions made by refugees and asylum seekers through its Look Beyond The Label campaign.
“Refugee week gives us the chance to not only celebrate individuals like these, but also to take pride in our own role in offering safety to those in desperate need,” added Sir Nick.
Campaigners in Swansea are celebrating after young mum Venera Aliyeva was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
The UK Government had been trying to deport her and her two children to Azerbaijan.
But as What Is Wales? reported in 2007, locals began a campaign to have them returned from Yarl’s Wood detention centre to her home in South Wales.
Venera had previously suffered persecution on two counts in Azerbaijan: because she is a Baptist and an Armenian.
Today the Campaign for Asylum Justice revealed the family would now be allowed to stay in Swansea.
The Children’s Commissioner for Wales Keith Towler has condemned the “shocking” treatment of asylum seeker children in the UK.
Mr Towler said the way some children were dealt with beggared belief, according to today’s Western Mail.
He went on to describe the highly distressing way one young family was recently removed from Swansea. He is the latest in a long line of people to speak out on the issue this year.
There was a predictable outcry when the Welsh Assembly Government decided recently to allow asylum seekers, who have been refused permission to stay in the UK, access to hospital treatment.
It was the usual knee-jerk reaction. One has to wonder what these people would do if they came across someone in pain, or suffering a life-threatening illness, but who they suspected to be from abroad.
Would they check first whether they should be ‘here’, whether they pay their taxes?The Tories, as Betsan Powys of the BBC, pointed out, got very confused over the new policy.
Obviously, they didn’t want to appear soft on foreigners – heaven forbid – but the true blues are a little wet over this side of Offa’s Dyke, a little too caring.
Today, in an excellent letter to the Western Mail, Cathy Owens, programme director for Amnesty International in Wales, describes the “outrage from the usual quarters about queue-jumping and fairness for British taxpayers”.
Some of this is based on valid argument, she says, but some is based on “misinformation and xenophobia”.
Asking readers to put themselves into the shoes of some of the 3,000 asylum seekers in Wales – many of whom have fled repression and war – she says: “A few hundred may not win the right to stay, but may find it very difficult to return – they may not be able to travel back to Afghanistan, Darfur or Zimbabwe.”
If they fall ill, they can go to a GP but cannot be treated as inpatients at hospital.
Last year, only 11 people in this situation needed treatment in Welsh hospitals – a small number when you consider that more than 300,000 operations take place in Wales every year.
“For each of those 11 people behind the headlines, it could have been the difference between life and death,” writes Owens.
WAG’s decision was a point of principle – that we don’t refuse help to anyone who is ill or dying. And it was one that makes our nation a little more humane.
There will be a demonstration in memory of Ama Sumani later this month in Cardiff.
Ama died in Ghana on March 19 after being removed from the University Hospital of Wales while receiving treatment for cancer.
Campaigners hope that the event will be both a tribute to Ama and a message to the authorities.
“This protest is important because we have to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again” said Janet Symmons, Ama’s friend and co-ordinator of the campaign.
“Ama’s tragedy touched a lot of people, but it is important to understand that there are hundreds of people in similar situations right now. I know a Zambian lady who has a baby daughter with brain damage, a Cameroonian boy with Hepatitis – all have the threat of deportation hanging over them.”
The demo takes place at 1 pm at the Nye Bevan Statue, Queen Street, Cardiff, on Saturday, April 19.
* Thanks to Respectable Citizen for highlighting this event.
The death of cancer patient Ama Sumani will be on the conscience of this nation, according to the Archbishop of Wales.
Ama Sumani, 39, died yesterday in Korle-Bu hospital, Accra, Ghana, after she had been forcibly removed from Cardiff’s University Hospital of Wales in January.
The widowed mother-of-two had been taken from her hospital bed in Cardiff while undergoing treatment because her visa had expired.
The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, said today: “I am enormously sad to hear of the death of Ama Sumani.
“I believe her death is on the conscience of this nation because we removed her when it was against every humanitarian instinct to do so.
“My thoughts and prayers are with her family.”
:: Ama’s deportation and the treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in Wales has been discussed extensively on What Is Wales?
There have been rumours about the housing of asylum seekers at Cardiff Prison.
South Wales Anarchists Gagged! Newsletter and Respectable Citizen have both reported claims that the jail has again been used to make up for a lack of space at detention centres.
Although it’s not a devolved issue I contacted the Welsh Assembly Government about the rumours. A number of assembly members campaigned against the practice when asylum seekers were held in the jail back in 2001 and 2004.
WAG assured me last week that it is not happening. Read more in the current edition of Big Issue Cymru (Jan 13-20).
UPDATE: See ‘comments’ section.
Also, please check out if you can my friend John Gilheaney’s blog Save Llantrisant Post Office.
Should commercial airlines sell seats to allow the Government to forcibly return asylum seekers?
The issue’s been brewing since early last year – but it’s not one airlines themselves are particularly eager to discuss.
Take the case of Veneera Aliyeva.
Veneera settled so successfully in Swansea with her two children that when immigration officers came to take them away, the community campaigned for her.
The campaign continues although, as I write, the family had finally been released from a detention centre by the Home Office pending a possible judicial review. The threat of expulsion from the UK still loomed over them.
If they are forced to return to Azerbaijan they will do so on an airline in seats you or I’d use for our holidays.
Twice the family has been marked down for return, both times on British Midland Airways (bmi) flights from Heathrow.
When I contacted bmi to ask whether it would abandon these flights, it responded with classic meaningless PR.
“bmi is not at liberty to discuss the details of any of its passengers, under the terms of the Data Protection Act, and we do not wish to get drawn into a debate over Home Office policy. I suggest you contact the Home Office for further details of the case you describe.”
Veneera is a 40-year-old ethnic Armenian. Since a war between Azeris and Armenians in the early 1990s tensions have been high. More than 600,000 remain displaced from their homes, according to Amnesty International, despite a 1994 ceasefire.
Veneera is married to an Azeri and kept her own ethnicity secret until she was seen visiting her mother’s grave in an Armenian graveyard.
The harassment began and, according to Asylum Justice, she was beaten and raped.
Campaigners, then, are concerned for her safety if she is made to return.
So note how bmi publicly absolves itself of responsibility.
It says it can’t discuss the fact that Veneera is being flown back to all possible horrors because of the awful DPA – ie, to protect her privacy as a passenger.
Note also the swish of the bat which knocks the issue in the direction of the Home Office.
The airline – whose subsidiary bmi baby flies out of Cardiff International – should take responsibility for its actions. If it is proud to be carrying out government policy then why not say so?
Other airlines who make these flights have previously intimated that they have no choice but to do the Government’s bidding. But the Home Office says they can turn down these unwilling passengers.
In fact, earlier this year XL Airways said it would no longer take part in these flights out of “sympathy for all dispossessed persons in the world”.
Will we be a better country, or bmi a better company, if Veneera and her children are forced somewhere they do not want to go?
:: From Big Issue Cymru, December 27, 2007-January 6, 2008