Asylum seekers are part of us
Chris Arnot, The Guardian
In more than 25 years living on deprived housing estates in Bath and then Glasgow, Bob Holman never once met an asylum seeker. Yet this week, the Christian socialist and long-time Labour party member is one of the authors of a report on asylum seekers for former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith’s thinktank, the Centre for Social Justice. Holman may be 72 and retired from the frontline of neighbourhood work. He may have moved from Easterhouse to a more sedate estate in another part of Glasgow to spend more time with his wife, Annette, and their grandchildren. But he was never going to break the habit of a lifetime by backing away from injustice when he sees it.
This is a man, after all, who famously gave up a comfortable life as a university professor to follow his religious convictions to live and work among the poor. Today he’s briefly back in academia to receive an honorary degree from Birmingham University, where he taught in the late 1960s. Annette has popped out to buy him a decent shirt for the ceremony while he luxuriates in the unaccustomed surroundings of a conference park in leafy Edgbaston.
‘We now live in a solidly built 1920s former council house,’ he explains. ‘But nearby are some rather grim-looking tower blocks, one of which houses asylum seekers. I’d got to know some of them and listened to their stories.’
Their stories appalled him — not only the brutal treatment they had received in their own countries for having the wrong political affiliations, race or religion, but also by the lack of sympathy for their plight from a governing British Labour party, of which he has been a member for 47 years. ‘I’ve witnessed one of those dawn raids,’ he adds, shaking his head at the memory of immigration officials ‘dressed up like soldiers’.
So what did the lifelong socialist do about it? He contacted a friend who just happened to be a former leader of the Conservative party. Iain Duncan Smith has made no secret of his admiration for Holman, who was running Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse (Fare) when Duncan Smith came to visit through his Centre for Social Justice. ‘He was shocked by the poverty, and particularly so when he saw discarded syringes in the gutter,’ Holman recalls. ‘But he was impressed to see unemployed people and single mothers helping to run our project. He promised to come back again, and he did. Not for publicity purposes either. He’s a man of integrity, and we get on well.’
The two men make for strange bedfellows and, not surprisingly, don’t always see eye to eye on ways to tackle poverty and social exclusion. Far from it. Holman, for instance, remains fundamentally opposed to the conclusions and recommendations of a recent Centre for Social Justice report on housing poverty. ‘The committee who produced it are well intentioned,’ he concedes. ‘But it seems to me that they doubt the value of social housing when they talk about the ‘stifling requirement’ that tenants have security for life. I don’t see why those tenants should have hanging over their heads the possibility that they could be moved out of properties where they’ve lived all their lives. And the report also appears to pin the blame for crime, antisocial behaviour and lack of aspiration on to what we used to call council estates. Stimulating private ownership is put forward as the main solution.’
Holman regards the encouragement of private ownership by the Thatcher government as the prime reason why those estates became ‘ghettoised’ in the first place. ‘The result was that families did buy, then sold, then left,’ he says. ‘No wonder some of the stability was undermined. At the same time, there was an enormous cutback in traditional manual jobs, while local authorities were debarred from reinvesting the receipts from council house sales in building more social housing.’
The fundamental difference between him and the members of Duncan Smith’s committee on housing poverty, he maintains, is this: ‘They regard social housing as a failure, while I see it as a success. If you go back to the 1920s, council estates were introduced because of the failure of the private market. I should know. I was born in private rented accommodation.’ In 1936, in Ilford, east London, to be precise.
Did being married to a Glaswegian help when he arrived in ‘Easterhoose’ after living in a rundown part of Bath for 10 years? Not much. ‘We don’t much like Englishmen up here,’ he was told by one resident, who added: ‘Mind you, it could be worse. You could have come from Edinburgh.’
Holman grins at the memory. Despite some hairy encounters, he has long since felt accepted in his adopted city. But he has never lost his sympathy for outsiders and outcasts. Hence his relief when Duncan Smith commissioned the report on asylum. This time, Christian socialist and Tory appear to be at one. ‘Members of the Centre for Social Justice have shown how sympathetic they are to asylum seekers,’ Holman says, approvingly. ‘That’s not necessarily true of all Conservatives. But it’s a marked contrast with the attitude of New Labour ministers.’
It remains to be seen how many — if any — of the report’s recommendations will be taken on board by the Conservative party. For a start, the committee proposes that the initial ‘substantive interview’ should be carried out not by civil servants from the immigration service but by three magistrates, independent of government and properly informed about the state of countries from which asylum seekers are fleeing.
‘That’s based on a model from Canada,’ Holman explains. ‘As it is, only 3% are granted asylum here outright. Of those refused, 30% have their appeals upheld, which shows there must be something wrong with the system. There are often complaints about poor quality interpretation, and women feel that they are not confident to tell their interrogators about cases of rape and sexual abuse.’
So the second recommendation is that all asylum seekers should be entitled to proper legal representation.
The third is that those waiting for appeals to be heard should be allowed to work. ‘Many of them are very capable professional people,’ Holman points out. ‘Yet they’re crammed into very poor accommodation, offered 70% of income support, and told that they’re not allowed to contribute to our society. Or, in the case of so-called Section Four cases — those who’ve been rejected for asylum and also refused readmission by the countries they’ve come from — they’re given £35 a week in food vouchers.’
Another recommendation is that those refused asylum should be given a voluntary sector worker to befriend them, advise on their appeal and, if that fails, help to ease their return journey.
Holman has witnessed some harrowing cases in the course of researching his part in the report, such as a Turkish Kurd threatening to throw himself off a balcony on the 24th floor, and two destitute Zimbabweans telling him that sleeping rough in a Glasgow square is better than going home to be tortured. But he has also seen joy on the faces of fellow users of a drop-in centre at his Baptist church. ‘These are educated people who had seen relatives shot in front of them,’ he says. ‘And, after five years, they were finally granted asylum. When they came in waving the sheet of paper, we clapped, cheered and wept. After all, they’re part of us.’