As a dock city, Liverpool has served as a gateway to the sugar trade, slavery and global transport for hundreds of years. It has long been a city of immigrants from Ireland, India and Pakistan to Somalia, Ethiopia and Jamaica. It boasts the oldest Chinese community in Europe, and the largest Chinese arch outside of China. But like other parts of the UK, for those seeking sanctuary in the city today, the tightening of the immigration regime has made life full of uncertainty and injustice.
In early September, the women of Migrant Artists Mutual Aid (MaMa) – a Liverpool-based group of refugee rights advocates and women seeking asylum which I am involved with – were worried when two of its core members did not attend a regular meeting.
As news filtered through, we learned that the women (alongside two others) had been dispersed from their accommodation to a northern town 20 miles away: too far to walk back, and too expensive to travel for women receiving £5.30 per day while awaiting refugee status. The practice of dispersal means people seeking asylum can be moved away from friends and family at any point, without choice or negotiation, with little notice, to a place they may have never been.
Eventually, from speaking with the two women, it transpired that they had been approached by staff from one private sector provider at the accommodation block they lived in at 1pm on a Friday afternoon and informed they would need to move “temporarily”. They were given until 4.30pm to gather their belongings and leave their already temporary homes. No need for the children to get ready for school on Monday morning, since they were being wrenched from attendance at the very start of term.
Echoes from 70 years ago
The treatment of people seeking asylum in Liverpool today has parallels with a more sinister moment in the city’s post-war history. In 1946, it was Chinese migrants who bore the brunt of rising anti-immigration sentiment in the region. Having recruited around 20,000 Chinese men into the British Merchant Navy during World War II, once their service was over, they were deemed “undesirable” elements of Liverpool life.
Instead of offering these men and their families sanctuary, the Home Office ordered a police raid on their homes. In an early morning round-up in the summer of 1946, an estimated 1,362 Chinese men were arrested, temporarily detained, and deported. Around 500 children were estimated to have been left behind.
Seven decades later and similar events are still happening. In 2014, the women of MaMa were shocked when a long-time member was detained and deported by the Home Office. Her right to further appeal had been rejected. She was forced to leave 13 years of life and belongings in the city that she loved, with the friends she knew. We had known her well, some for almost as long as she had been in the UK. We sang from a phone on loudspeaker to comfort her as she sat in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. She was deported to her country of origin within days.
As weeks and months went by, other women grew increasingly concerned for their own futures. Those seeking asylum must comply with regulations which require them to sign in with the Home office regularly. In the aftermath of their friend’s deportation, Home Office meetings were daunting. Some of the women have already experienced Yarl’s Wood – none of them want to experience it again.
The ‘Utopia’ of rights
Unlike 1946, the legislative landscape of contemporary Britain is now embedded in a discourse of rights: human rights, refugee rights, and the rights of the child. Home Office policy and legislation advocate rights-based approaches and it has even published a plethora of guidelines on how to adhere to them.
And yet there seems little evidence of this Utopia of rights in practice. People seeking asylum are subjected to arbitrary detention, with no time limit in the UK. Abject poverty and destitution have become staple parts of the asylum process. Living in limbo, the threat of deportation looms every day, limiting individuals’ ability to look ahead to the future, particularly if they fear returning to their past in their country of origin. For asylum-seeking women living with violent men, refuges and support have been diminished by government cuts.
Meanwhile, people seeking asylum face ever more insidious forms of social controls on a daily basis, including immigration enforcement officers on public transport and regulations within housing. To give one example, women I spoke with who lived in one accommodation facility run by SERCO said that they had been told they would be reported to the Home Office for leaving bedroom doors open that could be a fire hazard. In this way, everyday actions become border offences.
New laws are biting
The impact of legal aid and appeal restrictions, introduced in the 2014 and 2016 immigration acts have begun to bite. Refusals for asylum faced by women in MaMa are regularly based on obscure and sometimes legally precarious grounds.
Adequate legal support is ever diminishing. Cuts to legal aid mean fewer lawyers are available to take on appeals. The 2016 act facilitates easy deportation with those removed expected to appeal from the home country, and this has already begun: 42 people were recently deported on a chartered flight to Jamaica. A huge increase in the fees for appealing Home Office decisions now threatens further limitations on access to justice: another wall between refugees and their rights.
To fight back, MaMa has turned to choir performance fundraisers among other projects in an effort to pay legal costs. Only recently we collected goods to raffle to raise legal funds: a “raffle for justice”, in one of the world’s richest countries, with one of the world’s oldest legal systems. A country that colonised many of those that MaMa members have come from. The irony is not lost.