Just as British wars abroad are justified by spurious claims about concern for human rights, it seems that the battle for rights at home has itself already been lost. It is well known that on-going conflicts throughout Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia and elsewhere have resulted in millions being displaced from their country of origin. However, when those fortunate enough to flee persecution arrive in the UK, they are often faced with the prospect of indefinite detention, followed by a fast-track evaluation system that leads to deportation in 99% of cases. Nearly 30,000 people deemed illegal immigrants are detained in the UK each year, with up to 3,000 men, women and children held in detention centres at any given time. Worryingly, many of these detainees also have mental and physical ailments that cannot be adequately treated while detained. Yet despite the fact that these individuals essentially remain hidden from society, one detainee has managed to raise public awareness of his own ill treatment, as well as the plight of many others who suffer in silence.
Isa Muazu is a refugee claimant from Maiduguri, in the northeast of Nigeria. He first arrived in the UK on a valid visitor’s visa in 2007, and became an undocumented migrant once his visa expired in 2008. After unsuccessfully applying for leave to remain in 2011, he voluntarily surrendered to authorities in July of this year to apply for asylum. In his application, Muazu claimed that he feared for his life in Nigeria due to the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, who he alleged had killed two of his family members and threatened to kill him if he refused to join them. Nevertheless, following a “detained fast track” process that rejected his claim after only seven days, Muazu found himself locked up at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre awaiting deportation. Prior to being ‘apprehended’, Muazu had been diagnosed with hepatitis B, stomach ulcers and problems with his kidney, as well as psychosis and severe depression, all of which were exasperated by his continued detention. Moreover, despite fully cooperating upon his arrival, staff at Harmondsworth failed to meet his specific health needs and dietary requirements, all of which caused his condition to worsen. While in this vulnerable position, Muazu began a 100-day hunger strike in protest against the ill treatment that both he and other detainees were enduring. As his health continued to deteriorate, Muazu eventually lost his sight and ability to walk, which soon led to greater publicity and increased scrutiny of his case, especially once the sinister “end of life care strategy” was revealed. Nevertheless, despite an independent doctor announcing in October that Muazu was medically unfit to remain in detention, a separate doctor appointed by the Home Office declared him fit enough to be flown to Nigeria and he is set to be deported tonight. For his many supporters, this catalogue of inhumane treatment is solely intended to deter other refugee claimants from arriving in Britain. In his own words, Isa Muazu stated;
I feel devastated. I’d rather die than go back. If they can take my body and bury it, that would be the only thing… There is so little of me left and I am not afraid… But the authorities have not treated me as a human being, and that is wrong.
However, unfortunately for Muazu and thousands of others in his situation, there are no signs that the government intends to reverse its policy of automatic detention and “fast-tracked” applications. After all, media outlets that make a living pandering to common prejudices have ensured that many people in this country become agitated or even hostile at the mere mention of the word “asylum”. While jingoistic journalism clearly isn’t new, it has been exasperated by the current Tory-led coalition and the appointment of Theresa May as Home Secretary. In fact, since the announcement of May’s proposed Immigration Bill, the debate on asylum has been reduced to a level of xenophobia not seen since the last Tory government. Today, the position of the “Con-Dem” coalition is both ironic and disingenuous, as although May recognises that immigration is “a complex and litigious system”, her new plan to make it “harder for people who are here illegally” apparently couldn’t be simpler. In her address to the Tory Party Conference this year, she explained:
As Conservatives… we know what damage uncontrolled immigration can do… To our society… To our infrastructure… And to our public services… So we’re taking action to reduce immigration across every route to Britain… and we need to make sure that we’re not constrained from removing foreign nationals who, in all sanity, should have no right to be here… The violent drug dealer who cannot be sent home… The robber who cannot be removed… The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported… This is why I remain of the view that the Human Rights Act needs to go… to ensure that the misinterpretation of Article Eight of the ECHR - the right to a family life - no longer prevents the deportation of people who shouldn’t be here… We know now that they denounced anybody worried about immigration as a bigot… I will never hesitate to say we should punish those who do the wrong thing… we must respect the people, by doing what they want and getting to grips with immigration. That is what I am determined to do.
While statements such as these might be manna from heaven for Daily Mail readers, there is nevertheless a glaring problem with the language being deployed. Theresa May failed to use the word “refugee” once during this speech, and instead only referred to “illegal immigrants”. But, crucially, these terms are not interchangeable. Indeed, it is important to note that although many politicians pour scorn on refugee law from atop their respective soapboxes, the truth is they are in no position to pre-determine which immigrants are illegal, and which are not. Thus said, this subtle shift in language away from the word “refugee” is arguably a reflection of the government’s attempt to free Britain from its longstanding international legal obligations. It is a sad irony that many in Britain have little idea where the modern legal concept of “refugees” originated, especially when we consider the annual nationwide ceremonies that commemorate the First and Second World Wars. Untold hundreds of millions were killed, raped and displaced around the globe during those three brutal decades, and as the spectre of a third such war loomed, political leaders were forced to address the growing issue of “refugees” by drafting the Refugee Convention of 1951.
This multilateral treaty was the first to establish which individuals must be considered as refugees, what rights they enjoy, and what obligations all states have towards them. The primary legal principle of the Refugee Convention is enshrined in Article 33, namely, the concept of non-refoulement, which mandates that;
No contracting State shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers or territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political opinion.
However, much has changed in the world over the last 60 years. Although the Refugee Convention was successful in providing protection that previously didn’t exist, it caused problems within the International community, as many states felt that they were being inundated with new claimants seeking refugee status. In response, many states began making constitutional changes in an attempt to diminish their Article 33 obligation of non-refoulement. Within the European Union, member states agreed upon a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) that would harmonise their respective immigration laws and provide more control over asylum applications. One key change brought about by CEAS was the introduction of the concept of “safe country lists” - a list of “safe” countries that member states can return their refugee claimants to without being guilty of refoulement. Arguably, this recent development represents a perversion of established law, as member states themselves are the sole compilers of these so-called “safe” lists. Furthermore, all claims from refugees who originate from countries deemed “safe” are automatically considered to be “manifestly unfounded”, and therefore subject to “fast-track” evaluations that invariably lead to deportation - and potentially, refoulement.
Thus, when we consider the ongoing plight of Isa Muazu, it’s arguable that the second failed effort to deport him back to Nigeria constituted an attempted breach of the global prohibition on refoulement. Indeed, despite Boko Haram launching a major attack only two days later on a military base in Muazu’s home city, Nigeria is nevertheless deemed by Britain to be a “safe third country" for male refugee claimants. As such, British authorities were able to throw out Muazu’s claim for asylum after only seven days, declaring it to be “manifestly unfounded”. Clearly, Muazu - like hundreds of thousands of others - has been failed by this perversion of established refugee law.
Tonight, as Isa Muazu once again faces deportation from the UK after two failed attempts, it is important to consider the broader implications this legal perversion has for British society as a whole. After all, due to the complexity of the legal system, and the general indifference of the public, the government is free to continue manipulating the law as they see fit. Moreover, with the help of the mainstream media, refugee claimants continue to be burdened with unwarranted public resentment, despite being the victims of a concerted EU effort to undermine their established Refugee Convention rights. The bitter irony that the majority of refugees originate from lands that Britain is currently bombing, or has previously colonised, should not be lost on anyone. However, perhaps most worryingly of all, the current Tory-led coalition government are now threatening to abolish the Human Rights Act altogether under the Machiavellian guise of “protecting Britain’s borders”. To paraphrase Theresa May’s brazen justification, she claims that the right to family life enshrined in Article 8 of the Human Rights Act “should no longer be perverted by illegal immigrants who use it to drive a coach and horses through our immigration system”. Nonetheless, while the average Brit couldn’t care less which term is used to describe the “hordes invading our shores”, the subtle shift away from the word “refugee”, and the subsequent attack on statutory human rights, seems likely to impact the liberty of everyone sooner rather than later – both British citizen and Nigerian illegal immigrant alike.
Akwesi Shaddai is a London-based writer, and a member of Writers of Colour. Follow him on Twitter at @IAmAkwesi