Tuesday the 16th March was a day like any other in Britain. Yet, as Dinah Washington once famously sang, a lot can indeed happen within the space of those twenty-four little hours. On the Tuesday in question, great play was made of the fact that a British citizenship ceremony for immigrants took place in Glasgow for the first time in Scotland’s history. The event, announced to great fanfare, was a symbolic affirmation of the welcoming and inclusionist modern multicultural country that Britain had become. Speaking to those assembled for the first citizenship ceremony to take place on Scottish soil, Glasgow’s Lord Provost proudly noted that “In taking the oath, our newest citizens have given a commitment to uphold the values of British citizenship…respect for law, freedom of speech, tolerance and respect for other people’s beliefs and our democratic principles.”
The happy event was attended by Sir Bernard Crick, chairman of the Life in the UK Advisory Group and Home Office adviser on citizenship. The assembled citizens-to-be who have made their way to Britain from counties like India, Pakistan, South Africa and Turkey were rightly proud of their special day and their newfound status as British citizens. There can be no doubting the seriousness with which new British citizens proudly adopt their responsibilitiy to uphold the values of freedom of speech, tolerance and respect for other people’s beliefs and democratic principles. The same, sadly, cannot be said of a silent Scottish Executive which shamefully continues to wash its hands of asylum related issues by claiming that detention and immigration policy is the sole preserve of Westminster. Nor a Home Office led by a Home Secretary who gleefully sets about dismantling judicial checks and balances in the name of national security all the while creating more and more detention spaces for asylum seekers.
Elsewhere in Glasgow on Tuesday, three Kurdish men on hunger strike since the middle of February lay on their mattresses with their lips sown together waiting for salvation or death. The men, Kurdish Iranians who have exhausted all possible avenues to escape deportation to Iran where they claim they will almost certainly be killed, had sown their lips together in a final dramatic attempt to bring attention to their plight. Two of the men were hospitalised last week after losing consciousness. They later discharged themselves. Thus far, their pleas to Scotland’s First Minister Jack McConnell, to visit them and to help intervene against their deportation have fallen upon deaf ears. The plight of the three men has gained cross party support in Scotland, with church leaders and campaigners also calling on the Scottish Executive to defy the Home Office by acting to ensure they are not deported to Iran. The silence from Scotland’s First Minister, Jack McConnell, has been deafening. Last year, the Scottish Executive shamefully batted all asylum enquiries by claiming that policy on detention and welfare was solely a matter for Westminster and the Home Office.
The Scottish Refugee Council has questioned the quality of Iran human rights data used by the British government and has called on the government to urgently address the question of asylum application errors. “Iran has an extremely poor human rights record” say senior Scottish Refugee Council manager Peter Barry, “one can only imagine the treatment of any individual who has staged such a high profile protest against the Iranian regime upon his return to Iran.”
Blunkett’s shiny citizenship ceremony PR triumph aside (where British citizens-to-be pledge an outmoded monarchist oath of allegiance to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors according to law), the Home Office also announced plans to increase the capacity of the notorious Dungavel immigration detention centre to 200 with the creation of a 43 bed unit for single males. Situated in Strathaven in Lanarkshire, the privately run former prison has been a constant fixture in the newspaper headlines for its treatment and incarceration of families for periods of up to one year. Home Secretary David Blunkett’s insistence that “increasing the amount of space in the detention estate is an important part of our strategy to remove those people who have no right to be here” flies in the face of the mood of a Scottish public outraged at the continuing imprisonment of children at Dungavel and horrifiied by stories of asylum seekers mutilating themselves to highlight their predicament (followers of British political life will have come to expect little better from a Home Secretary whose generosity of spirit is such that he intends to charge victims of miscarriages of justice more than lbs3000 bed and board for every year they wrongly spent in jail).
All this on the same day that Sir Brian Barder also chose to announce his resignation from the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac), claiming that a number of court rulings gave the Home Secretary “such wide discretion as to make his powers virtually unaccountable.” On Wednesday a destitute Sudanese asylum seeker won a High Court ruling that his treatment had been “inhuman and degrading”. 27 year old Yusif Adam was denied access to publicly funded accomodation and food help under section 55 (5) of the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act because he had failed to make his claim “as soon as reasonably practicable.” Mr Adam, whose body showed proof of injury concommitent with claims of detention abuses in Sudan, is illiterate and speaks only Arabic. Finding that his Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been breached, the judge ruled it was now incumbent on the Home Secretary to provide assistance to the Sudanese who had been sleeping rough in a car park.
Earlier this month, Lord Woolf, the most senior judge in England and Wales, fiercely criticised government plans to limit the right of appeal for asylum seekers, saying they were “fundamentally in conflict with the rule of law” and a “blot on the reputation of the government.” Woolf has attacked government plans to create a supreme court and considers Blunkett’s incursions into the judicial arena as being such a threat to judicial independence to merit a written constitution protecting judges from political interference. Maeve Sherlock, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, observed that the “government’s plans would deny asylum seekers a fair hearing by blocking court challenges of bad or legally flawed decisions. It is difficult to see how that can be defended when we are talking about matters of life and liberty.” Woolf might well belong to Blunket’s “woolly-thinking, liberal-minded brigade”, but he exacted some kind of judicial revenge on the Home Office by releasing a Libyan held for 16 months without charge or trial. Denying the Home Secretary leave to appeal their decision, Lord Woolf and two justices claimed that Blunkett had acted “inappropriately” and “unlawfully” in describing the Libyan dissident as an international terrorist with links to al Qaida.
Blunkett’s citizenship ceremony should be seen for what it really is – a smokescreen which allows the further tightening of already strict immigration and asylum legislation administered by an out of touch Home Secretary who chooses to address his critic from behind a bluff Sheffield facade of insults and catcalling. It is also the act of a government in no hurry to relinquish power for the sake of a few asylum seekers, sorry, “economic migrants”, as Home Office parlance has it. Last September, the Home Office turned the deportation of 48 failed asylum seekers from the Czech Republic into an anti-asylum seeking PR exercise – “Operation Elgar” – by allowing television crews to film the group as they boarded a charter flight destined for Prague. It was hoped that the resulting Czech broadcast of children hiding their faces fugitive-like would dissuade further Roma from setting out for Britain. Forget news-friendly citizenship ceremonies, this is the reality behind Blunkett’s “Fortress Britain” vision.
Back in Glasgow, the three men thankfully ended their hunger strike on Thursday 18th March in response to the overwhelming level of support expressed by the Scottish public to their cause and messages from their respective families who read reports of their protest in the Iranian press. They intend to continue to oppose their deportation in less life threatening ways. The publicity created in Iran by their protest now makes their return there completely unthinkable. Harold Wilson once famously observed that “a week is a long time in politics”. “Not when you’re waging a war against economic migrants it’s not” you can imagine David Blunkett saying.
WILLIAM MACDOUGALL can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org