AAWG and other organizations are campaigning to end this policy that they consider as “an inherent part of the government’s hostile environment”. At least “£30 million is being spent on voluntary returns in the UK, way more than the funding for other services”.
“Erioth Mwesigwa was deported without notice in April 2018 after over 25 years in the UK. She was picked up from signing on, taken straight to the airport and put on a flight, all within a few hours”.
“Mwesigwa was given a letter saying she would be deported without notice and was denied the right to appeal while she was still in the country”.
The above events have been brought up by the All African Women’s Group (AAWG) and other organizations that are campaigning to end forced ‘voluntary returns’ that they consider as “an inherent part of the government’s hostile environment”.
A statement detailing what voluntary returns really mean has been issued by the All African Women’s Group, with the support of: Black Women’s Rape Action Project; End Deportations and the Stansted 15; London Catholic Worker; Legal Action for Women; Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants; RAPAR; Ubuntu; Unity Collective, Glasgow; Women Against Rape; Women of Colour/GWS.
The statement explains that the Home Office’s own document says that it: “. . . sought to encourage voluntary departures for those present without a legal right to be in the UK by creating a ‘hostile environment’.”
They continue: “Massive obstacles are put in the way of people claiming asylum and getting the right to stay in the UK. All financial support stops when our legal cases are closed. We can’t work and are left destitute. If we fall ill or pregnant, we get charged thousands of pounds to use the NHS. Landlords, banks and other officials become border guards at checkpoints between us and every resource. Legal aid cuts of more than £1 billion have made it hard to get a good lawyer.”
“Voluntary return – the campaigners stated – is put forward as an alternative to enforced deportation or ‘destitution . . . or the prospect of children being taken into care, or months or years in detention’. Many of our members have been bullied and threatened into signing to agree to go back. One of us was pressured to sign whilst lying in a hospital bed”.
“Voluntary return” does not mean safe return
The declaration states that returning “voluntarily” does not mean “that people are protected from harm. The government cares so little it doesn’t even monitor what happens to people. Refugee Action, which got up to £16,000,000 a year to administer the widely criticized Choices– assisted voluntary return service”, documented how people were being persecuted on return: ‘one man was currently on the run, as he cannot settle in one place for fear of his enemies… the people who were after him when he last left have found out that he has returned… he is scared they will kill him. Fear of violence and even of being killed was the main reason people gave for refusing ‘voluntary return’. 90% of people “voluntarily” returned to Sri Lanka wanted to come back to the UK.”
This new 2016 “voluntary return” policy is embedded in the government’s hostile environment and on-the-ground community organizations, which asylum seekers depend on as a lifeline, are being recruited to help deport immigrants.
‘Voluntary Return’ projects “have been rolled out across Europe as a cover for the brutality of mass deportations. Outrage greeted former French Prime Minister Sarkozy’s description of the mass expulsion of Roma as voluntary.
At least “£30 million is being spent on ‘voluntary returns’ in the UK, way more than the funding for other services. Women point to the fact that Home Office TV messages promoting ‘voluntary returns’ are translated into relatively rare languages yet they can’t get interpreters for the most spoken languages to fight their case in court. At least 30 “voluntary return” clinics in community settings around the country are planned but the Home Office refuses to release information about them.
Women & the “hostile environment”
“As women, our suffering is more intense because we are poorer to begin with, are less likely to have had the chance to learn English and are traumatized and stigmatized because we face rape and other violence. We are often mothers or other carers, with responsibility for other precious human beings whose protection depends on us. We are denied a fair hearing by officials who have no expertise or interest in evaluating what we have suffered and who get incentives to meet deportation targets. These officials are trained to convey the hostile environment and be disrespectful and dismissive of our needs”, the campaigners say.
Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape have documented institutional sexism and prejudice in asylum decisions. But when, “with the help of an accountable lawyer, we can put our case before a judge in court, we often win the right to stay.”
Defend asylum seekers
One prominent lawyer notes: “NGOs . . . must cede to Home Office enforcement strategy, which offers ‘voluntary return’ solely as an alternative to indefinite detention, persisting destitution and enforced deportation. The most they can do is sugar-coat the pill.’ Hibiscus (based in prisons and detention centres) has been exposed as profiting from promoting ‘voluntary returns’. Barnardo’s was condemned for collaborating in child detention, and St. Mungos for passing the details of homeless people to the Home Office.”
According to the stamen “the feminist charity Women for Refugee Women (WFRW) promotes the Family Returns Process (FRP) as a “success to build on in the UK”. The FRP is ‘voluntary returns’ applied to families and similarly ends in enforced deportation. WFRW disguise the reality of FRP by offering it as an alternative to detention, for example, saying: ‘We now have . . . the Family Returns Process which supports families with children under the age of 18 to stay in the community up to the point that they actually leave the UK. Yes, there needs to be a system but that system doesn’t need to include detention.’ In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee WfRW commented: ‘The success of this [Family Returns] process should be the basis for more widespread reform’.”
“The brutality of the FRP – the added – is revealed in its own report: children can be forcibly returned with ‘the use of physical intervention’ which includes “deliberate pain induction”. Mothers are labelled child abusers if they resist deportation: “Children have been subjected to unacceptable pressure from parents not to co-operate with Home Office officials and where such cases occur it is a form of child abuse.’ How many children have been and will be taken from their parents using this excuse? Lawyers (no doubt especially those who are determined to represent their clients) are maligned as “frustrat[ing] return” with last minute legal procedures”.
Fighting for their lives
The movement in the community against “voluntary return” is growing. In Manchester, RAPAR disrupted a ‘voluntary returns’ meeting and protested outside the first Home Office clinic – no-one came to get advice. Southall Black Sisters protested against the Home Office “soliciting the assistance of NGOs and religious organizations in the UK to help identify and deport so-called illegal immigrants”.
The document makes clear that they “are part of an anti-deportation team with Black Women’s Rape Action Project, Women Against Rape and Legal Action for Women (LAW) at the Crossroads Women’s Centre. Our collective self-help sessions use LAW’s Guide against detention and deportation. We get informed help but remain in charge of our own case. That way we can move beyond fear and to fight”.
To support the campaign to end forced ‘voluntary returns’ contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 7482 2496.
(Information provided by All African Women’s Group)