A Response to Colin Freeman at the Telegraph – Calais and The Reality of Asylum Interviews

On the 5th August 2015, The Telegraph published an article claiming that ‘anarchists’ and people that believe there should be no borders had ‘infiltrated’ the migrant camps in Calais. This article was, at best, a joke. At worst, a pitiful but determined attempt to further undermine and vilify asylum seekers and their supporters, whilst distracting from the real issue. Whatever the intent, it was a worrying and insightful testament to the laziness and manipulative nature of British journalism. In desperate search of a story, desperate to shock, The Telegraph’s ‘news’ is simply the long-standing reality of migrant support structures in Calais’s jungles.

Fast forward to the 11th August and The Telegraph have published another abomination of an article – I resentfully link to it as it really is sloppy, toxic, feculence. Connivingly trying to bash migrants, Jeremy Corbyn and anarchists in one fell swoop. No mean feat for the article’s writer, The Sunday Telegraph’s Chief Foreign Correspondent Colin Freeman. More about Freeman later.

In the last few weeks, Calais has been framed as a new and humanitarian catastrophe – invoking media outrage and racism from politicians as well as generosity from the general public.  Reports show a direct correlation between the government’s current anti-immigration campaign and increased public concern about immigration. But activists have been frequenting the migrant camps in Calais since they have existed, for well over 10 years now.

These activists, usually few in number, have provided practical support and solidarity for the homeless, sick, young, old, brutalised… They have helped squat buildings, delivered van loads of supplies (usually quickly pepper sprayed by police rendering them useless), they have been arrested, harassed and beaten – always standing alongside those that do not possess magic European passports.

To come to Calais is to know there should be no borders: you are quickly made painfully aware of the brutality of borders, the sadism of the police and the ruthlessness and unworkability of the asylum system in general. The desperation and resolve that asylum seekers and others have to reach the UK – to reach ‘safety’ as they see it, coupled with the unsanitary conditions and meagre response from charities, makes Calais a hell that only the ‘anarchist’ previously seemed eager to brave.

Upon finding material designed to prepare people for claiming asylum in the UK (something that lawyers are paid to do, something that support services routinely ensure happens, something that established charities provide material to aid, something that is essentially NOT A NEWS STORY) the Unity Centre received a rather accusatory press request.  On the 6th August, Colin Freeman, chief foreign correspondent at the Telegraph, wrote:

…Is it common practice for interviewees to have this kind of coaching in advance? Would you condone it? Or is it seen as cheating, given that it might allow some bogus applications to succeed at the expense of genuine ones? Keen to hear your thoughts.

PS it’s not clear who has put these documents together, although they name your organisation at the end. Do you have any idea?…

We decided it best to ignore Colin Freeman’s email, at first for fear we would be mis-quoted, then just because we got busy. But he called the office, again a rather brisk and accusatory tone in his voice, requesting to speak with our press officer.

The thing is Colin, Unity does not have a press officer. In the 8m² room we work from, we are all unpaid volunteers, each getting on as best we can supporting those that come through the door, those calling from immigration detention or those referred to us by other agencies. We do not have a media team, nor a press team nor in fact any media training. So we gave Mr Freeman our carefully considered ‘no comment’, in the hope he couldn’t twist our words.

We’re glad we didn’t comment, as the resulting article (that I won’t link to again) was even worse than the first “watch out there are left-wing people in Calais” shocker.

But truth be told, we were burning to respond to Colin. What he would call a press request, we call racist rhetoric and his resulting article, quite frankly we wish we hadn’t seen it. His demands were that of a short-sighted journalist, using words only to shock and articles only to generate contempt. His writing stinks of a man that knows nothing of the asylum system and that, we realise is the problem. That citizens of the UK (and especially journalists who dictate opinion to the masses) have no idea of the reality of the UK’s asylum system, no idea of the legislative changes or the Kafkaesque processes that are tightening the noose around ‘foreign’ necks. And the reason they are so complacent and happy to invoke hate, is that they will never have to navigate the asylum system – they are British. They’re born on the right island, the plunderers not the plundered, the colonisers not the colonised.

Who produced the material that Colin Freeman ‘discovered’ is irrelevant, we’re happy it exists and we know it is necessary.

Before volunteering at Unity I worked at a solicitors firm and was often sent to be a legal representative at asylum seekers’ asylum interviews. The reality of these interviews was generally shocking. The things I experienced I recorded but I’ve never spoken out about them. Now Colin Freeman has made me realise the importance of publicising the reality of asylum interviews.

Colin Freeman managed to squeeze an article out of the documents he found in Calais, he also managed to get a few cheap shots in there too. But I doubt he did any research. So everything below is particularly for you, Colin.

Generally, asylum seekers have two interviews and they take place at the Asylum Screening Unit (ASU) in Croydon. You have to travel to Croydon at your own expense (tough luck if you’re housed in Scotland as people coming into Unity are) and if you miss your slot, it’s game over. The first interview is called a screening interview and it’s relatively short, usually around an hour and a half. It’s worth giving someone a heads up about screening interviews because screening interviews are usually baffling to people that have just fled their country, their family, their life. Imagine, you’re looking for protection and someone spends an hour asking you every member of your family’s name, date and place of birth. Sounds silly, but these routine specifics are not so routine in other cultures – traditions differ, even calendars differ making even this first hurdle hard.

If you are from a country that the Home Office suppose is safe, or they believe your claim to be particularly weak, you could well be detained at this point.

Many asylum seekers attend their screening interview, only to be taken directly to an immigration detention centre – having done nothing apart from claim asylum you can legally be held indefinitely in these prisons.

The screening interview is also designed to ascertain how an asylum seeker entered the country and if they can be prosecuted. Though Article 31 of the Refugee Convention states that fleeing for your life should not be punished and provides asylum seekers a defence to prosecution against “illegal entry or presence”, the UK routinely prosecute and imprison people for a range of criminal offences that legally, should not even exist for asylum seekers.

As lawyers repeatedly acknowledge, there is no “asylum visa” so entry will always have to be by other means and asylum seekers should not be punished. Unfortunately, one of the screening interview’s primary purposes seems to be securing convictions against asylum seekers.

The screening interview is also an opportunity to investigate whether an asylum seeker can be bounced back to another EU country, no matter the strength of their claim or the fact they’ve now reached the UK. The Dublin Convention is an agreement between EU member states (plus Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein and Switzerland) that says whichever country first detects you is responsible for your asylum claim. This means that many people are immediately detained pending removal to another European country – they are called ‘3rd Country Cases’. The only country asylum seekers cannot be sent back to is Greece – removals were suspended and have remained so since 2011 following a case that successfully argued Greece’s treatment of migrants amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.

There have also been legal challenges to sending people back to Italy, Bulgaria, HungaryMalta and Cyprus – though today people are routinely sent back to these countries while human rights violations continue.

And I haven’t even got to the bad bit. The bad bit is the long second interview, or ‘substantive interview’, which typically lasts between 4 – 8 hours. What ensues can only be described as criminal style interrogation.

The thing is that humans don’t have perfect recall, especially with regards to traumatic events. Even though this is well documented and accepted in other reputable specialist fields, the Home Office’s system pivots on punishing indiscretions and undermining credibility. Get a date wrong and it will not be forgotten. It will be recorded, quoted, and used as evidence of your poor credibility. Forever. It is up to those supporting asylum seekers – lawyers, charities etc – to explain the importance of this interview and of getting everything absolutely inhumanly perfect. There is no such thing as ‘human error’ in an asylum interview.

** Trigger warning ** (The Home Office don’t give trigger warnings)

Now think of the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Really think. The death of someone close to you, a family member perhaps? Instances where you have been hurt physically? I’m conscious of triggering so I’ll stop there, but the Home Office wouldn’t. In fact, I’m confident that they wouldn’t even understand the concept of ‘triggering’. And then there’s the law.

It’s hard to compare the things we would consider hurt or injustices, to what legally constitutes ‘persecution’ for the purposes of the Refugee Convention. Even if someone has survived rape, false imprisonment, an attempt on their life, beating, bludgeoning – even if one of the above is accepted, the person is not a refugee unless they have a ‘convention reason’.

Refugee Convention aside, if you’ve ever known pain in your life, physical or emotional or both, you’ll know how hard it is when questioned about it. Especially if the person questioning you is someone you don’t know. How about this then. Not only someone you don’t know, but have never met before. Not only never met before, but someone that you are now meeting because they have the pleasure of determining whether you’re telling the truth. And the way this person, this person asking you 8 hours worth of questions, the way they feel about you and what you’ve told them – that will dictate the rest of your life. Their decision will mean safety or fear, life or death, England or Syria, Scotland or Somalia, Wales or Iraq.

And the worst thing? The worst thing is that this Home Office interviewing officer is ‘just doing their job’, a job for which they are paid a salary and in which there is considerable pressure from the top down to refuse people asylum. So much pressure and such a culture of disbelief in fact, there are even cash incentives to refuse asylum seeker’s claims.

Even Colin’s own right-wing rag seemed shocked at shopping vouchers being used to tempt Home Office officials into refusing people’s claims. One can only conclude that Colin himself is being facetious, acting all incredulous as to why people would be anarchists in the face of such gleaming government systems.

I had planned to tell personal stories, to give real insight into asylum interviews. But to be honest I feel like the above facts are enough.

So you see Colin, the Home Office’s asylum interviews can make even the most ‘genuine’ of asylum seekers seem ‘bogus’. After 8 hours of long, hard questioning you’re bound to have said something that can be used against you.  Hell, Home Office accusations of poor credibility needn’t even make sense. I see refusal letters routinely rejecting Kurds are Kurdish because they ask to be interviewed in Turkish, despite the Kurdish language having been literally illegal and still statutorily repressed. I have seen a Congolese man disbelieved as he replied the Congolese currency was “Franc Congolais” instead of Congolese Franc. I have seen a man refused asylum because the Home Office state he is not from Sierra Leone, after giving him a receipt for his Sierra Leonean passport. These are the stories that Colin Freeman could be publishing. But he’s not, he’s racistly using his platform as most writers of the media do – to misinform, and to further demonise the demonised.