New Asylum-Seekers and Refugees Are Too Often Met by Brutality and Exploitation. A Few Find Their Way to Places Where There Is Understanding

By Howe, Darcus | New Statesman (1996), May 8, 1998 | Go to article overview

New Asylum-Seekers and Refugees Are Too Often Met by Brutality and Exploitation. A Few Find Their Way to Places Where There Is Understanding


Howe, Darcus, New Statesman (1996)


I was startled to hear during one of the London mayoral debates that in Brixton 173 languages are spoken. My first reaction was to feel completely inadequate. English is my main tongue, supplemented by sixth-form Castilian and manageable spoken French. I am 170 short.

This proliferation of languages is quite recent. Africa, in its brutal degeneration, has disgorged hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers throughout Europe. Somalia collapsed into tribal barbarism; Liberia, too. Dictators plunder Sierra Leone. The Bosnian turmoil and violent dissolution of Stalin's colonies have added to the flow of refugees from social mayhem and murderous regimes.

A Kenyan minicab driver who took me across London the other evening tried to convince me that Mombasa offered ideal holiday prospects this summer. But I must be careful, he warned, of the Somalians who had flocked to Kenya after the collapse of civil society there. They were, he assured me, capable of extreme violence. He spoke prejudicially and stereotypically, I know, but his words resonate with me, anecdotally, from my own encounters in Brixton. However, the kernel of truth in his comments is, I suspect, more a product of these people's social circumstances than anything to do with their national personality.

And those circumstances can be dire. For asylum-seekers the horror of the events they are fleeing is compounded by fresh burdens the moment they arrive here, as was confirmed for me by correspondence I received recently. I have before me letters from a volunteer who once worked at the Haslar detention centre in Gosport, Hampshire, which cages up to 140 asylum-seekers and deportees. No bring-me-your-huddled-masses attitude here, it seems. Rosemary, my correspondent, described, using clear and detailed examples, a regime with disturbingly similar characteristics to the detention centres from which some of these asylum-seekers had fled. Maybe such places are organised so as to discourage further applications.

Rosemary taught art as a volunteer at Haslar. She told of a regime where no rules apply, where deprivation of any "right" is an arbitrary act of this or that officer.

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