Category Archives: Refugees

Understanding Eritrea, and the UK’s response to its people

Thanks to the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, which this week organised an event at the University of Sheffield where former BBC editor Martin Plaut spoke about the current situation in Eritrea and how we reached this point, based on his recent book.

He began with a reminder of the long British involvement in the area – the 1868 invasion of Ethiopia, an interference in the affairs of the region that has continued – the Eritreans having won their 30-year struggle for independence despite at various time Russian and US support for the Ethiopians against them, and the fact that Eritreans were outnumbered by Ethiopians some 30 to 1 at the start of the conflict.

He explained how the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea remains on a knife edge, after a border war in 1998-2000, despite the apparently related history of the EPLF (Eritrea People’s Liberation Front) ruling in Asmara and the Tigrain People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) being the dominant political force in  Addis Ababa. (In short – differing strategies, differing allegiances – Third World Marxism versus Albanian Maoism, and differing views of their comparative status.)

Martin attributed conditions in Eritrea now as a result of a belief that the country is in a permanent state of a war of survival, with people subjected to indefinite national service under abusive, even torturous, conditions, with women grossly abused, men sent down the mines. Not only has there been no election since independence, but the ruling EPLP has not had a party congress since 1993, and in 2001 conditions have been those of, in Martin’s terms, “absolute lockdown”.

He spoke about the existence of “Department Zero Three” – an official organ for spreading smears and propaganda against anyone who wants to toe the party line, of the “Two Per Cent tax“, levied on Eritrean outside the country who needs to get anything done inside it, and of the refusal of President  Isaias Afwerki to acknowledge a famine now hitting the country following the 2015 El Nino event. Half of all children are stunted, but international agencies have not been allowed access to assess the situation or provide assistance.

In this context, I asked Martin’s view of UK policy towards Eritrea. His response was blunt, and what I expected. He described UK policy towards Eritrea, and indeed other states, as being “to stop refugees coming from Africa at all costs”. What it should be, he said, was to acknowledge the clear and obvious human rights abuses occurring, to use pressure to try to reduce or stop them, and to acknowledge the need of Eritreans who do escape the country for asylum.

Of course that’s very much not what our government is doing, indeed it changed the country guidance in way that saw the rate of initial acceptances of refugee applications fell from 85% to 60%. However, 87% of those refusals were overturned on appeal – but with the people concerned in the meantime suffering greatly. And children in Calais who might have been offered refuge, were refused.

Also: this event was one more opportunity to highlight the fact that Britain has a policy of indefinite immigration detention, the only Western state that has. SYMAAG is joining a protest next Saturday at Morton Hall detention centre calling for the closure of such centres- a bus is going from Sheffield.

Sheffield stands strong and proud against actions of Trump and May

More than 2,000 people packed into Pinstone Street, spilling along Leopold Street and Fargate in a rally organised in little more than 24 hours to protest against the Muslim Ban in the US and Theresa May’s utterly inadequate response to it.

It was one of at least 26 protests around the country tonight, with reports of well over 30,000 people in London.

In my speech I focused on the spread and the size of that reach – from Preston to Plymouth, from Leeds to London.

I said: “Donald Trump, you live in a world that believes in human rights and democracy, that rejects discrimination and racism, and that will not condone your actions.

“That reflects the response of Canada, the response of Germany,the response of France. Yes the best that Theresa May could come up with, as she stood in Turkey, having just sold fighter jets to a regime with an extremely disturbing record on human rights, could say was effectively ‘No comment’.

“The turnout tonight, around the country and around America against the Muslim and refugee ban is a demonstration of the possibility of change, the possibility of building bridges not walls, creating a new society in which we truly are all in it together on this one, fragile planet, looking out for each other, caring for each year.

“Donald Trump is the logical end point – and I do mean end – of the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, a political philosophy of greed and exploitation, of the interests of the 1% ruling those of the 99%.

“It is time for something new, something different, it it time for hope.”

There were many wonderful hand-drawn banners in the crowd last night, and in my speech I drew attention to this one in particular: Where’s your moral compass Mrs May?” A very good question.

And it was clear that this placard spoke very much for the crowd last night, which cheered most loudly at each mention of the phrase “refugees welcome”. Sheffield, the first official City of Sanctuary in Britain, said it, and meant it last night.
Update: I learnt after the rally that Theresa May had been warned by Trump – during that excruciating visit involving handholding that made her look like a small child being taken to the park – that the ban was coming, which makes her response in Turkey even more astonishingly more clearly inept and indefensible.

Standing up to racism, and reflecting on our refugee successes

Last night I was delighted to speak at a packed, enthusiastic and determined Birminghamd Stand Up to Racism meeting.


There’s much of course to be concerned and worried about, not just the post-referendum vote surge in hate crime, but also the desperate conditions in which so many migrant workers are forced. A speaker from the Gambian community spoke of the shocking events that saw five of its members lose their lives in an industrial incident in Birmingham in July.

But in my speech I wanted to focus on the positives that we’ve seen over the past year. For it’s little more than a year ago that more than 100,000 peopl came out on the streets of London to say “Refugees Welcome”, and since then, a whole new social movement has been born.

Big sums of money, and large amounts of essential goods, from tents and sleeping bags to shoes and clothes, have been collected and taken to refugees in need, in Calais and other parts of southern France and also over to Greece. A massive voluntary effort has provided support at Calais, Dunkirk and in Greece and other parts of Europe, meeting desperate needs while tradition aid sources have been absent.

Also, the government has been forced to give way on allowing “Dubbs children” and “Dublin chiildren” into the UK. Not nearly enough, and only most grudgingly, but we shouldn’t think that the May government has suddenly grown a heart – rather they’ve been forced by public pressure into giving way.

Another wonderful Women of the Year lunch

I was honoured to be invited to my second Women of the Year lunch yesterday.

One of the many lovely stories was that of Razan Alsous, from Huddersfield, who came to Britain from Syria five years ago and founded a fast-expanding cheese production business, Yorkshire Dama Cheese, using her professional background as a microbiologist.

But the biggest focus was on the Hillsborough families, and their 27-year fight for truth. Their award was presented by Theresa May, who was given credit as Home Secretary for being more prepared to listen to the evidence in this case than previous incumbents had been.

The Prime Minister was, however, under critical focus as Liz Clegg, who founded and runs the Women’s and Children’s Centre in the Calais refugee camp, received her Courage award. Liz implored the Prime Minister to allow the children to come to Britain before the camp is bulldozed. The Red Cross has identified 187 children who have rights to come to Britain under the Dublin regulations, but Britain appears to plan to accept just 25. And there’s been no action on the promise to bring in unaccompanied children under the Dubs amendment.

cu-zyynwiaaygmjThe strong Northern focus was reflected in the Lifetime Achievement Award, which went to Dame Fanny Waterman, founder of the Leeds International Piano Competition. She spoke with wry pride of how others had told her she couldn’t do this in Leeds, it would have to be London, and how she’d successfully ignored them.

The Inspiration award was won by Lizzie Jones from Halifax, who set up the  Danny Jones Defibrillator Fund, in memory of her husband, who died suddenly while playing rugby league.