Argus title : Condemned to existence in a twilight world
I spent just over an hour with asylum seekers Nicholas (30) and David (31). I did nothing while I was in their small bedsit, other than drink strong black coffee, listen and take notes – but I was exhausted by the time I left.
That night my husband and I were too tired to cook, so we had fish and chips. While we ate our meal, I told my husband a bit about David and Nicholas – and the Refugee Trust which had put me in touch with them. It’s a local charity which supports destitute asylum seekers.
We strolled to the Co-op to buy a few things – dog food, nail polish remover, soft drinks, some chocolate. I bought the third newspaper of the day. As we walked home my husband said “I keep thinking about those 2 men. Do you know I can’t remember how much I spent on anything I bought today”. I realised that I couldn’t either.
We were able to remember the cost of bus-fares and our meal, but the other things, the dog food, the chocolate, even the extra newspaper – they were a blank. It wasn’t that we’d forgotten. We hadn’t noticed in the first place.
In contrast, David and Nicholas know the price of everything they buy. They’ve lived on baked beans and potatoes for the better part of 18 months – since their appeals for asylum failed and government funding from the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) stopped.
The two men are brothers. Nicholas has a diagnosis of Schizophrenia. He showed me the 6 different types of medication he needs to muffle the voices in his head. David takes 4 more to control his epilepsy.
They are never apart. Nicholas needs David to accompany him when he goes out. David says Nicholas cares for him too. They live in the same cramped room, shop together, eat together, walk and talk together, sleep one above the other in narrow bunk beds. “See, we are like prisoners” says Nicholas and smiles.
Over the years they seem to have developed such an intimacy that each is able to anticipate what the other may say. They even finish each other’s sentences. One after the other they reel off the prices of the few things they are able to buy to sustain life. They laugh bitterly as they do it and it sounds like a strange song.
The beans cost 17p a tin, while the potatoes are £1.33 for 5 kilos. The bread is sliced white and costs 25p. Lemonade is 17p. Toilet paper is 41p and an unrecognisable brand of instant coffee can be bought for £1.00 at the local £1 shop. Washing powder and ‘energy drinks’ are also £1.00.
Sometimes they have an onion or another vegetable. More often they don’t, They never have fish or meat. “I like cheese. says Nicholas wistfully “I’d like to have some cheese and some sweets. I go to the supermarket to look”.
They can’t afford to go to the laundrette so they hand wash and hang the clothes outside the window. The landlord gave them an old carpet sweeper, but it has broken. They borrow their neighbour’s hoover when they can, but it embarrasses them to do so.
David and Nicholas are Algerian refugees. They are not Arab, but from the Kabil minority. They were amazed I had never heard of the Kabil people. They put a cassette of Kabil music into a battered old cassette player. As the music began, they smiled at each other and began to sing in perfect harmony. David translated the singer’s words for me “She is telling her mother ‘I have met the man I want to marry’”. Suddenly, they turn it off, as if it is too painful to listen.
They left Algeria in 1995 after their father, a judge, had been murdered by the G.I.A. (Groupement Islamique Arme). The GIA was founded in 1992 and is a splinter group of the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut), a radical Islamic group which works to establish an Islamic state in Algeria.
According to a report by the US Centre for Defense the GIA has tended to attack civilians it considers infidels and apostates. Sometimes whole villages have been wiped out.
At one point in 2000, officials put the rate of killings by the GIA at 300 a month. Overall, from 1992 to 1998 there were some 100,000 deaths in Algeria, averaging 1,200 a month.
In 1995 the brothers fled this bloodbath, travelling first to another country and then, in 1998, to the UK believing they would be safer. They are unable to write to their mother or their sister, who remain in Algeria. They are convinced that they will be killed if they return. Nonetheless, their applications for asylum were turned down.
The truth is, most applications from Algerians are rejected. The UN Refugee Agency has just this week expressed serious concern both about violence and terrorism which “have been on the rise in Algeria since..1996” and the “very low level of acknowledgement paid by some European countries particularly to the protection needs of … Algerians.” They agency reports that last year, of the 5,950 Algerian asylum applicants in 16 western countries only 670 were approved.
Though the UK government officially and cynically suggests that failed Algerian asylum seekers can return to Algeria, in practice it does not deport people because it is well aware the country is not safe.
And so, for some 18 months, the brothers have been in limbo. They can neither stay nor leave. They may not claim benefits and they are barred from work.
It would be hard for any British person to cope with this level of social rejection and poverty. But for asylum seekers, often speaking little English, confused, exhausted and traumatised, it must seem as if they are living in a nightmare. It is cruel system, without sense or logic, unless it is to break people.
No one knows exactly how many people exist in this twilight world, eking out an existence, living on charity, sleeping on people’s floors, always waiting for the knock at the door which could mean deportation. Even those awaiting decisions often receive no funding from the government. If the government believes they are receiving funding from elsewhere – even from an impoverished member of their own community or a tiny charity like the Refugee Trust – it can use this as an excuse not to provide the pitifully inadequate NASS payments – which are always far smaller than any British benefit.
The horrifying truth is that Nicholas is luckier than many. Due to his state of health he does get some support through health services. David receives no support, other than £15 from the Refugee Trust. If he were British he would receive at least £72.00 in Income Support and Carers’ Allowance.
The two men do not know how long they will be able to remain in their bed-sit. They cannot heat their room and they are not well. Bad diet has damaged their digestion so they take prescribed digestion remedies. Nutritious food is beyond their means, but for now, prescriptions remain free.
David describes feelings of deep depression. He says “Sometimes I can’t do anything…I just sit, like this”. He sinks his head on his arm. The brothers often cannot sleep. So they lie and talk till morning. If they are lucky, exhaustion brings relief and they sleep as dawn breaks.
Sometimes they take 2 days’ medication in I day. I asked if this helped them to sleep. Nicholas said “Yes…. and it also helps you to eat the food”. He explained that their food and digestion are so bad that the medication improves appetite and dulls discomfort.
I asked them what they would like most for themselves if they could have anything they wanted. They looked at me blankly. Their choices have been limited for so long that they seemed not to understand.
I repeated the question and David replied for them both “A peaceful life. To live and work, maybe get married and have children. Nothing more than this. Not rich and not poor. Just normal, peaceful life.”.
Nicholas smiled wryly “I don’t think it will happen. We don’t have too much luck, us brothers”. David gently contradicted him. “No” he said “God is good”.
The Refugee Trust, working with the pastoral office of the Chapel Royal in Brighton, currently supports 8 destitute asylum seekers. It is so short of funds that it cannot support new applicants. These are assisted via the Chapel Royal. It desperately needs donations and standing orders. Contact Mary-Jane Burkett at the Chapel Royal (719556).