Students set the example

We had the protests in Florida against American gun laws, during which the students showed themselves to be more adult than the adults. In the UK, students are supporting their lecturers on strike. And now, in France, it is students leading the way in taking action to protect migrants and refugees, and to protest against France’s policy towards them. Here is my translation of the introduction to an article in the French newspaper Libération:

Tonight, Hafez should be able to sleep in the warm. Unless, that is, the authorities at Jussieu University (in the 5th arrondissement of Paris) decide to evacuate the prefabricated building occupied since Wednesday by students, activists and migrants. The occupation movement, the aim of which is to provide accommodation for “people in exile”, [i.e. asylum seekers and refugees] was started in Lyon in the autumn, has continued during the winter in Nantes, and has inspired similar movements elsewhere. The University of Paris-VIII has joined in, so there is now a second Paris university being occupied. It has a twofold aim: to offer a roof to migrants, while the thermometer shows minus-freezing temperatures in the capital; and to create a platform for political demands, particularly against the migration policies of the [French] government.

Keep going – and keep warm.

Here’s the full article:


Inappropriate behaviour

Further to yesterday’s blog.[1]

In a story this morning (14/2/2018), The Guardian quotes a Commons Home Affairs Committee report saying that “people lawfully in Britain were being caught up in the ‘hostile environment’ [in the Home Office] meant to be aimed at individuals with no right to be here.”[2] The story gives as an example the case of Haruko Tomioka, a Japanese woman lawfully in the UK, who was

given seven days to leave the country, [the report] said. “This followed a two-year period during which time her driving licence had been rescinded, child benefit payments had been stopped (she had also been ordered to repay £5,000), and she was made to report to Becket House immigration office on a regular basis.” It took repeated notifications to the Home Office that she was here legally and that her husband was an EU national in employment before the department finally accepted her rights.

Clearly this involved a great deal of hostility directed towards someone with every right to be here. This can come as no surprise. Home Office hostility is indiscriminate. There is a “culture of hostility” in the Home Office which both allowed Haruko Tomioka to be put through this mill and led to Reza and Maryam’s treatment described in my blog yesterday. Whether a fair policy towards EU citizens is developed or not (and it looks increasingly unlikely), and whether the apparent problem of understaffing in the Home Office (mentioned yesterday) is tackled or not (it’s been used as an excuse for a whole raft of misdemeanours for a very long time and may be too useful for it to be abandoned now), the “hostile environment” towards migrants (especially asylum seekers) is deliberate policy and is set to continue.

Do we want our taxes to pay for a culture of hostility in the Home Office? If you come here seeking asylum or a new life, and if you really do have to be questioned about your reasons and intentions, should that be done in a “hostile environment”? If it is, cases like these will proliferate. The hostility outlined in yesterday’s blog was obviously indiscriminate, directed at people before any decision had been made about their “right to be here”. Home Office officials make assumptions about your motives before a single question has been asked.

Yet you ought to be treated as innocent until proved guilty. That’s not just an idea I woke up with this morning. It’s the basis of our legal system. And it’s laid down in the Refugee Convention Guidelines. So hostility is inappropriate behaviour. That needs to be included in the alleged exemplary training given to Home Office staff and trumpeted by the department yesterday. The Commons Home Affairs Committee should be told the same thing. Its members seem to think hostility is OK if it’s “aimed at individuals with no right to be here”. It isn’t. If officials really need to ask questions, they should just ask them. They don’t need to shake their prejudiced fists as well.


[1] “The Secretary of State [still] doesn’t believe you”:

[2]  “Brexit immigration plan delays are fuelling anxiety, MPs warn”:


“The Secretary of State [still] doesn’t believe you”

Read this Guardian article: it describes the UK asylum process at its most crucial point (the asylum interview, when individuals are given their main chance to explain why they are seeking asylum). It says that “many asylum interviews are rushed, biased and resolved by ‘cut and paste’ decisions.”

The article contains little that wasn’t known before – but these facts don’t often get publicly aired. The research I did between 2004 and 2009 on the treatment of asylum seekers is now out of date in many ways: it couldn’t have taken into account the upsurge in migration of more recent years, when people struggled across continents, many drowning in the Mediterranean. So to that extent it is out of date. But the story that emerges from this article of how asylum decisions are made today hasn’t changed since I wrote. The treatment of asylum seekers by the Home Office is cynical, ignorant, cruel and shameful. I will focus on just a few of the points raised in the article.

Because of the pressure from Home Office targets (“225 interviews or decision reports a year”), one former caseworker says: “You would have your own stock paragraphs that you put into refusal minutes.” Caseworkers say to themselves, “I’ll just sort of cut and paste the decision I did last week.” This is certainly common practice. But I see it not just as a desperate attempt by the caseworker to “get the job done”, but also as part of the structure of the asylum system. The Home Office gives this cut-and-paste approach official encouragement with its own stockpile of paragraphs which caseworkers are encouraged to use routinely when compiling their reports. So it is not enough for us to find fault with individual caseworkers or for caseworkers to blame themselves. Here is one of the Home Office’s ready-made paragraphs intended to help caseworkers in their task of refusing claims:

Further doubts as to your alleged fear of persecution can be drawn from the fact that you did not leave [COUNTRY] until [DATE]. The Secretary of State holds the view that if your fear of persecution by the [COUNTRY] authorities was genuine you would have left [COUNTRY] at the earliest opportunity and the fact that you did not casts doubt on your credibility.

Of course, many reasons may govern the timing of a refugee‘s departure: the need to find an agent, raise funds to pay the agent (e.g. by selling property), obtain false documents. Even if the journey is through normal channels there will be family concerns which cause delay. Moreover, members of opposition groups committed to political change do not tend to give up their cause easily and may maintain their activism until the last moment. But the cut-and-paste approach discourages any attempt to take these considerations seriously and tends to assume the asylum seeker’s guilt. So an Ethiopian asylum seeker was told that because he had been arrested in January but didn’t leave until May, this delay “detracts from the truthfulness of your claim to be a genuine asylum seeker.”

I met an asylum seeker from Iran who was treated in a similar way. Reza (not his real name) was a member of a political party whose members suffered persecution. After a demonstration in July 2000, during which one of his friends was killed and another went missing, his house was raided by the police and his father-in-law taken in for questioning, Reza and his wife Maryam went into hiding and a senior party member “advised me to get out of Iran if I could”. Even then he hesitated: “I had a family in Iran, I had a lot of property in Iran, I did not want to leave. But I was frightened for my safety.” None of this was unreasonable or slow. In the event he made the arrangements quite quickly – financial and travel arrangements, false passports – and left in September. Unfortunately, none of this impressed his caseworker, who insisted that his departure was tardy: “The Secretary of State holds the view that if your fear of persecution by the Iranian authorities were genuine, you would have left Iran at the earliest opportunity, and the fact that you did not do so casts doubt upon your credibility”, which happens to match exactly the wording of the prepared paragraph from the Home Office stockpile quoted above.

The article mentions transcripts of asylum interviews where “it was evident the caseworker knew very little about the case”, in the context of the pressure to meet the targets, and that was no surprise to me. But pressure to meet targets is not the only worry we should have here: I found that the ignorance of the caseworker often stemmed from Home Office Country Information reports which frequently lacked certain kinds of information entirely or were out of date. Ignorance is a feature of the system. What happens if an asylum seeker claims persecution because of membership of a political party but the party is not mentioned in the Country Report? One caseworker told researchers in 2003:

We need to know whether particular groups or political parties exist, but instead we are told to say that the Secretary of State is not aware of this group so therefore it is unlikely to be of interest to the authorities. But really they have no information on whether the group existed.

This ignorance is then turned into a denial of the asylum seeker’s credibility. A Kurd from Syria was told in his refusal letter:

The basis of your claim is that you fear persecution in Syria because of your political beliefs. You are a member of the Hergirtin. The Secretary of State is not aware that this party actually exists.

Asylum application refused. But, on appeal, the adjudicator discovered that Amnesty International knew of the party’s existence and its long history. Appeal allowed. The Syrian Kurd probably had a good solicitor who had done the necessary research. Not everyone is as lucky by any means and the caseworker (quoted in the article) was right to call the asylum process a “lottery”.

The article says there is a “culture of disrespect” among caseworkers and describes a culture in which jokes are made about asylum applicants, even going so far as to joke about them being tortured. I came across an early example of canteen culture in my research, where an Afghan asylum seeker had clearly been the butt of cynical jokes about his claim, ending in a spoof letter which declared his asylum claim “a pile of pants”. This version of the refusal letter was accidentally sent to his solicitor. According to The Guardian,

Naomi Nicholson, a case worker with the Refugee Legal Centre … had to explain the meaning of the letter to her client … “I was trying to paraphrase the letter starting from the top, but when I got to the fourth paragraph I didn’t know what to say, I was so shocked,” Ms Nicholson said. “I was very embarrassed. It was my country that was saying this to him.” Immigration staff tried to replace the letter with a hurriedly amended one that merely states “the Secretary of State is not satisfied that you have established that you are an Afghan national.”

I could go on, but this is enough. But just to end: anyone who gets frustrated with the sight and sound of Theresa May or Jeremy Hunt answering every question about the NHS with the mantra: “This government has provided more money, more doctors, more nurses, more everything than any previous government …” will understand my frustration at seeing another worn-out phrase near the end of the article: “The UK has a proud history”, says the Home Office, “of providing protection to those who need it.” I have seen and heard this phrase more times than I’ve had hot dinners. It does not reflect the reality of many an asylum seeker’s experience. Neither does the other phrase deployed by Her Majesty’s civil servants in the name, and with the permission, of their Secretaries of State: all asylum claims are “dealt with on their merits”. That was the title of my thesis when I finished my research. But I put a question mark at the end.

Read the article.


Three steps to nowhere

Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (Harvard academics both) have written a book to “show how democracies die – and how ours can be saved”, according to the publisher’s blurb.[1]

This has excited the Opinion writers of that bastion of liberal values The New York Times to declare that the first best hope for the future is that “the Republican Party becomes more willing to stand up to Trump”. Should that fail (surely not?), “the next best hope lies with electing more Democrats”.[2]

And that’s it? No, not quite, not for fellow liberals Livitsky and Ziblatt. They didn’t get where they are today by being that simplistic. And the NYT quotes them in aid: “Mobilizing the vote in 2018 and 2020 is essential”, they declare. But “there is something else that ordinary Americans must do.” They must

try to build broader coalitions in defense of democracy … that extend beyond traditional party lines. For liberals, this means forging perhaps uncomfortable alliances – with right-of-center businesspeople, evangelical Christians, and dissident conservatives, among others.[3]

This will, apparently, “involve compromise”. That, I think, is code for “will involve moving to the right”. It apparently doesn’t involve the democratic socialists of the Bernie Sanders movement. And it apparently doesn’t involve persuading the “right-of-center businesspeople” or the evangelical Christians, or these strange animals “dissident conservatives”, not to be right-wing shits.

Might it also involve keeping a seat warm for another Clinton?

Don’t ask.
[1] How Democracies Die, Steven Livitsky & Daniel Ziblatt, Penguin RandomHouse (2018).

[2] “Opinion Today”, New York Times, 4 January 2018.

[3] Ibid.

A tale of two clerics

The first cleric in the story below (Very Rev. Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow) is a trifle eccentric. He wants us to pray that Prince George will be gay.

Well, as someone who was delighted (and relieved) when Tom Robinson sang “Glad to be Gay” in the 1970s, I wouldn’t want to deny George that experience. But he wouldn’t have to be forced into it by a higher power – not because of a gay gene (I’m not a big fan of that theory) but because, as he grows up, he will sort it out for himself. It’s mostly a social process, in which he will have his own strong part to play.

The second cleric (Rev. Gavin Ashenden, a former Chaplain to the Queen) says that Holdsworth’s prayer is “unkind”. This suggests that we are unfortunate to be gay, perhaps should be sad to be gay – and to some people (not necessarily Ashenden) it might mean that we should get therapy to stop us being gay. Well (you’ve guessed it!) I’m not with Ashenden.  I’m with Tom Robinson. (Incidentally, I once knew a Chaplain to the Queen who wrote that being gay was like having a club foot. But this was in the 1970s. Things should have moved on by now in royal chaplaincy circles.)

Ashenden also says that to pray that George will be gay “is to pray in a way that will undermine his constitutional and personal role” to produce an heir to the throne. It is, he said, “the theological equivalent of the curse of the wicked fairy in one of the fairytales. It is un-Christian as well as being anti-constitutional.” Perhaps this is the key to Ashenden’s harrumphing. On the same day that news reached us that Morgan Stanley fears that a Corbyn government would be detrimental to the financial and economic status quo that we have all come to love (and Jeremy agrees the fear is justified), so Ashenden claims that a gay prince would seriously undermine the royal privilege that allegedly holds the system together (I doubt it would be enough). But if they think that’s what’s at stake, George, if you turn out to be a gay prince, watch out for the therapists!

But surely, even in this bizarre world of wicked fairies and things that go bump in the night, Ashenden has nothing to worry about. Whatever theology lies behind Ashenden’s mish-mash of prejudice and defence of a constitutional monarchy, Holdsworth’s prayer couldn’t work. For it would entail God acting against his own “divine right of kings” (and queens), which he surely couldn’t do. And on the question of fairytales, we are dealing with two of them here. The first is the royal fairytale (nowadays largely taking the form of a soap opera, which no one should actually believe in, even if the plots are fun; the second is one that Ashenden should acknowledge, since he has introduced talk of fairytales. In the run-up to Christmas, there will be much singing, and many readings from the Bible, about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. A close reading of that story (full, as it is, of invention, contradictions and fantastic images) should at the very least make us very sceptical indeed of its value as history. What, then? Is it myth? (myths can be helpful). Is it a fairytale? I think it’s a fairytale. So Ashenden should be careful about what he says about Holdsworth’s prayer. Because people who live in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones.

Here’s the story:

Children or thugs?

There are two explanations for what happened here:

If Hammond and the Treasury really shook their rattles (as this story implies) and said, “We were going to give you the money but now you’ve asked for it so rudely and embarrassed us we’re not going to give it to you after all – so there,” then we’re governed by children.

If, however, this is the government warning off heads of public services, leaders of local councils, union reps and generally pissed-off workers from speaking up and telling us the truth, then we’re ruled by thugs.

I think we’re ruled by thugs.

I don’t get it.


Whenever housing is mentioned, a national programme for the building of council houses for rent, once again, is a very popular idea. So much so as to be widely considered a no-brainer. And it is, isn’t it? Proper public housing, that is, not houses owned by private developers and called ‘social’ to make it sound reasonable.

Housing supply is inadequate for the demand, by the numbers, the type and affordability – actually affordable, relative to wages. Prices are high. Deposits alone can be more than the total cost of the two-bed flat I bought in the mid-eighties. This market means rents are also high. Work is precarious, pay is too low and life’s basics are expensive. Anyway, we know this.

There are the usual and perfectly valid supply/demand concerns over such issues as negative equity, preservation of an older home-owning voter-base, protection of asset values, rising interest rates, the ‘freedom of…

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