The Man in Room Six

The death of a young man in immigration detention last month raises questions about the purpose the British government’s detention policy. Who is detained and why?


In the early hours of Wednesday 17 February Amir Siman-Tov was found dead in his room at Colnbrook IRC, a British government detention centre for foreign nationals just outside Heathrow Airport.

Siman-Tov, originally from Morocco, had been detained for three weeks and was on suicide watch before his death. He was under constant supervision and at night centre guards would check his room every 15 minutes.

How and why Amir Siman-Tov died is unclear. It is unlikely the circumstances of his death will be made public until an inquest is held, which could take months or even years. Alois Dvorzak, an 84-year-old Canadian detained at Harmondsworth detention centre, died in February 2013, and it was only two years later that the harrowing details of his death were revealed at the inquest. According to the Institute for Race Relations 89 people died in detention or shortly after release from detention between 1989 and 2014. Last year there were two more deaths, both at the Verne detention facility in Dover, which up until 2014 was a prison.

When someone dies in detention it reveals again everything we don’t know about the UK’s detention estate, where more than 30,000 people are detained each year. Among its inmates are people with particular vulnerabilities such as victims of torture and sexual violence, pregnant women, people with severe mental health needs and asylum seekers.

Stephen Shaw, a former prisons and probation ombudsman for England and Wales, raises the lack of transparency issue in a critical report published in January. The report was commissioned by the Home Secretary and is the result of a six-month inquiry into the detention of vulnerable people. Shaw writes: ‘It is regrettable that the Home Office does not do more to encourage academic and media interest in immigration detention. Indeed, I think its reluctance to do so is counter-productive – encouraging speculative or ill-informed journalism, while inhibiting the healthy oversight that is one of the most effective means of ensuring the needs of those in detention are recognised and of preventing poor practice or abuse from taking hold. It has been argued internationally that immigration detention is “one of the most opaque areas of public administration.” It would be in everyone’s interests if in this country it were less so.’

“It is regrettable that the Home Office does not do more to encourage academic and media interest in immigration detention. Indeed, I think its reluctance to do so is counter-productive – encouraging speculative or ill-informed journalism, while inhibiting the healthy oversight that is one of the most effective means of ensuring the needs of those in detention are recognised and of preventing poor practice or abuse from taking hold.”

This sense of isolation is a recurring theme in interviews with detainees. The detention centres are built on the outskirts of towns and cities, and to reach them by public transport can be expensive. David, who is held at the Verne in Dover, said his relationship with his children was disputed because they rarely visited him. ‘They [the Home Office] have this thing they write on our monthly report, “you don’t have enough family ties”. They say it to me and to everybody else. But they put you far away from your family knowing that you are going to have financial problems with the distance. We don’t have money we are not rich. For my daughter to travel such a long distance, she came once last year, it takes a long time to save that money. It’s extremely frustrating, they break our families.’

When a detainee dies the people detained with them feel more alone. There is the emotional impact and there is the paranoia that comes with indefinite detention and being isolated. David was friends with Thomas Kirungi, a 30-year-old asylum seeker from Uganda who killed himself last summer. In the lead up to his death, David says Kirungi became depressed and was in and out of healthcare. When the Home Office refused his asylum claim and threatened deportation he committed suicide. ‘It depresses you in a way that I cannot even explain. It gets you down. You just think, “that is going to be me”.’

Earlier this year, David entered the shared bathroom at the Verne to find a Croatian detainee ‘dangling from the ceiling’. Terrified, he raised the alarm and guards arrived to cut down the ligature. The man survived, but David still sees his limp body dangling whenever he enters the bathroom.

Worse than the uncertainty – over immigration status, length of stay in detention – that crushes many immigration detainees is the looming fear that they will die inside. With each bail application refusal, every time the embassy refuses to issue emergency travel documents, comes less control over the months and years ahead. David raises this, and women I’ve interviewed at Yarl’s Wood and other centres have expressed this fear too. When you’re stuck in detention for days, weeks and months, it feels rational to think this way. So when someone does die, for whatever reason, it can act as a premonition for some.

Adel is haunted by the death of Amir Siman-Tov. It seemed to confirm a dozen suspicions accumulated over several years in and out of detention. They are murdering us with medicine, he tells me several times. When I spoke to him the day after Amir was found, he was angry, upset and sometimes incoherent in his distress. Adel is in room six on the healthcare block at Colnbrook detention centre, Amir was in room three. There are six rooms in healthcare, a small isolated block where inmates live in locked cells with a single bed, basin and toilet. Adel says he knew Amir was ill in the run up to his death and is convinced more could have been done to help him. ‘Mr Amir was a strong man,’ he says. ‘He was normal. We had coffee together.’ A few weeks in detention took its toll, says Adel, but the day before his death Amir became seriously ill. Adel says he saw Amir vomiting and coughing, his face red, on Tuesday evening. ‘I said, “Officer, excuse me that guy is sick, help him.”’ A few hours later Amir was dead.

Adel will give evidence to the coroner about what happened in the hours leading up to Amir’s death, but for now it’s his own story that raises questions about the purpose and necessity of immigration detention.



Adel will be 50 this year, which means he has lived here in Britain for longer than he lived in Lebanon, the country of his birth.

Adel rarely talks about his life in Lebanon, but there are two bullets still lodged in his thorax, and recurring nightmares and flashbacks. His memories are a muddle adhering to no particular chronology. He recalls past events in intense detail and when he has finished recounting his eyes glaze over and he slips into a stupor. When he comes to there is a moment of confusion and he begins again on a new tangent.

On the day I visited Adel in detention he wore a new outfit, which he was pretty pleased with. He leaned awkwardly on one crutch and used his free hand to lift the long black shirt, for me to better appreciate it. Beneath the robe he wore faded tracksuit bottoms, black socks and loafers. With his small skull cap and wiry grey beard he looked dressed for Friday prayers. But, he told me blue eyes twinkling, his attire and beard are an attempt to annoy ‘immigration’. He does have faith, but he also likes to tease. A picture of Adel, who used to work as a mechanic, prior to his latest incarceration shows a smiling clean shaven man with close cropped hair and a body builder’s physique. The man I met was frail, thin and unable to walk without the aid of crutches.

When we met he carried a canvas shoulder bag full of loose papers, which included a letter he wrote to the Queen. The letter ends: ‘I have done my best during my prison term and at Brook House to show that I am sorry for my mistakes by working with the prison and Brook House authorities. I think that my daughter has sent a number of reference letters, which show I am not criminal and I am not a danger to the public.’ A letter stamped with the Buckingham Palace logo signed by the Queen’s correspondence officer explains that Her Majesty had taken careful note of Adel’s troubles and referred the case to the Right Honourable Alan Johnson MP, then Home Secretary.

The shoulder bag full of papers is useful in piecing together the chaotic events of the 27 years Adel has lived in the UK. Adel forgets things; who he is talking to, where he was yesterday, what his home address is. He blames the memory loss on his epilepsy; during a seizure he often loses consciousness and on more than one occasion has smashed his head and bitten his own tongue drawing blood. Before this latest spell in detention he experienced convulsive seizures every three to four weeks, but recently he says the fits have been happening more frequently. According to a detailed doctor’s report about Adel’s physical and mental health, the memory loss could be part of his post-traumatic stress disorder, which was diagnosed in 2013 but which he has lived with since his time as a young soldier in Lebanon during the civil war. He takes anti-depressants, pills for his epilepsy twice a day and wears morphine patches, but it isn’t always possible to manage things. He has attempted suicide in the past, once by slashing his own throat with a razor. And the memory lapses occurred even before his PTSD diagnoses.

Take the year he spent in prison in 2008. His estranged wife and three children believed him dead. He wrote to his family but got confused and sent the letters to their neighbour’s address. His 13-year-old son was heartbroken and began to lash out getting into trouble at school. The school referred him to a specialist mental health service, while the other kids played sport, he went for an hour of counselling. Adel’s 16-year-old daughter meanwhile ran from court to prison to the town hall trying to find her father. Her mother, long since divorced from Adel, was in remission from cancer and dealing with issues of ill health and poverty. This left Adel’s daughter in charge, as she watched helplessly as her little brother grew angrier and she tried hard to bury her own feelings of despair. Eventually they found him at an immigration removal centre near Gatwick, where the rush of happiness she felt would quickly vanish as the years passed and her father remained in detention. Looking back aged 20 in a letter written in 2012 she writes: ‘If it wasn’t for all this I would have liked to go to university, but I had to earn money as mum never has any. We couldn’t even afford [her brother’s] school clothes sometimes. It is a struggle. Now I work full time, try to support [brother] emotionally (which I feel like I really can’t do on my own) and help in the house. When I imagine my Dad here I can feel like all the pressure would be lifted…We could be more stable and share the load of family life.’

“If it wasn’t for all this I would have liked to go to university, but I had to earn money as mum never has any. We couldn’t even afford [her brother’s] school clothes sometimes. It is a struggle.”

Adel’s recent troubles began in 2008, two years after the foreign national prisoner’s crisis where it was revealed that more than one thousand foreign nationals had been released from prison (having served their time) without being considered for deportation. Soon after that the immigration division within the Home Office was declared ‘not fit for purpose’ and the law was changed allowing for automatic deportation in cases where foreigner national offenders are sentenced to 12 months or longer. Adel fell into this category having been sentenced to 21 months in prison for robbery and assault in 2008 (a charge he still disputes. He claims that his lawyer urged to him to switch his plea to guilty to obtain a reduced sentence, which didn’t happen). Immediately after serving his sentence, Adel was kept in prison under immigration powers, where he stayed for two years and three weeks.

Subsequently he was detained again in 2012 for nine months and released on bail. Then again in 2014 for a little over one month, but he was released after healthcare decided he was not fit to be detained for long periods due to his physical and medical heath. Last December Adel was picked up by police and arrested for ‘acting suspiciously’ but not charged with anything. Because of his outstanding asylum case he was taken to Colnbrook, the securest of the government’s 10 detention centres, built in 2004 to category B prisons standards, which means that if it was a regular prison the people held inside would be considered a danger to the public. While some of the people detained at Colnbrook are former offenders, all have completed their sentences and are held only for administrative purposes related to their immigration status.

In theory the Home Office only uses detention as a last resort when removal from the country is imminent. Adel was served deportation papers for removal a few days ago – and yet he has been detained at immigration centres on and off since 2009. There is no time limit on how long the Home Office can detain foreign nationals for immigration purposes and as long as the government says removal is imminent a person can be detained indefinitely. That only 45% of the 32,446 people that passed through detention in 2015 were deported or left the UK voluntarily, means removal isn’t imminent for everyone detained.

There is no time limit on how long the Home Office can detain foreign nationals for immigration purposes

The latest immigration statistics showed that in 2015 most (62%) people were detained for 29 days or less, 18% between 9 days and two months, and 12% between two and four months. Across the detention estate 255 people were kept in detention for between one and two years, and 41 people for more than two years. There is a wealth of evidence from the last decade or so, much of it referenced in Shaw’s report, highlighting cases where increased detention has led to deteriorating mental health and further traumatises victims of torture and rape. In a report on the use of segregation in detention, the charity Medical Justice borrows an angry passage from Charles Dickens, where he rails at the cruelty of solitary confinement, to rouse 21st century consciences. But today, in the public consciousness, there still lingers an element of distrust towards immigrants detained, particularly those with criminal records. This isn’t helped by politicians perpetuating falsehoods about the immigration process.

However, people are beginning to question the purpose of immigration detention. In a critical report published last year a cross party group of MPs said the Home Office’s use of detention was disproportionate and inappropriate. They called for a 28-day time limit on detention, automatic bail hearings and an end to the detention of vulnerable people. Channel 4’s undercover footage from inside Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre revealed staff verbally abusing women held in their care. In July last year the Court of Appeal ruled that the detained fast track – a system of determining asylum cases in detention – was ruled structurally unfair and suspended.


Adel has obtained a new solicitor who is pursuing a claim to judicially review the Home Office’s decision to detain him.

Building on the growing body of case law challenging the unlawful detention of foreign nationals, his lawyers will argue that Adel suffers from complex PTSD and is not suitable for detention. His ties to the UK, that he has lived here lawfully since 1990 and has British born children, will also form the basis for a fresh claim to stay in the country.

Doctors and psychiatrists who have treated Adel over the years have provided evidence detailing a history of self-harm and depression. They say that the cycle of detention is ‘exacerbating his already fragile mental health making him vulnerable and a heightened risk of suicide’. His daughter still pleads his case. In a letter to support the new claim she explains that he needs full time care (something she’d been undertaking herself before his detention in December) and that she works full time so could financially support her father on release. Meanwhile Adel remains in detention, where is consumed by the death of Amir and speculation about who was involved. Every night at 9pm he is locked in his room, where he sleeps fitfully waking up to change his sheets drenched in sweat.



The Home Office and Mitie gave the following  responses when I contacted them for a comment on the death of Amir Siman-Tov:

A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘We can confirm that a detainee at Colnbrook immigration removal centre died in the early hours on the 17 February. It would be inappropriate to comment further whilst the police, coroner and Prisons and Probation Ombudsman conduct their enquiries.’

A spokesperson for Mitie, the private contractor running the detention centre, also refused to comment in detail while the investigation is ongoing. They said: ‘We are saddened by the death of a detainee on 17 February at the Colnbrook Centre and our thoughts are with his family and friends at this difficult time. It is far too early to make any comment or speculate on the cause of his death before the formal investigations have been concluded by the relevant authorities. We continue to work closely with the Home Office, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and NHS England to conduct the necessary reviews.’

I wrote this article first for Lacuna magazine as part of the issue I edited on migration. It was also published by the New Statesman magazine.

Featured photo by Aapo Haapanen. Some rights reserved.


It’s been a while since I posted anything here, mainly because I’ve been busy working on projects elsewhere. I’ve had a ton of fun, intellectually and creatively. Now feels like a good time to stop and reflect. Below I’ve summarised some of my highlights from 2015.

I took part in the LSE’s Gender Inequality & Power commission, where I had the privilege of translating the thoughts of some incredibly clever women as they discussed the finer details of gender inequality in relation to the law, the economy, politics and media. The commission investigations found that equality gains made in the last few decades are under threat due to a combination of factors, most prominently governments’ (across Europe) response to the financial crisis of 2008. The final report, which I also worked on, is well worth a read.

Photo by Khadra Aden

The academic findings of the commission chimed with what I saw in my reporting and in the work that I commissioned others to write for Lacuna magazine. Last year I went on several Sisters Uncut protests against the closures of domestic violence services for women. These colourful and lively parades had a serious underlying message: two women a week die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner. Studies, stats, police reports all show that women are most in danger when they try to leave. That’s why refuges and support services are so essential to women’s safety. I wrote about Sisters Uncut and a domestic violence refuge in East London under threat because of local authority funding cuts for Lacuna:

Other pieces I commissioned on the subject of women and equality before the law:

I wrote on the subject for Left Foot Forward and the New Statesman when George Osborne published his Spending Review last October.

I also wrote about housing, mental health, immigration detention, calling people illegal and went to Sicily to report on the migrant crisis there. When the refugee crisis in Calais hit the headlines, I wrote this for Prospect magazine. I put forward a pretty sensible solution to the crisis (which I also suggested in my 2012 report on EU asylum policy). Now it’s even worse. My latest piece on the issue is full of questions, and no real answers.

Over the next few weeks I’ll re-publish the pieces I wrote in 2015 (and during the first few months of this year) that I think still resonate and might interest people.

And if you’re in London or Coventry this month you can catch me at a few events. I’ll be talking austerity at the Women of the World Festival at London’s Southbank Centre this Friday and then about the London mayoral elections at Foyles Charing Cross with Owen Jones, Daniel Trilling and Rachel Shabi on March 30th. On Monday next week I’ll be chairing a panel discussion on protest for the Centre for Human Rights in Practice’s protest and performance conference.

More soon, thanks for reading!

Nominated Georgina Henry Women in Journalism Prize 2016

Chuffed to be on the shortlist for the Georgina Henry women in journalism prize. Georgina Henry launched the Guardian’s hugely successful Comment is Free website and set up Women in Journalism back in 1995. She died of cancer in 2014 aged just 54. I recommend Alan Rusbridger’s tribute if you haven’t read already:

The idea I pitched to the judges was for a podcast. A collection of outtakes you might say, from all the interviews I do for my articles. It’s something I’ve been thinking about and working towards for some time, but I’ve never had the money or time to pursue. The podcast will be political, but not about the politics of Westminster or left versus right, instead I’ll present the lived experiences of those most affected by key political decisions. Each podcast will last around 20 minutes and will carve out an unexpected story from within a familiar news narrative. Each story will put a relatable human face to the facts and stats of policy debates. It’s kind of what I do already, but a shorter, audio version. I sent these articles in support of my application:

Official announcement:


Watch this space!



George Orwell Prize Shortlist 2015

A mortifying moment of last year was when my mum insisted I go say hi to James Meek at the Orwell prize event in London. He’d just won the book prize for his collection of essays (essential reading if you want to understand why modern Britain is so messed up) and I made the mistake of telling her my actual goal in life was to write with as much elegance and art. She pushed me forward to ‘network’ (why didn’t I inherit more of that chutzpah?!) and I thrust my hand out, mumbled something and scurried away, while he looked slightly confused.

On the plus side, I was in a room with Mr Meek cause I’d been shortlisted for my journalism alongside some of the bigger beasts of British reporting, which was pretty exciting.

I got a lovely write up from my tireless champions at openDemocracy and Lacuna:’s-rebecca-omoniraoyekanmi-shortlisted-for-orwell-prize


Banner photo by Matthias Guntrum Some rights reserved



How to Build a Law Centre

Published earlier this year as part of Lacuna’s look at austerity. Read our editorial overview here: This feature also appeared on the Justice Gap.



A young man in mustard khakis, a black body warmer and formal shirt walks into the office clutching a large red plastic bag bulging with paper. He perches lightly on the edge of a chair and begins to speak. Habib Ullah, a softly-spoken solicitor wearing a grey kameez and embroidered cap, sits opposite him listening.

The young man, who is 29 and married with a 5-year-old child, starts to pull sheets of paper from his tattered bag; a letter from the council stopping housing benefit; a letter from the Department for Work & Pensions transferring him from Employment Support Allowance (ESA) to Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA); a letter from Jobcentre Plus informing him that there was doubt about his claim and so his allowance had been stopped; credit card statements with £300 of debt; gas and electricity bills.

Habib sets about unravelling the paper trail and attempts to piece the man’s life together. The DWP informed the council that the young man was no longer in receipt of ESA, but neglected to add that he would be on JSA instead. The council assumed that the young man had secured full time work and would no longer need housing benefit. While Habib writes a letter to correct the situation, the man reveals that he was ill and missed a CV clinic and this was why his JSA has been stopped. Habib examines the letter: it expresses “doubt” about the young man’s claim, a final decision about the sanction is yet to be made. They will have to wait for a final decision and then appeal it. In the meantime, the Jobcentre has stopped paying him the allowance. The young man is still perched and looks uncertain. Habib turns to him: so, what have you got to live on?

More papers from the plastic bag. The family receives £62.89 a week in child tax credit and £82 a month in child benefit. The credit cards cover food, but they are behind on the heating bills. A new revelation: the young man has a mortgage, which he has fallen behind on since losing his job. He is worried about losing his home. Habib nods, his demeanour unchanged, and turns to print a hardship form. If the application for hardship payments succeeds the young man and his family will receive support of £80 a week. In the meantime, Habib tells him to come back when the Jobcentre sends a letter confirming his sanction.

The young man pushes his papers back into the bag, shakes Habib’s hand and leaves the office. Habib follows him out to the packed waiting room. People have been queuing since 9.30am, the centre’s drop-in session opens twice a week from 10-1pm. Habib is followed back to his office by a lady in a floor length black tunic with sequined sleeves and a cream head scarf trimmed with black ribbon. Her brow is furrowed and she carries a plastic bag full of loose sheets of papers.

Habib and his law centre colleague Michael Bates are well-known in Sparkbrook, a lively inner-city village in south-east Birmingham, where the need for their service is great. It is the second poorest ward in the city with unemployment at 18.8% and average household incomes below £20,000. Habib has helped people with debt and benefit problems for 14 years; first as a volunteer, then as a paid case worker. He began practicing as a solicitor in 2008 after a former manager encouraged him to study a law degree and complete the Legal Practitioners Course.

Residents in Sparkbrook have been particularly hit by the cuts to public services and social welfare reform, which many rely on to top up low wages. People are easily made destitute, it only takes one particular cut. It might be the additional charge for empty rooms in social housing (known as the bedroom tax) or the removal of council tax benefit.

“We really need to think about how the changes impact people who are the most vulnerable in our society,” says Habib. “I have one case – he receives £72 a week Jobseeker’s Allowance. His children aren’t living with him anymore, he has two extra bedrooms. So he has to pay £25 a week towards his rent from the £72. Then all the bills on top of that.”

Then there is the actual process of securing state support. Many low-income jobs are insecure, which means people are frequently in and out of work. The process of seeking social welfare for the in-between times is often slow and can take weeks and months leaving people with little to live on the meantime. “A lot of the problems we deal with are probably caused by bad administration and decision making. If Jobcentre Plus had more staff and more resources then that would cut out a lot of appeals and tribunals hearings so you could save money in the long run.”

On the streets outside Habib’s office, Sparkbrook is quieter than usual. On another day you might see men frying battered vegetables and giant samosas in huge metal bowls, cluttering the pavement outside brightly-displayed sari shops and newsagents. But it is Ramadan, a time of fasting from sunrise to sunset for many Muslims, and so the shutters are down on most of the curry cafes that fill the main high street, though the smells of roasting spices and chargrilled meat persist.

Birmingham Community Centre Law Centre is on a residential street just off this thoroughfare in a large terraced house. The property is owned by the Bangladeshi Centre, a local charity, who once used the building to provide community services until they ran out of funding for this work eight years ago.

It is an ambitious, if precarious, operation, which consists of Habib and Michael providing advice, a part-time legal secretary and a young receptionist fresh from a law degree. Boxes with reams of case work are slowly being unpacked and thick legal handbooks balance on shelves. The office has been running just 10 months, but word has spread quickly and in that time 500 people have been in and out needing help. Michael and Habib, juggle an enormous workload providing welfare benefits, debt, public law and community care advice, and they can only afford to open the office a few days a week. Despite limited time and funds the centre is imbued with optimism and zeal.Yet this time last year both Michael and Habib faced unemployment and Birmingham faced losing its only community law centre.



Before the opening of their new office in Sparkbrook, both Michael and Habib worked at the old Birmingham Law Centre for 17 and 14 years respectively. That closed abruptly last summer leaving Britain’s second largest city without a community law centre. Birmingham was one of nine law centres to close since the implementation of the Legal Aid and Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act last April. Many others are on the brink and all have had to reduce their services dramatically.

A combination of things are to blame. The biggest two, say industry insiders, are one, the recent changes to the law which removed employment and debt advice from the scope of legal aid funding and severely restricted it for housing, immigration and welfare benefits. The second reason is more than a decade of reforms and tinkering with legal aid payment structures, which has led to lower fees paid to lawyers for each legal aid case they take on.

For law centres, whose role has traditionally been to provide public law advice to poorer people unable to pay a private solicitor, the changes have been particularly difficult. Much of the government’s welfare reform has been fraught with mistakes and the victims of this are usually those on low incomes. These very people make up the bread and butter work for law centres; their need is growing just as the capacity of law centres to provide advice is being squeezed. The majority of a law centre’s funding will come from local authority grants and legal aid payments from central government, again, both areas with drastically reduced budgets.

Before the old Birmingham Law Centre succumbed to these pressures, its staff of twenty knew what was coming. Michael, a cheerful Birmingham-born man in his early forties, was devastated, not just at losing his job, but also because of the potential disruption to the lives of his clients. “We were seeing 2,000 a people a year,” he says. “And doing full legal aid case work. That old fashioned model of seeing people on an appointment basis, face to face, giving instructions, giving legal advice and offering support in order to progress their case and move it to a satisfactory conclusion. That is how we dealt with every client that came to see us.”

In recent years the centre had advanced successful challenges to the bedroom tax and for migrants’ rights; Michael was part of a legal challenge to the DWP over its decision to deny social security to migrant families with British children who, despite a legal right to remain in Britain, have no access to public funds.

So Michael came up with a plan to save the law centre. “An idea developed in my head, it was bigger than what we have ended up with, to save three, four, five members of staff and come here,” he says gesturing at the Bangladeshi Centre office. “We knew this place was empty, we had got the keys, Habib has been letting himself in for the past 8 years.”

Habib first began providing free advice and legal education in his spare time at the Bangladeshi Centre more than a decade ago. And even when the Centre could no longer fund its own community services, he continued with support from Michael. Clearing out the centre in preparation for their new venture, they came across a dusty notebook:Bangladesh Centre Office Manual written by Michael Bates and Habib Ullah, 2001.

Michael had to act quickly before the old law centre went into liquidation, once that happened existing funding for legal aid cases and any other assets would be lost to creditors. “The idea was to try and transport as much as we could carry down here and see what we could save and what we could keep going.

“I knew that we wouldn’t be able to do that on our own. And Sue at Coventry Law Centre was the first person I thought of contacting.”



It is mile four or five of the Birmingham Legal Walk, but Sue Bent shows little sign of fatigue, instead she is making an impassioned argument against the cuts to legal aid.

The annual 10km walk meanders through Birmingham’s evolving city centre, a hum of building sites, historic landmarks and sparkling new buildings made of glass or metal and shaped like spaceships. Hundreds of lawyers from across the Midlands have turned out, many using the opportunity to voice their opposition to the reforms impacting on both criminal and civil law.

Sue, wearing T-shirt, walking shoes and bright dangly earrings, has convinced most of her team at Coventry Law Centre to “walk for justice”. She has also got Lord Bach, a former government minister and patron of her law centre, involved. Strolling onto one of the city’s canal paths, he nods in agreement as Sue speaks. Both agree that the changes to legal aid funding extend beyond financial repercussions for individual practitioners, the changes pose a fundamental threat to the rule of law.

It is one of many examples of Sue’s ability to galvanise and rally people to her cause and way of thinking. This is that every citizen being able to access legal advice is essential for a socially just society. The role of a law centre, says Sue, should be to help those least able to access that right. “For me there is very little point in passing legislation, in having courts and judiciary if access to those things that protect people is only accessible to part of the population. It is not an equal society.”


Sue took over as director of Coventry Law Centre 10 years ago and during that time developed a distinctive vision of what a law centre should be.

Prior to that she worked as a senior manager in social housing for a local authority. “It took about five years for me to work out what the possibilities of running a law centre offered. It was a very steep learning curve managing solicitors and understanding what they were doing. Then I began to see just how powerful a law centre could be if it was, not just doing its basic job of providing quality legal advice to people, but if it was respected as an organization with a voice in its local community.”

Perhaps because of this, Coventry Law Centre has weathered the cuts to legal aid funding and changes to the fee structure better than most. The ethos is clear, but how does it work in practice?

They rely on an eclectic mix of funding. One way central government provides legal aid funding is through “matter starts”. Each matter start represents one person or client, and for each matter start you claim a fixed fee.

If a law centre or any other advice organisation relies on these matter starts, then advice work is limited to whatever the government is willing to pay for. Take housing advice. Under the latest changes huge swathes of housing problems are no longer funded by legal aid. If a client arrives at a law centre wanting to challenge their landlord’s neglect of their property, unless the disrepair caused represents a serious risk to that person’s health, the case is outside the scope of legal aid. Put simply, a solicitor can choose to spend several months helping to sort out a problem before it spirals, but not receive any funding. Or they can wait till their client gets sick from the disrepair, challenge the landlord, and secure legal aid funding for the work.

“It has removed one of the key tools of housing which is early intervention, sound advice to avoid a crisis later on down the line. The drop off in the amount of people we can see is huge,” says Emmett Maginn, a housing solicitor at Coventry Law Centre. “In terms of trying to do case work for somebody from start to finish without legal aid funding, that has been severely inhibited, quite simply because the resources aren’t there. [Though] we deal with the ones which are quite egregious and those particularly vulnerable.”

But it is Sue’s vision that these very people, the poorest and those with claims too small for private firms to take on a “no-win no fee” basis, they are the people the law centre should serve whether the government chooses to pay for it or not. How does Coventry pay for it?

It’s difficult, but by relying on a variety of funders in addition to the government’s legal aid contracts, such as charitable trust funds, large funding organisations like Comic Relief and significant local authority funding, the centre can attempt to provide meaningful legal advice for the most difficult cases.

It is important, says Sue, that the centre’s service is not to be shaped by the government’s legal aid contract. “Our client group tends to have within it a high proportion of people with multiple and complex needs with whom in an ideal world you would spend more time. The legal aid remuneration arrangement really didn’t allow us to do that.

“We were still able to do it to some extent here because of our other funding streams. But law centres that were largely reliant on legal aid were really up against it in terms of remaining true to what a law centre is about. Which is having the capacity to really work with those most vulnerable people.”

Another way the law centre is able to provide a diverse service is through its relationships with other community groups. One partnership is with the Young Migrant Rights Project supporting undocumented young migrants in accessing services, providing them with a legal understanding of their status, peer support, and companionship through what is often a traumatic process. This mix of advice and social work meets an unmet need and has attracted a mix of funding from charitable trusts.

That is not to say Coventry Law Centre remains unscathed.

Their employment team has dropped from three advisors to just one, yet demand is growing. “We had enough work for more than three people. Now we are having to turn people away,” says Elaine Hill, the centre’s employment and discrimination solicitor. And while the government has taken debt completely out of scope, more and more people are getting into debt, says Phil Monk, a solicitor who has worked in money advice for 14 years. Coventry’s team of debt advisors has dropped from four to two, he says. “We are now reliant on housing associations, the city council, and some money from Coventry Building Society fund to do debt work. The debt has significantly increased.”

Even when the economy is healthy there are certain levels of debt, he says. “People get into debt for normal life events – bereavement, divorce, separation, illness. But now you have got the additional fact that some people are losing money on benefits, bedroom tax. You have got the change from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments. All these benefit changes have an effect on how people can afford their bills. People on benefit can’t increase their money, it is what they get. These are disabled people, people unfit for work. How can they cover the extra cost? It is inevitable they are going to get into difficulty. I saw two people only yesterday having to pay extra because of the bedroom tax. Those people have got to find an extra £14-25 a week.”



In such a climate it is easy to see how, despite increased need, Birmingham Law Centre went into liquidation last August. But it is a worrying indicator for Michael and Habib’s enterprise.

Except that the new Birmingham Community Law Centre is in fact an arm of Coventry Law Centre. One of Sue’s partnerships, expanding the reach of what a law centre can do. There is a strict separation in terms of funding. The funding Coventry Law Centre receives from the local authority for people living in Coventry, for example, cannot be used to finance work at the Sparkbrook centre helping people in Birmingham. “The deal is in order to operate here we need to raise money ourselves,” says Michael.

He went to Sue for advice and support in developing a similar type of law centre to Coventry, led by community need and driven by a commitment to social justice. “I hadn’t fully worked out the question that I was asking. I was not far off,” he says laughing. “But Sue helped me shape what it was that I was asking and helped me make sure that I was bringing all of the information that I needed in order to ask the question properly so they could go through some sort of due diligence process.” They developed a funding strategy relying less on legal aid contracts and more on major donations from local and national charitable trusts. They also had to ascertain what funding contracts could be carried over to the new centre.

And Michael had just a month or two to plan all this before the old law centre went into liquidation on 7th August 2013. “There has been a lot of stress in the last 12 months,” he says with a grin.

What helped was the willingness of others to step in. “Almost without us having to ask we then got lots of small trust funds offering us money,” says Sue, “even though we still hadn’t said what we were going to do. What has been really heartening is we attracted so much support from within the funding community and the legal community in Birmingham. Everyone recognised that Birmingham should have a law centre and it is not OK for it not to have one. And they want to support something that hopefully might grow and start to maybe fill a gap that was left by Birmingham Law Centre closing.”

Being associated with Coventry Law Centre with its existing quality standards has meant the new law centre has recently secured legal aid funding contracts for welfare benefits in the upper tribunal and community care. This funding is additional to what they can secure from charitable donations and will help increase office hours and employ more advisors.

Already the centre is beginning to resemble the ethos of Coventry’s set up. In one of the large, empty rooms on the first floor of the Bangladesh Centre, Dave Stamp, a manager from the Asylum Support & Immigration Resource Team, a West Midlands-based organisation, gives immigration advice. There is a huge need in Sparkbrook. Dave can be heard loudly voicing his anger at the council’s refusal to support a young refugee woman and her new-born, who are living in squalor.

There are crossovers between his work, Michael’s work on families with no recourse to public funds and Coventry Law Centre’s migrant outreach work. This presents a strong case for funding from bodies interested in migrant rights and not tied to very local geographical impact.



In many ways Birmingham Community Law Centre resembles the very first law centre in North Kensington in West London back in 1970.

In 1949 the Legal Aid and Advice Act established for the first time a legal aid scheme for both criminal and civil advice, but it was administered and delivered by lawyers in private practice. This created problems of access for those on low incomes and people living in poor areas. In a report written in the late 1960s assessing the first decades of legal aid, Alan Paterson writes: “To the ordinary office or factory worker, the solicitor’s office is far more remote and forbidding than the dentist’s or doctor’s surgery.” Added to this, there weren’t many solicitors’ offices in working class areas. A 1970 documentary by the World in Action team reported that in London, for example, 70% of law firms were clustered around Holborn and the City. Whereas in Brixton there were just four firms serving 100,000 people and two for the 64,000 people living in Bethnal Green in East London.

North Kensington law centre opened in what was then an area beset by poverty, racial tension, dilapidated housing and aggressive policing. In the years before the centre was founded in 1970, Peter Kandler, a criminal law solicitor and one of the founders of North Kensington, recalls cycling around the area giving ad-hoc legal advice to people in their homes and churches. He was part of a group of young radicals trying to root their activism in local communities. Peter, who turns 80 next year, says the “new left” decided the trade unions weren’t doing enough to involve ordinary people with everyday problems in political change.

The new law centre office was based on the high street in an old Butcher’s shop. “A group of us got together and raised the money. I had just got married, my son was a newborn. If I had thought it through I would have been scared,” he says.

The reasoning behind the decision to open the law centre – a decision heavily contested by the majority in the legal industry at the time, who feared the “socalisation of legal aid” and hated the idea of salaried legal aid lawyers – is familiar. The desire was to reach ordinary people providing a mixture of legal advice and social work, all underpinned by a keen sense of social justice. “I don’t think the case for law centres has changed,” says Peter. “They must be based in the community to give a proper service.”




It’s 12.40pm and there are still people waiting in the front room of the Bangladeshi Centre for advice. An elderly man in a long white tunic, a grey woollen cardigan and smart black shoes sits in front of Habib. His plastic bag contains two A4 lever arch files.

His private landlord is trying to evict him for rent arrears. The landlord has also written to the council requesting that they pay the elderly man’s housing benefit direct to him; they agreed. The figures don’t add up and it is clear the landlord has plucked the £2,000 in unpaid rent out of nowhere. The council has also failed to inform the client about the new housing benefit arrangement.

Habib, who gives this advice in Urdu (throughout the morning he has switched between Bengali and English) turns to his computer and begins to type.



 Photo by Unsplash

Telling Stories

I ignored my nerves and followed the young man. He walked briskly, confidently weaving a path through Athens’ city centre and out to its shabbier outskirt. Dusk fell, and I began to feel afraid: the cramped streets all looked the same and I couldn’t read Greek script on the street signs. I had no idea where I was.

I looked nervously at Ezmerey striding ahead of me. Clad in jeans and leather jacket, a phone glued to his ear, he laughed, switching easily from Arabic to Greek, and occasionally turning to talk with me in near perfect English. We had met a few hours earlier. He was not the first refugee I had interviewed in Athens, but was the first to trust me. He had been a football player in Afghanistan, and had begun to impress in one of Athens’ smaller leagues. But his chances of a glittering football career had been cut short by Greece’s then dysfunctional asylum system. Ezmerey’s application for asylum was one of tens of thousands; it could be years before he received an answer.

Still, the sense that I had been too trusting only disappeared when eventually we turned into a dilapidated building, walked up several flights of stairs, and I found myself sitting opposite two young Afghan women. As children crawled around us and men spoke loudly in another room, I got my notebook out and said: “Tell me your story.”

The fear I felt at being led through a foreign city late at night with a near-stranger for a will-o’-the-wisp story fell away. Here were people who had fled real danger and instability, and were now battling a European bureaucracy indifferent to their plight. They had sunk into poverty while waiting to find out if they would be allowed sanctuary. Meanwhile, they could not legally leave the country or find work to support themselves. My job was to listen and tell their stories.

Two years later, I sat listening to students discussing their work at the University of Warwick’s Writing Wrongs class, and was reminded of the stories I was told that winter in Greece. I attended the seminar as part of Lacuna’s editorial team to give a talk about the process of putting together the magazine.

We discussed everything from how to combat existing mainstream narratives and connect personal stories of injustice to wider, systematic violations of rights, to the ethics of writing about other people’s suffering. At one point, Maureen Freely, the course tutor, in an attempt to elicit a thoughtful answer, asked ‘why do you bother?’

The question made me think of Greece, when, plagued with my own doubts, editors ignoring pitch after pitch, worrying about my own sustenance, I instinctively followed Ezmerey, in search of a story.

And by following Ezmerey I met Farida, one of the Afghan women in the house, who told me a story of floating for 16 hours in the Aegean Sea, clinging to life, and watching fellow passengers drown. Before Europe, Farida tried her luck in Iran, where her children were denied an education and she struggled to find work. But the pattern of poverty and discrimination she experienced in Iran continued in Greece. The dingy flat where we met was shared with 23 others, all piled into two rooms sleeping on rugs. Farida’s 9-year-old son, a pale child with dark circles under his eyes, escaped the flat everyday to sell cigarette lighters. They were trapped in Greece, unable to leave because of EU regulations limiting the movement of asylum seekers. Yet she harboured hope. “We don’t have any more hope for our lives,” she says. “The best hope is for our children.”

Farida’s story reminds me why I bother. She hoped that the telling of it might change something. Her story is symptomatic of a global injustice, which can be traced across continents from the footprints of people who dare to run. Telling her story exposes the behaviour of governments, bears witness to these atrocities and prevents a cynical world from saying we did not know.

Telling stories is important, but change takes time. For things to change, there must be enough people asking why bother, and deciding to act. Choosing the best way to act is not an easy decision to make. For me the most difficult obstacle is the lack of a blueprint. But, over time, what is becoming clear to me is that the people doing useful things to combat injustice rarely follow a plan. Instead, they do what they can, when they can, with the skills they have. And rather than offering others wanting to act on injustice a path to follow, they should simply be an inspiration. A starting point, not a blueprint.

It took a series of storytellers to catalogue the horrors of Greece’s chaotic asylum system, so that refugees and migrants are no longer sent back there from other European countries.

Under the EU’s Dublin II regulations a person must apply for asylum in the first member state he or she enters. If an asylum seeker moves to another European member state to seek refuge there, their fingerprints will appear on a central database with details of their first claim. They are then deported to that country.

Most asylum seekers and paperless migrants enter Europe through Greece, a country whose asylum system was already in crisis before its financial problems hit. By 2010 the backlog of asylum claims had crept towards 70,000, the immigration holding centres were severely overcrowded and poorly kept, and hundreds of refugees lived in various states of destitution in cities like Athens. Yet other European countries still deported refugees back to Greece.

After years of NGO and journalist reports, protests by angry citizens, and people like Farida choosing to speak out, European countries have stopped deporting people to Greece. Pivotal was the 2011 European Court of Human Rights judgement in M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece, which decreed that Belgium had acted unlawfully in deporting an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece. The court also held that both countries had violated the asylum seeker’s human rights because of the deficiency in Greece’s asylum system and the deplorable detention conditions there.

One of Lacuna’s aims is to challenge the indifference to the suffering of others and stimulate action. To that end we’ll publish a series of frank, short interviews with people working across a range of professions, all working for the same goal, to challenge injustice and promote human rights. This will act as a useful starting point for those of you who read Lacuna and decide to act. And if you find yourself plagued with doubt or fear, asking why bother, look on these as a source of reassurance. There is no right way to tell a story, the important thing is that it is told.

The first of Lacuna’s interviews is with the author and journalist Clare Sambrook. You can also read interviews with campaigning journalist Katharine Quarmby and legal aid lawyer Nadia Salam, and a filmed interview with Russell Stetler, national mitigation coordinator for the federal death penalty projects in California. 

Photo by Zé Valdi


Recommended reads

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Beautiful Flowers

Katherine Boo

A gripping tale about the residents of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum behind an airport and strip of luxury hotels. Most people living in Annawadi work in recycling waste produced by the city’s rich. Within the slum, there are hierarchies, petty feuds, deals with corrupt local politicians, dangerous grudges, and an underlying sense of opportunity. American investigative journalist Katherine Boo spent three years reporting in Annawadi, and her vivid account is a lesson in how to avoid clichés when writing about poverty and inequality.

Essential English

Essential English

Harold Evans

This book is an excellent guide for all writers. It teaches the art of the concise sentence and the beauty of uncluttered prose. Harold Evans, former Sunday Times and Times editor, explains why using language simply is often so effective. It is also a fascinating insight into the language of newspapers.

Tell Me No Lies

Tell me no lies

John Pilger (ed.)

This is an inspiring collection of investigative journalism spanning continents and tackling a range of injustices. This includes Jo Wilding’s reporting from the ground in Falluja in 2004, Phillip Knightley’s reflections on uncovering the Thalidomide cases, Paul Foot’s 11-year investigation into the Lockerbie plane crash, Seumas Milne on the political and media efforts to discredit striking miners, and Anna Politkovskaya on the war in Chechnya. John Pilger opens with an essay making the argument for cynicism towards authority, and not the reader.

Your Right to Know: A Citizen’s Guide to the Freedom of Information Act

Your right to know

Heather Brooke

The Freedom of Information Act is a fantastic investigative tool, but often government bodies to delay or avoid releasing information to the public. Your Right to Know is a smart guide to getting the information you need. Journalist and lecturer Heather Brooke provides accessible detail on the law, how to challenge a refusal, and discussion of relevant case law.


A conference to end sexual violence against women

This summer I reported on the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit held in London and organised by British politician William Hague and film star Angelina Jolie. The conference made headlines, particularly when Brad Pitt dropped in, but what was the substance of the summit and what exactly will it change?

The piece below was published by the New Statesman and a series of follow up articles will be published by Lacuna later this year.




So it begins again. Soldiers are systematically raping women, men, and children, this time in Syria. Piecing together testimonies gathered over the last three years, NGOs and journalists have identified case after case of sexual violence used to terrorise civilians.

The world is one in unanimous horror on this issue, but only in recent decades have governments and multilateral agencies classified rape as a crime against humanity.

Special tribunals for the prosecution of war crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia also investigate crimes of sexual violence, as does the International Criminal Court created under the Rome Statute in 1998. In 2000 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325, which called for a greater role for women in conflict resolution and peace negotiations.

And yet, as with prosecuting rape and sexual violence during peacetime, progress has been slow. Instead, there is a culture of impunity as around the world again and again soldiers “wage war on women’s bodies”.

Recently William Hague has taken up the cause and, working with the film star Angelina Jolie, begun an international campaign for justice and reparations for survivors. These efforts culminated in the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit, which, thanks to the celebrity factor, attracted acres of news coverage and popular support.

What does this mean for the women, men and children being raped in Syria, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in South Sudan today? Can a renewed campaign address the needs of rape survivors in Bosnia waiting for prosecutions 20 years on? Is this the push needed to finally end sexual violence in conflict?


What about Iraq?

As the summit drew to a close last Friday thoughts had already turned to events unravelling in Iraq.

Hundreds of campaigners, activists and government ministers had flocked to London for the four-day event organised by William Hague and Angelina Jolie.

The summit launched a new protocol for documenting and investigating sexual violence against men, women and children in conflict. The protocol is a first draft designed to end impunity for perpetrators and military leaders.

But even as delegates streamed from the darkened auditorium in London’s Excel centre, the buzz from the soaring rhetoric of Nobel prizewinners and revered former statesman still in the air, thoughts had turned to Iraq.

William Hague, John Kerry and Angelina Jolie addressed a press conference organised to answer questions about practical next steps. But most of the questions were about the possibility of a US-led military action in Iraq, not the practicality of policing and implementing the protocol.

A conference to address the devastating impact of war in some countries, hijacked by impending war in others. This was summed up neatly by Jolie’s response to a question about her inspiration. She spoke of an Iraqi refugee and rape survivor she met in Syria, who then went back to Iraq after the war broke out in Syria. As Jolie’s expression changed from composed to bewildered, her last words hung in the air: “I don’t know where she is now.”

An impossible task

The rude intrusion of current affairs exposed the limitations of the summit. While the protocol focuses on investigating crimes, the summit itself was heavily marketed as a push to end sexual violence in conflict completely, an impossible task without addressing wider global problems.

Julienne Lusenge, a Congolese women’s rights activist who works with and for rape survivors in Eastern Congo, was greeted with whoops and cheers when she raised these issues. The material in your phones, she told delegates, is a source of support for the armed groups who rape and pillage villages. “We would like to see work against the underlying causes of sexual violence, one of these is war and the other is backward customs keeping women in positions of inferiority.”

At another event, panel members were flummoxed when a Syrian gynecologist stood up and asked: “Is there a plan in this summit for dealing with the sexual violence in my country, Syria?”

The simplicity of the summit’s premise was called into question again when around 20 protestors turned up to condemn Britain’s treatment of female asylum seekers. Some had fled conflicts themselves and then experienced further sexual abuse in the UK at the hands of detention centre guards. They were ushered from the summit’s entrance as they shouted: “Close down Yarl’s Wood, we want protection, not detention”.

It was the delegates themselves who repeatedly raised these questions. They questioned the absence of a public statement from the Nigerian foreign minister (who attended and gave a speech at the summit) about the kidnapped girls in Boko Haram, for example. And the lack of discussion about Britain’s deportation of Sri Lankan victims of torture.

Referring to the official summit hash tag #TimeToAct, the American Nobel laureate Jody Williams said: “Time to act? We have been acting for decades.” Williams won the Nobel peace prize in 1997 for her campaign against the use of land mines and cluster munitions. Speaking at a fringe event she added: “Our role is to push governments to make them do what they should do anyway.

“It is not enough to talk about sexual violence in conflict. Sexual crimes against women, girls, and sometimes men, are a continual violence happening in every country, every single day.”

#TimeToAct ?

Throughout the summit there was a sense that governments had only just woken up to this particular war crime. #TimeToAct, a useful tool for engaging the public who might not otherwise access the summit’s content, littered the speeches of ministers from 113 countries, who universally condemned the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict and pledged support for the protocol. “As was said of slavery in the 18th century,” said William Hague in his opening speech, “now we know the facts, we cannot turn aside.”

The situation on the ground demands more than condemnation and speeches. One aim of the summit, for example, was to challenge impunity and deter future sexual violence. But this could prove difficult when the stigma of rape lingers on the ground.

Speaking at a fringe event, Nerma Jelacic a former journalist from Foča, where the Serbian army set up rape camps, told the story of a Bosnian woman who first testified in 1996 about the murder of her two brothers and husband during the war. In the decades since she has been an active campaigner for justice and has assisted the criminal courts in compiling evidence. “It wasn’t until a year and half ago that she told me she was raped in front of her two children [then aged 2 and 5]”, said Jelacic. “It took her 20 years to speak out.”

Even when rape survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina do speak out, support varies from state to state. One law dictates that survivors must provide two witnesses to qualify for reparations set aside specifically for civil victims of the war. This is mostly impossible, according to Denis Dzidic, an editor and trainer at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). It is one reason why at least 50,000 women were raped during the three-year war and so far just 60 cases have been prosecuted.

Since 2005 BIRN has documented the destitution of many Bosnian rape survivors. “The punishment of the perpetrators is only one part of their struggle,” says Jelacic. The lack of aftercare – economic support to help women rebuild their lives and medical care to tend physical and psychology wounds – was a recurrent theme across the summit, raised not just by Bosnian delegates, but by delegates working in the DRC, in Kenya, in Liberia, in Uganda.

Ruth Ochieng has spent more than 20 years campaigning for women’s rights in Uganda and her current work in South Sudan and Liberia is spent trying to secure economic, legal and medical support to survivors of sexual violence. “Women’s bodies are battered during conflict and afterwards they have no access to services, despite the fact that they mutilated. They are walking corpses.”

But, she added: “People underestimate the power of the women’s network. We are the least funded, the least recognised and last to be asked around the table to discuss solutions. The solution is in the women’s movement. Give money to the women’s movement.

“Grace Nekaski. Raped by 19 people, she got HIV and was disowned by her husband. However, Grace today has mobilised 450 other HIV survivors from her community. They run their own farms, grow oranges and keep cows. The women in that community have taken her as their leader. There are so many Graces.”


What happens next?

The protocol itself is a comprehensive document built on the expertise and testimonies of campaigners, NGOs, rape survivors themselves. The emphasis is on supporting investigations with the standards and definitions of theRome Statute of the International Criminal Court as a starting point.

In it is current form the protocol is a blueprint for those documenting and investigating sexual violence in conflict. It provides a framework that includes guidelines for different groups on how to work together to bring about a prosecution and templates for interviewing survivors to avoid causing further trauma.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will spend the next sixth months developing an implementation plan and carrying out more field testing. An FCO source said the UK would oversee the protocol’s development before eventually handing it over to a multilateral institution.

The beautiful line

Several times during the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit delegates were told that “this is a moment”. A turning point in history where somethingwas going to change. Yet women and rape survivors working on the ground remain cautious. This is not their first moment and nor will it be the last. Instead they have a specific set of wants, and only when politicians and governments act on these will they believe that the summit does indeed reflect a significant change attitudes to all victims of sexual violence.

They say their work will continue, but it is complex and needs financial backing for grassroots organisations and adequate reparations for the women and men they work with. Before perpetrators can be prosecuted there must be structures in place so the police can properly gather evidence and sensitively question rape victims. Amnesty for rapists should not be part of peace negotiations.

Women must also have a seat at the table during conflict resolution negotiations. There has to be an end to institutional sexism, which complicates the process of justice and treatment for rape survivors across the world, not just in post-conflict countries. Mary Robinson, special envoy for the Great Lakes Region, spoke at the summit about her battle to include women’s voices in the peace process, when the 13 heads of states she works with are all men, as are their technical advisors. These frustrations were echoed at a grassroots level. Sofepadi, a local charity working in Eastern DRC, has begun training women to stand in local elections, so they can “speak for themselves”.

Civil society and women’s rights activists are doing the work, but there are problems beyond their control. “We believe that without peace there is no end to sexual violence,” Nyota Babunga, a young Congolese campaigner. “We came to speak about peace, because we believe without peace there is no development. We need development for women. We can stand for women’s rights, we can fight for women’s rights, but if there is still conflict, then the men, the things that they are doing, the killing, the violation, will continue.”

Underlying all of the grassroots activity, which spanned the globe, was a deep commitment to women’s rights and feminist solidarity. Women from these countries are too often mute in mainstream Western consciousness, victims of terrible circumstances or entrenched patriarchy. Yet for a few days their voices were heard. During one presentation, Nobel laureate and peace campaigner Leymah Gbowee, a charismatic presence with a deep, booming voice, said:

“In the middle of all of those stories there is something that I realised was happening: rape, depressed, lost hope. Then the women came, then my sister came. Then a sisters’ association came. I gained strength, I had hope and now I can make it again.

“That was the beautiful line in all of the stories. While the world called Congo the capital of rape, I call Congo the capital of sisterhood and solidarity.”



Town of stories

Politicians like Calais’ mayor should stop telling tales

and start listening to asylum seekers

This article was commissioned and first published by the New Statesman

How many migrants or refugees has Natacha Bouchart spoken to lately? Judging by her evidence to the home affairs select committee earlier this week, the answer is none. Bouchart is mayor of Calais, a small town in France where a transient population of migrants and refugees has bedded down for more than a decade. From week to week, month to month, year to year, the population changes; people leave for England, people leave for Sweden or Italy, people leave for Afghanistan or Iraq. Many stay in Calais. To suggest that £36 a week is a key motivating force is to ignore the nuancesof migratory journeys made across Europe by refugees today.


Fyori is starting to forget her English, but her French is excellent. The 26-year-old was born in Eritrea where she grew up speaking English and Teghani. When Fyore turned 18 her mother told her to leave the country. A few years earlier Fyore’s brother had been called up to Sawa, the Eritrean army, and the family lost contact with him. “If you get good grades, you can go to university, if not you go to Sawa.” Young people are conscripted for indefinite periods and, if they’re lucky, permitted to visit family once or twice a year. Fyore’s mother sold jewelry to bribe border guards for her daughter’s passage to Sudan.

Fyore lived and worked in Khartoum for three years and then, like many young bilingual Africans, moved to Libya attracted by stories of decent work. Back then sub-Saharan migrants from conflict-ridden countries could find work and earn a sort of living in Libya. The darker their skin, the more likely they would be attacked on the streets or harassed by the police (officers would storm the cafe where Fyore worked most days), but there was solace in expat communities.

Fyore fell in love with a mechanic from Sudan and gave birth to their child in Benghazi. Dreaming of a better life for their son, unwilling to turn back, they moved to Tripoli and there heard stories of work and opportunities in Europe. They paid the fare for a boat across the sea and attempted to begin a life in Italy. “It was not good. You cannot get papers or work, nothing. Many, many people sleeping on the road.”

Through the migrant and refugee grapevine they heard that not all of Europe was like Italy and, unable to see a clear path back to Africa, they wanted to believe this. So when they were advised to make their way to France and then England, the young family did so.

By the time they reached Paris, both Fyore and her baby boy were sick and spent nearly a month in a French hospital. Weakened mentally and physically, Fyore and her family considered starting over in France. It would mean learning another language (Fyore had by now added Arabic to her English and Teghani) and continued destitution. The murky underground network that sucks in all sans-papiers or people without papers, had led them to Calais. Here they discovered racism nearly as bad as in Libya; thepolice regularly accost black and brown people, destroy their makeshift shelters in dilapidated buildings and constantly move them on. It is difficult to access housing set aside for asylum seekers because of low stocks and high demand, while the shelter available is shared with homeless drunks and drug addicts.

Hundreds and thousands of migrants and refugees find themselves at this point. In Calais, having to make a choice, continue to England or interrupt the intended journey and stay put in France. Some have made similar journeys to Fyore; others have watched friends and family drown in the Mediterranean sea; some have watched their livelihoods destroyed in Syria orLibya; others have been enslaved in Turkey and Bulgaria or forced intoprostitution in Greece and Italy; others beaten and imprisoned by police inHungary; others will have fled forced marriage in Afghanistan; others destitution in refugee camps in the Swat Valley, in Jordan, in Kenya.

When they arrive in Calais they are not thinking of anything as tangible as £36 a week. They look around them and desperately hope that the next step of the journey will bring the misery to an end; that the grass really will be greener.

It isn’t.

The public accounts committee’s recent report on the Home Office’s mismanagement of the immigration and asylum system detailed seven-year backlogs, tens of thousands of asylum applications outstanding and up to a billion wasted on a failed IT project. There is talk of taxpayers money being wasted and British people let down by a government failing to manage immigration, but the real victims are the asylum seekers and migrants who must put their lives on hold, often for years, while waiting for the Home Office to decide if they can live, work and receive sanctuary in Britain or whether they must return home.

Rachel, a Congolese national, has been waiting one year and 10 months for a decision on her asylum application. The first time the militia stormed her village and raped her, she picked herself up and carried on. The second time, she fled. On her arrival in the UK she applied for asylum and while awaiting the decision stayed at a hostel provided by a charity. One morning she awoke to find blood streaming down her legs; she can’t remember much else, but spent a week in hospital and gave birth to a premature baby. She hadn’t realised she was pregnant and at first didn’t want to keep the baby, a reminder of the rape and torture she had endured at home.

More than a year later Rachel and her son live in a small room in a six-bedroom house with 10 other people. The Home Office still hasn’t decided what to do with her; in the mean time, she is not legally able to work and receives around £70 a week on a payment card. She uses this to buy baby products and food; usually from Tescos or Morrisons, which is dependent on the staff on the checkouts being aware of the card. Rachel borrows money from “friends” to cover her bus fare so she can report to the Home Office once a month (a 90-minute bus journey when the traffic is good), visit a psychiatrist at Freedom from Torture every two weeks and take her son to hospital for regular check-ups. Recently she enquired at a local college, but “there was nowhere for the baby, and the money . . . ” So she stays at home most days, waiting. This is not Eldorado.


Fortunately for Fyore, she met Mariam; a brusque but kind French woman of Algerian descent, who persuaded her to consider applying for asylum in France. At first Fyore resisted; in Calais she was miserable and if there was chance that life might be better in England, shouldn’t she take it? Having got this far, one more dangerous journey would be surely worth it?

But Fyore stayed, after two years was granted temporary leave to remain, which lasts 10 years. In the meantime she teaches French and helps local charities with translation.

Fyore’s is one story of many in Calais, just as Rachel’s story is one of many here in the UK. These stories are important because they dispel the myths we perpetuate when we talk about immigration. Illegal migrants, failed asylum seekers, even refugees; all of these labels are inadequate catch-all terms that can only dehumanise, and rarely capture the range of human experience you find at the ports of France, on the streets of Athens and in immigration detention centres across the UK.

It is time that European politicians, in this case the French mayor and British politicians, stopped making up stories and started listening. More listening and less talking might just lead to more informed policy-making and a fairer and more practical European-wide asylum and immigration system.

Black and dangerous?

Patient experiences of mental health in London

This piece was commissioned and first published by openDemocracy’s Shine A Light project:

It was also published by the Socialist Lawyer, Lacuna magazine, Counterfire magazine and the Justice Gap. The Illustration by Patrick Koduah, whose prizewinning work includes projects exhibited in the Embassy of Japan, commissioned portraiture of Prince Michael of Kent and music video animation for a recent Rolling Stone Magazine Band of the Year.


The boy with pale brown skin and black Afro is tall and has the face of young child. He’s wearing a baggy grey tracksuit and trainers. He turns away from the nurse, turns away from the other patients, his head raised, his face struck with irritation.

“He’s new,” Lawrence tells me. “He doesn’t want to take his meds.”

Lawrence, a young black man in his early twenties, calls over to the boy: “Calm down, man. Otherwise you’ll go to Bevan.”

Bevan. That’s a more secure ward, with fewer privileges, says Neil, who visits the psychiatric ward for the People’s Network, a local community group. 

Lawrence nods and turns back to his laptop.

Neil, a shy, six-foot tall black man with a heavy limp, who spent 17 years fighting a drug addiction, reckons his drug habit grew out of his inability since childhood to accept his physical disability. Memories of being isolated and shunned haunt him and help him better understand the men he works with.

The boy kicks over a bright, yellow wet-floor sign and a loud alarm sounds. Nurses crowd him.

Lawrence goes back to his search on Amazon for books on the fall of Lucifer. He tells me about his weekly 20-minute consultation with a doctor. “Are you seeing anything? Are you hearing voices?” he says, mimicking the consultant. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Lawrence was sectioned after falling out with his gran. (Being ‘sectioned’ means being detained against your will under Section 2 or 3 of the Mental Health Act). 

It’s Lawrence’s third time on the ward. Neil says a lot of the men have nowhere to go and struggle to get housing when they are released. They might get in trouble with the police. Once, they’d have been brought back to the ward. These days, because of bed shortages and poor aftercare, most hang about on the streets or in hostels after release. They often end up at the People’s Network office, a few miles from the hospital; they run a soup kitchen one day a week.

The ward’s lounge area is bright with large windows. The view is a green courtyard and the hospital’s redbrick buildings, no sky. A TV encased in a plastic box hangs on the wall. A limp, white man wearing a yellow bandana and baseball cap watches, eyes glazed. Tom, 28, doesn’t mind it here, it’s quite relaxed with a nice atmosphere, though sometimes there is “conflict”. He shifts slowly on the sofa; turning his head looks like a huge effort. Tom, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was sectioned after getting into a fight with the police. “I haven’t worked for seven years,” he says, “before that I worked in construction, coffee shops.”

John, another man with a paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis, has spent much of his life in and out of mental health hospitals. A cheerful, chatty 45-year-old, he puts his current stay down to a scuffle with the police. “I get upset when I’m angry. To be black and upset is a cardinal sin.”

He says a fight with a police officer prompted his first sectioning 15 years ago. In court, he had a choice between prison and hospital. “They told me I wouldn’t have to take drugs, it would be better than prison, but it screwed up my life. Eight years of studying down the tube. At least if I had gone to prison I would still study.” He had been working his way up to an interior design degree, he says, starting with a foundation course at the London College of Furniture.

“I grew up with a superwoman, she used to go to work at nighttime,” he says, rubbing his swollen ankles.

John’s mother emigrated to London from St Lucia in the 1960s and married his father, who worked for the post office. They had six children. “A middle class black family,” he says. John has four children including a 29-year-old son lately diagnosed with schizophrenia. “The police wanted to charge him with class A drugs. But the police said scrap that let’s just section him.” His son now lives at a halfway hostel.

Neil says there is an over-representation of black people on wards like this. “They can’t live their lives as free people, they are always been dragged back to the ward. The resentment builds up.”

The People’s Network spends a lot of time on the psychiatric ward, supporting patients and working with their local NHS Trust to improve mental health care. But often the ward seems a place where patients are controlled and medication is used as a punishment, not treatment.

What happens outside the ward also creates problems. People queue outside everyday asking for help. They say it’s going to get much worse.

The easiest cut

The stigma around mental illness makes it easy to cut. Easier still, since so many of the cuts’ immediate victims are poor blacks and other people pushed to the margins. Mental Health Trusts must cut 20 per cent more than other hospitals from their budgets, which, combined with changes to the benefit system, has intensified the pressure on vulnerable people.

Staff and charities say people are surviving for months without any financial support because of the lengthy assessment process for receiving Employment Support Allowance, and the changes to their personal budgets.

There was a time when, if the state failed in this way, people in poor areas suffering with a mental illness could turn to Day Centres for support. Such places matter more than ever these days, because other services have been damaged by cuts — it can take months to get NHS counselling and the quality varies. But Day Centres themselves, funded by local authorities and Mental Health Trusts, are also suffering from cuts and struggling to cover the cost of a range of care for people.

Where once a person might travel to a single Day Centre and access various kinds of support, now they have to make multiple journeys to various places for help such as counseling, group therapy sessions, walking groups, art and music lessons, employment and computer skills classes, a hot meal.

Some centres even offered beds and a place to stay for a week or more if someone experienced a crisis and couldn’t get help elsewhere. But several of these places have closed completely, and those left have limited beds and limited time to offer people.

The colour of mental health

It is likely that the disproportionate victims of these cuts will be black mental health patients, that is those defined as BAME (Black Asian or Minority Ethnic).

Marcel Vige has worked in the mental health sector, teaching, lobbying and campaigning for more than a decade. Now head of equalities at MIND, he runs programmes with local mental health support groups across the country. “Services that are focused specifically on meeting the need of marginalized groups,” he says. “Those are the ones that are often community based and they are the ones that are the first to feel the impact of any reduction in services delivered within local communities.”

Last year 50,408 people were sectioned – the highest number ever recorded, according to Care Quality Commission research, which also found that more black people than average are detained under the Mental Health Act and they are more likely to have been sent there by a judge or police officer, rather than their GP.

Statistics from a one-day census published in 2011 show that black people are more likely to be physically restrained on a psychiatric ward, given higher doses of medication, and less likely to be referred to counselling.

Paul Burstow, a Liberal Democrat MP, touched upon the issue in a parliamentary debate last May. “It is concerning that services are being withdrawn where they involve providing peer support or reaching into harder-to-reach communities, particularly black and minority ethnic communities, which often get left behind and often are most prone to being subject to the most coercive parts of our mental health system.”

For decades these inequalities have been softened by community groups like the Peoples Network and people like Neil, who understood the needs of black patients in ways the state failed to. Over time the government recognized this too, and from the mid-90s there was some acknowledgement of mental health inequalities, some desire to do better. Funding followed. That’s gone.

A sound mind

“I call myself the wounded healer,” says Devon, a tall thin musician with cropped hair peppered with grey. He’s 54 years old. Behind his wire-framed glasses his expression is solemn as he describes the work of Sound Minds, the mental health charity and social enterprise he helped set up 20 years ago.

People suffering from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, any sort of mental illness, they can leave that outside and relax here, says Devon. “We have people in and out doing all sorts of things, making music, on the computers and stuff.”

Devon’s openness and enthusiasm attracts people often marginalized because of their mental illness. Over the years he has helped people set up two reggae groups and a rock band. “One fine day, come what may, you have got to rise up singing, no more tears,” goes one his own gentle, lulling reggae songs.

Devon lived with his grandmother in Jamaica till he was seven, and then was sent to live with his parents in London. When his grandmother died in Jamaica a few years later, his grief overwhelmed him. Later, in his early twenties, Rastafarianism’s music and spirituality gave Devon a sense of identity and security, and he found some relief from his grief.

This was short-lived. One day sometime in 1982 Devon went to visit his mum. Unbeknown to Devon, his mother had called a doctor in anticipation of his visit. She was worried about him and disapproved of his ‘lifestyle’, the Rastafarianism and that he was squatting in Battersea as part of the rent revolt movement.

When he arrived at her house, the doctor was waiting and examined him, then another doctor turned up with the police in tow. “I don’t know why the police came, I hadn’t done anything wrong.” He talks as though it happened just yesterday and not 32 years ago. “They said, come on we’re taking you to the hospital. But there was nothing wrong with me.”

Devon stayed sectioned for six months, tranquilised every few days, physically restrained by police officers on the ward, subjected to electroconvulsive therapy and diagnosed as schizophrenic. “There was nothing wrong with me before that,” he says. 

Two years after he was first sectioned, he had a ‘relapse’, was sectioned again and heavily medicated. “In the mental health system I lost my identity,” he says. “I didn’t feel like a black guy anymore. I felt like a white guy. I lost my cultural identity through the system.”

That echoes Lord Avebury, speaking in the House of Commons in 1982, the year Devon was first sectioned: “…It is said by the West Indian community that psychiatrists in the prisons, and indeed in the hospital service as a whole, are not properly trained in recognising the different cultures of ethnic minorities, and that as a result people may be wrongly diagnosed as suffering from mental illness when they talk, for instance, as the Rastafarians frequently do about God.”

Image by Patrick Koudah

Not long before then, a young black Rastafarian called Richard Campbell was convicted of attempted burglary. In prison he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and medicated. He refused to eat. An officer found Richard dead in his cell on 31 March 1980. He was 19 years old. The official cause of death was dehydration and the inquest jury returned a verdict of self-neglect, expressing “concern at the lack of specialist care facilities” in prison. The anger around Richard’s death — it took some time to establish what happened to him while in custody — was a trigger for the Brixton riots.

Some members of the psychiatric profession began to question the disproportionate occurrence of African Caribbean men compulsorily sectioned, detained on wards for long periods, diagnosed with psychosis and heavily medicated. Theories linking the experience of illnesses like psychosis to genetics abounded but have since been dismissed; studies based in the West Indies show that black people there do not suffer in such high numbers. This epidemic was something unique to the black population in the UK.

Among other fatalities: Michael Martin in 1984, Joseph Watts in 1988 andOrville Blackwood in 1991. These three black men had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated at Broadmoor psychiatric hospital. They died in custody after being restrained and injected with powerful anti-psychotic drugs. The inquiry report, into Orville Blackwood’s death (subtitled Big, Black and Dangerous?) officially recognises of what ordinary people had known for some time. It said:

“Over the last twenty years, studies have indicated that, if they come to the attention of the psychiatric services, black people are more likely to be removed by the police to a place of safety under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983; they are more likely to be detained in hospital under sections 2, 3 and 4 of the Mental Health Act 1983; they are more likely to be diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia or another form of psychotic illness; they are more likely to be detained in the locked wards in psychiatric hospitals; they are more likely to receive higher doses of medication; they are less likely to receive non controlling treatments such as psychotherapy or counselling. In addition black mentally disordered offenders are more likely than their white counterparts to be remanded in custody for psychiatric reports; they are more likely to be in higher levels of security and for longer, and they are more likely to be referred from prison to regional secure units or special hospitals.”  

That was 1993.

People began to listen to (though not endorse) the work of black mental health professionals like Suman Fenando, who questioned the Eurocentric outlook of western psychiatry and its impact on migrant populations and people of Asian and African descent living or born in Britain. The Royal College of Psychiatrists began discussing ‘cultural problems’ and the Mental Health Act Commission produced several reports on race and culture.

Patterns emerged. The black experience of the mental health sector mirrored what was happening elsewhere in society: secondary school expulsion figures, unemployment, poor housing, poverty and racism. West Indian migrants had experienced relentless and deliberate social discrimination in the decades after their mass arrival in Britain following World War Two. Their children inherited severely limited access to decent housing, education and work, and were constantly stopped and searched by the police. British society, in the form of its institutions more than its individual citizens, had decided the blacks were dangerous and must be controlled.

Sidney did not arrive on the Windrush in 1948, he came from Zimbabwe in 1995. It took two years for his world to collapse.

Sidney worked for five years as a journalist in Zimbabwe. When his newspaper was shut down, he left the country to look for a more stable place to pursue his career and build a life for his family. Sidney wears a crisp ironed shirt and metal-rimmed glasses, has a clear professorial voice, with the occasional clipped tones of a Zimbabwean.

He looks down at his frothy coffee with a half smile and tells me about his hopes and ambitions on coming to Britain 15 years ago. The plan was to work, study and set up a home for his wife and children.

The reality was a £2 an hour job as a security guard six days a week. Sidney’s immigration status meant he had to pay his own way in further education. He enrolled on an access course (9am to 5pm) and kept the security job (7pm to 7am). Something had to give. In March 1997 he was sectioned.

Over a five-year period Sidney was sectioned 10 times and eventually diagnosed with psychosis. Sometimes a furious anger would erupt, once on the streets after being stopped by a police officer. Other times he was listless.

The tendency then of the mental health sector to treat him as a member of a homogenous group, a black man whose anger must be contained, frustrated Sidney. Only when he met a consultant who questioned his diagnosis and talked to him did Sidney begin to learn how to manage his illness. The consultant told him he was suffering from bipolar disorder and listened as he told her about his family, his ambitions and his disappointments. That was nine years ago and he hasn’t been sectioned since.

SIMBA is coming

Every person with a mental illness is an individual with singular circumstances, but as group there are common experiences that unite, says Sidney. Frustration with the mental health sector united black people of all backgrounds. By the time the Orville Blackwood report in 1993 set out what they already knew, black families and carers were forming befriending groups. Community-based groups operated from psychiatric wards, old community centres, libraries, parks, trips to the seaside, wherever they could find a space to talk. As well as Sound Minds, Devon set up Canerows and Plaits, a user-led ward-visiting group. These black-led organisations were part of a general ‘user-led’ revolution, by patients of all backgrounds, within the mental health service throughout the eighties and nineties.

Raj came to the movement after 20 years spent in and out of hospital. “I have had so many different diagnoses. I would go into crisis, not really knowing what was wrong, but just feeling like I didn’t fit, either in my family or the world around me,” she says.

Raj’s father came to England from India in 1947, and her mother and siblings followed soon after. She was born in London. In between long months in hospital, she tried to “carry on a life”. She worked in a science lab.

After many years of revolving door admissions, and during a period of relative stability, Raj attended a conference about mental health. She met people who expressed concerns about psychiatry, human rights and the disempowering ways in which they were being treated within mental health services. They chimed with her experience.

Raj tentatively started to question her own treatment: “As far as they were concerned I was always better because my behaviour was better. But as far as I was concerned I was still quite confused and felt very out of it at times.” The idea of challenging the system frightened and worried her: hadn’t these people saved her life? image by Patrick Kouduah

Raj attended a few black mental health events in Brixton, south London in the 1990s. “There was a lot of stuff going on in the voluntary sector in those days. There was lots of activism around race and mental health and the over-representation of young Black men in psychiatric hospitals.  One of these was Orville Blackwood, a young Black man who had died in Broadmoor as a result of being restrained. His mum was amazing. She was going around with this picture of her son and she was so passionate. I’d never been really political before, but now I began to see things through a different lens. It was a process for me because I was half a scaredy cat,” says Raj. She also worried about putting herself “out there”.

Raj joined a mixed user-led group based primarily at a psychiatric hospital in London which, though feisty and active, never discussed race. “It was us not mentioning it, not the white people being racist, it was us censoring ourselves. We had too much to lose.” The black members of the group didn’t want to “make waves” by bringing up race. But as confidence grew, some of the black people in the group set up a separate black group. They made waves.

“Lots of people were against us,” says Raj. They were accused of being racist. “People were suspicious. Some black people were saying it as well, ‘why do you want to separate yourselves?’”

The new group was called SIMBA, Share in Maudsley Black Action. They announced it by sticking up posters saying SIMBA is coming. Raj grins. “Nobody knew what it meant. Everybody was getting a bit freaked out.” SIMBA occupied a small room on the ground floor of the main building at the centre of the sprawling hospital. Raj laughs again, remembering the noise they made. “If anybody had come in under normal circumstances they would have probably have sectioned us all.”

Most of SIMBA’s members were African Caribbean men, and there were a few women. “I wrote a poem once about the rich diversity within that black group. Yet there was this commonality too. Partly because we had been through the system, but partly as well because we had all experienced racism.” Mental health rarely came up in their long, intense discussions. Instead they talked a “hell of a lot about race”, racism, identity, spirituality and their childhoods.

In and out of wards since her teenage years, Raj picked up on some of the inequalities within mental health care. But she wanted to take her thinking a step further, and had been working on a theory for some time about the revolving door within mental health for black communities. You start out in an overtly racist society, she says, which means you are more likely to live in poverty or be unemployed or suffer violence, factors that can influence poor mental health. Then you enter the mental health service, which is infused with the same implicit assumptions and prejudices of wider society, which drives you further into illness. “If you do manage to get out of mental health services, you get out, go back into society, but now you go back into society and not only are you black but you have also got psychiatric diagnoses.” And it is not just race, she adds, this idea applies to all forms of disadvantage; class, gender, disability . . . and so on.

Things were gonna get better 

A network of black-led user groups developed, spreading from London to cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Black people within psychiatry, practice and academia, were rising to senior positions, and working within charities such as MIND. After Labour’s 1997 Election victory, hopes were high, black voices were not so much outsider voices, there was a new willingness to listen.

The Macpherson Report in 1999 into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence signified an official commitment to ending a crude, brutal institutional racism that had dogged Britain’s black population for decades.

The MacPherson Report defines institutional racism as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people”.

An amendment to the Race Relations Act in 2000 charged all public authorities with a statutory duty to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination.

Soon afterwards, a group of psychiatrists, campaigners and patients contributed to Inside Outside, a report published by the Department of Health in 2003. The report, authored by Professor Sashidharan, then medical director of North Birmingham Mental Health Trust, set out a framework for race equality within the mental health service.

The Inside in the title referred to the need for change within the mental health sector and offered measurable ways to effect that change. Outside was about engaging community groups, removing the stigma around mental health within black communities and empowering patients.

The professor consulted widely, seeking out the views of patients, community groups and campaigners from Britain’s largest minority communities: Black and African-Caribbean, South Asian, Chinese and Irish.

Those involved believed Inside Outside was commissioned to form part of national policy on reforming mental health servicesThis never happened. Instead, Professor Sashidharan was replaced, and a new team brought in to write another report, which some described as a watered down version of Inside Outside.

One patient and mental health specialist who contributed to Inside Outside told me that the whole process felt “incredibly political”, and left everyone involved feeling pushed aside and frustrated.  Another contributor told me that perhaps it was because the changes proposed would be too difficult to make. Both asked not to be named. 

Around this time, an inquiry took place into the death of a healthy 38-year-old David ‘Rocky’ Bennett, an African Caribbean man diagnosed as schizophrenic. David Bennett died after being physically restrained —a team of nurses sat and lay across his body and held his head face down for 25 minutes — at a psychiatric hospital in Norwich. The final inquiry report called for “ministerial acknowledgment of the presence of institutional racism in the mental health services and a commitment to eliminate it”.

Two years later, in 2005, the Department for Health published its response to the David Bennett inquiry and a plan to revamp the mental health services in light of the two Inside Outside reports. This was Delivering Race Equality, a five-year action plan to improve the care given to minorities with mental health needs.

Project 3_c

For many it did not go far enough. Marcel Vige, now head of equality at MIND, says: “The Inside bit had been stripped out and the Outside bit expanded. The main delivery component of Delivering Race Equality was around these 500 community development workers. We had put in place key performance indicators, all that kind of stuff, all of that was dropped.”

People welcomed the community focus, but they were disappointed that there wasn’t equal emphasis on the role of the Mental Health Trusts and other state bodies, who urgently needed to change the way they responded to black and other minorities.

Raj, who was also involved in the consultation for Inside Outside, says aboutDelivering Race Equality: “It was set up in such a bad way that it was never going to change the world. They kept changing things at a senior level and there wasn’t much consistency. They said, ‘We’re going to employ 500 community development workers, but we won’t give them any power. They are going to go to your black communities who are very difficult to engage with.’”

However watered down the programme was, it was a rare opportunity, and so Raj, like others in the black community, threw themselves into making the best of it.

Over decades one common flaw in reports and investigations into the treatment of black people by the mental health sector was the lack of hard data.

The Delivering Race Equality programme promised an annual Count Me Incensus to record the number of inpatients across England and Wales on March 31st each year, noting the ethnicity of people detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 and the reasons they had got there.

The first census confirmed what black communities knew. Most minority groups — including white Irish people — experienced higher than average rates of detention compared to the white British population, the rates of compulsory detention among people of African descent outstripped all other groups. Black people were three times more likely to be referred to hospital and 44 per cent more likely to be detained when they got there. Referrals were more likely to come from the courts or the police for black men and this group was more likely to be kept in seclusion or physically restrained.

Many in the psychiatry profession felt that the conversation around Delivering Race Equality unfairly accused them of racism. Such unease inhibited progress.

Ian, who has worked for a range of NHS and charitable mental health bodies since the mid-nineties, says it took him two years to convince the NHS Trust he worked for to let him implement race equality and culture awareness training.

“They weren’t getting it right at all,” he says. Most of the patients on the ward were black. The only black members of staff were cleaners or nurses. The entire board, the people with power who were responsible for commissioning, was white. “How could they know what was going on in the communities they were trying to serve?”

In November 2006 the architect and national director of Delivering Race Equality, Kamlesh Patel, resigned from his role. He told Community Care that race equality and mental health tended to drop off the agenda when “the money runs out”. Delivering Race Equality needed more robust central leadership with a “strong message” sent out to health chiefs that there would be “repercussions” if it were not delivered.

In 2007, in an article in The Psychiatric Bulletin co-authored with Chris Heginbotham (PDF here) Patel wrote:

No one has yet provided an adequate explanation for the very high rates of admission and detention for some of these groups – notably for Black African, Black Caribbean and Black Other (Black British) people.

Practitioners who complained that psychiatry and psychiatrists were being accused of racism, “misunderstand the concept of institutional racism and dismiss the legitimate concerns of the Black community.”

Patel and Heginbotham wrote: “Either there is an epidemic of mental illness among certain Black groups or there are seriously worrying practices that are leading to disproportionate levels of admission. Wherever the answer lies on the spectrum between the two extremes it is essential that we find out as a matter of urgency.”

Among the multiple reasons for the high rates of admission and detention of some Black and minority ethnic groups, they said: “institutional racism in mental health and in wider public services is a contributory factor.”

In 2010 the Delivering Race Equality programme ended. The government’s target of 500 development workers was never reached; some of those who were employed felt abandoned and powerless once the programme ended. The money for the programme had not been ring-fenced; stretched healthcare Trusts may have spent it elsewhere. The Count Me In census stopped. The last set of statistics published in 2011 suggested that things were getting worse, particularly for young men with mixed ethnicity.

Big, black and dangerous?

There are few mentions of race in the current government’s Mental health strategy documents. Instead it has been submerged under the general heading ‘equalities’. Within the black community, there are wide variations of experience and concern including high rates of self-harm among Asian women and high occurrences of African Caribbean men sectioned by the police. Lumping all such variances together under the general heading ‘equalities’ increases the risk of mental health providers ignoring them. It is much cheaper to focus on meeting a general equalities duty, than commission work to investigate and improve services for specific groups. People are marginalised in different ways and each group, whether gender, class or race, needs tailored support.

At a London psychiatric hospital ward a member of staff says most of the people brought in by the police are black. On another London ward 12 out of 15 patients are black and diagnosed with schizophrenia, despite a marked difference in their behaviour. Sean Rigg was a physically healthy 40-year-old diagnosed with schizophrenia who died of a heart attack in Brixton police station after being restrained by officers in 2008. In 2010, Olaseni Lewis, a 23-year-old man, died after being physically restrained three times over the course of 45 minutes at a psychiatric hospital in London. The stereotype big, black and dangerous persists.

“Black people are considered more dangerous and there is more fear about them,” says Matilda MacAttram, a human rights campaigner who managed to convince politicians to debate black deaths in custody last December.

Matilda set up Black Mental Health UK, a human rights campaign group in 2007 because after 30 years of discussion she wanted action.

A tall, elegant woman, Matilda speaks softly but firmly: “This is not a BME issue. This is an issue that disproportionately only affects one group. Three generations from one community have been lost in this system. Detention rates have fallen over the last five years from 2005 to 2010 nationally. But for one group they have doubled – it is not a BME issue.

“It doesn’t matter what you call it when you can see consistent inequalities of this nature. Not only that, the sort of outcomes that make the Sean Rigg experience almost the norm. I don’t know what other adjectives you could use. Any system that can take the life of a physically healthy person with impunity and then there is no accountability, what do you call that?”

Matilda MacAttram lobbies policymakers, collects data on lives lost in state custody, helps black families pursue justice. Her vision for change? “Compassion, decency, justice.”

Project 3_d4

The wounded healer

“Ethnic minority populations continue to have the worst experiences of mental health,” the Care Quality Commission reported in June 2014.

The community groups – made up of churches, family, friends, activists – that have always sprung up to meet needs not filled by the state, carry on, but they have more battles to fight than in the early days of New Labour.

Organisations that once battled Trusts for better care for ethnic minorities, have suffered funding cuts. Some have gone under.

Many of the individuals who campaign have mental illnesses themselves. They strive to manage employment around their health, claiming benefits when they need to. Welfare ‘reform’ has brought them fresh adversity and new battles to fight.

Raj has decided to take a step back. “I think I have just got burnt out really,” she says. Sometimes it is just too depressing to go back to the wards and see nothing has changed after so long.

Once Sidney got care and treatment that helped him, he turned to help others. He works with refugees and African Caribbean men. He started peer support groups to battle stigma within black communities. He helps former patients get basic housing and finance advice, trains school teachers, police officers, local university staff on how to deal with mental ill people.

Funding for one peer group he set up ended when the Delivering Race Equalitystopped. Spending money on such groups, is no longer a priority for NHS Trusts cutting budgets and restructuring services.

Devon uses his experience to help other people. He visits patients on the ward that once held him prisoner. Sound Minds is one of the few self-help mental health groups left in south London. Many have closed or are winding down for lack of funding.

Over decades Devon has developed ways to manage his ‘condition’ and takes anti-psychotic pills every day.

Devon sits with his hands interlaced and gazes steadily ahead, serious, but occasionally that surprising smile. There is no trace of bitterness or anger; instead his reflections about the faults of a system that may have misdiagnosed him and certainly disempowered him are mixed up with pride and positivity about how he has used this experience. To form several reggae bands, to set up two mental health charities, to visit the psychiatric ward of his local hospital offering advocacy, kindness and support.

The wounded healer. He no longer looks like a Rastafarian, but, “I kept the music”, he says, “Thank god for that.”



Bayliss, Elizabeth
Hear I Am A Social Action for Health report on life on a mental health ward in East London. (May 2010)

Care Quality Commission:

Monitoring the Mental Health Act in 2012/13 (January 2014)

A Criminal Use of Police Cells? The use of police custody as a place of safety for people with mental health needs (2013)

Count Me In’ census reports: 20062007200820092010 

Department for Health:
Delivering Race Equality: A Framework for Action(October 2003)

Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health Care: an action plan for reform inside and outside services & the government’s response to the independent inquiry into the death of David Bennett (January 2005)

Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health Care: a review (December 2009)

No Health Without Mental Health(February 2011)

Post-legislative Scrutiny of the Mental Health Act 2007(October 2013)

Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody Third statistical report by the Independent Advisory Panel (IAP) into deaths in custody and covers the period between 2000 and 2012 (May 2014)

Mental health crisis care: physical restraint in crisis (June 2013)

The End of Delivering Race Equality? Perspectives of frontline workers and service-users from racialised groups (2010)

Nacro Black communities, mental health and the criminal justice system(2007)

National Audit Office Helping people through mental health crisis: The role of crisis resolution and home treatment services (7 December 2007)

National Institute for Mental Health in England Inside Outside: Improving Mental Health Services for Black and Minority Ethnic Communities in England (March 2003)

National Mental Health Development Unit BME groups and mental health
Evidence for Centre for Social Justice Mental Health review (18 October 2010) 

Race Equality Foundation The importance of promoting mental health in children and young people from black and minority ethnic communities (April 2014)

The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health:
The costs of race inequality (October 2006)

Breaking the Circles of Fear (July 2002)


AESOP study group First episode psychosis and ethnicity Published in World Psychiatry (February 2006)

Community Care magazine:
Count me in survey shows DRE failing (February 2010)

Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health struggles to recruit workers
(November 2007)

Mental health: ethnic minority groups still over-represented (January 2010) 

Ethnic minorities still over-represented in mental healthcare (April 2011)

Crichton, John. H. M.
Comments on the Blackwood Inquiry Published in Psychiatric Bulletin(1994)

Forensic Psychiatry Research Unit, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital
Raised incidence rates of all psychoses among migrant groups: findings from the East London first episode psychosis study
Published in General Psychiatry (November 2008) 

McKenzie, Kwame
Institutional racism in mental health care
Published in the British Medical Journal (29 March 2007)

Patel, Kamlesh & Chris Heginbotham
Institutional racism in psychiatry
Published in the Psychiatric Bulletin (2007) 

Abbott, Dianne 
On the end of DRE and quality of services for BME people2July 2014

Black Mental Health UK
Written evidence submitted to the Home Affairs select committee inquiry into the IPCC

Burstow, Paul On inequality and mental health services 16 May 2013

Clark, Helen On David Bennett’s death in custody 9 November 2001

Cox, Thomas On the death of Richard Campbell

Lord Avebury on Rastafarians and mental health

Lord Hunt On mental health spending27 January 2014


Burke, David
Crisis in the Community: The African Caribbean Experience of Mental Health(2008)

Fernando, Suman & Frank Keating (Eds)
Mental Health in a Multi-Ethnic Society (August 2008)

Ryan, Mick. Lobbying from Below (1995)


Sean Duggan Chief executive, Centre for Mental Health, Jenny Edwards CEO, Mental Health Foundation, Stephen Dalton Chief executive, Mental Health Network, Paul Farmer CEO, Mind, Mark Winstanley CEO, Rethink Mental Illness, Professor Sue Bailey President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.Letter to the Guardian Risks of deep cuts in mental health funds (12 March 2014)

Schizophrenia Inquiry 

Professor Roger Walker, Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for Wales. Letter on the effects of some schizophrenia drugs

Down the rabbit hole

Single parenthood in austerity Britain

I wrote this piece for Lacuna magazine, it was also published by the New Statesman and Open Democracy. Lacuna is an online magazine run by the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at Warwick University. Down the rabbit hole is part of Lacuna’s austerity and prosperity edition, formed of reportage, interviews, reviews and analysis, which I co-edited, on the impact of the British government’s austerity policies, drawing on views from academics, social policy experts and the lived experience of ordinary people. The series also sought solutions; if not austerity, then what, and how do we create a better society?

Read the introduction to the series here:
Something about our approach here: &
The entire series here:




Angela has lost track of time. It is nearly three ‘o’ clock. She picks up the supermarket bag full of loose papers; newspaper clippings, think tank reports, personal reflections, and stuffs it into her rucksack. Before leaving the salon she thanks the gathered women and promises action. Pulling her coat hood over her head, she dashes out into lashing rain and half sprints across the city.

The salon meetings were a revelation. Ever since falling down the rabbit-hole Angela struggled to distinguish personal anguish from shock at the state’s inability to support her position as a single parent. But she had a hunch that something systematic was wrong and listening to the women at the salon gave her confidence.

When Angela became pregnant and the relationship with her son’s dad ended, she believed she would manage. Others had, so would she. Up to that point Angela had worked for 15 years as finance director for a small graphic design firm she’d helped set up. It was a secure life; she had glided from a loving, happy childhood to university and on to a well-paid career.

Then, at the age of 42, that world vanished. Angela compares the process of becoming a single mother to Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole into a new, fantastical world. “Suddenly you wake up one day and you are not the right shape for the world anymore, you are a problem that needs to be sorted out.”


When politicians make ‘landmark’ speeches about reforming society, the figure of the single parent is often evoked as emblematic of wider societal fractures. Before he became Prime Minister, in a speech in 2008, David Cameron said:

I spent some time recently sitting with a benefit officer in a Job Centre plus. In came a young couple. She was pregnant. He was the dad. They were out of work and trying to get somewhere to live. The benefit officer didn’t really have much choice but to explain that they would be better off if she lived on her own.

What on earth are we doing with a system like that? With the money we save by ending the something for nothing welfare culture we will say to that couple in that benefit office: Stay together, bring up your kid, build your family, we’re on your side and we will end that couple penalty.

In government, the Prime Minister is true to his word. The spending cuts have fallen hard on single parent families, who are most reliant on state support and services. Single parents with a youngest child aged three or four will have to undertake mandatory “work related activity”, under new rules introduced last month. These parents, currently in receipt of income support, must comply with tasks set by the jobcentre or face a minimum 20 per cent cut in their benefit.

The flagship policy limiting the amount of benefits a household can receive has so far had the biggest impact on single parent families. The benefit cap was piloted in April 2013 in Bromley, Croydon, Enfield and Haringey. Of the households affected 74 per cent were single parent families with dependent children. As of July 2013 across the four boroughs 1,962 single parents were hit, compared to 606 coupled families, 64 single people and seven couples with no children.

The policy’s goal is to move people into work with support from local jobcentres. But for Angela the disconnection between the reality of parenting alone earning little or nothing, and the government’s vision is too great. The persistent belief that poverty in itself must be fixed or punished without understanding the cause bothers her. “Once you become poor, once you become their problem, then you stop being yourself. You stop having the right to determine your own future.”

But Angela believes the entire experience of becoming a single parent and balancing multiple disadvantage, means she, not the government, is best placed to get “our family up and running a lot quicker”. If anything, the government’s punitive measures have made it harder to get out of poverty. And austerity is making it worse.


Angela was still in hospital after giving birth when she was sacked by the small company she worked for. She panicked, but, confident of her rights, she went to her union. After negotiation, she was allowed to keep her job with some maternity leave, and, a year later, returned to work part-time, sending her son to nursery school.

Around this time Angela’s widowed mother was diagnosed with leukaemia. Angela tried to spend as much time as she could with her dying mother on one side of Southampton and with her baby son on the other. “When mum was dying, lurching between her death-bed and trying to find people to look after him, I felt I wasn’t there for her or him. I could never spend enough time with her.  It was a very cruel time.”

Amid all this, it was becoming difficult to work a full 16 hours each week, which meant she was ineligible for working tax credits. Her son’s nursery fees ate up her life savings till there was nothing left.

Angela kept her job until her son was about two and half. “I stopped the job to spend time with my mum before she died. Then everything just hit me. I probably spent a year or maybe longer unemployed. I just had no energy left.” She and her son moved into a council flat on the eleventh floor of a tower block, about a mile from the city centre. Government rules at the time (this has since changed) meant that as a lone parent, Angela was also eligible for income support of £72.40 a week until her son turned seven.

It took the relevant government departments some time to process the change in Angela’s circumstances. Once they had, one department decided they’d overpaid her £1,000 in housing benefit. She learned to dread brown envelopes. Each letter promised court action and bailiffs if she failed to pay the money.

Recalling that time, Angela begins to cry. “What the situation taught me was that I am totally on my own, that these people, who are all quite reasonable, doing their reasonable jobs, can actually take my life to pieces in a really short period of time.”

Still, she was “bloody minded” and sought out free advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau, and on finding out the government was wrong, challenged them. She won on appeal and received another brown letter, this one saying she no longer owed them money. “They should have said sorry,” she says quietly.

Angela was always afraid. This episode taught her one mistake could wreak havoc. It happened again when her son’s dad stopped paying child maintenance. When he was paying, she received a reduced level of income support, so when the child maintenance stopped, she went to the jobcentre to ask for help.

They said they couldn’t provide support that day. This left Angela without money for food. She’d spent her monthly income on utility bills and had planned to use the maintenance to buy food.

Next she turned to Sure Start, who were unable to help sort out her benefits, but a member of staff gave her £10 and a food bank voucher. “I cried and cried. I found it really hard. I didn’t expect to be taking charity that way in my life. I thought I would be giving more.

“It was a really long walk and I felt thoroughly ashamed going in and people are looking at you and everybody is sizing each other up. You can’t look in the bag. The bag was too heavy and I couldn’t carry them. I thought I can’t complain, they are giving me food. It was a hard day.”

Image by Lottie Stoddart
‘Angela’ by Lottie Stoddart

It took some years, but Angela, though still living in poverty (according to official definitions), feels her family is “up and running” again. Council housing and public services kept them together when things were particularly difficult, but only just. Angela worries about future single parents having to manage without these services, and so has spent the last year rallying other single parents where she lives in Southampton. She hopes giving them a voice might kick-start a wider campaign for the government to take note of their experiences.

 They have much to lose. Single parents feel the impact of austerity policies more than others. This group, 91 per cent of whom are women, will lose 15 per cent of their incomes, according to analysis by the research think tank Landman Economics of the cumulative impact of the government’s spending decisions and tax changes since May 2010 (and including policies not yet implemented but planned up to April 2015). This compares to 9.7 per cent for couples with children.

“Horrors from my life forgotten seem worse when someone else tells me of the same experience,” Angela says.  “I can’t sit by and let someone else suffer, knowing how it feels. The single parents I know … most are working too hard, not sitting on their butts. I think policy makers are totally out of touch, having never had our life experiences. Too often we are seen as the problem, when we are working hard with very little to support our families.”



Government agencies struggle with the concept of a woman raising a child alone, says Angela sipping hot milk in a coffee shop in Southampton city centre. “One of the things I have felt over the years is that agencies set up to support you actually drain your energy from you. You end up feeling less self-reliant, less independent and less capable of doing stuff. It is toxic. If you are in too much contact with some agencies it is really bad for your self-esteem.”

This ‘dragging down’ over the course of 10 years has made Angela fearful of the state. Its power to casually shatter her life still shocks her. As a result she is constantly alert, ready to fight, always expecting obstacles.  “Everywhere I look there is a battle to be had.”

Outcomes have been mixed. After three years working at a community centre on a zero-hours contract with no holiday or sick pay, that victory came in the form of a permanent part-time position. Other battles have left her drained and bitter. The Child Support Agency lost contact with her son’s father, who owes around £8,000 in maintenance. Meanwhile, though her income of £500 a month is topped up with housing benefit and working tax credit, the family’s income is still less than 60 per cent of the average wage – the current measure of child poverty.

All this misery is avoidable, she says, and that is what makes her angry. She flips through Parenting Alone, a recent report from the Policy Exchange think tank, occasionally guffawing, irked by the language used – ‘dead weight’, ‘burden’, ‘inactive’. “They [single parents] are the least inactive people I have ever encountered in my life.”

“How many blokes wrote this?” she asks. “There is nothing in there about parenting, nothing from the perspective of anyone parenting alone.” She finds parts of the report interesting, but feels they could have done better. “I suppose my question is about on-the-ground expertise. If you go into any situation and you want to try to deal with it, surely you ask people on the ground what it’s like?”

While Angela talks, her friend Jane looks into her drink, her greying brown bob partially covering her face. Initially she was reluctant to join Angela’s collective, preferring to air her grievances in private, quietly trying to rectify problems when she could. Jane was a professional chef before her son was born, and when he started school, finding the industry difficult to juggle around school hours, she took a job as a shop assistant instead. But when the independent fabric shop went bust in December, the problems began to mount.

Jane has been unemployed for three months, struggling to find a job to fit around taking her 9-year-old son to and from school, and caring for her 82-year-old mother who has had three hip replacements and both knees replaced.

The jobcentre drew up a claimant commitment contract dictating that she look for a job providing at least 20 hours work and be prepared to travel 90 minutes each way to get to work. Jane faces financial sanctions if those conditions aren’t met, but she is unlikely to satisfy them. “I don’t have a big support network to take my son off me,” she says. She also visits her mother every day and does her shopping. Jane’s last job was 16 hours a week, allowing her to balance these caring responsibilities.

As with Angela, one of the biggest causes of stress for Jane has been a series of brown envelopes from indifferent government departments. “I had a 72-page letter in January that I couldn’t understand. It was full of calculations and dates. I thought it said maybe I owed £30 in council tax. Then the next time my housing benefit came there was money missing from it.” Housing benefit was even less the next month, and when Jane called to find out why, she was told she owed £139 in housing benefit and £39 in council tax. Jane took out the 72-page letter, read it carefully, and still couldn’t figure out why she owed the money.

Eventually she discovered the debt had accrued because of a 19 pence pay increase two years ago. When the national minimum wage went up in 2011 by 8 pence and in 2012 by 11 pence, Jane secured an extra £1.28 a week and £1.76 a week.

At the time, she called an operative at the Department for Work and Pensions to let them know. “She laughed at me. So I assumed that housing benefit would know I had a rise in my national minimum wage. But apparently they didn’t.” When Jane lost her job last year and sent her P45 to the jobcentre, the council realised and changed her housing benefit accordingly, also charging her retrospectively for money she’d received in the last two years.



Word spread about Angela’s efforts to organize single parents and her friend Gabrielle, also a single mother to a 10-year old, agreed to host initial meetings at her salon, on the outskirts of the city centre.


The first meeting takes place on a Friday morning, the women drop in and out between school hours. The salon quickly fills. Women sit in two large barber chairs and on stools, and lean against the lilac walls. The salon is small, taking up just one room. Bright rows of jars and bottles line one wall and two large mirrors fill another.

Gabrielle is at the centre of things. People wave as they hurry by the shop and her phone buzzes constantly. A quietly commanding presence, wearing a fitted mauve skirt suit, her long black braids tied from her face, she coaxes the other women in a lilting voice; “How are you sister?” she asks a young woman who has stopped by to make an appointment.  “We are talking about single mothers, you too now are single, aren’t you?” The woman who started attending the jobcentre after being thrown out by her husband, nods and joins the discussion.

Gabrielle opened the salon three years ago. Her counsellor at the time tried to persuade her not to, telling her to apply for sickness benefit and seek specialist counselling for post-traumatic stress. Gabrielle, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, refused.

At the time, she was unemployed and signing on for Jobseekers Allowance. Before that, when her son was a toddler, she worked 20 hours a week and studied accounting at university. But it was too expensive and difficult to balance. “It was a crazy life. At a young age, you feel like a grandmother.

“One day I was just passing the shop. I called to find out how much the rent was. They asked for a deposit for two months.” She borrowed from friends, and soon opened her salon, which specializes in styling Afro hair. She is the only member of staff and earns enough to keep her ticking over. “What we can say is that we don’t have much, but we are happy with what we have,” Gabrielle says. “We have healthy children. That is all I can say. There is a lot in between, struggles, all those things.” The other women are less sanguine.

It is the first time many have discussed the politics of their lives together and a familiar pattern of frustration emerges. “We have a government that doesn’t understand our situation, doesn’t understand our territory, hasn’t lived our experience,” says Angela. “So every time they bring an academic and come up with a new solution — the solutions never seem to work. It is partly because they don’t consult with us.”

“Because they don’t care,” says a petite woman with pale brown skin and dark, tired eyes. When Sialou first went to the jobcentre, on switching from income support to JSA, she was studying two days a week for a GCSE in English and an access course to maths and study skills.

A jobcentre advisor told her to quit, so that she could spend the whole week searching for work. “I cried. I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I hated the system. I never saw what they were doing for me. Every time I went to the jobcentre, it was always threats. No help to move up.

“I think the jobcentre people are not really thinking for themselves. Or they want to help you, but they can’t because of the rules. I don’t know. It’s weird.”

Sialou refused to quit, completed her courses and eventually found shift work with an agency as a carer for children with disabilities. She is a “bank” member of staff, which means she can choose when she wants to work and must be available to work when the agency calls. “If they call it is a big battle. You know you are free, but you are not actually free. My son will finish school soon – I need someone to pick him up, I need someone to stay with him. You have to know where to put the child first before you can say yes.” But say no too often and “you lose the job”.

Sialou is also studying for a degree in biological sciences. “My plan is study medicine when I finish. But I don’t know how I will do that,” she laughs.

The biggest obstacles are childcare and low earnings. If she uses a child minder it can cost more than she is paid for one shift. Often, she has no choice. When she has a 9am class, for example, to arrive on time she needs to leave her son with a child minder until the school day begins.

The juggling is difficult, and Sialou is never quite sure if she is getting the balance right. “I need a relationship with my son, I am the only one he has. I have to give him time.” He complains when she works weekends, but “he understands in his own way. I am blessed. He is really easy going.”

The other women all identify with Sialou’s predicament. They too are torn between the difficulty of working enough hours in a minimum wage job to cover living costs and childcare, and finding time to parent their children.

Rising childcare costs in the UK are well documented. A 2011 OECD reportfound that the cost of childcare as a percentage of the average family wage was second highest for any OECD country (26.6 per cent of average family incomes spent on childcare compared to the OECD average of 11.8 per cent).  A recent survey by a British childcare charity reported a 27 per cent increase in childcare costs since 2009. The Family and Childcare Trust’s 2014 childcare survey also calculated the average cost of after school clubs as £48.19 a week or £1,830 a year.

 The government has responded with some subsidies towards the costs of childcare, but campaigners are concerned this only benefits mid-to-high earners leaving poorer parents like Sialou struggling. And many earn too little to benefit from the government’s other major measure to help low earners, the increase in personal tax allowance. Of the 21 million people earning too little to benefit, 63 per cent per cent are women.


While the women talk, Naseem enters the salon. She falls into a chair by the window and holds her reddish brown curls in her hands. Gabrielle walks over, rubbing her back and whispering to her. 

Naseem is just back from the jobcentre, where she went to sign on and find out when her Jobseeker’s Allowance would resume. The jobcentre sanctioned her in January after a mix up with her appointments. “I went to the appointment, but it was the wrong office. I tried to explain and explain and explain. I went to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. They spoke to them.” In the meantime, her bills are piling up and she owes tax on the JSA she received for the last time she was unemployed. “I got a letter from child tax credit, they say they paid me too much and I have to pay that money back. Where am I going to get that money?”

Trying to explain all this at the jobcentre, Naseem’s head began to hurt and she grew breathless, then she fainted. “I always get panic attacks”, she says, “but recently they have gotten worse.”

Naseem is in her fifties, but looks much younger. She has four children, the youngest has just turned 17. Originally from Kenya, she had a miserable childhood; her mother ran away when she was a baby and her father was an alcoholic, so she lived with her grandmother, aunties and uncles, cooking and cleaning for them until they married her off to an older man when she was 14. She was never allowed to attend school and still has scars from all the beatings.

What bothers her most is her lack of education; she can barely read and write, and whenever she is confronted with official paperwork, she panics. In the past, she has worked in shops and as a carer, looking after the elderly. Her last job interview was as a sales assistant for the discount clothes shop TK Max, a job she really wanted. “We had an induction for two and half hours. There were 13 people at the table. You had to write and read in front of people. The job I wanted was tidying clothes and running around, I wasn’t looking for an office job. I panicked.”

Naseem didn’t get that job, but a week later she found out Primark were looking for staff. She had already been to the store four or five times to ask about positions, and they always told her to look online. She laughs saying, “I see those grumpy cashiers in there, and I know I can do that job better, and smile all day.”

She filled out the form on a computer at the jobcentre, and asked an advisor to help. “I said, ‘please can you help, there is a job starting on the 7th of this month. I need that job.’ We both tried to fill the form. He couldn’t.” After a while, the advisor gave up and told her to go back to Primark and tell them something wasn’t right with the online form. She went. They told her the online application was fine. If she wanted the job, she would have to fill out the form online.



The lack of support for Naseem in her search for employment is something recognised by all of the mothers at the salon, and by single parents in other parts of the country.  Rebecca, a 29-year-old living in Lancaster, wanted a career, not the short term ‘tick box’ jobs offered at the jobcentre.  While raising her baby daughter she began a degree in psychotherapy and counselling. She had two years left when the jobcentre called her in to move from income support to JSA following her daughter’s 5th birthday. Her advisor told her to quit the degree or lose her benefits. “I was at university one day a week. I had to look for work from Monday to Friday. Because I was at university on Monday that interrupted the flow. I said, ‘well why can’t I look for work Tuesday to Saturday?’”

The answer was no. Her advisors also refused to look at her CV.  Instead, she was told to take a job, any job, “or my benefits would stop”. This mantra terrified Rebecca; the prospect of her daughter hungry or homeless haunted her. “I went into the jobcentre with hope and aspirations and a future. I left without any of that,” she says. “Because they were asking me to quit my degree actually all I felt was, like they were putting me in my place. I don’t deserve to better myself. I should know my place and stay in it.”

One of the biggest problems for lone parents on benefits attending work interviews is increased conditionality. A jobcentre advisor might draw up a claimant agreement that, for example, requires them to work weekends or nights. Often the power imbalance is such that parents feel they must sign the agreement or face losing benefits. If they then refuse to take the job offering weekend shifts because of the difficulty of finding childcare out of school hours, they are sanctioned. In such situations a sanction — the withdrawal of benefits — can last four weeks and may trigger the removal of other benefits, eventually leading to destitution.

Gingerbread, a charity for single parents, hears such stories daily. A parent of a six-month-old baby was told that missing a work-focused interview because her child was ill was “not an adequate reason and her benefits would stop if it happened again”.

Philippa Newis, the charity’s policy officer, says, “You have got a job-seeking regime that was essentially designed for single people who don’t have any dependents, who can eventually look for full time work, are able to start work straight away, and don’t have any particular restrictions on their time.”

The Department for Work and Pensions’ own statistics show that 64 per cent of sanctions on single parents in receipt of JSA are overturned at appeal, compared to an average 28 per cent for other claimants. It could be that overworked jobcentre advisors are unaware of the need to provide flexible conditions for single parents.

“We know that single parents are being incorrectly sanctioned,” says Philippa. “Though it is not always possible from the data published to understand why, our strong feeling is, because of what we hear through the helpline and the work we do with single parents, that it’s because they were being asked to do things that they should never have been asked to do in the first place.”



Catherine, a jocular lady who has known Angela for 25 years, is enthused about her campaign. “I read a brilliant book by a French feminist recently. One of the things she said … was a great failure of the feminist movement of the 50s and 60s was that we didn’t get childcare sorted out.”

Catherine is a single parent to two children aged 14 and 24, and, having closed a vintage clothes shop she ran for eight years, now works part-time for a social enterprise“At the moment I might claim benefits again for the first time in 20 years, because that is the consequences of a being a single parent for 20 years,” she says. “This is where I am at 50.” The White Rabbit-1

She adds: “A conversation I have had with lots of single parents is, ‘I made my bed so I have got to lie in it.’ I can logically explain why that is not a correct as a way of thinking. But the sentiment is strong for us.

“Particularly now as we have these choices about contraception. We have these choices about abortion. If we get to the point where we are deciding to go ahead and have this baby, that somehow we just have to suck it up from that point. The world loves that because we don’t bother anybody. We just do it.”

Catherine did “suck it up” and at the time she was financially able to do so. When her son was born she was a high-earning media executive, jetting around the world, once every six weeks in New York. It meant she could buy a house and put her son in childcare from 8am till 6pm. Then her daughter came along and it became harder to balance work and care. “My world just got smaller and smaller and smaller, around this little girl, and little boy who wasn’t well. I became very ill.”

Ten years ago her doctor said she was medically depressed. “Me? I thought everybody felt like this. I thought this was how life is. It is really hard and really horrible, but the kids are all right.” Catherine abandoned her career to look after the children and nurture her own mental health.

The mental strain of raising children alone, against a bureaucratic and often punishing state, is frightening, says Angela. Several of the single mothers at Angela’s salon meetings had been prescribed anti-depressants, and two talked of having suicidal thoughts. After an impassioned tirade about not being able to find a cleaning job, Effie, a mother of five recently split from her children’s father, said: “If you don’t have a strong personality, then at the end of the day you will just go and stand on that bridge and jump.”

Angela says that one of the things that helps single parents is the solidarity of other single parents. She is buoyed by the E15 mothers, a group of women from Newham in East London fighting for decent social housing. Eagerly following their campaign updates online, she wonders if she could save enough money to travel to London to visit them.

Meanwhile, to her surprise, single mothers in Southampton are keen to be part of whatever fight Angela has planned. A second salon meeting is well attended.“We should protest,” Naseem had suggested. “In the street. Give fliers away, call women, sit down and talk, we cry together and hug each other. Then we go out there. We want this changed. Every woman should come out.”



What can the government do for single parents looking for work and trying to raise children on low incomes?

Iain Duncan Smith, the Minister for Work and Pensions, told parliament earlier this year: “We are working … to ensure that we get as many people out of poverty as possible. The reforms that we are changing and making to get people back to work … will have a huge impact on those who are in poverty now. People are better off in work.”

The Minister began working on his vision to tackle poverty while in opposition and since 2010 has developed a programme of welfare reform to support it. The goal is to reduce income replacement benefits by increasing conditionality for claimants and using financial sanctions as punishment. It aligns with wider government austerity plans to shrink state spending on social welfare and public services.

Since 2008, changes to the conditions of eligibility for income support, an income replacement benefit for lone parent households, has seen increased numbers of single parents using Jobcentre Plus. Numbers went from around 7-8,000 signing on every month in 2008 to more or less 150,000 each month in 2013.

Numerous studies and reports, from focused surveys by Bristol-based charitySingle Parent Action Network to national reports by the think tank Policy Exchange, suggest jobcentres across the country have struggled to cope with the increased numbers, with few providing tailored services for parents often juggling childcare for children as young as five.

Increased conditionality at the jobcentre and a disregard for lone parent flexibilities (such as allowing parents to schedule interviews around school hours or look for jobs that work around term-time) has led to a rising number of single parents receiving financial sanctions. Under plans for a new universal credit, the government has removed the obligation for jobcentre advisors to consider lone parent flexibilities completely.

A failure to help single parents at the jobcentre or provide access to training means often they churn in and out of insecure low-paid work, remaining in poverty. In the UK lone parent families are most likely to live in poverty, according to the government’s own statistics published in the Households Below Average Income report for 2011/12. They are twice as likely as coupled households with children to live in relative poverty. And poverty is persistent even for single parents in work, with 31 per cent of those in part-time jobs living in relative poverty, and 17 per cent of those in full time jobs.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ welfare reforms, a key part of the government’s austerity programme, have also heavily impacted on single parents. They are the largest recipients of housing benefit, a housing subsidy for low-income and out-of-work households. In the areas where the government’s proposed cap has been piloted, single parent households with dependent children make up the largest group affected.

Other pressure has come from the withdrawal of public services such as Sure Start children’s centres, maternity grants and vouchers for food and milk, the closure of school breakfast clubs, the freeze on child benefits, among other changes. Such services provide crutches already available to families with two parents to share childcare and two incomes (or at least one full-time income) to cover the cost of raising children.

So what can the government do for single parents? To start with, Angela says, they must listen.


Rats in the lunchbox, mould in the mattress: living in squalor in London

Stories of private and social tenants in London

This piece was funded jointly by OurKingdom’s Shine a Light project and The Fox Report (the Friend’s investigative arm, funded by Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust). It was published by Open Democracy, Quaker magazine – the Friend, Lacuna magazine, the Socialist Lawyer magazine, the Justice Gap and Counterfire Magazine.
This is my third collaboration with talented illustrator Patrick Koudah. Our first, The Lone Parent Trap, was published in August 2013, and most recent Black and Dangerous? was published in September 2013.


Mahder Redie has not slept since finishing an 8-hour cleaning shift at 7am. It is noon on Thursday 3rd April. Since 8am he has been waiting for the repairman, sent by his landlord.

Mahder, 35, prepares lunch for his pregnant wife and daughter in the closet-sized kitchen. His wife Hiriti tries to relax on the sofa. One-year-old Merken wants to play, squealing happily.

Hiriti is subdued. ‘I want a fresh start,’ she says. Speaking a mixture of Bilen, her native Eritrean tongue, and English, Hiriti says the thought of raising another child in the mouldy flat is depressing. Above the dining table is a framed photograph of 30-year-old Hiriti wearing traditional Eritrean clothes; her dark hair pulled into thick braids that fan out into luxuriant mahogany cloud; her face is decorated and her expression carefree.

The Redie’s one-bedroom flat is infected with mould; they can’t afford to move. Spooning sweet white rice and salad into a bowl for Merken, Mahder says that since the start of the year his housing association landlord has sent seven inspectors to the flat and, each time, ‘They do nothing.’

Illustration by Patrick Koudah
Illustration by Patrick Koudah


Mahder Redie earns £8.61 an hour as a cleaner at the Westfield shopping centre in East London, across the road from the multimillion-pound Olympic Park. Like many low paid workers, his job is temporary and barely covers living costs in a city where the average monthly rent is £1,233.

The family is desperate to move, but for those on low incomes there is little choice. The provision of council homes and social housing continues to fall. Nine London councils recently lost a legal challenge to Mayor Boris Johnson’s plan to increase the upper limit of rents deemed ‘affordable’ in the capital.

These circumstances have deepened an inequality of arms between London’s poorest renters and their landlords. Pamela Fitzpatrick sees the consequences every day.

After nearly 30 years spent working in social welfare, for organisations such as Child Poverty Action Group and the Citizens Advice Bureau, Pamela set up the Harrow Law Centre four years ago. ‘I have never seen the level of poverty that we are seeing today,’ she says. The centre takes calls from all over London. The biggest problem is housing.

‘Evictions are a real problem, even with housing associations,’ says Pamela. ‘We have had a case where somebody got into arrears with their rent [and was] unlawfully evicted. Her 10-year-old son came home and found they had changed the locks with no notice.’

The ease with which landlords can evict tenants makes it difficult to challenge the poor state of some housing. Margaret Thatcher’s government deregulated tenancies back in 1989. In parliament at the time, deregulation’s champions claimed this would encourage private sector landlords to invest and better maintain homes.

‘That has not happened,’ Pamela says. ‘All we really have are people who are in very poor accommodation paying really high levels of rent and living in squalor. One five-year-old child brought in her lunchbox to show me that rats had eaten it. We are talking about pretty grim situations.’



Mahder Redie’s problems began in 2008, a few months after he moved into the one-bedroom flat in Brixton, South London. He scrubbed the dark smudges on the bedroom walls, but they always came back: furry, blackish green blotches, spreading upwards and outwards from the wall’s corners.

Each year the mould got worse, seeping into the bedframe, the wardrobe, onto the frame of his daughter’s cot. Merken has been rushed to hospital three times after struggling to breathe while asleep.

‘Every year since 2008 I took a picture of the room,’ Mahder says. The landlord ‘just sent people to come and check it, but they did nothing.’

Mahder’s landlord is Metropolitan, a national housing association providing homes to social tenants across England.

Hiriti became ill while pregnant with Merken back in 2012. A desperate Mahder went to Metropolitan to complain, saying he was sure the damp was affecting her health. Hiriti developed asthma, coughed up blood. After Merken’s birth in January last year, Metropolitan sent a handyman to repaint the bedroom walls, and install a small ventilator in the bedroom. The mould soon came back.

Mahder began to fall behind on rent; he had to spend money replacing things ruined by damp — mattress, bedframe, clothes. ‘I took my family to the housing office to discuss in person the problems,’ he said. ‘When the receptionist informed the housing officer that we had come to see her, she refused to see us and told the receptionist to tell us that nothing can be done until I pay the arrears.’

Up till the summer of 2011 when he lost regular work on a construction site, Mahder paid the rent on time. He put in a claim for housing benefit. The money arrived in November, too little, too late.

Illustration by Patrick Koudah

When Mahder found work again the following March, housing benefit payments stopped. But the job paid £72 a week, not enough to cover the rent or clear the arrears.

It’s a common situation, says Pete Elliott, a caseworker at Brixton Advice Centre. Pete also volunteers at a local food bank at St Paul’s church in Brixton. He sometimes bumps into former clients he’s advised on welfare benefits or housing.

‘A lot of rent arrears are through welfare benefits not being paid properly,’ he said. ‘For the majority of our clients, it is because they start working 10 hours a week and immediately their Jobseeker’s Allowance gets stopped and recalculated.’

By 2013 Mahder’s arrears exceeded £2,000. But when Merken got sick, Mahder spent what little he earned trying to clear the mould. The family moved Merken’s cot into the living room, the adults took turns sleeping on the two-seat sofa.

Then in April last year, Metropolitan served Mahder an eviction notice: ‘You have failed to make satisfactory payments to clear your arrears, so we are in the process of applying to the County Court for possession of your home.’

Did this mean that Mahder and his family would be evicted and rehoused?

No. People evicted due to rent arrears are considered ‘deliberately homeless’; the council is under no obligation to rehouse them.

Mahder and Hiriti were miserable in their squalid flat, but now they faced something worse.




Across the River Thames in Stamford Hill, one private landlord has decided to evict tenants two months earlier than planned. One Thursday in March, the residents of a three-storey terrace house are given 15 minutes to pack and leave.

Two police vans, blue lights flashing, pull up in the large drive. Around half a dozen police officers and high court sheriffs pile out. They break into the house, run up and down the stairs, shouting over and over: “You have to leave, you have got 10 minutes!”

The house is sectioned into 22 rooms, each one home for families, couples, and individuals. Some of the residents try to show the sheriffs an order with the original eviction date: 22nd May. They are ignored. Other residents gather what they can, piling clothes into plastic bags.

Libia Montaya, a 57-year-old cleaner from Colombia, lives alone in a small room on the top floor. She’s had a difficult few years. She separated from her husband and is estranged from her daughter. She’s on medication for depression. Her hours at work have been cut. When the sheriffs bang at her door, she crumbles.

“Why is this happening? Someone help me please.”

Libia struggles to breathe, her head is spinning. Terrified, she rushes into the toilet and in her distress grabs a bottle of bleach and tries to drink it. The officers tackle her, handcuff her, and then she blacks out.

Some of the residents spend the night in a nearby park. Others stay with friends or find hostels. One group takes a bus to the local town hall. They find the grand Art Deco building closed, and try to bed down on the stone steps. Security guards order them to move on.

In the morning they are first in line for the council’s housing officer. The families with children and an elderly woman who recently suffered a stroke are given temporary accommodation, but 16 adults are ineligible for help. Around 5pm they are sent to the local law centre.

Nathaniel Mathews, a senior solicitor for Hackney Community Law Centre, immediately gets to work on their case. He applies to the high court for an interim injunction against the eviction. The warrant possession was obtained unlawfully and the residents have the right to challenge it in court.

Nathaniel, a tall Englishman with a shoulder-length ponytail and bemused expression, converses with the residents in fluent Spanish (most are originally from South America). He’ll need immaculate financial information from each tenant otherwise the legal aid agency could refuse to fund the work.

Hackney Law Centre, like legal aid providers across the country, has struggled to stay afloat after more than a decade of cuts. Legal aid ‘reform’ means only the very poorest are eligible for legal aid, and even those on income-related benefits do not automatically qualify. Drastic cuts have been made to advice and representation for housing disrepair and welfare benefits. There is nothing for employment and debt.

The injunction has been granted. One Mr Justice Collins rules that the landlord, named as Destbray Limited, must allow the 16 tenants to re-enter the property. They can return home, for now.




Back in South London, in January, with the help of Brixton Advice Centre, Mahder kept his home, negotiating a repayment plan of £3.60 a week on top of his rent. Hiriti was pregnant and their case against the housing association was due in court within weeks. In court Mahder’s lawyers would argue that Metropolitan should waive the arrears and cover the cost of extensive work to improve the ventilation in the flat.

Then Hiriti miscarried. Mahder blames stress caused by their housing situation. As well as the damp and debt, the couple had to contend with a broken kitchen sink. They placed a large bucket under the sink, emptying it three or four times a day. Mahder says this went on for ‘several months’ before the sink was replaced. In February, Hiriti’s doctor wrote a letter which said: ‘I would be grateful if these repairs [to the sink] could be carried out as soon as possible as in her present condition she cannot manage to carry these heavy loads. She is also complaining of back pain and abdominal pain relating to this.’

Mahder went to court in February 2014. He had managed to reduce the arrears from £2,292.80 to £953.70, partly by borrowing money from friends. He told the court: ‘Since I’ve moved to the flat I have been miserable as the housing office neglects our needs. We are physically, emotionally, mentally drained from this situation and still saddened by the loss of our unborn child and nobody seems to understand.’

Metropolitan agreed to waive the arrears and carry out improvements to the flat. The court order decreed that work must begin within 28 days.


Illustration by Patrick Koudah




After leaving the law centre, the 16 tenants broke into their home. In the time they had been away the landlord had changed the locks and the house had been vandalised.

Mattresses slashed, toilets ripped from the floor surrounded by broken tiles, cisterns discarded in the yard, windows nailed shut. Chunks of plaster gauged from walls. Clothes left behind strewn across rooms. No heating or gas.

Diego was embarrassed. ‘We usually keep the house very clean, we don’t live like this,’ he says. The trim, pepper-haired Colombian is 45. Before moving to London, he lived in Spain for 10 years — he was a social worker for a charity, providing support for new migrants and refugees.

Now Diego earns slightly more than the minimum wage as cleaning supervisor for an agency contracted to clean offices at Canary Wharf, the financial district across the city in East London. He paid £550 a month for his room with a double bed, a sink, a wardrobe, and a portable shower. But, he says, it will be difficult to find somewhere similar. ‘They want £1,200 or £1,300 and you see the flat and you want to cry.’

Libia paid £433 a month for her room, slightly smaller than Diego’s and without a shower. She earns about £200 a month from her cleaning job and receives £83 a week in housing benefit. ‘I am too exhausted and too tense,’ she says. ‘I can’t think about where to go or what to do. Committing suicide was the only way to leave behind all of these problems.’

Who owns the house? The tenants don’t know. They paid their money to managers who say the house was sold several months ago. Whoever owns it wants rid of them before the agreed notice period. ‘I imagined London to be a city that welcomed you, but it’s the opposite,’ says Diego, ‘I think London is becoming a city only for rich people.’

Nathaniel says the exploitation of poorer tenants is routine. ‘We have got tenants in low paying jobs from abroad, all cleaners, in relatively cheap but completely unregulated accommodation. It is not uncommon for landlords one way or another to evict these people whether through the courts, or not through the courts, and often giving them no notice at all. You have got people who just don’t know their rights.’


Illustration by Patrick Koudah


In a statement about Mahder Redie’s flat, the Metropolitan Housing Association said: ‘We settled compensation in February and agreed to carry out improvement works. A maintenance survey report was undertaken before then which identified a condensation issue and suggested an action plan to remedy the situation. The condensation was found to be as a result of a number of factors, including ventilation and heating, rather than attributable solely to the structure of the building.

‘We aim to carry out repairs quickly and efficiently… and we have regularly attended the property to carry out improvements to assist the resident with managing the condensation. Unfortunately, it reoccurred. Prior to the legal process, we have no record of the resident making a complaint through our complaints procedure.’



On 3rd April the Redie family wait for a repairman to arrive between 8am and 1pm. They finish lunch and Mahder looks at his phone.

Around 1.15pm he calls the housing association to find out why the repairman hasn’t shown up. The visit is rearranged. Mahder tries to sleep before his next shift at 11pm.

When women fought nuclear bombs

Below is an extract from my first piece for Lacuna, a new human rights magazine. The article is part of Lacuna’s first edition on Protest, which examines (through a series of narrative articles, reviews, interviews and fiction) the different ways people resist and respond to injustice. I wrote about the women who took part in the iconic Greenham Common peace protest in Britain during the 1980s. What drove that protest, who were the women involved, why just women, and what happened next? It was a fascinating piece to research. Dozens of interviews and hours spent scouring archives later, you can read my final piece here:  Meanwhile, this extract describes one moment of direct action, indicating that the Greenham Common peace camp was more than a static protest. It was  a carefully planned movement reliant on the bravery and unwavering conviction of the women taking part. Comments welcome.


The women wait, blinded by the inky blackness of night. The countryside is still and the winding roads open and empty. Hidden in the dark, women are everywhere, some lying shivering in ditches; thick coats soaked with rainwater, rough and cold against their skin, bodies doused in essential oils to ward off military dog handlers, feet sore from hours of walking to find a good position. They are armed with thin, plastic bags of wet clumps of pink dough, which they call ‘gloop’.

Jean Kaye, or ‘Pankhurst’as she is known on these nights, also waits, alert in her small car. She spots the thunderous parade of military vehicles and whispers into a transistor radio: ‘Pankhurst calling, Pankhurst calling…’Jean starts her car and follows the convoy as it roars through the countryside, shattering the silence.

A shock of flashing blue lights cuts through the darkness as a dozen police vans hurtle along the lanes. These are followed by military support vehicles, and after that US humvees with large machine guns on top. Then come the Cruise missile launchers; the vast cylinder of metal atop a line of thick wheels seems to stretch on forever. Standing on the hill near one of the gates at Greenham Common, one can see the convoy slice its way through the countryside for miles; Jean’s car and the cars of other watchers ant-like, trailing behind.

Then angry screams and chants. At various points on the roads between Greenham Common and Salisbury Plain, where the US army practise firing nuclear weapons at Russia, peace women rise from the darkness unfurling banners and gunging the convoy with gloop.

“I [would] …go into the road with a banner, when it was safe. Most of the time you had to scurry like mad to get out of the way. But sometimes they would stop, and the feeling of empathy you had with the driver and with the earth that you were standing on was really lovely,” says Juliet McBride, gazing out at the Berkshire countryside on a bright day thirty years later. She cocks her blonde head, smiles wickedly and the nostalgia dissipates: “Then you’d climb on top and wait till you got thrown off. Or arrested.”

The women crawl onto the monstrous vehicles, clasping cold metal as military guards reach to pull them away. One woman manages to stick an anti-nuclear poster on the tiny windscreen of a humvee, and another stands on the roof of a van; a slight figure with a crop of brown hair, blue eyes gleaming, legs parted as for thirty seconds she revels in her power, the American government’s nuclear weapons programme at her feet.


From about 1983, when Cruise missiles first arrived at Greenham Common, to the late eighties, the United States Air Force took out a convoy of Cruise missiles roughly once a month from the military base to a secret location in the English countryside to practise its preparations for a nuclear attack on Russia.

“It was supposed to melt into the countryside, but because of monitoring of Cruise Watch and Greenham Women it never did,” says Margaret Downs, a peace activist living in Oxford.

Cruise Watch tracked the movements of convoys across Britain and monitored the government’s development of nuclear bombs. In time, the women at Greenham became adept at spotting the signs of an impending convoy outing. It could be the increased presence of security police around the base or the American officer’s wife living nearby in Newbury who always washed her husband’s smartest uniform and hung it outside to dry a few days before nuclear firing practice. Once the women were certain, they would spread the news to various peace groups across the country. Jean was on a telephone tree of watchers who, at short notice would jump in their cars to spend the night monitoring movements of the convoy and calling ahead to alert peace activists hidden in ditches and verges ready to spring out and protest.

Hazel’s friend Jenny was also part of Cruise Watch and spent many hours chasing convoys with Jean. “Every single time, every single exercise was witnessed by people,” she says. “We would take the women down to Salisbury Plain so they could camp nearby. Sometimes they would camp for a night or a day. They would go and interfere with what was going on. Jean would do a lot of the ferrying women backwards and forwards, often at night. We ended up sleeping in shifts at times.”

Another Cruise watcher Maureen Wilsker lived a few streets from Jean in Witney at the time.

“The message would come through, usually about 11pm that it [the convoy] has moved …Jean would ring me. When I drew out of my house in Bridge Street and drove up to Jean –it doesn’t sound real –but a little police car would pull out from Oscilly’s garage and follow me up to Jean.” Her expression is incredulous. “Jean and I would laugh. It followed us as far as the Newbury roundabout and then another one took over.”

Mahalla Mason was also part of the radical circle living in conservative Witney in the 1980s. “Jean was quite serious about it. We all had these names. Coriander. Only the peace movement would have these names,” she says smiling. “It was very amateur and sneered at. They sneer because you threw paint at it…[but] the theory was if paint can hit it, something much worse can hit it.”

So what did the women achieve by throwing fuschia flour bombs and paint at nuclear convoys?

“It made an absolute nonsense of the whole thing of secrecy and being hidden,” says Nuala. The key aims were to bear witness, make known their opposition, and hinder the convoy’s procession. Slow it down, get in front of vehicles, and if they dared, get on top. Anything, to say, you are not going to rehearse nuclear war smoothly.

“They never got one out secretly, everyone was protested or witnessed. They realized there was nothing they could do to make these things secret,” says one Cruise watcher and Greenham woman.

After a convoy protest, Jean would drive around the Berkshire countryside collecting tired, hungry women. If they managed to interrupt the convoy, lighting fires in the road or climbing up trucks, the women were often arrested, but never charged. Sometimes they were held for hours and then deposited somewhere random, miles from Greenham or a railway station.

One Greenham woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, remembers being put into a deep, dark pit with a group of other women and left for hours. Soldiers silently paraded around the top, guns strapped across their chests, impervious to the women crying out to be released. “It was dark, you couldn’t see out. It was muddy at the bottom.”

Even for the Greenham women, so used to clashes with the police or challenging the military might of the US armed only with gloop and banners, it was a terrifying experience. Desperate to get out, the women attempted to provoke the officers guarding them, in the hope that they would be charged with assault, arrested and taken out of the pit. It failed. A decade later the Ministry of Defence paid the women £10,000 in damages for wrongful arrest and imprisonment.

Read the full story here.



Set Them Free

Last month I reported on the “Set Her Free” protest outside the Home Office in London. Here’s an extract from my final piece:

The ‘Set Her Free’ campaign comes at a time when women are increasingly dictating the public agenda with diverse campaigns from ending female genital mutilation to calling out everyday sexism. When feminist activism captures the public imagination, there are often cries of, ‘well, what about men?’ Discussing most campaigns advocating women’s rights, it is easy to dismiss this out of context of the structural inequalities faced by women. However, in the context of women held in detention, there is a case to be answered. Thousands of male refugees and migrants languish in British detention centres too, often for years. Many experience mental illness and post traumatic stress disorder, and a handful have been driven to suicide.

Yet evidence and activism demonstrates that the experience of female asylum seekers is distinct to their gender, particularly when survivors of rape and torture, perpetrated by male state officials, are imprisoned and guarded by men here in the UK. The problem then is not the campaign, but the system itself. When deportation cannot be effected speedily, the indefinite deprivation of the liberty of any woman, man, or child, when they have committed no crime, is grossly unjust. Liberty is a human right to be applied equally and without favour.

Read the full report here. The article was first published on OpenDemocracy 50:50 as part of the magazine’s People on the Move platform, which seeks to shift the focus of public debate on migration.


‘Journalists take pictures and nothing changes’

“Lots of journalists come and take pictures and nothing changes. So you don’t need to take pictures.”

On hearing about the latest deaths off the Italian island of Lampedusa last month, I was struck by the prescience of these words. In the last decade, tens of thousands have died trying to reach the European Union in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. Just last year 60 Syrian refugees drowned in one such tragedy. Every last death has been avoidable, and every last death is attributable.

Yasin, the man who made the comment, was Eritrean, like many of those who died off the coast of Lampedusa, but he made the same journey and survived.  He survived and learned to feel unwelcome in Europe. When he told me not to take pictures of his camp, buried in a field in France, he showed that he had begun to learn something of this Europe, the one so different from the Europe of his dreams.

Read the rest of this article here over at

I reported from Lampedusa and Palermo back in 2011. You can read some of my reports on refugees and paperless migrants here, here and here.

Who are the “illegals”?

When Sarah told her boyfriend she was pregnant with his child, he called the Home Office and told them her visa had expired.

It was one way to deal with the fact he did not want the baby. She was arrested and detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, a secure and closed building on the outskirts of Bedford where women are held while their immigration or refugee status is being decided.

Read the rest of this report over at openDemocracy

I have written about women held at Yarl’s Wood removal centre here and a report here on the UK Border Agency’s dealings with government officials from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Austerity bites

Liza was 28, working in a bookshop, and studying for a second degree when she became pregnant. “We moved in together because we thought we ought to. That lasted for a year after she was born.” Liza and her partner made a plan for their daughter’s arrival; he would help with childcare so she could return to work. But the plan unravelled when he decided to embark on a career change during her pregnancy. “So he quit his job and that was very stressful. We had no income really.

“I felt like I wasn’t getting any support from him, and I wasn’t getting any support from anyone else because they all thought he should be supporting me. So I left in order to get some support.” Liza makes a wry face and laughs. She is nearly always laughing; her dry humour usually directed at herself.

Mother and baby survived on income support and tax credits, two “big” overdrafts from her student days and some child support from her daughter’s dad. “That put a strain on our relationship. He didn’t appreciate them taking money straight out of his wages.” But the bigger strain was on Liza, who, driven by loneliness and a desire to escape the constant worry, scoured her local community, a small town outside Bristol, for friendship. “I had gone from being a free spirit to a lonely isolated single parent.”

When Liza says ‘single parent’, her face changes and the heaviness of the stigma darkens her features. But in her eyes is a sharp defiance. Too often lone parents are caricatured in the press and by politicians, particularly if they are women, and these subtle prejudices seep into the lives of single parents as they battle for the services they need to do the difficult job of raising children alone.

Contrast the government’s eagerness to reward married couples to the rhetoric used when discussing social security for single parents.

Then look at the government’s latest childcare announcement, designed to reduce childcare costs through the tax system. This will subsidise childcare for middle to high earners and do little for those parents working below the tax threshold in part-time, low paid employment. And it is the dearth of affordable childcare that forces lone mothers into these jobs.

Find out what happens to Liza over at the New Statesman. I also wrote this piece on the impact of government policy on lone parents here.

The Lone Parent Trap

Lone parent families are twice as likely as coupled families to live in poverty, and according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the British government’s tax and benefit changes could push a further 400,000 children into poverty by 2020. The government insists that finding work is the best route out of poverty.

But when single parents do find work that they can fit around their children, it is likely to be precarious and low-paid.

There are two million single parents in the UK, nine out of ten are women. What most have in common is a lack of part-time jobs paying a living wage, affordable childcare, or support to help them enter work after years spent raising children.

Single parents receive income support (£71.50 a week) in the United Kingdom and are obliged to look for work when their youngest child turns 5. On Income Support parents receive a tailored service, including a lone parent advisor to help prepare them for work, discuss childcare options and ‘better-off in work calculations’. The Jobcentre is not obliged to continue this provision for parents on Jobseeker’s Allowance, though some centres do.

But with the number of total claimants having doubled from over 750,000 in 2008 to nearly 1.5 million in 2012, even if a Jobcentre wishes to provide a tailored service to help lone parents into work it may lack the capacity to do so.

The government says work is the best route out of poverty and most lone parents want to work. Under the current government’s welfare reforms this means they must attend fortnightly jobcentre interviews to prove they are searching for work. What happens when they get there?

My report on the subject was commissioned and edited jointly by OurKingdom and the Friend, the independent Quaker magazine. It was published simultaneously in OurKingdom and, as a Fox Report, in the Friend. The Fox Report is the Friend’s investigative arm, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Read the full report here

The illustrations were provided by Patrick Koduah, a London based illustrator and animator with prizewinning work that includes projects exhibited in the Embassy of Japan, commissioned portraiture of prince Michael of Kent and music video animation for the Rolling Stone Band of the Year 2012.

“reporting & writing” named one of 10 best migrant blogs

London Migrant Hub

There are some great migrant blogs out there but they’re not always easy to find. So, for those on the hunt for migrant voices, someone to explain new immigration policy, or just an interesting take on global migration, here are some of our favourites:

1. The Diary of a Refugee Mother

Blogging as ‘Helen’, this mother of three came to the UK from Ethiopia nine years ago after having been imprisoned for political activities. She blogs, (with the help of someone from Women for Refugee Women), about the brutal realities of life on the little money available to those in the asylum process, (which for Helen is still dragging on after nearly a decade – during which time she, like all refugees, has been banned from working in the U.K). From the choices you have to make when feeding four on an income of just £60 a week, to…

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The Absurdity of Mr Grayling’s Residence Test

For those who have never come across the case of Somerset v Stewart 98 ER 499 – decided in the Easter Term of 1772 in the reign of King George III – the head note of the case gives you all of the background you need: “[o]n return to an habeas corpus, requiring Captain Knowles to shew cause for the seizure and detainure of the complainant Somerset, a negro…”. Having considered the matter for a little over a month, Lord Mansfield, returned a short judgment that has, nonetheless, managed to ring through legal history:

“The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

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Do right, fear no-one!

Connor Johnston considers how a slave would have fared under the government’s proposed legal aid residence test.

The House of Commons last week debated some of the issues raised by the Government’s consultation on “Transforming Legal Aid”. The consultation – which will be considered by the Ministry of Justice over the summer recess – proposes significant further cuts to legal aid. The proposals were announced mere days after the last round of legal aid cuts came into effect. The debate is an important one. The fact that the proposals are to be implemented via secondary legislation means that the proposals will receive a minimal level of Parliamentary scrutiny. And be under no illusions. These proposals contain changes of constitutional significance. The “residence test” – which will exclude many migrants from the protection of the law – is a standout example of this.

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Letter from Europe’s border

Originally published by the New Statesman, ‘The Desperate Crossing’ 15-21 March issue

A question for the European politicians thrashing out a plan to provide “assistance” to Syria: if a bedraggled Syrian escapes the war, if he escapes the chaos of the refugee camps in Iraq or Jordan or Turkey, if he arrives tired but hopeful on your doorstep, what will happen to him?

Reporting at the European Union’s most porous borders where Greece and Bulgaria merge with Turkey I was struck by the story of a Syrian refugee who risked drowning to avoid the clasp of the EU’s tortuous asylum and immigration system.

After relating the story of how he was deposited on the banks of Turkey by border patrol officers in Greece, I assumed my interview with Farouk, a Syrian refugee, was finished. It was twilight, and the shabby cafe on the edge of the tiny Bulgarian village was empty. I sat at the head of a small wooden table scribbling into the silence as a dozen pair of striking eyes, various shades of green, watched me curiously. They were all Syrian, thrown together by the war. The two teenage boys were awkward, goofy grins even as they imitated the sound of bombs. The old man, stooped and pot-bellied, eyed me suspiciously. Farouk’s friend spat furiously in Arabic, insisting that he keep quiet. They ate from a large dish of sunflower seeds. I swallowed the remains of a thick, bitter Bulgarian coffee, clumps of sugar clung to the tiny shot-sized glass. “So after that you travelled from Turkey to Bulgaria? How did you cross the border?” I asked.

“No, that’s another story.” We ordered more coffee and Farouk told me about his second “push-back”.

Following his encounter with the border police in Greece, Farouk went back to his smuggler, who sent him to the Aegean Sea. He was packed into a large wooden boat bound for Italy with more than 100 other people. Very soon they lost control of the boat, and could do little as it spun in the middle of the ocean between Turkey and Greece.  “After three or four hours people started to throw up,” he said. “There was a problem inside the boat, the water started to enter. Everyone was scared and thinking about dying. We had suffered too much.”

On this occasion the Greek maritime police tried to rescue them, but the appointed captain of the boat, another Syrian refugee, deliberately thwarted the attempt. “He had a problem with Greece because he had been caught in Greece before,” said Farouk. Rather than find himself back in Greece, the desperate captain threw an anchor into the sea, which caught on something solid, so even as the Greek officers tried to pull the boat to safety it would not budge and looked certain to capsize. Farouk’s rising terror was compounded by the screams of his fellow passengers, among them young children.

What made the Syrian captain risk the lives of everyone on the boat to avoid Greece?

The fingerprints of any non-European person who has travelled “unofficially” across borders are taken on arrival in any European Union country. If you want to make a claim for asylum, under the EU’s Dublin II regulations you must do so in the first EU country you enter. If you try to make a claim in another EU country, your fingerprints will pop up on a central database indicating the country of entry, and you will be deported back there.

Dublin II could only work if each and every EU country operated an efficient, fair and humane asylum and immigration system. Most EU countries appear to have coherent structures in place, but in reality all over Europe there are hundreds of genuine refugees and children detained in prisons or holding centres, living in extreme poverty, or stuck in limbo for years while their applications are processed.

Greece is a tragic example of where Europe’s common asylum system is failing. Up to November last year 26,000 refugees and irregular migrants entered Greece illegally, with Syrians the largest group after Afghans. Around 90% of all migrants and refugees entering Europe unofficially enter through Greece, which embodies the worst of the differing national asylum and immigration systems across the 27 member states. Greece’s system had already collapsed before its financial problems struck. By 2010 the backlog for asylum claims had crept towards 70,000; Médecins Sans Frontières declared the state of immigration holding centres “medieval”; and a quarter of a million undocumented migrants and refugees haunt the city of Athens alone trapped in various states of destitution.

I don’t know what happened to the captain who panicked, but after eventually being rescued other Syrian refugees on the boat went back to the Aegean Sea. They drowned when their boat sank killing 60 people on 6th September last year.