Isa Muazu is 45 years old. The youngest of three boys, with one younger sister, he is softly spoken and polite, and suffers from mental health problems. In July 2007, Muazu fled from his native Nigeria to the UK because he feared that members of Boko Haram, a hardline Islamist group, would kill him. He says they have already killed several members of his family.
Muazu is now being held in Harmondsworth removal centre, an immigration detention centre, and has been on hunger strike for nearly three months. He has lost vision in both eyes, is suffering from chest pain and shortness of breath, and is too weak to sit up unaided. In the next few days, it is likely that he will die on a mattress on the floor, surrounded only by private security staff. Shortly before writing this article, I spoke to him. „I am struggling, I am scared,“ he said. „I have never committed any crimes; nothing like this has ever happened to me before.“
How is it that a vulnerable man who came here in fear of his life has ended up in these most terrible of circumstances? I would like to say it was an aberration; that he just slipped through the cracks. The truth is Muazu’s fate is a banal and grotesque inevitability of an ever-tougher government policy towards immigrants and asylum seekers. The move to keep him in custody, even though it may result in his death, is part and parcel of a hardening of ministers towards people in Muazu’s situation – an entrenching of the suspicion that people who undertake extreme acts such as a hunger strike are simply trying to worm their way into British citizenship.
Yesterday the high court ruled that the home secretary, Theresa May, was not holding Muazu unlawfully. The judge who granted the case at the high court prefaced it with the remarks: „It is important to appreciate that those who use a hunger strike to manipulate their position will not succeed in doing so provided they have mental capacity.“ Muazu was very clear with me that the judgment will have no effect upon his hunger strike. How can a man who would rather die than return to his native country be gaming the system?
Muazu came to the UK in 2007 on a valid visa. Once his visa expired he overstayed because he was too afraid to return to Nigeria. In 2011 he applied for leave to remain in the UK but was refused. In July of this year he claimed asylum seeking to remain in Britain and remain safe. He was immediately detained – on the same day he claimed asylum, which was refused after a few days. This is standard procedure in the government’s „fast track“ system of assessing asylum claims.
According to a 2013 briefing paper by Detention Action, 99% of people on „fast track“ asylum applications are refused. Applicants are granted a solicitor, but more than 60% are dropped by their solicitors after the initial refusal and are then forced to navigate the immigration appeal system alone. Often there is no time for applicants to get evidence from their home country because they are only given three days to appeal the first decision.
Muazu initially stopped eating because Harmondsworth removal centre couldn’t accommodate his health problems, including hepatitis B, kidney problems and stomach ulcers. Since then, he has continued his strike in protest at the inhumane way he and other asylum seekers are treated. For the detention of people like Muazu is fast becoming not the exception, but the rule in this country. We are one of the few countries in the world to have no time limit on the length of detention of asylum seekers. If the immigration bill unveiled last month is passed, immigration checks will be carried out before anyone can open a new bank account, be issued with a driving licence or access routine health treatment. After an experiment by the government to drive vans that instruct undocumented migrants to „go home“, around racially mixed communities, it is difficult not to see a pattern of criminalising an entire demographic of people – a demographic whom the British authorities appear to view as naturally duplicitous and grasping.
Immigration has always been a thorny issue politically, and successive governments have ratcheted up the tensions in order to win easy points from the electorate. Now we seem to be in a position where any public figure who says something in defence of immigrants is accused of failing to understand the concerns of ordinary people, concerns that were preyed upon and magnified by politicians in the first place. And with former Labour politicians such as Jack Straw confirming the worst by apologising for his own government’s immigration policies, it is likely to become ever more politically difficult for future governments to change existing practices.
But where does that leave people like Muazu? When can we acknowledge that immigrants and asylum seekers are human beings who deserve some measure of safety – some quality of life? There has to be some point at which these policies give way to compassion and civility. There needs to be lines drawn in the sand in order to protect human life, regardless of the political noise going on in the background. But there isn’t – clearly there isn’t; because Muazu’s line came and went a long time ago.