Racism against asylum seekers

The Guardian article below came about as a result of Legal Action for Women’s National Gathering on Saturday 3 July 2004.

Kamwaura Nygothi was one of a number of women who raised the racism they were suffering in the North East of England. As a result of the article we have received many sympathetic responses, including several from Middlesbrough. People said how shocked and disgusted they are at the racism and some offered practical support and help with housing, food and donations. Some of the letters and articles can be seen below.

Every moment for me is fear
As an asylum seeker, I discovered what racism really means when I was 'dispersed' to Middlesbrough

Kamwaura Nygothi, The Guardian, Comment, Thursday July 8, 2004

I am an asylum seeker and I am black. I believe that in Middlesbrough, where the Home Office has placed me, I am not safe.

I was a successful businesswoman in Kenya and I would love to work and contribute taxes to British society rather than get benefits - but I am not allowed to.

On buses people refuse to sit next to me and shout out "monkey" and "asylum seeker". In the street a big, strong man struck me on my back with his fists and said: "You are illegal, you should go back to your country." Boys spit at me and throw stones when I walk down the street. If I go to a public toilet, whoever is behind me in the queue won't use it after me.

One friend had fireworks thrown through her letter box. Several mothers I know left their babies in the creche at a local family centre for a couple of hours. They returned to find their babies sitting in dirty nappies. They felt this was because the staff didn't want to touch their babies. Middlesbrough reminds me of South Africa during apartheid.

I fled Kenya after a period in detention where I was raped and burned with acid and cigarettes because I belonged to a group which opposed the government. I was released on bail and was convinced that it was only a matter of time before I was jailed and tortured again.

My survival instinct took over and I left everything - my family, my business, which was worth a lot of money, and my community - to escape to a place where I thought I'd be safe. I came to England for one reason only, because I'd heard it was a country that respects human rights.

In London, where I was initially placed, I felt safe for the first time in years. There is a large Kenyan community there: it's an environment where people from many different backgrounds mostly live peacefully together and where there are support services for traumatised asylum seekers, including the only services in the country for female asylum seekers who have been raped.

But my experience in the north-east has made me realise that London is another country.

I was shocked when the immigration authorities told me I was being "dispersed" to Middlesbrough and that if I didn't go my support would be cut off. I knew of asylum seekers who refused to leave London. They ended up sleeping on the streets and going hungry.

I had no idea what it would be like in the north-east but I felt I had no choice but to go. We were transported at night by coach and placed in our new accommodation with a small amount of cash. I was given a flat on a council estate where I am the only black person.

By the time I had experienced a few days in Middlesbrough, any hope I had was in shreds. The council's asylum unit handed us a welcome pack when we arrived.

They should have called it "Welcome to Racism". It warned us about the possibility of racist attacks on asylum seekers and told us who to complain to if we experienced anything from verbal abuse to physical violence. "While members of the team are happy to listen to your concerns, they can't deal with non-emergencies," concludes the warning.

I never experienced this level of discrimination in London. Racism is not a concept I was familiar with in Kenya and only now that I have been moved to Middlesbrough do I properly understand what the word means.

The fact that an explicit warning is given to us suggests to me that the government knows exactly what they are sending us to. They have a duty of care to asylum seekers, but deliberately placing us in this environment seems to me to be wilful neglect of that duty.

There have been cases of asylum seekers being murdered in this part of the country and in Scotland. Every moment for me is fear.

I have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of what happened to me in Kenya and am experiencing suicidal feelings. I'm scared of walking down the street and only go out when I have to. I'm scared of going out after 5.30pm because I know the risk of attack rises as evening approaches. I'm scared of what will happen when my asylum case comes up in North Shields - I haven't heard of any asylum seeker who has won their case there. There are too many things to have nightmares about.

I am made to feel as if I smell and there is zero tolerance for the non-existent smell of an asylum seeker. I escaped from Kenya because I wanted to live, but in Middlesbrough all I can think about is how much I want to die.

· Kamwaura Nygothi ran a wholesale food business in Kenya. She applied for asylum in February 2002. The Black Women's Rape Action Project has supported her.


Letters published in response to Kamwaura article:

How is it those concerned with making arrangements for asylum seekers can be so insensitive (Every moment for me is fear, July 8) to send a person who has suffered rape and torture, but is well settled with sympathetic support services, to an area where none of these exist and she is faced with hostility at every turn? As one who spent years working overseas in the developing and former communist countries and is now involved is assisting asylum seekers locally, I am dismayed our government should treat such people in this way. Kamwaura Nygothi should be returned to London, along with all others in similar circumstances.
Jeff Alderson

The Home Office should not send asylum seekers here. Haven't they seen statistics about the sorry state Middlesbrough is in, with high unemployment, high rates of crime, prostitution and heavy drugs use? The authorities have trouble dealing with our own folk, let alone asylum seekers. I hope Kamuwaura Nygothi's story will finally get through to Queen Anne's Gate of the problems asylum seekers suffer in genuinely poor areas.
John Greggs
Tyne and Wear

Other face of Teesside
Tuesday July 13, 2004
The Guardian Letters

You may be interested in the response of Teessiders to the disturbing experiences of racism suffered by Kamwaura Nygothi (Comment, July 8). The Evening Gazette was immediately alerted to the article by concerned readers and, after verifying the source, republished it with a front-page editorial challenging readers to "Speak out against racism" by sending letters condemning such bigotry.

Within hours emails were flooding in expressing sadness at Kamwaura's experience, sending her warm wishes and even inviting her to be shown around the region by people who cared. By yesterday, this response had accelerated, and today the whole letters page will be turned over to the subject.

What is clear is that the vast majority of Teessiders were shocked at what a few bigots appeared to have done - both to a woman in need, and to the reputation of a town that they all love. The response does not negate opinions on the number of asylum seekers in the system, on how slowly they are processed, nor on where they are "dispersed". But the general Teesside public has quickly put aside such opinions for now and simply wants to open its arms to welcome and protect a person some of their own appear to have harmed. Guardian readers can view this response at Icteesside.co.uk/antiracism.

Steve Dyson
Editor, Evening Gazette, Middlesbrough


Front page comment in support of Kamwaura: Stand up and be counted
Middlesborough Evening Gazette, Jul 9 2004

by Steve Dyson, Editor, Evening Gazette

Certain Teessiders must today hang their heads in shame. We want your views after the vile racist experience said to have been endured by an asylum seeker in this region.

In yesterday's The Guardian newspaper, Kamwaura Nygothi, a successful businesswoman from Kenya who originally came to Britain for her safety, told how she wants to die because of the abuse she has received since arriving on the Tees.

Kamwaura suffered rape and torture for opposing her government in Africa before fleeing to what she hoped was a developed, broadminded nation in the West.

But after initial calm in London, she was 'dispersed' to Middlesbrough where she says appalling discrimination and violence has been inflicted on her.

Her claims include everything from standard refusals of grown men and women to sit next to her on buses, to being punched hard on the back by a muscular man, yelling at her to go home. Young boys have spat and thrown stones at her. Others dismiss her with 'monkey' taunts.

All this prejudice against a woman already suffering stress and suicidal feelings; all from certain locals who appear to have shown Teesside in a sickening, xenophobic light.

Today the Evening Gazette reprints every word from Kamwaura that appeared in The Guardian. It does not make for pleasant reading on page 2, but we make no apologies for that.

Because every single one of our 183,000+ readers must learn what a few bigots have done to the reputation of a town we all love.

We're not talking about the rights and wrongs of asylum cases here. It may be that Kamwaura's application for residence fails for perfectly equitable reasons, but that should not concern us today.

We are not even talking about the specifics of what has happened to her, as she is so scared of harassment that she is currently reluctant to go into any detail with our journalists to enable us to verify each and every claim.

What we are talking about are the actual human rights of a woman in desperate need; a woman who appears to have been chauvinistically kicked into the wayside; a woman who has been left in a state of misery and rejection by the abject discrimination she has experienced.

And how many others have endured similar experiences is almost too chilling a question to ask. But we know that some have, the firebombing of Iranian asylum-seeker Samad Kadkhodaei and his family in Grangetown in January this year just one example.

The only way the good people of Teesside can now help Kamwaura and others in her position is by letting the world know how appalled we all are.

This is the only way we have to recover the region's reputation.

We want letters, dozens of them - no, scores and scores - fervently disassociating yourselves from the intolerance said to have been shown. We want them from mums and dads, councillors, MPs and mayors, businessmen, sportsmen and people from all walks of life. And we will publish them all, both in our paper and on our icTeesside.co.uk website.

For now, we have a very bitter taste in our mouths over what is said to have happened. For Kamwaura's and our own sakes we must show the world that the vast majority of people in Middlesbrough and Teesside do care.

And if Kamwaura ever grows to trust us, the Gazette will formally welcome her, will sit her on the top table at one of our community dinners and will chauffeur her back home afterwards. Because this newspaper, our readers and this region are surely better than what has been portrayed?

Remember, we must forget the ins and outs of her particular case for the moment. Let's simply open our arms to welcome and protect a person some of our own appear to have harmed.

The Evening Gazette is sorry for what you have had to bear on Teesside, Kamwaura. And we believe our readers are too. Watch this space and we'll prove it.

* Send your letters on this matter urgently to The Editor, Evening Gazette, Borough Road, Middlesbrough TS1 3AZ or email editor@eveninggazette.co.uk

* An archive of articles and letters on this subject will soon appear on icteesside.co.uk/antiracism

Page 2: There's no place for race attacks

There's no place for race attacks

Middlesbrough's community leaders today expressed sympathy with an asylum seeker who claims to have been targeted in a vicious race campaign in the town.

But they denied the damning description was typical of life experienced by asylum seekers and refugees in the area.

Local figures have rallied round in support of the town to refute accusations of widespread racism, verbal and physical abuse.

The backing comes after a report in a national newspaper written by a Kenyan asylum seeker living in Middlesbrough.

Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP Ashok Kumar, who has lived on Teesside for 20 years, said he "cast some doubt" on her attitude to the area.

"That is not to say I cannot understand her feelings," he added.

"But I do have to say equally that you cannot blanket an entire community as racist and bigoted.

"Of course there is racism in our society. But it is not something that is limited to just one part of the United Kingdom."

In the article in yesterday's Guardian, Kamuwaura Nygothi said she fled Kenya after being imprisoned and tortured for supporting a group opposed to the government in her home country.

But she claimed she had regularly experienced racist abuse since being moved to the town from London by Home Office officials.

Writing in the newspaper she said: "Racism is not a concept I was familiar with in Kenya and only now that I have been moved to Middlesbrough do I properly understand what the word means.

"Every moment for me is fear."

Pete Widlinski, the North of England Refugee Service's Tees Valley area manager, admitted a number of asylum seekers had experienced hostility.

But he added the majority of people in Middlesbrough were welcoming and the service worked hard with local organisations to ensure refugees were integrated into society.

"It is one of the better areas for refugees and asylum seekers to begin new lives," he said.

"After all, Middlesbrough has a long history of immigrants contributing towards the town's development."

Daoud Zaaroura, chief executive of the North-east service, added: "Any level or act of racism is unacceptable and those working to support integration in the North-east refuse to tolerate such attitudes."

Councillor Bob Kerr, Middlesbrough Council's executive member with responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees, gave his sympathy but said the experiences were not representative of asylum seekers in the town.

He added: "We won't pretend racism doesn't exist in Middlesbrough.

"But it is far outweighed by the practical support and immense goodwill towards people who we look on as citizens and guests in a town that was built on immigration."

A Cleveland Police spokesman said Middlesbrough's District Commander, Chief Superintendent Mark Braithwaite, was a member of the Teesside Coalition Against Racism Forum.

"There are many support groups for asylum seekers and police work closely with them, giving advice at surgeries throughout the area," he added.

"Generally a good relationship exists between local people, ethnic minorities and asylum seekers."