A few days ago I received the following notification: “CAST are holding a peaceful demonstration against the removals of Asylum Seekers to Zimbabwe, and that the government should lift the ban that stops asylum seekers working and the opportunity to look after themselves. We will also be handing in a petition which you are able to sign at the CAST office beforehand, or on the day. This will be taking place on Thursday 14th March, at 2pm between Southend Civic Centre and Southend Police Station.”
My friends from the Southend based organization Community and Sanctuary Seekers Together (CAST) added “We hope that you will attend”. And attend I did, partly to support a cause I have long felt strongly about and partly to catch up with old friends. Some thirty turned up for what was a peaceful protest. Going back to the earlier part of my community activist career, some eight to fifteen years back, Asylum Seeking was one of those issues that I sought to own or at least do my bit in trying to do something to help. I wrote about this in my “Missing Communities” and “Faiths and Africa” reports and it seemed to me that in my town (and across the country) people had come to the country from overseas, not so much for economic reasons (although that can never be discounted) but to seek sanctuary from oppression in their own country. These came from all over the world but significantly a large number were from Zimbabwe (at the time it was reckoned there were around 2000 Zimbabweans living in a town of around 180000 residents). Most managed to obtain leave to stay and become British citizens but a few did not and their efforts to do so were thwarted by government. I was saddened to learn many years on there are still those in a state of limbo where their status is unsettled and they are unable to receive benefits and allowed to work. No one knows the exact number but conservative estimates suggest it is around 100 plus some having gone underground to escape obtrusive bureaucracy and the ever present threat of deportation by a government who has been sold the lie that with changes in the Zimbabwe political structure that it is safe for these people to return to Zimbabwe.
I have to confess my community activism has moved on from my days when I was actively involved in Southend’s BME community, notably including Zimbabweans, but I welcomed this jolt to my conscience telling me there is unfinished business to attend to. While attending the event yesterday was joyful as I was able to meet and stand alongside friends (old and new), it had a bitter taste too. I was once again reminded of the arse about face approach of the political class to immigration. We let people in to the country who we should not let in and reject those who we should let in, who often from my experience positively contribute to the local community and whose demands are reasonable. Coming to a fully rounded view and where we go on this (and to the point where I go) is uncertain (I am now on my last legs and need to focus on what I can do), but it is evident to me that what yesterday highlighted were examples of human rights violation and gross injustice and the point about being human is we need to stand with those who are wrongly done by.