“They are playing with people’s lives” – treatment of Jewish refugee highlights the UK’s shameful policy of indefinite detention

22 Jun, 2018 | Asylum and Detention, Latest, Stop the hostile environment

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Yuri came to the UK seeking asylum after fleeing anti-Semitic persecution. “Given Britain’s acceptance of Jewish refugees during the Second World War I thought I would be respected and supported”.  That belief was shattered by his encounters with the Home Office.  He came to the UK seeking shelter, but was instead locked up in one of Britain’s immigration detention centres.

Yuri fled the Middle East more than a decade ago. In his country of origin, he was subjected to violent anti-Semitic attacks and so was forced to hide his faith. Jewish names were forbidden by the state, and his mother refused to teach him Hebrew in case he was heard speaking it in public.

But, in eight court cases over 13 years, the Home Office refused to believe his application for asylum on the grounds of religious persecution. Once, on a routine visit to the immigration office, he was taken to a room – “a prison” he calls it – and held there for seven hours, unable to contact anyone. Then he was taken to a detention centre and held for two months. His first week there was spent in solitary confinement – still not allowed to contact anyone, nor even to shower.

In detention Yuri witnessed guards violently assault detainees and was himself subjected to degrading treatment. On a visit to hospital, he was handcuffed and had his legs tied together. “I thought that Britain was a country of human rights but this is not the case in detention”.

In reality, Yuri’s rights were routinely denied. Often there was no interpreter. He was only allowed to contact solicitors from a set list who, he felt,  put the interests of the Home Office first. When he asked to see a Rabbi, he was told one wasn’t available.

Despite his treatment in the UK, Yuri describes himself as “lucky”. This is largely because he could not be deported – his country of origin refused to accept him back because of his faith. Many others were not so lucky. One of Yuri’s fellow detainees cried when the Home Office told him he would be deported. He knew his fate, but he was not believed. He was shot by state officials the day he arrived back in his home country.

Yuri’s experience of UK officialdom is not entirely negative. He praises for the British police, who ensured he did not feel afraid to give evidence regarding the assault he witnessed. He contrasts this with the treatment he would have received in his home country, where his father was shot by the regime for speaking up for human rights.

He is grateful to the UK because it did – eventually – give him sanctuary. But he asks why it took thirteen years for him to be believed. And why did it only happen because a volunteer visitor found him an independent solicitor, and a Rabbi, who insisted that the evidence in his case be properly examined?

Sadly, Yuri’s experience of the UK’s immigration policies is not unique. It is typical of the shameful manner in which many refugees to our country are treated.  We are the only country in Europe that systematically detains refugees for an indefinite period of time. This policy is expensive, ineffective, and unjust. While we look to a future with alternatives to detention, the introduction of a 28 day time limit is desperately needed.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, co-authored by our namesake Monsieur René Cassin, proclaims, as universal and inviolable, “the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.  The need to protect that right has rarely been more urgent than it is today.

Persecution and estrangement are indivisible from Jewish religion, history and culture. So, we Jews should continue to show solidarity and compassion towards people like Yuri who come here asking for shelter. René Cassin is setting up a group of Jewish visitors to provide emotional support to people of all faiths and nationalities being held in detention centres. We ask anyone who is interested to get involved.

Throughout his asylum process, Yuri was supported by a Rabbi and now feels a valued member of a synagogue. But his story should be a call to action. As we mark Refugee Week, we hope the Jewish community will join us in demanding a more accountable and transparent immigration policy, which seeks to serve not administrative targets, but the rights and dignity of all.

In the end, the judge at Yuri’s final hearing apologised to him for the way he was treated and stated that his detainment had been a waste of public money.

When I asked if he had ever experienced hostility in the UK, Yuri said yes, but only by the Government. “They are playing with people’s lives”, he says.


Hannah Swirsky is the Campaigns Officer at René Cassin. Hannah interview Yuri as part of René Cassin work to mark Refugee Week 2018 (18-26 June 2018) http://refugeeweek.org.uk/

‘Yuri’ is a pseudonym – we have changed his name to protect his privacy and ensure his security

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