Meltem Avcil, 14. The Kurdish teenager and her mother sought asylum in Britain. Now she claims attempts to deport her have left her traumatised
Maud Lennard, 36. Beaten and abused by British security guards, she fears she is about to be handed back to Mugabe’s thugs
By Emily Dugan, Robert Verkaik and Chris Green
Published: 21 November 2007 in The Independent.
They came for Meltem Avcil in the middle of the night. There were five security guards, four men and a woman. The 13-year-old Kurdish asylum-seeker and her mother were driven from Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in the back of a black van to a British Airways plane waiting at Heathrow airport.
When they reached the plane, Meltem claims the men held down her mother, placed her in handcuffs, dragged her off the Tarmac and up the steps of the aircraft. When it came to Meltem’s turn she remembers one of the guards telling her: “You know if you refuse to go on the plane, we’ll put handcuffs on you and tie your feet; tell your mum what I said.”
Two more escorts grabbed Meltem’s hands and forced her to follow her mother through the door of the plane. In the end it was only the intervention of the pilot that halted the deportation.
Today Meltem will be 14 years old, but she will not be celebrating her birthday. For the past three months, the Doncaster schoolgirl and her mother, Cennet Avcil, have been detained in Yarl’s Wood. And every day Meltem fears another knock on the door will herald the arrival of the men to deport them from their adopted country.
Thursday’s aborted removal was just the latest crisis in Meltem and her family’s flight from persecution in Turkey, to seek sanctuary first in Germany, and then in Britain. After their application for asylum was rejected by the German justice department, the family came to Britain in 2001.
In the time it took to consider their asylum application, Meltem managed to establish a new life for herself in Doncaster. Her school describes her as an outstanding student and Meltem says she wants to study to be a doctor. But she has had to grow up fast.
Her father left the family soon after they arrived in Britain and neither Meltem nor her mother has seen him since. The persecution the family claim to have suffered in Turkey and the family’s struggle for asylum in this country has taken a huge toll on her mother, who is now deeply traumatised by her experience.
Their friends in Doncaster say that Meltem has had to learn to become her mother’s mother, familiarising herself with asylum law and all the bureaucracy necessary for establishing a new life in a new country.
In the past two years, 2,079 asylum-seekers have won an eleventh-hour reprieve because of what the Home Office describes as their “disruptive behaviour”. But many asylum-seekers claim that the “disruption” is as much to do with the excessive force used by the security guards emplo yed by the Home Office in its increasingly desperate battle to meet tougher and tougher removal targets as it is with their protests.
In nearly every incident the experience is deeply distressing for the asylum-seeker as well as the airline passengers, who have to witness the shouts and cries of the traumatised refugees. Campaigners representing the rights of asylum- seekers now want the Government to find a more ” humane ” system for the removal of refugees refused asylum, of which there are about 4,000 every three months. For Meltem, it was a particularly harrowing experience because she was forced to watch her mother’s desperate efforts to stop her daughter being deported from a country they had regarded as their home after fleeing persecution in Turkey six years ago.
Meltem told her lawyers afterwards: “They took my mum out [of the van], and my mum started crying more and tried not to go up the steps. One of the guards went on top of my mother, held her legs down, and went to handcuff her, but the handcuffs hit my mother’s face badly, and she was bruised and cut. He handcuffed her, and dragged her off the [Tarmac] and up the plane steps to the very back of the plane. I started crying, I was scared. Two escorts held me by the hands but I kept saying ‘let me go’ but one of the escorts pinched my hands to make me go. And then they put me in the plane.”
On Friday, Meltem asked the Home Office to investigate the alleged ill-treatment suffered by her mother, who she claims suffered bruising to her wrists and cuts to her face during her struggle with the guards. Robina Qureshi, director of Positive Action in Housing, which has been galvanising support to keep Meltem and her mother in Britain, said last night: “I believe that the trauma that the UK Government has put Meltem Avcil through will haunt her for the rest of her life, and that it is in the best interests of this child to be returned to her home in Doncaster, the familiarity of her school, friends and teachers, and to have access within this comfort zone to psychiatrists to assist her in returning to her former happy self.”
The Home Office declined to discuss this case, nor would it say which private security firm carried out the aborted removal of Meltem and Cennet Avcil. But a government spokeswoman said that those who resorted to ” unlawful” means to prevent their removal would not be successful and would be removed at a later date. “It’s preferable if they return home voluntarily and it is regrettable that not all choose to do so and it becomes necessary to enforce their removal.” She added that all allegations made to the Border and Immigration Agency were treated very seriously and properly investigated.
When the Zimbabwean Maud Lennard arrived in the UK in 2004, she thought life would be easier. The outspoken opponent of the Mugabe regime had endured rape and torture at the hands of the President’s henchmen, forcing her to flee the country, seeking refuge in the UK.
But last week Ms Lennard saw a very different side to the haven she sought. Still sporting the deep scars of her treatment in Zimbabwe, her skin now bears fresh marks, received this time at the hands of agents of the British state. She claims she was racially abused and left weeping and bruised by an escort team of five, who had been working for the UK government, seeking to remove her on a flight to Malawi last week.
After her screams for help attracted the attention of the pilot, she was taken off the plane. “The four men pulled me down the stairs,” she said, “and I felt one of them kick me from behind. I was very traumatised. They called me a ‘filthy black African pig’, then they threatened, ‘You don’t belong to Malawi, you don’t belong to Zimbabwe, so next time we are going to book you on BA and take you to Congo Kinshasa, where we can kill you and feed you to the crocodiles… One of them said, ‘If I had a gun I’d blow your brains out’.”
That Ms Lennard entered Britain on a Malawian passport, having paid a desperate bribe of $500 does not seem to have prevented the eviction attempts; nor does the fact that since 2004 five of the 11 Zimbabweans removed to Malawi have been returned to Zimbabwe.
Following The Independent’s coverage of Ms Lennard’s case last month, it was decided that the 36-year-old, who had already been on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood detention centre for 44 days, was not fit to fly. But less than two weeks later, when her time without food had reached 53 days, the Home Office tried again to remove her.
Tonight, she will be compelled to board a BA flight for Lilongwe. She lives in fear of what will happen to her. “I’m really scared, I think they will arrest me in Malawi, because they will know I am not a Malawian, and then they will deport me to Zimbabwe. Going to prison in Malawi would be bad but I’d rather be in prison than back [in] Zimbabwe.”
Having worked outside Harare as the women’s wing secretary for the opposition MDC, she fled persecution by Zanu-PF agents, who had attacked her several times.
In the most recent attempt to remove Ms Lennard from Britain, she was sleeping in the waiting room, weakened from 53 days on hunger strike, when the guards arrived to take her to Heathrow. “I was so frightened that my knees were knocking.” But her fears could not have prepared her for what came next.
“As they took me to the car, they threatened me, saying if I didn’t behave they would call the Kenyan police to make sure when the plane stopped in Kenya they would come to beat me up.” On the plane she was ordered to eat the first meal following her hunger strike. She was sick.
Fearing it was her last chance, she stood up and started shouting to her fellow passengers for help. According to Ms Lennard, the guards dragged her back to her seat and pinned her down.
“They were all over me,” she said. “One was holding my neck and was choking me; I struggled to breathe, someone had their hand over my nose. Another had his foot on my right leg as he was pinning me down. They handcuffed me so tightly it was painful.”
At this point, Ms Lennard told the guards “I can’t go alive, you’ve got to kill me if you want me to go”. The pilot ordered them to take her off the plane, during which she was kicked and manhandled down the stairs, before being thrown into the car “like a sack of something”.
While the other four went inside, one of the guards stayed with her. Ms Lennard recalls they told her: “You came here to nick our money, you must go back to your country, you black pig”. She began to cry, and he said, “I’m not finished yet”. Ms Lennard said: “I was so scared because I thought he was going to beat me up”. Then the others came back.
An independent doctor from the Medical Justice Network this week confirmed that the bruising on her wrists and right leg corroborated her account. The Home Office has refused to discuss an individual case. According to Dr Frank Arnold of the Medical Justice Network, the publicity surrounding the violent deportations of asylum-seekers has yet to change the behaviour of guards. Dr Arnold said: “Following articles in The Independent, and the report of the Border and Immigration Agency’s own complaints audit committee (CAC), the incidence of harm during failed removals should have declined. I have no evidence it has. But of the cases examined by the CAC, over 90 per cent of complaints were investigated by the companies about whom the complaints were made, and only 8 per cent of the complainants were interviewed.
“It must be concluded that this deplorable practice continues.”
Patson Muzuva, Chair of the Zimbabwe Association – a campaign group based in the UK – said: “Her life is at stake if she is sent to Malawi… they will send her straight to Robert Mugabe.”
Speaking on the phone from Yarl’s Wood yesterday, Ms Lennard said: “I was nervous, but now I want to fight. It has been difficult for me in the UK, but I have no other option: I cannot go back.”
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