Sunday, September 19, 2010

"They're human too."

Woken early by rain pouring down outside I decided to go to an early morning fringe meeting on the campaign to stop the indefinite detention of those seeking sanctuary here who for one reason or another have been refused. The policy if it can be dignified with such a name of the last government was to remove anyone who had broken the law, and to detain them until such time as they can be deported. It’s a very populist policy, but look a bit closer. What about those whose country of origin won’t take them back? Or won’t give them papers so that they can go anywhere else? How can they be deported? What if the “criminal offence” is trying to leave the country without papers? Or minor shop-lifting which would be dealt with by a caution for anyone else? Is deportation really the answer in those cases? And if it truly is the answer, what happens to those who can’t be sent away? They are then detained indefinitely while the UK Border Agency waits for regime change or peace or whatever is needed. Thousands of pounds a year spent on detaining someone whose home country might be at war or for some reason won’t accept them so they can’t go back. They cost the UK taxpayer thousands of pounds to keep them in an establishment which is a prison in all but name where they suffer depression and other emotional problems, often becoming suicidal. There would be an outcry if a dog was locked away indefinitely without access to its favourite people or possessions. Why should asylum seekers be treated as less than human, less even than a pet animal, just because they had the nerve to ask for sanctuary here on grounds which haven’t been accepted or who committed an offence while here? Of course some people will be refused – the nature of any asylum system means that criteria are set and those who don’t fulfil them can’t stay. And of course criminal offences should be punished appropriately. But that doesn’t make them less than human. That doesn’t mean they should be locked up without trial, without access to friends, without any idea of a date for the end of their sentence. As Reza, an Iranian who has survived this ordeal, said “Don’t forget they’re human. That’s all I ask. Don’t forget they’re human too.”

A large part of the morning was taken up with a consultation session on our strategy for the future – I wonder which other party would do that in a session open to the press? It was an excellent session – full of good, constructive comment on what we should do and say.

The afternoon’s star session was questions to the Deputy Prime Minister. Holding our leaders to account in this way has been a feature of our conferences for a while, but there’s an extra buzz in the air when the leader of our party is also the Deputy Prime Minister of the UK. Readers might well have the impression from the media that he was subjected to hostile questioning, rebellion in the ranks and worse. All I can say is, don’t believe the media. There was robust and challenging questioning, yes, but that’s the point of holding someone to account. There’s no point in having carefully selected questions which allow the leader to point out all the good things s/he has done. We know them – what we’re doing is challenging to gain even more. So there was no rebellion and no hostility, but plenty of challenge.

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