*Warning, the following video may be distressing to watch*
I first met Mrs Saleh in Cardiff in 2010 with one of her daughters. Her claim for asylum had been refused and she had no understanding of the asylum process and no legal representatives. She was frightened and confused about what would happen to her and her children. At that time the fear showed visibly on her face and she found it very difficult to relax or communicate.
We invited her to join Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group, a grassroots self-help group for women seeking asylum in South Wales. When Mrs Saleh started coming to the group, she was very quiet, just listening and taking in the information, over time she received emotional support and began to feel able to speak about her situation, which is when I gradually came to hear her story.
Mrs Saleh had been abused and threatened by her violent husband in Egypt for many years, but was unable to seek help from the authorities because of his close ties with the police and judiciary. Her husband had also made one of their members of staff pregnant, and the staff member’s father then threatened Mrs Saleh and her children. Mrs Saleh knew that her life and the life of her children were in danger from this vendetta feud and no-one in Egypt would protect them. This led her to claim asylum in the UK in 2007.
Refugee case law shows that if a woman is at risk of serious harm from family members or other individuals, in a situation where her state refuses to provide any protection, she may cross borders to seek sanctuary. Unfortunately, Ms Saleh ran into many of the problems that women face when they claim asylum from gender-related persecution. She was confronted by the culture of disbelief which has long been documented at the Home Office. Ms Saleh began her claim using another nationality in order to safeguard her youngest daughter, who was still in Egypt. She was scared that her daughter would be targeted if it came out that she had claimed asylum in the UK. As soon as her youngest daughter got to the UK Ms Saleh corrected her story, but this initial falsehood, which she created for understandable reasons, has been used against her throughout her claim.
Mrs Saleh had other difficulties during her asylum claim. She had poor translation from interpreters who were provided during interviews, and she went to court in the early stages without legal representation. Her first lawyers did not properly authenticate documents that were provided as evidence, including a crucial “House of submission” order that her husband had issued in Egypt, which would mean that if found anywhere in Egypt the police had powers to bring Mrs Saleh to her husband. Mrs Saleh’s current legal representatives also recently brought new evidence to the UK Border Agency, including an expert witness report with clear detail about the danger for someone in her position in Egypt. However, these documents have not been considered. Last week Ms Saleh was still living in hope that she would receive a fair hearing from the UK Home Office as an upcoming oral hearing for judicial review had been set for November.
Yet without warning on 18 October at 6am in Cardiff, Ms Saleh and her two younger children were dragged from their home by UK Border Agency staff. A video of this dawn raid has been viewed more than 12,000 times on Youtube; in it you can see Ms Saleh’s older daughter, Shrouk, crying on the steps as her mother is dragged away. Shrouk has an independent asylum claim and was not detained or deported.
Due to a security mix-up, the family were not immediately forced on a flight to Cairo, they were instead driven to Cedars family detention centre in Crawley. The UKBA then chartered a flight to Egypt, at a cost of £60,000, a price we have never heard of before for the removal of one family. Mrs Saleh and her children were only made aware of the charter flight late on Tuesday evening, just before offices were due to close. The flight was booked for 8am Wednesday morning, before any offices were due to open, forcing the legal representatives to seek an out of hours judge and try and gain an injunction to cancel the flight.
Supporters were beside themselves with worry. Mrs Saleh said this to supporters: “When I first arrived here, [in the UK] I felt human again, that me and my children deserve to live a life with no fears and with freedom, but now, after they have been trying to remove me forcibly, I remember life in Egypt and how we would be treated as slaves and the danger that would be waiting for us. I look at my children and my eyes are immediately full of tears.”
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, at the thought of being forcibly removed, Mrs Saleh cut her wrists in the bathroom of the detention centre and wrote in blood on the walls that she only wanted to save her children. Mrs Saleh has been through tremendous ordeals in her home country, and was clearly not in any fit state to be detained, let alone to be deported. She received no care or acknowledgement of what she did by staff at the centre, instead being asked to remove her blood soaked clothes and given new ones to hide what had happened. This directly violates procedures which staff at Cedars and other detention centres are meant to follow for those at risk of harm to themselves or others.
That night the legal representatives managed to secure an injunction which effectively cancelled the flight. However, after around half an hour, without following proper procedures to appeal this injunction, the UKBA called the judge and asked him to change his mind, due to the enormous expense they had gone to by chartering a £60,000 private flight. Friends and supporters had driven to Cedars detention centre on Tuesday night to show their support for Mrs Saleh and her children, and once they found out about the unjust actions of the UKBA, attempted to block the coach from leaving. They received heavy handed treatment. One supporter wrote this afterwards: “So my friend’s family were deported. I am distraught. I am also in shock and a great deal of pain, having been subject to a completely unprovoked physical assault by two police while trying to peacefully prevent the coach that was to take them to the airport from entering the Cedars Detention Centre. All I did was stand in the road, linking arms with other friends of the family. I did nothing aggressive, didn’t even say anything that could in anyway be construed as aggressive. Yet I was assaulted so forcefully (hit in my back as I was held face down in the mud, arms twisted up behind my back) that I was screaming in pain and left incapable of standing, even moving.”
The coach left Cedars at around 6.30am and drove to Stansted Airport to remove the family on the private plane. We heard that Mrs Saleh’s son experienced force from the private security guards who were escorting him, something he had expressed fear over when speaking to his sister, as he had heard this has happened to other people in the past. As he is only 17, this is directly opposed to the recommendations from the Director of Prisons, who had just released a report on Cedars, saying that force used against minors and pregnant women should not be used.
The current legal representatives have since made an application to the Court of Appeal, believing as we do that this forced removal was not only unjust, but unlawful. Mrs Saleh and her children are in hiding in Egypt, but should the Court of Appeal decide that this treatment was unlawful then the UKBA may be asked to locate them and bring them back.
WSSAG Wales is a grassroots advocacy group run by asylum seeking and refugee women. We have heard countless first hand examples of the mistreatment of people seeking sanctuary and know only too well how mistakes can cost the lives of those who should be protected. We hope that the bravery of Ms Saleh and her children in speaking out about their treatment will help others to understand what is happening to those who seek asylum from persecution in the UK.
We call for the safe return of Mrs Saleh and her children, back to Cardiff and the community where she had been rebuilding her life.
TO TAKE ACTION:
To join the campaign created by friends and supporters, please go to facebook savesalehfamily
The organisation called National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) have also written an article, which you can find here.