Socialist Worker

Driven to suicide by New Labour's racist asylum laws

by COLIN BARKER from Manchester reflects on the tragic death of a refugee
Issue No. 1869

ISRAFIL SHIRI poured petrol over himself and set himself alight in the offices of Refugee Action in Salford three weeks ago. After five days in agony, with 70 percent burns, he died in Manchester's Wythenshawe Hospital (see last week's Socialist Worker). What could possibly drive a man to such a terrible act?

Israfil Shiri was a refugee. He was in the Iranian military and became a victim of political persecution when he refused orders to beat up demonstrators. Fearing for his life, he fled to Britain, and applied for asylum. Israfil suffered from a complicated medical condition which required drugs and painkillers. In 2002 his application for asylum was turned down. He begged the adjudicator at the tribunal, 'Please, if you want to refuse me, please don't cut off my medicine.'

The Home Office does not, mostly, deport people back to Iran. Instead, it denies 'failed' asylum seekers any support whatever. Israfil was now completely destitute. He was evicted from his home and stayed with a succession of friends. He was very sick. He could not keep food down. With his medication stopped, he often vomited and bled from his bowels. He had no money for painkillers.

Sometimes, too disturbed to stay with a friend, he would sleep inside rubbish bins. Bin workers found him sleeping this way one morning. Several times he told his closest friends that he wanted to burn himself to death, to show people the lack of any human rights for asylum seekers. In the end, in pain and desperation, he set himself alight. Not one mainstream national newspaper covered the story. This is the fourteenth suicide counted by the Institute for Race Relations in the past five years. All this occurred under Blair's government. There will be more. It is now official policy to deny every form of aid to asylum seekers whose applications fail.

For the first time since the 16th century the government is deliberately making people completely destitute. They are denied the right to work, food, housing and medicine.

In Manchester asylum seekers are fed by the Red Cross-the body that looks after people in wars. How appropriate, as the government is indeed waging another war-outside Iraq-against asylum seekers. Home secretary David Blunkett says the way to oppose fascists is to be tough on asylum seekers. The BNP's Nick Griffin is, disgustingly, more honest. He says Blunkett is their best recruiting sergeant. Every time the right wing press whips up anti-asylum hatred, Blunkett and his Home Office sidekick, Beverley Hughes MP, think up new ways to oppress asylum seekers. They never defend them. They bow to the fascists, hoping to placate and even grab the racist vote.

The same week Israfil Shiri died, after setting fire to himself, a BNP councillor was elected in Grays, south Essex. What was the issue the BNP campaigned on? Asylum. Labour's vote collapsed and none of the major parties challenged the BNP's racist anti-asylum attacks. Blunkett's Home Office doesn't deport all 'failed' asylum seekers but makes them destitute. It hopes they will 'disappear' into the black economy. That way, they go 'off the register', and the Home Office can claim its figures are 'improving'.

Some, like Israfil, cannot disappear. They face the torture of extreme poverty, and people will continue to die. Labour's destitution policy makes it one of the most inhuman and cruel governments in British history. Israfil Shiri's death lies at New Labour's door.

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Sat 20 Sep 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1869
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