Guest article written by David Sheekey
In 2005 I was asked by a social worker friend if I could help out at Wigan Welcome, a drop in service offering support, help and a place to meet others facing the same adversity. Wigan was not a particularly welcoming place for many of whom the National Asylum Support Service (Nass) had relocated to the predominantly white working class town. The far right organisation Combat 18 were active and one area – Platt Bridge – was actually deemed too dangerous to rehouse people due to fascist harassment.
It was though Wigan Welcome that I met Sarah Hata (later to become Sarah Sheekey).
Sarah became accustomed to racist abuse as she went about her business in Wigan, encountering abuse on the bus, on the street, in the supermarket and, on one occasion, even in an office of Wigan Metro Council. Sarah had come to the UK from Uganda where she had been detained in a so-called safe house (in this case a military barracks) and tortured. She showed me scars on her body which she said were the results of abuse. Sarah and her then husband, a Congolese national and professional soldier, had both been picked up and detained by thugs with links to the Ugandan Government. Eventually managing to flee her captors and, with the assistance of a go between, she managed to fly to Heathrow via Nairobi where she claimed asylum.
The Catholic Church in Uganda worked hard to ensure Sarah s five children were to follow her to the UK.
Tony Blair was in residence at number 10 at the time and was getting it in the neck from the Red Tops over asylum seekers. My experience with interacting with those who came to Wigan Welcome soon illustrated to me how difficult it was for people fleeing repression, torture and subjugation in far off countries to then have to deal with the UK Home Office – the most reactionary and curmudgeonly arm of the UK Government.
Asylum Seekers in Wigan and Greater Manchester feared the monthly trip to Dallas Court In Salford for registration. Here they could be summarily detained and sent to a detention center. The immigration legal service seemed full of briefcase lawyers and shysters. Sarah herself had the misfortune to fall into the hands of one such dubious chancer. A lot of money raised by her good friends and the good folk at Formby And Southport Amnesty International was handed over only for him to disappear into the ether with all the promises he had made forgotten.
Sarah was not to be detained at Dallas Court but, instead, the family woke up early one Sunday morning to find their house surrounded by police and immigration officers. The whole family was placed in a van and whisked away to the infamous Yarlswood Detention center in Bedfordshire. here Sarah, in particular, was subjected to verbal abuse both of a racist and sexist nature by the bullying staff.
Yarlswood has been the subject of an undercover TV investigation which revealed how rotten the culture was but allegedly nothing has changed and this vile institution and other such places remain a stain on British public life. An attempt was made by the authorities to fly Sarah and the family out of the country but supporters bombarded the chosen airline with phone calls and faxes saying Sarah was a victim of torture and to their credit, the immigration officers refused to take the mother and children.
The very next day another attempt was made to deport the family. This new attempt ended with the youngest child, aged eight, suffering an epileptic fit while inappropriate and dangerous attempts were made to revive him.
Activists back in the North West of England had made contact with an NGO Medical Justice and from its ranks stepped Dr Frank Arnold, a specialist in wound trauma. Dr. Arnold examined Sarah and her children within Yarlswood and his report was coruscating. In his opinion, Sarah clearly bore the scars of someone who had been tortured. Furthermore, Sarah and the whole family were showing signs of suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I got word that Sarah and the children were likely to be released and returning to Wigan the next day. Alas the UK Home Office had other plans. In a truly wicked move, the family was literally dragged from their beds in the early hours of the morning, once more bundled into a van and driven to Bristol Airport where they were put on a plane firstly bound for Brussels then on to Entebbe, Uganda.
The Home Office knowing the game was up simply whisked the family out of the country. Sarah was later to tell me that no fewer than eight security guards accompanied them on the entire journey back to Africa. On arrival at Entebbe these goons disappeared and, fortunately, the Catholic Church (alerted by concerned activists in the UK) met the returning family and took them to a place of safety.
People often speak of a hostile environment in our country toward black people but what my future wife and stepchildren endured at the hands of Blair government Immigration Minister Tony Mcnulty was truly sickening. McNulty was later to be caught up in the Parliamentary expenses scandal and forced to stand up and apologize for his behaviour to the whole of the House Of Commons.
Sarah Hata and her family were scandalously and cowardly deported from the UK in October 2005 . The following year in June myself along with longtime friend and vigorous anti-fascist activist Marv Scott traveled to Uganda to meet up with Sarah and the children. We stayed with them for two weeks. On my return, I went to see my MP Rosie Cooper (Labour West Lancashire) and asked about Sarah coming back to the UK. Ms. Cooper wrote to a new Immigration Minister Liam Byrne MP. His reply seemed encouraging and suggested that if myself and Sarah were to be legally married she could apply to come back to the UK as my spouse. Her previous asylum history I was told would not be an impediment to her return. Naively I took the UK Home Office and its ministers and civil servants at their word.
In November that same year, I returned to East Africa where myself and Sarah were indeed legally married at Kampala Registry Office. I flew back to the UK and set in motion the process of Sarah coming back later as my wife. At her end Sarah had to endure a testy interview in Kampala with a British FCO employee. Her application was to be refused. The letter of rejection from a pompous Entry Clearance Office was couched in unpleasant, sneering language. I decided, after consulting with friends, that an appeal was justified. I went to a recommended specialist Immigration Lawyer in Birkenhead on the Wirral. The process was costly but the lawyer seemed to be doing his job. It took forever for an appeal hearing to be arranged at Hanley, Stoke On Trent.
Dr. Frank Arnold who had examined Sarah and her children whilst they were detained in Yarlswood Detention Center, and subsequently written a detailed report on her case, offered to travel up to the hearing from his home in Oxford and give evidence Pro Bono. Crucially my lawyer failed to take Dr Arnold up on his generous offer believing the asylum issue was now unimportant. Imagine my dismay when on the morning of the appeal, the Home Office Barrister confirmed that he was going to raise the asylum case.
My lawyer had built a solid file in favour of Sarah being allowed back in the UK as my wife, we had suitable accommodation, I was working, Sarah had employable skills it should have been a shoo-in! I thought I fielded the questions from the Home Office brief and the Judge pretty well and my barrister made several very well-argued points. After the hearing, he seemed pleased and confident of a positive outcome. I travelled back to Lancashire with my friend Paul in good spirits, Sarah was coming back.
I once more set out for Uganda and from there we all waited for that all-important determination letter from the UK Home Office. When a copy arrived jointly at my barrister’s office and Sarah’s PO Box In Kampala, it was a bombshell. Sarah was refused permission to come back once again and, perversely, the determination was based on her asylum history which I had been assured would not be an issue,
Sarah was obviously not present at the hearing and Dr. Arnold from Medical Justice whose testimony could have been crucial had been rebuffed by my barrister who had either been too confident or like myself was not wise to the sheer mendacity of the Home Office.
I was shell shocked, I had invested massive emotional input into our relationship and the sparring with the Home Office had played havoc with my personal finances. For the next few years, I travelled back and forth between Lancashire and East Africa, each trip ending with me feeling like I had been knifed in the guts as I sat alone at Entebbe Airport waiting for that long flight home.
In 2012 I decided there was no alternative. I would attempt to live full time in Uganda.
I knew it was going to be hard and indeed it was. Finding employment was problematic. As a qualified social worker I eventually became affiliated with a Kampala based NGO which involved itself with supporting economically marginalized women, a number of whom suffered from HIV/AIDS or were victims of domestic violence. The project set up income-generating schemes and also supported Aids orphans.
It was worthy work but didn’t give me a proper wage as I was effectively doing it pro bono. The small business ventures which I and Sarah established did not afford me a liveable income. To make things worse I suffer from an enduring health problem having had bipolar disorder since my mid-teens. Obtaining medication and other treatment options was very difficult in Uganda and I was forced to make numerous trips back home to the UK.
I was in Uganda on our seventh wedding anniversary when a less than welcome communication arrived via Facebook Messenger. The sender was my nephew one Paul Robinson, a businessman based in Winsford Cheshire. In his charming missive, Mr. Robinson who had not communicated with for over two years and who had aligned himself with far-right UK politics, sent me a message calling Uganda a ‘tinpot country’ and suggesting that I hang myself. His ugliest jibes concerned me having bipolar disorder. A so-called mental health problem was the diagnosis of the fascist plant seller (bereft of any medical training). I was told Broadmoor awaited me and called a cu*t, among other pleasantries.
Having got over the initial shock of receiving such a message from someone I did not even talk to, I resolved to take action. I considered Mr Robinson to have committed a hate crime. However when I forwarded the Facebook message to the Hate Crime Coordinator of Cheshire Constabulary her two line reply was dismissive and did not even afford me the courtesy of addressing me by name. I then contacted the Complaints Department of the Cheshire cops. Here I had to disabuse an inspector within that department that the primacy did not lie with the Ugandan Police Service when the offender lived four thousand miles away in rural Cheshire!
Eventually, Cheshire police took action and Mr Robinson was visited at his home by a police constable where he was served with a Police Information Notice (PIN) otherwise known as a Harassment Notice. A Hate Incident was logged on the Police National Computer. A result of sorts but it did feel a bit like Scottish Mist…
To bring you up to date, the last three years have seen me living and teaching in North East Thailand. Uganda was proving too hard an environment. I do harbour hopes of an eventual return.