Dumping site for immigrants
The leap to death of an asylum-seeking Russian family exposes the shambolic British asylum system
By Murtaza Ali Shah
The leap to death of a Russian family from the 15th floor at the notorious Red Road tower blocks, which is currently housing almost 100 nationalities, transfixed a nation and threw up many uneasy questions.
The site has been variously described as "the united nations of hell", "the dumping immigrant site", "the blocks from hell", and any other gruesome definition of the place would do justice. The tragic death – or the suicide pact of Sergey Serykh, his teenage stepson and his wife amply exposes not only the wretched conditions and seemingly unending trauma asylum seekers from all over the world live through, but it spotlights how Britain, once famous for its respect for human rights and generosity for refugees, is indeed a hostile place to those fleeing bloody conflicts and genuine risks to their lives.
Right-wing pundits have tried to portray the mental state of Serykh family as unstable and contradictory, but there is also acceptance of the fact that Mr Serykh was accepted in Canada in 2005 as a genuine former Russian military intelligence man needing protection. There is little doubt also that the family was driven to despair and hopelessness after its claim for protection in Britain was refused, and it had a fear of being deported to Canada, from where it chose to come to Britain.
A UK Border Agency spokesperson tells TNS, "Any death of this kind is a tragedy, and our deepest sympathies are with their family and friends at this time. We had advised the family that we were making arrangements to return them to Canada where they had been granted protection. However, no imminent action to remove them from the UK had been planned."
Almost 30,000 people, including a large number from Pakistan, apply for asylum in Britain every year. Most of them tend to live in London, as it is easy to assimilate in the communities. Scotland gets the second biggest share of dispersals. Of the 28,840 asylum seekers, who were placed in supported accommodation in 2009, according to the government figures, Glasgow, the Scottish capital, took in 2,470. That means 3 percent of Glasgow's population around 10,000is estimated to be asylum seekers and refugees.
Gone are the times when asylum seekers were provided with comfortable housing, enough food, right to work and earn and petty cash for weekly spending. Now, those who claim to be fleeing wars, torture and destitution are dumped at sites, which are marked for demolition and considered inhospitable for human living. The introduction of fast-track system a few years ago means a fast-track processing of one's application to despair and deportation. The system is so draconian in nature that 51 people have committed suicide in the last ten years.
Robina Qureshi, the indomitable campaigner for the rights of migrants and ethnic communities in Scotland, tells TNS that Serykh family was choked up to the point of suicide. "They could not return, they had no money, no accommodation, knew no one locally, they were absolutely isolated."
The Pakistani origin campaigner, who is Director of Positive Action in Housing, says those who tried to portray the tragic family as mentally deranged are actually trying to shield the UK's asylum policy from criticism.
"The other asylum seekers living there, including Pakistanis, Nigerian, Afghans, Iranian and others, tell us they know how the family felt because they themselves feel like that every day," shares Ms. Qureshi, who has been at the forefront of organising tributes for the dead and media events for awareness about the plight of the persecuted.
"Everyone we spoke to about the Russian family says the same thing, 'we know how they felt, we wanted to kill ourselves, we will kill ourselves and our babies rather than return to our home countries'," says Ms Qureshi, trying to make sense of what must have been going on in the minds of the Russian family after it was served the eviction orders.
In Britain, the hostility to immigrants, especially those of brown and black skin, has soared exponentially. The climate of recession, jobs outsourcing, Islamophobia and racism has created such a poisonous atmosphere that communities have developed deep suspicions of each other.
This kind of atmosphere creates a really convoluted and inhospitable scenario for asylum seekers and refugees. They face the social threats as well as threat of being refused their asylum application.
To compound their problems, asylum seekers have only limited access to government benefits (£35 per week for an individual to live on), and they live in run-down areas.
Robina Qureshi points to the widespread claims of abuse in the detention centre and prisons. "It is not all human rights in the UK as some people like to believe. The asylum system is a fast-track system where asylum decisions are made by poorly trained, low-paid workers, many of whom have hostile attitudes towards asylum seekers."
Dozens of Pakistanis asylum seekers live at the Red Road flats. They have harrowing tales to tell about the life of an asylum seeker. Most of the men have left Pakistan and Afghanistan due to political persecution and other forms of state-sponsored oppressions, while most of the women say they are fleeing domestic violence, honour killings and abusing husbands and freak in-laws.
An increasing number of Pakistani women are now applying for asylum in Britain. The trend got currency after the Home Office introduced a lot of legal measures in favour of the victims of domestic violence.
Most of the cases are claimed on political grounds claimants say they are being targeted by the sitting government. Those seeking asylum on religious grounds include Ahmadis topping the list, followed by Christians and Shias.
Being of brown colour, the problems of an asylum seeker from Pakistan are multiplied and he is up for a fight against huge odds. The stereotypes and prejudices have increased after the 9/11 and 7/7 terror attacks on the US and London underground respectively. The xenophobic and racist taunts of "asylum seeker", "Bin Laden", "Taliban", "terrorist", "go home Paki", and "Paki scum" are commonplace.
Attique Malik (not his real name), 32, left Pakistan seven years ago after, according to his claim, he was hounded by the spy agencies for organising agitations against former dictator Pervez Musharraf. For the last one year, he has been living in the same block of flats from where the Russian family plunged to death.
Malik regrets travelling to Britain to seek protection. "If I had known what it was like here, I would have preferred torture at home at the hands of Pakistani authorities or gone to any other country," Malik tells TNS. He says his £35 weekly vouchers for food finish in four days and he has to either eat less every day or go to a Pakistani grocery store in the nearby area where he gets free food.
Muhammad Asif, who runs the Scottish Afghan Society and works closely with Positive Action in Housing, says the situation is awesome for asylum seekers. "An Afghan dentist committed suicide by hanging himself in a Glasgow tower block. Only last year, a Nepalese asylum seeker set himself on fire in the immigration tribunal offices in Glasgow," Asif recalls.
"The problem of housing is very serious. The government is not doing anything about it. We are not treated fairly. This government is telling Afghan asylum seekers that their country is safe to go. How can you tell that to Afghans when there are almost 170,000 foreign troops from 44 countries engaged in a war. We don't want luxury, we want fairness and justice," states Asif.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Unemployment, poverty, lawlessness and resultant frustration of masses may have instigated the Bara Kaho protests
By Shaiq Hussain
The recent violent protests over hike in transport fares in the vicinity of capital city show the situation in Pakistan is reaching a critical point, and issues like unemployment, poverty, lawlessness and resultant frustration of masses, if not addressed, could plunge the whole country into chaos and anarchy.
As if the widespread terrorism, bomb blasts and sectarian strife were not enough to harm the Pakistani society, the eruption of energy crisis much before the hot months of May, June, July and August has made the life worse for people. Though it is still the pleasant March, power loadshedding has reached 16 hours in major urban centres while 18 to 20 hours of power cut-offs are being recorded in the rural areas of the country.
However, it was the recent transport fares raise in Bara Kaho, a small suburban town of Islamabad located on Murree Road, which sparked off violent protests in the locality that later expanded to Faizabad with hundreds of students, traders and other people taking to streets. The whole locality turned into a battlefield between the protesters and Islamabad police for two days.
The peaceful demonstrators turned violent when police reportedly abused the protesters and started baton-charge, tear gas shelling and firing, injuring many protesters including a student. The infuriated people pelted police, media vans and other vehicles with stones after blocking the Murree Road at Bara Kaho and Islamabad Expressway between the capital city and Rawalpindi at Faizabad that paralysed the transport in twin cities.
The angry protesters also attacked a UN vehicle as the members of UN team probing the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto tried to reach Islamabad from the airport.
Umar Shahzad, a student of NUML University, tells TNS it was a day that he would never forget. "The whole Bara Kaho area was like a combat zone when I came out of my house to go to the university. Angry people were pelting stones at police, which was responding by baton-charge and shelling and I saw many a shops and other buildings badly damaged," Shahzad recalls.
According to Shahzad people are already frustrated because of rampant lawlessness, unemployment, poverty and price hike. "The sudden rise in transport fares proved to be a trigger and people let their pent up frustration out, resulting in injuries to people and loss to property," opines Shahzad.
It was after two days of violent protests at Bara Kaho and Faizabad, when traders of Bara Kaho called it a day and staged a peace rally after which hours long negotiations were held with the Islamabad city management and police for the release of demonstrators.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who had announced an inquiry into the whole issue, said anyone taking law into hands would be dealt with sternly in accordance with law. Malik claimed some political parties tried to politicise the issue of Bara Kaho for which they brought people from outside the city, but they could not succeed in achieving their goals.
Muhammad Liaqat, Vice-President of Traders Union Bara Kaho, tells TNS traders of the locality had to bear huge losses because of the two-day violent protests. He alleges that some miscreants took advantage of the volatile situation and damaged shopping plazas and banks etc, adding local people or traders couldn't harm their own interests. He believes people are already confronting grave economic difficulties and if price hike is not controlled, they would take no time to take to streets again.
Constitutional déjà vu
Only for a third time in 40 years, Pakistan's bicameral parliament has got the requisite two-thirds majority to amend the constitution
By Adnan Rehmat
For a document that purports to promise permanence, Pakistan's constitution has had unusually frequent makeovers. Popularly elected civilian rulers and shameless military dictators have been fighting their fights over this holy grail of Pakistani politics with changes that aimed at lending their rules legitimacy as well as immunity against prosecution after they're gone.
However, it's remarkable that the civilian-military 'constitutional arguments' in Pakistan have centred almost entirely on the governance structure. The four military rulers that have lorded over Pakistan without the people's mandate through a pluralist election have all preferred a presidential style of government that keeps them beyond the pale of accountability and allows them to keep the parliament at a long arm's length. All military rulers have ruled as either martial law administrators or as president while continuing as chief of the army. Musharraf was the only exception, but only the last few months of his rule were without his military fatigues -- hence the exception proving the rule here.
The political forces, on the other hand, have without fail tried to change the system back to a parliamentary one each time the army retreats back to the barracks for interregnums. It's remarkable that each time the major political parties volunteer to place themselves at the mercy of a pluralist parliament, however faulty the parliament or whatever rigged results the elections throw up to keep the political forces busy in the game of survival.
Pakistan is living through another bout of déjà vu -- the military having retreated after about a decade of direct rule and the ensuing post-election parliament scrambling to undo the long-term damage done by military rule. However, this time round the difference in the similarity of situations is a happy one. And breathtaking! Only for a third time in 40 years does today Pakistan's bicameral parliament have the requisite two-thirds majority to amend the constitution.
The parliament looks set -- despite no one or two, or even three parties having the requisite majority to do things on their own -- to once again articulate in the proverbial stone tablet the sovereignty of the people over their own fates. The presidential system -- a dower "gift" from Musharrafian rule to the new political dispensation -- is about to be formally transformed back into a parliamentary system. It's remarkable how the first opportunity that people's elected representatives and parties get in Pakistan to realistically set sorry wrongs committed by the military right, and they do it.
It first happened in 1973 -- Pakistan's first elected representatives in an election held on the basis of popular adult franchise plumped for a strong parliamentary government that kept the chief executive accountable to a collective parliament. This transpired, remember, after a 12-year period of non-representative, centralised military rule headed by Generals Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan. A document articulating popular goals and sentiments based on universal longing for self-rule that was the 1973 Constitution was born that shunned dictatorship and autocracy as grave sins.
Within five years, the military struck back, distorted the constitution and restored unrepresentative presidential primacy over a representative parliament. It then took nearly 20 years to bring back a parliamentary system after political forces overcame their differences and mustered a two-thirds majority to clean up the constitution of its aberrations towards the end of the 1990s. The military again struck to restore status quo in its favour -- the army deposed an elected prime minister and set about mutilating the constitution again.
It has now taken over a decade to come back to square one to restore the parliamentary system, which is much like first love -- overcome with time but not forgotten or surrendered. There is much to be celebrated here. Pakistan's representatives seem to be winning another bruised round on behalf of the people. The big fight in Pakistan has, in the end, always been about people's right to rule themselves. The constitution is not supposed to grant rights but to recognise them. People have always had the rights; it's just that they've been repeatedly taken off the notice board. What is happening now is the people undoing the "delete" command of the military on their scripture of rights.
There might never be a perfect constitution. The constitutional reforms being proposed go nowhere near far enough. The provinces are not being granted functional autonomy to prioritise their lives. For instance, the basic flaw of a country having regions with unequal legal status (Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Provincially Administered Tribal Areas, Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan) is being left untouched. Another right -- equality in all respects between all citizens of the state in terms of rights, respect and opportunity -- is again not being guaranteed. Non-Muslims continue to remain unequal citizens by law in the constitution.
However, the latest constitutional reforms make no pretensions at an attempt at being comprehensive. These are limited in scope and narrowly focus on the pressing need to have macro-level clarity of 'by who and how' the people want to be represented and governed. What their everyday interests are and how distribution/reallocation of resources can be more reasonable and rightful will surely come later if the current change can be permanent for a reasonably long period of time. Pakistan needs to take big steps forward on the issue of national clarity on what it wants as a 21st Century nation state while catering to its multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-linguist milieu. The small steps will come later.
Foregoing the culture of immunity (an army chief ruling the country without mandate) and deferring to accountability (the people's right to elect and depose) is the first big step. The directly elected parliament should deal with an elected cabinet and choose a chief executive. The primary accountability should not be amilitary-appointed accountability bureau but ballot boxes.
The courts should be strong but not just on the elected governments. The courts can only be strong if they stop encroaching upon the domain of the collective will of the nation represented by parliament and the governments it elects. The army should not conduct coups and the judiciary should not endorse them. This is what the current constitutional reforms aim for. Elected governments should be allowed margins for mistakes. No other institution should be allowed this privilege, for only parliaments have self-correctional tools and the mandate.
A conference on Sufism and Peace helped improve the image of Pakistan in the world where some forces are bent upon projecting a negative image of Islam and Pakistan
By Zaman Khan
Since time immemorial, humans have been trying to find solace in different intoxications. Sometimes human beings rely on philosophies, cults and religions to replace intoxicants. It has such an everlasting effect that once you are in it, you never find a way out.
The "International Conference on Sufism and Peace" held in Islamabad from March 14 to 16 was organised by Pakistan Academy of Letters, headed by Fakhar Zaman. More than 300 delegates graced the occasion, which included a strong contingent of about 80 foreign participants.
I had the honour of listening to and interviewing great mystic writer Annemarie Schimmel of Germany. She taught mysticism in leading American universities. A regular visitor to Pakistan, she was in love with Sufi saints and once wanted to be buried in Sindh.
Participation of 80 foreign scholars, well-versed in Islam and particularly mysticism, shows the seriousness and depth of western interest in Islam. I will not go into the debate started by Dr. Nizamuddin, Vice-chancellor of University of Gujrat, about the political use of religion and mysticism. President Zardari also mentioned it in his inaugural speech at the Presidency where he was the chief guest. All the delegates were invited to Presidency for lunch and formal inauguration a day later.
President Zardari minced no words in condemning the West for the political use of Islam in the last century.
The three-day international conference was an insightful experience, listening to foreign scholars lecture on Islam. A European scholar told the audience about the incident which we had been reading since childhood. When Hazrat Ali was about to kill his enemy, he spit on his face and Hazrat Ail forgave him and he became a Muslim after Hazrat Ali told him the reason for not killing him.
Scholars like Peter Cruman (Sweden), Vito Salieno (Itlay), Zhou Yuan (China), Gerd Leineweber (Gremany), Denis (Austria), Pran Nath (India), Cherif Chahdi (Moroco), Eric Geoffroy (Frans), Stephen Methew (Canada), Fatima Hussain (India), Mohammad Mehdi (Iran), Jolanta (Poland), Dr Sky Hawk (Germany), Dr Hanan Ahmad (Palestine), Gheorghe (Romania), Shahid Mehdi (Inida), Mahmut Erol (Turkey), Ms Ruzana (Russsia), Ms Neshegul (Cyprus), Ignacio (Chile), Jack (Ireland), Henni (Switzerland) and Ms Jaana (Finland) enlightened the audience with their valuable knowledge and experience about Islam and mystricism.
Ms Nabila Kiani from Pakistan found commonalities between Budhism and mysticism. Fatima Hussain compared mysticism with Marxism.
The conference is a big step in improving the image of Pakistan in the world where some forces are bent upon projecting a negative image of Islam and Pakistan. One hopes steps would be taken by those in power to arrange more such conferences on inter-religious harmony.
Karachi risks damage even from a moderate quake if builders don't abide by building codes
By Aziz Omar
Pakistan is located on the boundaries of three tectonic plates. The largest one, the Eurasian plate, houses Europe and most of Asia. The two smaller ones, the Indian plate and the Arabian plate, comprise mainly the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Peninsula respectively. It is the former of the two smaller plates that is constantly pushing into the larger Eurasian plate, triggering most of the earthquakes in the country.
For the greater portion of Pakistan, it is the boundary between the Eurasian plate and the Indian plate that runs right through the country, virtually splitting it in two parts. The major fault line snakes its way across Pakistan like the path of the ball in a pinball machine, hitting all major cities except Lahore, and exits just roughly 50 kilometers from the most populous urban centre, Karachi. In fact it is at this very point where in lies the juncture of all the three tectonic plates, and hence poses a greater risk for tempestuous seismic activity, even though there has been no significant one in recorded history.
Pakistan is still reeling from the earthquake that hit on October 8th, 2005 near Muzaffarabad. Having a magnitude of 7.6 and with a total loss of life close to 80,000, this was the most devastating quake to have impacted this region in the last century or so.
Even though this great catastrophe served as a major reality check for the nation, a more powerful effect would be generated if the epicenter is more in the vicinity of the cities of Islamabad or Karachi. With the 2005 quake being just around a 100km away, a 10-storey apartment block was reduced to rubble in the capital city. Even conceding that it was largely due to shoddy construction, attempting to conceive the scale of destruction in a larger city brings ghastly images to the mind.
According to Mohammad Riaz, the Chief Meteorologist for Karachi, the coastal city is prone to damage and destruction even from a moderate earthquake ranging from 4 – 5.6 in magnitude. The disintegration or collapse of buildings would be especially marked if the builders don't abide by the building codes. "This vulnerability becomes more severe for taller buildings which are mushrooming all over the place. Though earthquake prediction is still not scientifically possible, the Pakistan Meteorological Department has detailed statistics relating to the seismic activity in the region and it is highly essential that these be taken into consideration when planning high rise buildings," Riaz tells TNS.
Recently, the entire world has witnessed two major earthquakes that hit Haiti and Chile with magnitudes of 7 and 8.8 respectively. Though the one that hit Chile was 500 times stronger in terms of energy released, the damage and loss of life was far less than the one to ravage Haiti. Given that the epicenter of Chilean quake was more than 300 kilometers from Santiago, its largest city, the strict adherence to rigorous building codes and safe materials played a significant role in ensuring a minimal impact. The Haitian quake originated 25 km from main city of Port-au-Prince and at a depth of 13 kilometers. The destruction and a death toll of more than 200,000 were due to gross negligence in observance of building regulations. Parallels can easily be drawn between what happened in Port-au-Prince and what could be feared in Karachi.