‘I am like a prisoner again’ – Glasgow’s destitute Eritreans
Some nights Ariam gets lucky. A friend lets him sleep on a couch or curled up in the corner of a bedroom floor.
But most evenings he just walks. With a bag slung over his slight, mid-30s frame, the Eritrean traverses Glasgow’s crepuscular streets, shoulders pulled tight against the elements.
Ariam, not his real name, walks because he has no place to go.
“I do not sleep on the street. It is too cold. I just walk around all night,” he says when we meet in a Glasgow cafe. It is around midday and Ariam looks tired. Stubble cloaks his thin face. He speaks clear English in a low monotone, as if his batteries are drained.
“I’ve stayed in every part of Glasgow. Here, there, everywhere. That’s the way I live,” he tells me.
The Ferret met the Eritrean refugees in this report in Glasgow in 2016. Two years on, most are still living the same precarious existence today, outside the immigration system with no access to work or housing, and with no prospect of returning to a homeland where they would face prison – or worse – for desertion.
Ariam did not always live like this. Like so many Eritreans he spent years in compulsory military service with no prospect of an end. Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki’s one-party state is one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, according to Human Rights Watch.
I’ve stayed in every part of Glasgow. Here, there, everywhere. That’s the way I live.
One day, while guarding Eritrea’s western border, Ariam managed to escape into Sudan. From there, often on foot, he reached Libya. A precarious £1,000 ride on an inflatable dingy with 27 others took him across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.
Eventually he arrived in Dover. That was 2006.
Once in the UK, Ariam was granted discretionary leave to remain, on humanitarian grounds. He moved to Glasgow shortly afterwards, and got a job at a warehouse and a flat in the East End.
Life thousands of miles away from home was not easy but it was better than living in constant fear in Eritrea.
In October 2015, Ariam reapplied to the Home Office for leave to remain. He had no reason to be worried. The system was cumbersome but he had been through it numerous times. However, this time his application was turned down. He was not entitled to work – or to draw any benefits.
“I paid my taxes. Now they were telling me I couldn’t work, and they wouldn’t support me,” he says. “I risked my life to come to this country and now they abandoned me.”
As he talks he takes a clear plastic envelope from his jacket pocket. Methodically he thumbs through the sheaf of documents inside; there are neatly ordered tax returns, Barclays bank statements, pages headed with the Home Office’s fussy shield of the Royal Arms crest. Among the paraphernalia of governance is a photocopied pamphlet: ‘Food Clothing Shelter Information Advice for Destitute Asylum Seekers’.
After we have finished our coffees, Ariam and another Eritrean, Mike, take me to the East End, where they often sleep on the floor of an apartment complex that they lived in before their access to benefits was cut. The Barras slips past our taxi window. Then Celtic Park. “Paradise” declares a huge banner wrapped around the stadium. We keep driving. Five minutes later we arrive at a utilitarian block of flats clad in pebbledash. The building is perhaps only fifteen years old but already showing signs of age.
“Here we are,” Ariam smiles. We are standing outside a janitor’s cupboard on the ground floor of the flats. Mike unfurls a mattress clandestinely stored inside. When the superintendent is away they sometimes sleep on the stairwell floor, in front of a plate glass window looking out onto a biscuit factory.
Eritreans were the leading recipients of destitution grants from Scottish charity Refugee Survival Trust in 2015 and 2016. Destitute Eritreans in Scotland have received almost 300 survival grants over since 2014. Many of these were in and around Glasgow.
Those The Ferret spoke to told a similar story. Having survived one of the most brutal regimes on the planet, many are barred from employment or benefits and forced to sleep in night shelters, on floors, or even in parks.
“We are trapped here,” Ariam says as we walk back towards the city. “It is like we are prisoners of war here.”
People have been fleeing Eritrea for Britain since the 1980s. For decades, the vast majority were granted asylum. But that changed in 2015 when the Home Office – then headed by Theresa May, who had pledged to radically reduce immigration – decided that Eritrea was no longer unsafe for refugees to return to.
That year, Eritreans accounted for the largest group applying for asylum in the UK, with more than 3,700 applicants. But almost overnight the number of successful applications plummeted.
In the first quarter of 2015 just under three-quarters of Eritrean applicants were approved. That figure fell to 34 per cent in the following three months.
The Home Office was eventually forced to change its policy, and in 2016 – the last full year on record – the number of successful Eritrean asylum claims rose significantly.
But there are still Eritreans in the UK who have found themselves living outside the system, with no formal status or right to accommodation or employment, trapped in what the British Government has called “a hostile environment” for immigrants.
There is no evidence that Eritreans avoiding military service in Eritrea are thinking ‘I won’t go to the UK to avoid sleeping rough on the streets of Glasgow’.
Simon Cox, immigration lawyer
“The logic of the hostile environment policy is we hold these people hostage to deter others from coming. There is no evidence that this works,” says Simon Cox, a migration lawyer for the Open Society Justice Initiative.
“There is no evidence that Eritreans avoiding military service in Eritrea are thinking ‘I won’t go to the UK to avoid sleeping rough on the streets of Glasgow’.”
SNP MP Stuart McDonald says the Home Office has used a policy of “enforced destitution in order to try and make someone leave the UK” that is “barbaric and utterly inappropriate”.
“It is a scandal these people are being forced to sleep in parks and bus shelters,” McDonald told the Ferret.
The Home Office does not deport people back to Eritrea, such is the brutality of Isaias Afwerki’s one-party state.
Afwerki led the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front in a 30-year-long secessionist war with Ethiopia that culminated in independence, in 1993. Since then the president has overseen an increasingly brutal surveillance state.
Eritreans as young as 13 or 14 are forced into sawa – indefinite national service – from which many never leave.
Extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and forced labour take place “on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere”, according to a damning 2015 United Nations report. Afwerki oversees “ruthless repression” and “pervasive state control”.
No one knows for sure how many people live in Eritrea. Some put the population at three million. Others six. This disparity attests to the scale of migration in recent decades.
A 2015 UN report found that Eritreans who fled the country illegally are regarded as “traitors” and frequently imprisoned if they return. “[They] are systematically ill-treated to the point of torture,” the UN said.
The Home Office used to recognise the barbarity of the Eritrean regime. In 2008, six Eritreans athletes at the World Cross Country Championship in Edinburgh lodged claims for political asylum. All were granted. One of the runners, Tsegai Tewelde, went on to compete for Britain in the 2016 Olympics.
But the British Government’s position on Eritrea abruptly changed not long after a high level diplomatic meeting in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. In December 2014, senior Eritrean government officials received a UK delegation led by James Sharp, the Foreign Office’s director of migration, and Rob Jones, the Home Office’s head of asylum and family policy.
Soon afterwards, Theresa May’s Home Office radically changed its guidance on Eritrea. The scale of human rights abuse in Eritrea was less severe than previously thought, Home Office officials said. Forced military service was no longer indefinite; those who left the country illegally faced no consequences as long as they signed a ‘letter of apology’ and paid a ‘diaspora tax’ on money earned abroad. This controversial new assessment was based on a ‘flawed’ Danish report.
Britain’s official guidance on Eritean was only junked when judges ruled that returning Eritreans faced serious harm. Subsequent internal documents revealed that the UK government downplayed the risk of human rights abuses in Eritrea to reduce asylum seeker numbers – despite doubts from its own experts.
McDonald said that the Home Office’s “treatment of Eritrean asylum seekers has been disgraceful – clinging on to clearly unreliable country evidence that returns to Eritrea could be made safely, even when the international consensus and overwhelming evidence was to the opposite effect.
“There can be little doubt that a good number among the 300 Eritreans forced to rely on survival grants were refused while the old guidance was in place and the Home Office should be looking again at their cases.”
Even though the Home Office’s country guidance has been amended , the bureaucratic hurdles can prove insurmountable for Eritreans on the streets. There are so many meetings to attend, forms to fill in correctly, documents to present.
“Once you become homeless it becomes almost impossible. You can’t keep your paper. The idea of keeping an appointment goes out the window,” says Simon Cox.
This labyrinthine process has been cited as one reason for the unprecedented increase in homeless refugees in Scotland in recent years. In 2014-15, the Refugee Survival Trust gave out 336 grants. Last year it was more than 1,000 for the first time.
“The amount that we spend on grants has increased by 586 per cent in just three years and we are concerned about how long we will be able to meet this soaring demand to meet the most basic needs of the most vulnerable people in our society,” says Zoë Holliday, a co-ordinator with the Refugee Survival Trust.
More than half of those receiving grants were either submitting a fresh asylum claim or further submissions to support an existing claim. At this stage of the asylum process most refugees have no access to government support.
“There is a huge need for reform of the asylum system so that fewer individuals and families fall through the many gaps in the system and find themselves destitute. There is also a need for more support to be available for those who do find themselves in this situation, because it is simply unacceptable that so many people find themselves reliant on small emergency grants from a small charity like ours, which is in turn reliant on small donations from individuals and foundations,” says Holliday.
Owen Fenn, manager of Govan Community Project, a community-based organisation that works with migrants in Glasgow, says the Home Office’s “agenda continues to punish the most vulnerable in our society”.
“People then either have to sign up to return to a country where they will probably be killed, sleep on the streets and survive on foodbanks, or start working in a black economy where they are at risk of abuse and, if caught, criminalisation,” Fenn added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Failed asylum seekers or those who have departed from the asylum process who can return to their country of origin should do so.
“The Home Office has no obligation and does not provide support for failed asylum seekers, unless there is a genuine obstacle to their departure.”
David has never seen his only son, Esrom. The child, who will be twelve at his next birthday, lives with David’s wife in the Eritrean capital Asmara. It is a city David, not his real name fears he will never see again.
When Esrom was born, David was living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He had deserted his post as an Eritrean border guard. “I left with two friends,” David recalls. “We knew the place, where the minefields were.” The three men snuck away quietly, avoiding the snipers that guard the border, before crossing at a river.
On the other side of the border the men were picked by a rebel group fighting the Ethiopian government. One of his companions was the son of a former government minister who was arrested in a vicious 2001 crackdown and never seen again.
After four days, the deserters were handed over to Ethiopian authorities who placed them in a refugee camp. From there David joined the familiar route for Eritrean exiles; through Sudan, on to Libya and then across the Mediterranean.
“I was not mentally fit to join the army,” David says. It’s a surprising thing to hear; he is tall, and well-built and speaks with a quiet confidence. But after 15 years in National Service, earning as little as £2 a month, he had to escape.
Most of those who escape Eritrea are deserters. Many are not as lucky as David.
Then they were caught and brought back. The whole night they were beaten. All you could hear was their screams.
In 2016, a convoy of military trucks travelled through the capital, Asmara. A busload of National Service conscripts made a run for it. They were shot down in cold blood. Twenty-nine were killed or injured.
David knows first hand the brutality of life in Eritrea. Scars line his face. “They beat me with sticks,” he tells me.
Torture was frequent in the jail he was held in after an earlier, unsuccessful, escape attempt. “One night four people managed to run from the prison. They escaped for two weeks. Then they were caught and brought back. The whole night they were beaten. All you could hear was their screams.”
Now in his 40s, David has lived in Glasgow for almost a decade. We meet across the street from the African Caribbean Centre on Osborne Street. The community venue closed in 2016 with unpaid debts totalling over £60,000.
David and his Eritrean friends look wistfully across at the padlocked doors, chewing tobacco and sharing cigarettes. “We went there every day. Now we have nowhere to go,” he says.
The rest of the group nod. “We used to spend all day there,” says another. Often they would meet other Africans in the centre who would give them a roof for the night. Now many spend their days in public libraries, seeking solace from the cold before the long night arrives and the night shelters open.
David sleeps on a friend’s floor some nights; others he spends in a homeless shelter in Glasgow that he has to leave by 8am. His clothes are washed by an Eritrean friend whose asylum application is being processed.
“We get nothing from the government. We live on the charity organisations for our daily meal,” he says.
“You don’t say “next week I will do this”, you just live day-to-day. You are always depending on someone else.”
David came to the UK because he had family here. “I thought it would be better.” Has it been, I ask? He shakes his head. “No.”
The Eritrean diaspora is now spread right across the world. Glasgow has one of the largest communities in the UK, with an estimated 500 Eritreans dispersed across the city.
“Eritreans keep a low profile in case the Eritrean government comes after them,” says Teklom Gebreindrias, a graduate of Glasgow Caledonian University who was granted asylum in the UK after escaping Eritrea in 2007.
The Home Office has said that many Eritrean asylum applicants are bogus, made by other African nationals posing as Eritrean. But in a response to a Freedom of Information submitted by The Ferret, the Home Office said that data on so-called ‘nationality disputes’ is not collated and cannot be accessed without a manual investigation of all asylum cases.
Another Eritrean, who we will call Moses, has given up appealing. He shows me an ID card. It looks very official, with the Westminster portcullis embossed beside his grainy photograph. Typed on the back in bold font is “FORBIDDEN FROM TAKING EMPLOYMENT”.
Moses is thirty, tall and thin with piercing eyes. He absconded from the Eritrean army and arrived in the UK almost a decade ago. “I came here as a young man, now look at me.” His foot taps an impatient beat on the floor. He juggles a baseball cap between his broad hands. He grew up dreaming of becoming a mechanic. Now he spends his days killing time.
“We are in a productive age but because we cannot work we are idle in this country. It affects your mental wellbeing.” His voice is rasping, and angry. “I used to be a normal person, but now I have depression. It is not easy to live for ten years without any support.”
Moses has slept rough in Queen’s Park on Glasgow’s Southside. “People just stare at you but they do nothing.”
For Moses the dream of a new life in the UK – a dream he risked sniper fire for, almost drowned in the Mediterranean Sea for, spent countless nights locked up in Home Office detention centres for – is dead.
“I don’t want to stay in this country. It has ruined my life. There is nothing worse. We were living a miserable life in Eritrea. Now we are living a miserable life here.”