Refugees have so much to give us

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28 Jul 2016

Raju Bhatt was expelled from Uganda at 15 along with 80,000 other Ugandan Asians. In the UK, he found himself working in law, specialising in providing help to members of the public who seek accountability from the state – particularly families who have lost their loved ones through death in custody. He was a member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel and has been responsible for many significant developments in his field of legal practice over some 30 years.

How did I get into law? Well, to be completely honest, it was an accident, but it may have something to do with my arrival in this country.

 In 1972, when I was 15 years old, Idi Amin announced the expulsion of all Ugandan Asians from the country, and we were given 92 days to pack up our lives and leave.  My parents did not have anything in the way of property or business to lose, but it was still a wrench from the lives that they had built up together over more than 20 years, and my father in particular was never the same man again.

 The expulsion came in the context of a military dictatorship which had replaced an ostensibly democratic government, some 8 years after gaining independence from British colonial rule.  However, by that time, the army was already being used by government as a tool to discipline civil society, and armed men with dark glasses were already a common sight on the streets.  There were checkpoints where you knew you would be stopped.

 But I don’t remember cowering at home: we just got on with life; if you don’t have an option you just have to carry on. But people we knew began disappearing.  We were lucky – my father wasn’t thrown into prison as many others were. And my sisters weren’t abducted to be forced into sexual slavery as some were. I suppose we were lucky.

 When the expulsion was announced, the then Prime Minster, Edward Heath, announced - after some initial hesitation – that we would be allowed to come to Britain. But the atmosphere was uneasy.  Even before we left Uganda, we started to see the ads in the local newspapers, commissioned by local authorities in the UK, saying: “Don’t come to Leicester”; “Wembley doesn’t want you”. The message was clear: we were not welcome.

 And that message was repeated when we finally arrived here: on our very first night in the UK – I remember it vividly as it was the first time I’d seen TV in colour – we saw on the news footage of the Smithfield Butchers marching on the streets of London with banners proclaiming “Britain for the British” and “No to Ugandan Asians”.

 The very next night, just 48 hours after arriving in Britain, I was attacked in the street.

 School in the UK was the time I had to learn to fight – both physically and in other ways.

 I remember my first day at school very well. I was 15 years old and placed in the fourth year (what would now be Year 10) after a meeting with the head teacher.  The following Monday I arrived at the school with the timetable I had been given. I stood with my two brothers in the school playground, looking at the faces of strangers around us, and when the bell rang, my two brothers went off and found their classes.

 I stared at the timetable. Room C15. Where could I find this? I wandered up and down the empty corridors. Then I saw a man who looked to me like a teacher, coming down the corridor.

 I asked: “Excuse me, can you tell me where I can find room C15 please?”

 He looked me up and down, head to toe, before saying: “You will just have to find it for yourself, won’t you.”  With that, he just walked away.

 It took me another 10 minutes to find the room. I knocked on the door and opened it to find that the teacher of that class – yes, the very same man who had declined to help me find my way. He looked me up and down again, head to toe, and sent me to a desk at the back of the room.  Some welcome!

 It was 1972.  I remember, the maths teacher used to stand in front of the blackboard addressing the class. If the others couldn’t answer a problem, he’d turn and say – “Let’s see what the Pakis in the corner have to say about this.”

 This first stuff stays with you – interactions with the authorities and how it feels to be treated unfairly, leaving aside the arbitrary violence and abuse in the playground. 

 But nevertheless, I am acutely aware that I also had the benefit of a free state school, warts and all, which provided the ground on which I was able to move forward.

 My brothers, my sisters and I all went on to further education – the credit for that goes to my parents, and my mum in particular who never had the benefit for herself. My brothers went on to become NHS GPs, one of my sisters worked in local government, and the other was a primary school teacher.

 In 1981, the year I finished university, the streets throughout our cities were burning: the urban disturbances early in the Thatcher years. People were being arrested up and down, and I found myself in a position where I had the time and the energy to support those who had been detained.

 Eventually that work took me to Bradford where twelve lads had been arrested and charged with the explosives offences. I was deeply involved in defending them.  That brought me into contact with the law and lawyers, but I still hadn’t thought about a career in the law.

 Then I found myself in Southall which had already witnessed the racist violence and police harassment on the streets: the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in 1976; the anti-fascist protests against a National Front event in 1979, leading to the death of Blair Peach as a result of a police truncheon blow; and the burning of the Hambrough Tavern in the context of yet more National Front activity in 1981.  

 The year was 1983 when I arrived there, and some of us were involved in setting up the Southall Monitoring Group with the benefit of funding from the Greater London Council.  Our focus was on the police, their treatment of youths on the streets, and their failure to protect the victims of racial attacks and domestic violence.  That was the last step on my journey into law, for which I began to study in 1984.

 Benedict Birnberg, one of the true pioneers of legal aid, was kind enough to tolerate me as his articled clerk from 1986 to 1988 when I entered practice as a qualified lawyer, and I have been able to work with some wonderful people over the years since then.  Above all, I have had the privilege of working with those whose determination and resilience in face of adversity has been an undying source of strength: the victims of, witnesses to, and survivors of injustice.

 In 2010, I was appointed by the Home Secretary to the Hillsborough Independent Panel which reported in 2012. The eventual outcome in the form of the inquest verdicts in April this year was one of those seminal moments in our history where you feel there might be some positive change. What the verdicts revealed was nothing unknown – it simply confirmed and acknowledged what the families had been saying for 27 years.

 We see many similar injustices of this kind, big and small, in our work– and there is always one common thread running through those cases: a failure by the authorities to hear and listen to the voices of those victims, survivors and witnesses of injustice.

 Why should we in Britain continue to extend our support to refugees?

 Where do I start? Leaving aside our clear obligation to those in need of shelter – and I know what that feels like – I want to welcome refugees because they have so much to give to us in this country. I want my daughters and their friends to benefit from the richness brought by people who come to us.  We have so much to gain and benefit from this offering.

Photo © Sarah Brooker.

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