It was when the barrister casually mentioned the torture methods that I recognised her client's country of origin. Beaten with pipes filled with sand, hung upside down and forced to inhale chilli smoke. It's the standard menu of Sri Lankan security force torture for Tamils.
Until then I'd paid little attention, hoping the case would wind up quickly so my friend's judicial review against deportation could be heard. The client wasn't present at the tribunal and they'd butchered his name so badly that I'd thought he was Nigerian, not Tamil. His lawyer dropped a few salient details in passing - he had mental health problems (as anyone might after torture) and his brothers who'd lived in the UK for some time had also been tortured.
What kind of world is this where multiple members of the same family have been tortured at different times and where you identify a person's origin by methods of extreme cruelty, not names?
Welcome to the UK's asylum tribunal system. An anonymous basement where judges make life and death decisions about people whose names they can't pronounce. In the waiting areas you overhear lawyers meeting their clients for the first time. "Sorry I am late. I will be your lawyer today." You have to wonder what kind of job they'll do representing someone they don't know, but the clients are not in a position to complain.
In both cases I observed, only the judge and the representative for the secretary of state were white - the clients, barristers, solicitors and clerks were Asian and mostly women. It looked like a feminised version of colonial British India, complete with the royal coat of arms on the wall, plated out with modern office furniture in a windowless basement. The talk was about Dublin Two and claims that were bizarrely deemed "academic", but in true colonial fashion, the judge was carefully referred to as "Madam".
I was with Bianca Jagger who'd suggested coming to the judicial review to support the young man she'd met who is a survivor of rape and torture in Sri Lanka. She waited patiently for hours for the case to be heard but I did wonder what the security officer thought when he asked for her name on a form - a much needed injection of glamour and an important reminder that the outside world was watching. We were introduced to the court as observers.
Waiting for his case to be heard was agonising for my friend. When the hearing started he sat next to Bianca, wringing his hands, looking frozen with fear. It began badly with the judge complaining at length about the way the bundle of documents was bound. Apparently it was impossible to open the file without the papers falling out. We heard a lot about this problem - more actually than about the rape and torture at the heart of the case.
The tribunal was told that my friend's asylum claim had been rejected when he'd had no legal representation, no medical report and no expert witnesses. Based on that, he'd almost been deported. This is a young man who has already been twice detained in Sri Lanka, and brutalised in ways you don't want to know.
He was twice detained in the UK too. At one point he was on suicide watch - that meant a guard in the detention centre checking on him every 15 minutes to make sure he wasn't trying to kill himself. He tried once after he heard that a family member was detained in his place. The guilt is what always tips survivors over the edge.
He has a medical report corroborating the account of torture but it took months to obtain. The representative for the secretary of state - a young woman in an ill-fitting pinstripe suit who rushed in late from another case in the same basement - was not inclined to admit any new evidence. She tried to say the decision had already been made and there had to be a cut off point. I wonder how she sleeps at night - invoking procedural issues and speed rather than wishing to examine fully the merits of each case fully. The fast track system does not allow for the fact that it might take a rape survivor time to overcome the shame and admit such personal humiliation to strangers.
We were luckier than the Tamil man who went before us. The tribunal agreed to review the new evidence but I struggled to explain to my friend that it was good news. He was paralysed with fear, unable to take in any information. We all congratulated him but he was completely frozen, unable to smile or relax.
The more I see of the UK's immigration system the more ashamed I feel to be British. I never thought I would belong to a country that could treat traumatised damaged people so callously and unjustly. These are no economic migrants seeking a better life. Being uprooted from their culture and family is a gaping wound that will never heal. Most new Sri Lankan refugees I know yearn more than anything to go back to their own island. Who wouldn't - it's stunningly beautiful, a place where they speak the language, know the customs, have extended family - in short it's home. Only someone truly desperate would give all that up for what we can offer.Suggest a correction