Disabled asylum-seekers and activists have come together to seek fundamental changes to the systems and agencies that have been blamed for the brutal murders of two disabled refugees in the same city.
Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and groups working with asylum-seekers in Bristol organised a series of events on 29 June to mark the murders of Kamil Ahmad, in July 2016, and Bijan Ebrahimi, in July 2013.
Both men were failed by official agencies in the city, and both were murdered by racist neighbours, despite repeatedly raising concerns about their own safety with the authorities.
Friday’s memorial events were organised in a bid to build “positive change” in the city and across the country and to honour the two men and other disabled refugees who have been failed by a system that is supposed to support and protect them.
The events began with the unveiling at City Hall of a copy of a mural that Kamil Ahmad had helped design – a project that was led by the UK Disabled People’s Council – and which illustrated the experiences of disabled people trapped in the UK asylum system.
Disabled asylum-seekers, representatives of DPOs and allies then marched through the streets of Bristol (pictured) to a nearby venue – with protesters chanting slogans such as “they came here for safety, they were murdered in Bristol” and “never again” – where they discussed how they could fight for change by working together.
Rebecca Yeo, a disabled academic, and herself the daughter of a refugee, who became a friend of Kamil’s after working with him on the mural project, told the meeting: “If we can bring together disabled asylum-seekers and refugees into a movement of real solidarity then we can fundamentally change the system.”
The idea for a memorial event came originally from Yeo and Ellen Clifford, from Disabled People Against Cuts and the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, with support from local DPOs and groups from the asylum sector, universities and trade union branches.
Clifford said: “Since 2010, while the poorest members of society have been made to pay for a financial crisis we didn’t cause, there has been a deliberate attempt to try to divide us and make us blame and hate each other to prevent us from uniting and fighting our shared oppression.
“And that’s what today’s event is all about: strength in unity.
“Today is about honouring the memories of Kamil and Bijan and it is right that we should be angry about what happened in their lives – not just that they were repeatedly let down and taken from us in such brutal ways, but everything that happened in their lives that forced them to have to seek sanctuary in Britain.”
She said the day was “just one very small step in bringing together people who might not otherwise have met” in an effort to end oppression and build a society “founded on principles of fairness and social justice”.
Yeo said: “The harsh reality is that the conditions in which Kamil and Bijan were failed were neither unusual nor the result of oversights. The hostile environment is designed to be hostile.”
She said that Kamil Ahmad’s experience of mental distress was not unusual among asylum-seekers.
She said: “When I listen to disabled asylum-seekers and refugees, I wonder how we have come to a point where people can be treated so badly.
“The denial of rights to asylum-seekers, including disabled asylum-seekers, is not new.”
She added: “If our commitment to universal human rights is removed it is an easy step to remove rights from ever more people.”
She said the government had removed the rights of disabled asylum-seekers to mainstream benefits in 1999, but there had been no organised resistance from the disabled people’s movement.
Yeo said the drastic reduction of support to disabled citizens through the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, 13 years later, was “the price we are paying for the lack of resistance to the removal of rights from disabled asylum-seekers”.
She said the destitution faced now by many disabled asylum-seekers was “not an oversight” but “a deliberate policy” by the government, and she added: “We don’t want ramps in detention centres, we want rid of detention centres.”
She pointed out that Kamil Ahmad had been told by social services that he was about to be evicted and made destitute and street homeless, a decision that was only reversed the day after he was murdered.
She said: “The Home Office labels people in Kamil’s position as failed asylum-seekers. Kamil didn’t fail. He was failed in the country he had hoped to find peace and safety.”
There was a message of support to the event from Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who said that the “institutional racism and systemic failures” of the immigration system, and the failure to provide services and support for disabled citizens, were “costing lives”.
He said: “It is a disgrace that these two disabled men who sought sanctuary in Britain were so tragically failed and as a result died.
“It is vitally important that we honour their memories by building something positive out of what has happened.
“The number of campaigns, trade union branches and organisations supporting this event shows the desire for peace and unity and that our Great Britain can be a place that welcomes and includes asylum-seekers, refugees and disabled citizens.”
The event included video footage of Kamil speaking about his treatment in the UK, and describing how the way he was being treated by the police, where he had to keep reporting to police stations, was “like playing with my mind”.
Through an interpreter, he said: “In this country, which is a developed country, they are unable to provide me with the basic needs that I was provided with in an underdeveloped country [Iraq].
“I am so tormented by the system here that sometimes I feel like killing myself because I don’t know where I can get some support.
“I didn’t come here for money, I came because I had problems.”
He compared the way he was treated in England with the way prisoners were treated in Baghdad’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison, and added: “I feel like I am in a prison in a country where I am supposed to be free.”
The event also featured another short film, by Frank Spencer, of interviews by Yeo with disabled asylum-seekers.
One wheelchair-user described in the film how on one occasion she had been left for a week with no food but a single potato and some milk, and how she could not leave her home because she had no support.
Another said he was only surviving because of his partner, while a third disabled asylum-seeker described how he and others feared to campaign for their rights because “the Home Office are opening their big eyes” and “we know all people are not on our side”.
Another described how his life had become so miserable that he harmed himself.
Manjeet Kaur, of Manchester-based RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Seeker Participatory Action Research), a disabled asylum-seeker who had been involved in creating the mural, told the event that it was important “not to lose hope” and to be “persistent” and ensure there was no distance between disabled asylum-seekers and other disabled people.
She said: “I had to fight for one year to get a care package for my needs. You feel you are fighting for something you don’t deserve.
“You have to feel it should not be like that. Then you can make a difference.”
Mark Williams, co-vice-chair of Bristol Disability Equality Forum (BDEF), told Disability News Service (DNS) that bringing disabled asylum-seekers together with DPOs was “very important”.
He said the murders had been “terrible” and added: “We are supposed to be a city of sanctuary, a multi-cultural city.”
Laura Welti, BDEF’s manager, said the forum was “determined to do what we can to make sure Bristol does move on and learns about how to work together more effectively”.
BDEF has previously worked with the charity Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR) and Welti said that more of BRR’s members were now willing to self-identify as disabled people.
The forum, which lost its city council funding this year, is now seeking financial support that will allow it to bring the two communities together.
She called on disabled asylum-seekers in Bristol to contact BDEF for support with campaigning or securing the social care they need to counter social isolation.
Rob Punton, a member of DPAC and Stand up to Racism, said: “Until we unite together and fight together we will not be able to change society, because all we want is a better life for everybody.
“There are no such things as vulnerable people, there are only vulnerable situations. People are put in vulnerable situations by the actions and inactions of everybody else.”
Mohammed Elsharif, a local activist, said that institutions must be held accountable for their failings.
He said: “The problem is systematic failure. Housing, police.
“There is very good citizen support, but institutions in Bristol have a lot to do. As citizens we need to follow this through.
“It is not good enough to have an inquiry. What next? We need to ensure there is a very clear process to stop this happening to asylum-seekers and refugees.”
Rick Burgess was one of several disabled activists who came to Bristol from Manchester for the event.
He told DNS that the agencies that were supposed to help Kamil Ahmad had “not only failed but helped the terrible outcome”.
Burgess said that disabled asylum-seekers found themselves “at the sharp end of two hostile environments”, which he said could be fatal.
He added: “We have a common enemy in the government [because]a lot of the same instruments of bureaucracy are used against us both.”
Among the suggestions for change from those attending the event were the need for the voices of disabled asylum-seekers and refugees to be heard; for improved information sharing; and for the social perception of asylum-seekers to change.
One attendee suggested there was a need for activism and direct action to draw attention to how people are being treated and to challenge the “hostile environment”; another called for outreach work by DPOs to find disabled asylum-seekers in their communities.
There were also calls for best practice to be shared, and for closer links between disabled asylum-seekers, the organisations working with them, and disabled people and DPOs.
There were also many tributes to Kamil Ahmad from people who knew him.
He had come to Britain seeking sanctuary, after having been imprisoned and tortured in Iraq.
Esam Amin, who spoke at the unveiling and co-chaired the discussions, said his friend – they were both Kurdish asylum-seekers – was “generous and smiley and friendly and helpful”.
He had said at City Hall: “He’s still in my heart, he’s still in our heart.
“I hope after today we understand more of those disabled people, why the community should look after them a lot more.
“We are asylum seeker community, we are nothing different from you.”
He described later how Kamil Ahmad had found a bag of jewellery in a city lake but was determined that he would not keep it because it was not his, and handed it in to the police.
Welti, who got to know Ahmad after BDEF hosted an exhibition of the mural, said he had “avoided conflict wherever possible”.
She said: “He was a very quiet man and really gentle in his communication and had such an eloquent way of talking about his experiences of fleeing enormous oppression and physical threat to somewhere that he thought was going to be safe, only to get here and realise that he was no better off.”
Manjeet Kaur, from RAPAR, said she believed Ahmad “would be very pleased to see he is not forgotten, as he thought he would be, and that he didn’t die in vain”.