Posted Under: Features,Human Rights,Immigration,Iraq,News
Iraqi immigrant, Dana Ali, faces deportation after an alleged Home Office blunder fails to recognise his marriage to a British citizen.
Dana Ali was born in 1975. He grew up in Halabja, the Kurdish town in northern Iraq that the world first heard about on March 16th 1988 when 5,000 people were massacred by Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons. “Many of my family died in that attack,” Dana tells me. His story is the story of the Kurds, a stateless people facing the brutal repression of a tyrannical regime. It is little wonder, then, that Dana became a vocal critic of Saddam’s government. “When I grew up, I began supporting the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq,” he says. Dana would distribute leaflets and newspapers for the party. That was how he came to the attention of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, an Islamist group that held power in the region. “They saw us as a threat to them,” Dana says. “They arrested me and I was threatened by them. I had to leave in the end. If I had stayed there, they would have killed me.”
Fearing for his life, Dana fled to the UK in July 2000. After being granted a work permit, he found a job at Buxted Chicken Factory in Suffolk. It was there that he met his wife, Taina Mason. “I was Dana’s boss,” Taina tells me. “We hit it off so well. We went out together for about eight months, then we were talking romantically and discussed getting married. So we eloped.” Dana moved to Lowestoft to live with Taina and they married in 2003. The year that Britain and America invaded Iraq, Saddam’s regime was toppled and the Islamists in the Kurdish north were crushed. “I didn’t support the invasion,” Dana says. “I was glad that they got rid of Saddam, but so many civilians were killed.”
Even in the darkest days of the occupation, with hundreds dying every day and the country on the brink of a civil war between Shi’ahs and Sunnis, Kurdish Iraq was held as a success story. That elusive island of calm in a sea of chaos. Dana, however, has no desire to return. “I don’t know if I will be safe,” he says. “There are still kidnappings in northern Iraq, the media here don’t cover that really, but if you look at the Kurdish newspapers you can see it, and I don’t know if the people who made me leave are still about.” Dana’s wife tells me he has no family left there. “His family are here, there’s no reason for him to go back. He’s worried he might be arrested or shot.” Hoping to settle in the UK to start a family with his new wife, Dana applied for a marriage visa and it should have been a happily ever after.
“We heard nothing back from the Home Office,” Taina says. She tells me that despite sending their passports and marriage certificate, the Home Office curiously failed to recognise their marriage. Taina believes that her husband had been confused with another person called Dana Ali. “We kept getting police phone calls and credit card companies saying you’ve taken out loans. They were looking for someone in Yorkshire. And we said that’s not him. He’s not allowed a credit card, he’s not allowed loans, he’s never been to Yorkshire.” Mistaking him for the other Dana Ali, the police turned up at 3.30 in the morning one day last year and arrested him. “They had a picture of this guy and they realised they’d mixed the papers up.”
The situation was soon resolved, but Taina believes that the mix up of the papers is the reason her marriage was never recognised and Dana was denied a visa. “At first they approved my application,” Dana says. “Then they said my leave to remain paper was a mistake because my file had mixed me up with someone else.” A UK Border Agency spokesperson denied the allegation that the papers had been muddled up, but declined to comment as to whether a marriage visa application had been received. “We would not remove anyone from the UK while there are outstanding applications or representations on their case,” the spokesperson said.
“They told me to go home and wait 3-6 months,” Dana says. “I waited and nothing happened. My solicitor phoned them and sent letters to them. After a couple of years, they just refused me.” As a result, Dana was forced to leave his job at the chicken factory. He has been out of work since 2004, unable to claim benefits and unable to help his wife with the mortgage, living in the country pending immigration investigation. “They told us, when they want him, they’ll come and get him,” Taina says. “He was getting so down; he just wanted to get out of the house. So a couple of nights a week he would help out his friend at the kebab shop and have coffee with him. He wasn’t working there and he wasn’t getting paid, and the manager told the Home Office that, but the authorities said that he was working and they issued him with a form telling him he had to sign in at the police station every month.”
Told that if he was caught helping out his friend again, he would be arrested and the owner of the kebab shop fined £5,000, Dana has been reporting to Lowestoft police station once a month since March. One day, however, he didn’t come home. When he turned up at the police station on July 31st, they took him into custody without warning. “I asked them why and they told me they had papers to remove me from the United Kingdom,” Dana says. “I haven’t been home since that day.” Dana has barely seen his wife since they took him to Oakington, the Cambridgeshire immigrant detention centre exposed by a 2005 BBC documentary for the violence and racist abuse carried out by some of its staff. “You think you’re not going to do anything ‘cos a white person tells you what to do. Well I’m afraid you’re wrong,” employee James Martin was filmed saying to a detainee. “My great-grandfather shot your great-grandfather and nicked his fucking country off you for 200 years,” he says before tipping the immigrant out of bed. In December last year, inspectors investigating Oakington declared it had “lost direction” and inmates felt unsafe.
“I think it’s like Auschwitz,” Taina tells me. Whilst it is probably a little unfair to compare Oakington Immigration Reception Centre to the Nazi concentration camp in which over a million people were killed, hearing Dana describe the razor wire, the guards, the dogs and the cramped conditions, it is easy to understand why he and his wife are frightened. “He’s had to see a doctor and a psychiatrist since he’s been there,” Taina says. “On one of his arms, he started scratching his skin to bits. He doesn’t realise he’s doing it, he’s so stressed. They’ve put him on anti-depressants, which took over a week for him to get. Even the doctor said she’s disgusted at how he’s being treated.”
“I’m being treated like a criminal,” Dana says. In the past, the British government treated the country’s poor as though they were criminals. Now that status is accorded to its immigrants. Dana has lost a lot of weight since his detention. Hearing about his experiences, it is not hard to imagine Oakington as some kind of Dickensian workhouse. “When we go for dinner, if you ask for one more piece of bread, they won’t give it to you. When I’ve complained, I’ve been told, I’m illegal in this country, I shouldn’t be here, why am I asking questions? This camp, the way they treat you, it’s somewhere else, it’s not England.”
His wife, Taina, is in quite a unique situation for a woman in Suffolk, a county seemingly immune to demographic changes, to mass immigration and to ethnic diversity. In fighting Dana’s corner through the years of alleged blunders and stalling from the Home Office, she has written to local MP Bob Blizzard, to Tony Blair, to George Galloway, and she has approached the national papers, but none of them took up her case. Married to an Iraqi immigrant, part of the problem she faces comes from the right-wing tabloids and the relentless stream of anti-immigrant propaganda they publish. “The government pays attention to the Mail,” writes Nick Davies in his book, Flat Earth News, describing the paper’s tendency to omit all the benefits of immigration in its reporting, quoting highly selective and distortionary figures to sell its own reactionary, and often false, line. “I’ve become immune to it, really,” Taina tells me. “Dana is such a loving person. Before this happened, he was the soul of the party, he’s such a brilliant host. When people start saying the immigrants come over here and get this and that, I think, well my husband’s not like that.”
Dana desperately wants to return to his wife. “There are many people here in the same situation,” he says. “They’ve been here for a long time, and they’re married, and they just want to work and get on with their lives and their families. Some of them have kids as well.” He tells me he’s hoping to start a family with Taina. “I want to have children. We haven’t been able to because I have a sperm problem and need to have IVF treatment. But that costs a lot. If I were allowed to work, I could afford it. I would like to have one baby or two.”
Having once again submitted his documentation to the Home Office, Dana is awaiting their response. Taina says that if they do not recognise their marriage and his eligibility to remain in the country, she will take the case to the High Court. “I spoke to my solicitor last night and he said if we go to the High Court it will probably cost £5,000 to get him free,” she says. “Where is the justice in this world if you have to pay for someone’s freedom?”
Dana’s life story, from his fight against Islamists in Halabja to his fight to remain in Britain, is testament to the fact that the price of freedom can be very high indeed.
Dana’s niece, Claire, has set up a Facebook group in support of their campaign.