Protest is now 'life and death'
Failed asylum seeker Naseh Jabar Ghafor lies dying on a floor in Burngreave - his lips crudely stitched together in a last desperate protest. Jade Beecroft reports on what has driven the 20-year-old to embark on a drastic hunger strike
FOR magician David Blaine it was a publicity stunt, but for Naseh Ghafor his hunger strike is now a matter of life or death.
And a tragic end must surely be near for the Iraqi Kurd refugee who has now endured 42 days without food - which almost equals Blaine's 44-day-fast above the River Thames last year.
But while the illusionist had a team of medics on hand to rescue him if the controversial stunt went wrong, Naseh is alone in a strange country without the security of benefits or housing, and apparently traumatised by life in Iraq.
"Naseh has been through a horrific ordeal," said Sue Taylor, Secretary of the Sheffield Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers.
"He was a shepherd in the hills of Iraq and smuggled himself here at the age of 18 after seeing his family murdered by Saddam Hussein's regime.
"I don't think we can even begin to imagine the horrors that have driven him to mutilate himself like this and face death from starvation rather than go back."
The UK's asylum system is run by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate - part of the Home Office - and when Naseh arrived in Britain he began his claim by declaring himself to the authorities.
Under British law each asylum claim is considered on its own merit, and every applicant is given an interview to plead his or her case to a Home Office caseworker.
Under the European Convention of Human Rights the Government has an obligation to grant refugee status to any person who is at real risk of torture, death or inhuman treatment if they return to their home country - but pressure groups claim this system is flawed.
"When refugees arrive here they are often suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after seeing loved ones killed and spending hours in the back of a truck," said Sue.
"But they are only given five hours legal support, often without an interpreter.
"The decision to grant asylum is in the hands of civil servants so there is no benchmark - it's a real humanitarian crisis."
The National Asylum Support Service supports asylum seekers whose claims are being processed, and if the Government grants refugee status then they have access to medical treatment, housing, education and employment.
But if the claim is rejected then all support is removed.
"Many asylum seekers don't tell their caseworkers the full extent of their troubles because they are too traumatised by their past, so their claim is rejected," said Robert Spooner, of Assist Sheffield, a local charity to support destitute asylum seekers.
"They are left homeless, penniless and unable to work while they await deportation or try to appeal. In the eyes of the public this makes them seem lazy - but they only hang around in the streets because there's nothing else to do.
"It's ironic really because it takes bravery and determination to flee your home country and they desperately want to work and build a new life."
But public opinion in Sheffield still seems firmly stacked against asylum seekers.
"There are definitely too many of them in Britain, and they take all our money and houses," said unemployed 21-year-old Emma Glossop.
"I live in Hyde Park and they are always hanging around, more often than not causing trouble and shouting things at me as I walk past."
Many people also feel that there is a veil of Government secrecy and biased media coverage surrounding the issue.
"I only know what I read in the papers, but the system appears to be a shambles, with detention centres set on fire and official figures being fiddled," said Brian Revill, a 52-year-old Royal Mail worker from Millhouses.
"We should protect genuine asylum seekers but we can't keep accepting immigrants at the present rate."
Sue Taylor believes changing the attitudes of both the public and the politicians is the only way to work towards a better system. Asylum seekers have been criminalised by the Government and the tabloid press," she said.
"But Polish, Irish and Afro Caribbean people who came to the UK were once asylum seekers too and they have culturally enriched our society.
"At the moment we have an absurd situation where the NHS is desperately short of doctors and nurses, yet highly skilled Iraqi medics are being denied the right to work and help us out. It's crazy."
But even a radical change in public and Government opinion may be too late to save Naseh, who grows weaker by the hour.
"Doctors have warned he may only have a few days left," said Sue. "He has been getting severe headaches, the wounds on his lips where he stitched them together are now infected and his pulse is very weak.
"He must be in a huge amount of pain but he never cries out. He's endured a lot of hardship in his life so I suppose he's learnt to deal with it with dignity and courage."
Home Secretary and Sheffield Brightside MP David Blunkett - whose constituency Naseh is in - has previously said of the protest: "I am greatly saddened by reports of the condition of Mr Ghafor. But I cannot agree that he should be treated any differently to anyone else whose asylum claim has failed."
Pressure groups supporting the stricken asylum seeker have expressed disgust over Mr Blunkett's vow not to give in to his protest.
"Naseh's future is in the hands of Sheffield's very own David Blunkett," said Sue. "But it appears the Home Secretary is not prepared to show any compassion."