4 February 2021

Refugee Bini’s story – part 1, finding anywhere safe

In the first in a two-part blog post, PCS president Fran Heathcote talks to refugee Bini Arai who tells his story and provides the facts about seeking asylum

PCS is committed alongside other trade unions to campaigning against racism in all its forms. We’ve recently updated our anti-racism/anti-fascism (ARAF) strategy to take account of the rise of populism and the impact of elected politicians at the highest level normalising racism. We have produced a new training course “Racism and intolerance: changing attitudes in the workplace” which is available online for use by branches, groups and regions.

The issue of immigration, and in particular attacks by far-right groups on asylum seekers in the north west and elsewhere, is once again highlighted in the news.

The home secretary has described the UK’s immigration system as “broken”, and this and other rhetoric can only serve to increase pressure on those seeking asylum to escape death and persecution in war-torn countries.

I’d like to introduce Bini Araia, who sought and was eventually granted asylum in the UK, settling in Middlesbrough in the North East of England. Bini fled Eritrea, his country of origin, as a political refugee.  We decided to do this blog having heard Bini’s story, to give the facts about seeking asylum.

Questions

Fran Can I start by asking you about your personal story, what were the circumstances that led you to seek asylum in the UK?

Bini Eritrea is a country in the horn of Africa, bordering Ethiopia, the Sudan, Djibouti and the Red Sea. Eritrean fought 30 years of armed struggle against its last colonisers, Ethiopia, before it secured its independence in 1991 and was recognised as nation by the United Nations two years later.

My father was part of the armed struggle for independence and I was brought up as a child in remote areas which were the stronghold of the independence fighters. My father was killed fighting for independence in 1983. Like many Eritreans, I am from a family who cared and loved our country and really looked forward to an independent and just Eritrea where democracy and rule of law prevails. 

After independence, the very party my father gave his life for became tyrannical and abusive to citizens who did not follow party policies. They banned multi-party democracy and started to silence and imprison citizens who voiced any opposition. My mother was targeted by the government and disappeared.

I studied science (geology) in Ethiopia and started to work for the ministry of mining and natural resources.  In late 1999, Ethiopia and Eritrea began a war over a small disputed area of land. The Ethiopian government started to round up all Eritreans and those of Eritrean origin who living in Ethiopia and confiscated their properties and businesses and deported them back to Eritrea. A small group of Eritreans whose details were found in the Eritrean embassy in Ethiopia were collected from their homes and held incommunicado as political prisoners. I was one of these individuals. I was tortured and ill- treated in horrific prison conditions including rubber beatings, starvation and lack of sanitations, for over 3 months. Many of my fellow Eritrean prisoners were taken out of the prison cell, and never returned back. I endured serious physical and mental torture that still affects me greatly now.

Fran. That must have been very frightening. Do you have other family that had to escape as well? Did you end up together?

Bini My father died in action while fighting to liberate Eritrea. My biological mother was kidnapped and disappeared in 1993 during the Eritrean referendum.  The rest of my family is scattered through Europe and Canada, all became refugees and are now citizens of different countries. 

If we had a choice we would have all chosen the same county to live together or at least closer to each other. However, the priority for my family and the majority of asylum seekers is to urgently find a place of safety, so we all made split-second decisions to find a route to safety.

Many asylum seekers pass through extremely dangerous routes before they reach safety and many experience physical, psychological and sexual hardship before reaching a place of safety, such as the UK. Of course, very sadly, many die en route to safety. It is also important to state that those who are able to reach the west are a very small percentage of refugees – most stay in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Sudan and Lebanon. It requires resources and a lot of physical hardship to reach Europe and the USA.

Fran. How did you come to seek asylum in the UK?

Bini I was one of 80 political prisoners packed together in a cell in Ethiopia. My name was called out, which usually meant death. 

Instead I was smuggled out of prison illegally with the help of my adopted mother who bribed a prison official to secure my release. We then had to find an agent who could assist me to leave Ethiopia with a fake passport. The agent happened to have a British passport that I could use and the easiest flight was to Heathrow. I had to take a connect flight in Addis Ababa (Bole Airport) and the agent was beside me at all times until we reached Heathrow. He then took his passport and abandoned me at the airport. It was a very, very scary time for me.

So, I was never given any choice about where I wanted to go. For me anywhere safe was good enough. I ended my journey in Middlesbrough, a town I had never heard of.