When independent race monitor Mary Coussey arrived on an
unannounced visit to Lunar House, the Home Office immigration
centre in Croydon, she found the building “virtually besieged” by
“They came in a double-decker bus, and the security guards had
their work cut out trying to stop the reporters sneaking into the
building,” says Coussey, whose post was created last year.
Coussey was appointed by the Home Office. Her job is to monitor the
work of immigration officers, under the auspices of the Race
Relations (Amendment Act) 2000, to ensure their decisions are fair
and to report annually to parliament.
But she is concerned that the media hype around the asylum issue
could affect the way staff working with asylum seekers view their
“It’s just not possible for any human being to distance themselves
from the relentless negative coverage that asylum seekers receive.
It must affect staff’s perceptions, and I think this is an issue
that needs to be addressed. I wish more could be done to present a
balanced picture,” says Coussey, who brings experience in
self-employed equality consultancy, preceded by senior posts at the
Commission for Racial Equality and the Cabinet Office, to her
She published her first report this summer, voicing concern over
the actions of some “case-hardened officials” when dealing with
asylum seekers. None of the cases she looked at had been handled in
an “over generous” way, and some had “seemed harsh”, she
Her report was broadly welcomed, though it did attract the
unwelcome attention of the British National Party. The
organisation’s website castigated her for using taxpayers’ money to
“rebuke our public service employees for being politically
incorrect.” It also, rather disturbingly, suggested that BNP
supporters had volunteered to work unpaid to monitor the race
monitor, following her on public transport and even calling at her
“Sometimes you feel you are regarded as some sort of weirdo because
you want to do something to help asylum seekers” She is concerned
that the public’s perception is often that asylum seekers target
this country because it is seen as some kind of “soft touch” with
generous benefits and other handouts.
But she points out this is not borne out by the research.
A study last year by the Home Office found that people chose the UK
because English is a world language, because of the Commonwealth,
or because they had family connections here. Some said they tried
this country because they had heard of the Manchester United
football team. Others reported that they regarded former prime
minister Margaret Thatcher as having been a strong leader, and so
felt this country would stand up for people who were persecuted.
Coussey adds that in her experience the widespread suspicion over
arrivals who have no documentation is often misplaced.
“When people come here from places like Somalia you have to
remember there is no functioning government there, so it’s just not
possible to get a passport. In other cases, people destroy their
documents because the traffickers threaten them if they
In Coussey’s experience, questioning by asylum caseworkers
invariably weeds out those applicants giving false information.
“From what I’ve seen, I just don’t believe there are large numbers
of so-called ‘bogus’ asylum seekers. They are all fleeing from
intolerable conditions even though it may not have amounted to
persecution, or they may not have trusted the authorities to
As for future trends, she comments that the world picture is
changing so rapidly that it it is hard to keep up with which
countries are likely to produce the next exodus of refugees.
Coussey has come across many sad cases. In one instance, two young
Somali girls were cared for by a family friend after both their
parents were killed. But when the friend could no longer cope, he
brought them to the UK and just left them in the Coptic Church in
Kensington, west London. The girls were later found foster
“It’s the sort of thing that happens regularly. There are some
absolutely heartrending stories. I’ve seen grown men crying who
were from cultures where they would normally never, ever, do that.
From the interviews I’ve witnessed and the files I’ve seen, there
is no doubt at all that these people are really suffering.”
“When you look at the human side it sheds a whole different light
on the issue. I just wish more people would acknowledge that – in
the media and beyond,” she says.
“For that reason, I support the aims of Community Care‘s
Right to Refuge campaign to challenge the atmosphere of hysteria,
prejudice and racism. “What we need is a mature debate about how
the west can best help people in despair in areas of conflict, and
how we can help generate political and economic stability in these