Written by Rivka Shaw
This month, Anwar Ditta featured on the Tell A Friend podcast, interviewed by Bryan Knight. It was a chance to hear an incredibly important story. Along with the Viraj Mendis Defence Campaign and others, Anwar’s campaign to be reunited with her children – who were born in Pakistan, while Anwar had been born in the UK – created the backdrop and momentum behind the setting up of GMIAU.
These influential campaigns in the late 1970s and 1980s opened eyes to the way in which immigration controls were tightening, with dehumanising and racist results. In Greater Manchester this inspired activist and barrister Steve Cohen, along with others including the late John Clegg, to propose setting up a specialist immigration advice unit in the mid-1980s. The aim was not only to fight individual legal cases but to be a space for community resistance – resistance to immigration controls and to the racist narratives that underlined them. Hearing Anwar’s story, it’s clear why this community aspect was so central. “Without the public’s support, I would not have succeeded… They were my strength”.
The Home Office, then and now
In the interview, Anwar speaks powerfully about the trauma she underwent, which still affects her today. When the Home Office obstructed her from being reunited with her children, claiming not to believe they were her children, “it was like a nightmare”. She provided all the information and documents that the Home Office asked for, only to be told repeatedly that more evidence was needed. What’s striking is how familiar her situation is. There’s a parallel with the Windrush scandal, where a similar mixture of bureaucracy and cruelty did immeasurable damage to many lives. Recent reports that at least nine people have died before accessing the compensation scheme launched in 2018 is testament to how little has changed. More generally, the continuing Hostile Environment, in its very name, embeds a commitment to show no more compassion for people like Anwar than she was shown in the 1980s. As Anwar says, “the racist laws are still there. Are people free to come and go? No.”
Anwar Ditta did everything that was asked of her, and was still repeatedly denied the right to be with her children. It makes me think of the people who can’t comply with the Home Office – those who have lost documents, or who are facing homelessness or abuse. They also deserve justice and access to their rights. The campaign behind Anwar funded legal representation and even doctors to travel to Pakistan for blood tests of her children. It’s ludicrous and degrading to imagine that these are the lengths a mother should have to go to just to be with her children.
Listening to Anwar’s story, something else that stood out was the changing nature of activism. Describing the movement that rallied behind her, she talks of fellow mothers, students, “people from all backgrounds, of every religion”, and dedicated antiracist groups like the Asian Youth Movements. She describes attending frequent meetings and broad networks of solidarity and resistance. An obvious change is that many struggles have moved on to social media. Today, we might sign petitions or donate to crowdfunding campaigns circulating online in support of cases like Anwar’s – would we be as likely to attend an in-person meeting or demonstration? Such dedicated support, on the ground level, mobilising behind one person’s immigration struggle still feels surprising and radical today.
Perhaps the Home Office’s hostile approach to immigration is so wearyingly entrenched today that meaningful change seems further from our grasp. There are certainly exceptions – I’m reminded of the large demonstrations in recent years protesting detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood. But we still need to fight to keep alive the power that lies in community, and the strength in solidarity that the 1980s fostered even as the political environment got bleaker. Many are doing so. GMIAU, at 31 years old, retains its dual purpose of legal representation and campaigning for justice. I think hearing Anwar’s story can inspire the same fighting spirit that it did 40 years ago. I’ll finish with her words for law-makers.
“Please think before you make the laws. Because it’s been 40 years and my life hasn’t been put together. I’m 66 and it still affects me. Please think of the people, human beings, whose lives you’re going to destroy.”
Rivka Shaw is GMIAU’s Policy Officer. You can watch Anwar Ditta’s conversation with Bryan Knight here.