Uddhav Bhandari, a 40-year-old Nepalese asylum seeker, set himself alight in the Eagle Building, Bothwell Street, Glasgow – home to the asylum and immigration tribunal – on March 7. He died 11 days later in Glasgow royal infirmary. He is the ninth asylum seeker to set himself alight in the UK since 1989, five of them since 2002. Why did these people choose this course of action? There is a tradition of public self-immolation as a form of political protest and sacrifice, people burning brightly in death shedding light on what the rest of us refused to look at when they were alive. Perhaps that was in their minds. Ask people about those who burned themselves to death during the Vietnam war and most will remember hearing of them; but I have yet to meet anyone who knows anything about the nine deaths in the UK, despite their being well documented by Harmit Athwal of the Institute of Race Relations. Athwal’s catalogue, Driven to Desperate Measures, listing 221 asylum seekers who have died in the UK, 57 of them at their own hand, was published last year. It received very little press. Bhandari, a father of two, fled Nepal six years ago. A former police officer, he exposed corruption in the Nepalese police and consequently was terrified of returning. He hoped to settle here and bring his family to the UK. Forbidden to work here, he was doing community work mending old bicycles. Bhandari was due to attend a second immigration appeal hearing the day he set himself on fire. This hearing could have resulted in a reconsideration of his case. But a judge had said earlier that he believed it safe for Bhandari to return as he would be protected by his “high profile”. One can only guess that Bhandari didn’t think so and that burning himself to death was preferable. Did he know about the eight before him? Probably not. In October 1989, in Harmondsworth immigration removal centre, Siho Iyiguven, a Kurd, set himself on fire after being refused asylum. Two thousand people followed his funeral procession, intending to lay a black wreath at No 10, but police prevented them. Turan Pekoz, from Turkey, set himself alight in March 1993 at a Croydon immigration centre after hearing that he was not to be reunited with his family. Bayeh Arefanye, a young Ethiopian, set himself alight at a London petrol station in October 1995 because he feared deportation. Forsina Makoni, a 79-year-old Zimbabwean, set herself alight in Gillingham, Kent, in May 2002 after her claim was refused. She didn’t know that Zimbabwe is the one country to which refugees were not being returned by UK authorities. A nameless Iraqi asylum seeker set himself alight in 2004. His story was one of the very few to have made it into the media. It was reported in a local Haringey Turkish paper, Londra Gazete, which mentions that he “may have killed himself because he had been refused asylum”. Anonymous local residents claimed he had conned them out of thousands of pounds. There was nobody to defend his reputation. Nusrat Raza, a young Pakistani woman living in Bradford, was seen by a passer-by as a “great ball of fire coming down the stairs” of her house in June 2005. She had lost her asylum claim. Babak Ahadi, an Iranian asylum seeker, set himself alight in Bristol in July 2005. “I have no doubt in my mind that the failed asylum application had dire results and was the prime cause of Mr Ahadi’s death,” said the coroner at Ahadi’s inquest.
There are few details about the nine, but I was given a pile of official papers and two photos of Esrafil Shiri, a Shia Muslim from Tehran, by campaigners in Salford, where he had lived. Shiri arrived in the UK in the back of a truck in August 2001. “I am glad that I am under the British flag and I am free,” he told an immigration official. He had been a member of the Basij, enforcers of Islamic morality, but became disillusioned and refused to follow orders which meant harming innocent people. If he had returned to Iran he faced torture and probably death, not only for challenging the Basij but as a known bisexual. Rebwar Fatah, an expert advising British lawyers, said that despite social shifts in Iran, homosexuals could expect to be tortured before being put to death. After his appeal was turned down Shiri became destitute. In late August 2003 he took a can of inflammable liquid into the Refugee Action offices in Manchester and set himself alight. It is the brutal effects of increasingly draconian immigration policy, pandering to the floating vote, which result in these deaths. And if it were British citizens burning to death we’d know about it. But rejected asylum seekers? Who cares? Shame on us all.
“This appeal is regarding Uddhav Bhandari, the Nepalese asylum seeker who died recently after he poured petrol on himself and set himself on fire in the Immigration and appeal tribunal buildings in Glasgow earlier this month. A post mortem has been carried out and Uddhav’s body can be released to his wife and family who are in Nepal. Uddhav’s family are extremely poor and do not have the funds to pay for the funeral and airline costs. Positive Action in Housing are therefore launching an urgent appeal for donations to the Uddhav Bhandari Appeal to return his body to Nepal so that his family can grieve properly and organise his funeral arrangements according to Nepalese culture. Without this appeal, there is every likelihood that Uddhav’s body could be left in a Glasgow morgue indefiintely, similar to an iraqi Kurd whose body was left in a Kent mortuary for three years before we organised donations from our supporters.The total cost of the funeral and airline costs to return Uddhav Bhandari to Nepal is £3,997. If 100 people give £40.00 each this would achieve the total target. But please donate as much or as little as you can afford, every little bit will help. The sooner the money is raised the sooner Uddhav’s body can be sent back to Nepal. We will publish the money raised so far on our website at www.paih.org. [Robina Qureshi, Director] If you think you can help, please contact a member of PAiH staff by calling 0141 353 2220 or email firstname.lastname@example.org