The 34 Afghan Sikhs discovered in a shipping container in Tilbury are claiming asylum in the UK – and a test case will decide on how the government deals with claims from this minority group.
Essex Police have confirmed that the adults and children discovered inside the container at the Port of Tilbury had originally come from Afghanistan and are Sikhs. Staff raised the alarm after hearing their cries for help, and they can be seen screaming and sobbing in distressing video footage filmed immediately after they left the container.
Channel 4 News has learned that some of them have family in Southall, west London, and the Home Office said all 34 are claiming asylum in the UK.
The group of Sikhs are being helped in their inquiries by the Red Cross and the local Sikh community, and the UK Border Agency is questioning those who are well enough to be interviewed. An international investigation is also underway, and Belgian police said the immigrants were most likely inside the container when it was dropped at a European port before setting sail for Britain.
However many questions remain about the circumstances surrounding the horrific voyage that killed one passenger and left the others in need of medical help – and what happens to them now.
Superintendent Trevor Roe described them as victims of “people trafficking” and as a result, they are likely to be dealt with under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which allows victims a “minimum 45-day reflection and recovery period”. Channel 4 News understands this could be stretched up to a year in some cases, or longer, if they are considered key witnesses in a murder inquiry.
A Home Office spokesman told Channel 4 News they “are now in the process of claiming asylum in the UK and we are providing accommodation and support to those who require it while their cases are considered”.
He added: “The UK takes its international obligatiions extremely seriously and has a proud history of offering protection to those who need it.”
The outcome of a separate test case that is currently being heard by an immigration and asylum tribunal will determine how the government views their claim. The legal case, brought by another Afghan Sikh, is at the appeal stage and will be used by the Home Office as part of their “country guidance” which was updated in August this year, but does not yet include information about the Sikh minority.
Only a few thousand Sikhs remain in Afghanistan, and Rawel Singh, a prominent leader of Afghanistan’s Sikh community told AFP that many of those within his community suffered from persecution. “Our rights are trampled and we are treated badly by the Afghan people,” he said. “We are discriminated against, our children cannot attend school, and our land has been stolen. Therefore many Sikhs are forced to flee Afghanistan.”
Mr Singh said that he is trying to contact families of those who may be involved, and added that most Sikhs leaving Afghanistan head for Australia or Russia, rather than Britain.
Saira Grant, legal and policy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), which has been following the case, told Channel 4 News that while she cannot predict how the tribunal will rule, she expects the country guidance in Britain to say that there is no general risk to Sikhs in Afghanistan, but that each case needs to be considered individually – especially when it comes to families and lone women, who may be at risk without male relatives to protect them.