Notes From the Margins…

The Asylum Seeker Who Learned to Fly

  • November 06, 2013
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On a day when University College London’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration found that migrants had provided a £25 billion tax boost to the UK economy since 2000, the British tabloids had another story to tell.

It was a story that we have heard many times before, a grim and bitter tale of British taxpayers fleeced of their hard-earned cash by cunning dark-skinned folk, a story calculated and carefully framed to produce head-shaking, hysterical laughter of the ‘lunatics-have-taken-over-the-asylum’ variety.

I’m talking about the case of Yonas Admasu Kebede, the 21-year-old ‘failed asylum seeker’ who has just won a legal case against Newcastle City Council, obligating the local authorities to pay for him to take flying lessons, and for his younger brother to go to Manchester Metropolitan University.

The Kebede brothers originally came to the UK with their father and an older sibling in 2004.     Though their asylum claim was rejected, the family were given discretionary leave to remain until 2014.

The two brothers were then abandoned by their father and older brother and taken into care by Newcastle City Council, which paid for their education.     Both of them got GCSEs and A Levels.     And last year Yonas Kebede applied for a student loan to take a pilot’s license with a view to taking an aviation degree, only to discover that he was not eligible because the Coalition changed the law in 2011, preventing asylum seekers on discretionary leave from accessing student loans.

The brothers instructed lawyers to take Newcastle City Council to court under the Childrens’ Act, arguing that it was the council’s duty to complete their education and employment training, and the Court of Appeal ruled in their favour.

This decision has produced an outpouring of orchestrated indignation and outrage, beginning – naturally – with the Daily Mail, and including the Express, the Sun, the Nazi Stormfront website, the BNP, and an organization called the ‘Taxpayer’s Alliance.’

The essential components of the story were drearily familiar.   On the one hand there were heart-tugging references to the plight of ordinary Britons ‘scrimping and saving’ in a period of austerity while asylum seekers are largeing it and getting special privileges.

This narrative of injustice and unfairness was supported with a quote from a Tory politician, in this case North East MEP Martin Callanan, who declared the ruling ‘ totally bizarre. The council are in a difficult position if the Court of Appeal has ordered it but most taxpayers will be appalled that they are funding flying lessons for a refugee, however well intentioned he is. It is absolutely incredible.’

Then there were the inevitable references to ‘ the taxpayer’ who has to ‘cough up’ and ‘fork out’ tens of thousands of hard-earned pounds to provide ‘free flying lessons’ and a ‘free ride’ to ‘failed’ asylum seekers who have already taken advantage of our generosity.

All this was neatly framed with a picture of Yonas Kebede in a leather jacket, looking vaguely pleased with himself, for reasons which probably have nothing to do with the court decision, but which is contextualised to make it look as if he is a wide boy who has just tricked his way into winning the lottery.

The case is unusual and appears to be unprecedented, even though the tabloids are falling over themselves to present it as yet another manifestation of British ‘asylum madness.’

For one thing, the designation of Kebede and his brother as ‘failed’ asylum seekers is meaningless, given that both of them were children when they originally came to the UK, and could not have made appeals on their own behalf.

Secondly, they both applied for student loans originally, and would have been eligible for them, had Lord Snooty and His Pals not changed the law.   Thirdly, they have been in the council’s care for nearly nine years, and if the Court of Appeal has ruled that the council is obliged to fulfill its statutory obligations, then that is that.   Lastly, both brothers intend to apply for permanent residency, and if they get it they will be able to apply for loans and pay most of the money back.

Some of these details were mentioned in passing by the tabloids yesterday.   But the main thrust – and in fact the whole point of the story – was to present yet again a picture of a system that supposedly privileges foreigners over British citizens, and to direct anger and contempt toward the whole concept of asylum.

Never mind that most asylum seekers subsist on £36 a week, or that thousands live in destitution and survive on food parcels provided by charities and NGOs.   Never mind that the £100 million cuts package introduced by Newcastle City Council in March this year was a result of budget priorities and ideological choices dictated by the government, not by asylum seekers and refugees.

Never mind that.   Better to think about the foreigners who always gain when we lose, and the Ethiopian asylum seeker who is taking off at our expense, while the rest of us remain stranded on the ground.

Better to hate one, the easier to hate them all.



  1. Richard Carter

    6th Nov 2013 - 1:12 pm

    Excellent piece as always, Matt, marred only by a small but significant typo: the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration actually found that migrants had provided a £25 *billion* tax boost to the UK economy.

    • Matt

      6th Nov 2013 - 1:19 pm

      Thanks for pointing this out Richard. Corrected!

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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