Obituary:
Manjeet Kaur

Human rights campaigner who saw the funny side in her own struggle for asylum while tirelessly helping others

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Manjeet Kaur fled to England from India in fear of her life in 2011. She arrived in London where she had a few friends or family members, and claimed asylum. But within a few weeks the authorities sent her to Manchester, to live in Whalley Range.

Despite her having no connections in the region, Manjeet, who has died aged 41, soon became a central campaigning figure, both for human rights and disability rights. Although alone, traumatised and having to cope with a considerable disability, Manjeet set about rebuilding her life and began her battle to remain.

One of the first things Manjeet did when she came to Manchester was to contact RAPAR, the award-winning human rights organisation, based in the city centre. Founded in 2001, RAPAR works with displaced people, facilitating them to campaign for themselves and participate in action research. Manjeet became an active and highly respected member of RAPAR and the disability rights community, running a high-profile campaign to support her case for remaining in the UK, and playing a critical role in collaborating with others also at risk of human rights violations.

She was chair of RAPAR in 2014- 2019, and represented the organisation at conferences and on public platforms. When the then home secretary Theresa May announced her “hostile environment” policy, Manjeet publicly called out its brutal inequities, when she articulated this, with typical foresight and political acumen, on ITN news in 2013.

She challenged the cruel policy that forced disabled people to physically sign on at a Home Office reporting centre each week

In Manjeet’s work with RAPAR she won two significant battles in her own case that had wider benefits for other asylum seekers. The first was a long campaign in which she challenged the cruel policy that forced disabled people to physically sign on at a Home Office reporting centre each week. This in itself is a terrifying ordeal as once inside the centre people never know if they will be let out to go back home or be sent on to a detention centre. In Manjeet’s case the journey to Dallas Court in Salford Quays involved four buses, in a wheelchair, in all weathers. Eventually she won the right to sign on by phone, setting a precedent for other disabled asylum seekers.

Manjeet also faced a number of threats of eviction onto the streets by the Home Office. In 2011, she ran a brilliant campaign of support across a range of organisations, including the media, highlighting the government’s eviction policies. Eventually she won the right to remain in her asylum-supported accommodation in south Manchester, and following media stories based on her fight, the entire block of flats where she lived was redecorated and refurbished.

Manjeet Kaur in front of the mural she worked on, which highlighted disabled asylum seekers’ rights

As well as being a fierce campaigner Manjeet had a great sense of humour, and could laugh at the incompetence of the decisions she was fighting, as well as the injustice. In one particularly farcical situation in 2014, Manjeet was again facing eviction onto the streets. The Home Office sent a car to take her to the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal in Manchester city centre, where a large group of supporters was awaiting her arrival. However the official government car sent to  take her to the hearing, in which her disability was a key component, was not adapted for wheelchair use. Manjeet could not attend and, again, she won the case against her eviction.

Manjeet’s tireless campaigning saw her joining forces with trade unions, speaking out against the bedroom tax and cuts to legal aid, and against the far right. She contributed to a mural showing the experiences of disabled asylum seekers that was displayed all over the country, and she also featured in the film I’m An Asylum Seeker, It Changes Everything (UK Disabled People’s Council).

Manjeet’s daughter Naysa was born in November 2015, and despite her own very real health problems, Manjeet continued to fight whilst also bringing up her young daughter as a single mother.

Manjeet was born in Afghanistan and contracted polio as a child, which led to her having to use a wheelchair from then on. Her father, a doctor, told her that her disability should never prevent her from doing anything and that she should have the same opportunities and experiences as everybody else. Manjeet took this with her for the rest of her life.

Her husband Amitt disappeared and Manjeet was subjected to physical attacks and threats of rape and death

Manjeet’s family were Sikhs, and as such were one of the many groups persecuted by the Taliban. In the early 2000s the family fled to India for their own safety, and there Manjeet met and married Amitt Bhatt, a campaigning journalist and Panun Kashmir activist. As a freelance journalist, he wrote articles for a Delhi newspaper that were very critical of the Indian government’s policies in Kashmir. Manjeet helped research and proof-read his books Lies and Genocide of the Indian Government (2011) and Cryashmir (2009).

In February 2011, following the murder of his colleague, Amitt disappeared and Manjeet was subjected to physical attacks, and threats of rape and death, by men looking for her husband. Once again Manjeet was forced to flee her home in fear of her life, and that is how she eventually came to live and settle in Manchester.

Manjeet had a warm and generous spirit and a great gift for friendship, as the scores of messages from people she knew and worked with around the UK testify. Despite her own difficulties, she never lost her energetic love of life and her wonderful sense of humour. When her daughter started nursery, Manjeet made friends in yet another sphere and, for a while, volunteered for the charity Mind.

She leaves Naysa, her daughter, extended family, friends, and the RAPAR community.

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