Posts Tagged Refugees
Refugee Week 2018 may be over, but that doesn’t mean it’s ok to forget about them. They’re still on the move, trying to find a place of safety, trying to find a way of building a new life. And they have been doing so for generations. This is kind of a postscript to my week’s worth of Refugee Week blog posts.
Many of those posts take a broader view, looking at the history of refugees in a particular part of the world, or a particular period of history. But sometimes the most powerful way to understand is to focus on one person. An ordinary person who, because of the time and place of their birth, became part of extraordinary events. Thank you to Marek Szablewski, who presented this account of his mother’s life at the 2018 24 Hour Inspire, and kindly agreed to let me post it here.
Barbara was born in Warsaw on 2 April 1932, daughter of Zofia and Jan Czerniajew (himself a refugee to Poland from the Ukraine after the civil war which came after the revolution).
Just before the Second World War, Barbara’s parents rented an apartment on the outskirts of Warsaw in Wrzosów, and next to it they began building a house which was left uncompleted due to the outbreak of war. Barbara, together with her mother and brother, were evacuated to Warsaw.
At the end of the battle in 1939, they returned to Wrzosów where Barbara started primary school in Łomianki. During the German occupation, when Barbara played in the forest, she was witness to executions of fellow Poles by the Gestapo.
In 1944 she was deported to Germany with her mother and brother. She was forced to work in a factory peeling onions in Reichenbach in Southern Silesia. She lived through the bombing of Dresden in 1945.
In the spring of that year she survived the long march to the west. At the beginning of May she was liberated by the Russian Army near Karlsbad, from where she escaped to the American Zone 200 miles through the hills on foot. She reached a Displaced Persons camp in Hof in Bavaria, under the care of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). She recommenced her education, and joined the girl scouts, making a lifelong pledge to God, her Country and helping others. The family was moved from camp to camp, she attended high school in the Wildflecken UNRRA camp until 1948-9 when she came to England.
Her father located the family through the Red Cross, and they settled in Leominster, working on a farm and then in the Polish camp and hospital at Iscoyd Park near Whitchurch.
After high school she completed Teacher Training at Edghill College in Omskirk.
Her first job was in High Wycombe at a girls school, followed by Sheffield where she met and married Witold Szablewski in 1956.
She worked in Woodthorpe School until the birth of her son Marek in 1963, and in Carfield Junior School. After gaining a diploma at Sheffield University in ‘Education of children with learning difficulties’ in 1974, she worked in Chantrey and Oakes Park schools. For 12 years she was the head teacher of the Polish Saturday School in Sheffield and was awarded the Silver Cross of Merit for Educational Work in the Polish Community in 1998 by the Polish Ministry of Education.
Barbara worked with Polish Cubs and Brownies locally, and on leadership teams for camps in Penrhos, north Wales and Fenton in Lincolnshire.
After retiring, she interpreted for the NHS and Sheffield council, helping many new Poles to settle and make friends. She found time for all of this, despite looking after her mother for many years, and then for the last three years, her husband Witold who was seriously ill following a stroke.
She fell ill only 4 weeks after the death of her husband in February of 2008 and died in April 2008.
Barbara Szablewski’s journey involved many dangers, many traumatic experiences. It ended in safety and stability. She raised a family, she contributed to her community, she worked to help other people, from her own community and beyond it. Refugees want to contribute – Barbara was given the chance to do so and took it. If we don’t give today’s refugees the same chances, we all lose out.
We’re living in strange times. Last year’s Refugee Week took place in the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder, and midway through, we found out the outcome of the EU referendum, which for so many of us, perhaps falsely reassured by the predominance of Remain sympathies in our social media bubbles, was profoundly shocking, as well as filling us with dismay and fear about the future. Our world was further shaken in November by the outcome of the US election – again, we were unprepared for a Trump victory, and fearful of the impact it would have – we still are, although straightforward incompetence and inefficiency seem to have mitigated some of the potential harm so far.
This week Refugee Week takes place in the aftermath of terrorist attacks which have claimed innocent lives in Manchester, on Westminster and London bridges, in Borough Market and Finsbury Park. And then there’s Grenfell Tower, a human tragedy of unbearable proportions. That’s not even to mention a General Election and the start of the Brexit talks.
This time last year I wrote these words, which are still pertinent:
I said a week ago when I started my annual Refugee Week blogathon that it felt different this year. As Refugee Week draws to a close it feels unimaginably different again. We are in, as so many people said during the long hours as the result of the referendum emerged, uncharted territory. We are in uncertain times.
For refugees and asylum seekers there is no charted territory, there are no certain times. But as anecdotal evidence mounts of racism and xenophobia seemingly legitimised and emboldened by the vote to leave the EU, as we wait for those who would lead us into this brave new world to give us a clue as to what it will be like, I know I am not alone in being afraid. … But many of us do share the belief that how we treat people who seek sanctuary from war, persecution and starvation is a measure of what kind of country we are, what kind of people we are. And many of us do believe that generosity, empathy, compassion are qualities that represent the best that we can be, individually and collectively.
So as this Refugee Week ends we will be continuing to say that refugees are welcome, saying it louder if we need to, if the voices against us are more numerous or more vociferous.
I’ve returned this year to some of the themes I regularly write about. I’ve revisited the work of Cara with at-risk academics, for example, prompted by my own University’s engagement with their current campaigns and its funding of scholarships and fellowships for refugee academics and students. I’ve talked again about child refugees – remembering the Kindertransport in light of this government’s shameful reneging on the Dubs amendment.
I’ve tried to celebrate the work of so many superb organisations, large and small, who are working to support refugees around the world and here in the UK, addressing the politics and the practicalities, making a huge difference against the odds.
Each year I approach this entirely self-imposed task – to post every day during Refugee Week about some aspect of the crisis faced by so many millions of people forced to flee their homes – with a certain amount of trepidation. Who do I think I am, really, to speak about these things? I’m no expert, I’m merely a keyboard activist, I have no direct personal experience of the things I write about. And who am I writing for? Preaching to the choir, surely, given that my readers, my social media contacts, by and large are people who share my world view.
But as much as I berate myself for hubris in taking the task on, I cannot relinquish it. I write, that’s what I do. I use this blog to talk to whoever might be listening – and if I change no one’s mind, perhaps the information and ideas and links that I gather for each piece will be useful to someone else, somewhere along that chain of communication that we build as we share and retweet – about the things I care about and the things that trouble and grieve me. And this issue is something I care about, passionately.
Perhaps it is personal, after all. My first Refugee Week blogathon recalled events which, even though I cannot claim to have directly witnessed them, or even to truly remember them, still shaped me:
During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria. Many more fled to escape the massacres. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.
As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping. I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time. I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could. But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity. I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success. I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel. I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.
As a teenager I pieced these stories together, from the recollections that my parents were finally willing to share without holding back, and the fragmentary memories that I did have suddenly made sense. And I’ve been piecing it together ever since, as I see the people who fled from the town I lived in over and over again, in the faces of those seeking refuge from war and persecution today, as I see them in the faces of those who fled war and persecution generations ago.
And once you do that, you become aware of the connections, of the way in which everything that is happening around the world is interlinked.
As Daesh suffer military defeats and the loss of their territory, they increase their terrorist attacks in the west but far more often in the Middle East and Africa, killing ‘Crusaders’ but far more often Muslims who happen to be the wrong sort of Muslim. And as one of the major forces creating refugees, they are also used as a reason to mistrust those very refugees. Because, so they say, they could have pretended to be refugees, paid a fortune to traffickers, risked drowning in the Med, lived on minimal rations in a refugee camp, simply in order to launch attacks in European cities… The uncomfortable truth, that attacks in European cities have been carried out by long-term residents of those cities, isn’t allowed to disturb the anti-refugee narrative, and the call in the wake of every attack for borders to be closed, etc.
The first officially confirmed casualty of the Grenfell Tower disaster was Mohammad Alhajali, a refugee from Syria, who had survived civil war and the perilous journey to the UK, only to die in his own home as a result of an accidental fire and the criminal neglect of fire safety in social housing.
And we learned that one reason for the difficulty and delays in identifying the dead, or even coming up with a reliable total of those who perished, was that there may well have been people living in Grenfell Tower who were ‘off the radar’, worried about their immigration status, unable to afford their own accommodation and so unofficially staying with friends or family but not on any list of tenants. People like asylum seekers (those waiting for a decision, and those who have been refused), and those newly granted refugee status who have not yet got the paperwork together to get a place of their own. Grenfell Tower sheds a harsh light on so many aspects of our society – the calls for a ‘bonfire of red tape’, the mockery of ‘health & safety gone mad’, the contempt of the wealthy and privileged for those on the margins – the culture of ‘us and them’.
I think of this, from a rather wonderful Twitter account:
“I am a citizen of the world.““Citizen of nowhere. You must pick an ‘us’ to be.”“I did.”“All humanity? Nonsense. That leaves no ‘them’.”
There is no us and them. It’s us and us. It’s all us.
That really is the heart of it all. We can refuse the ‘us and them’, we can assert that it’s all us. It’s the only way to be human, really.
These are the words of a remarkable woman. A secretary, who through her tireless work for the organisation now known as CARA – the Council for At-risk Academics – helped to arrange for the rescue of prominent scholars who had been dismissed from German universities on racial and political grounds. The Academic Assistance Council, as it was first known, was set up by William Beveridge in 1933, and its first president was Ernest Rutherford. Joining with other organisations, the AAC organised a fundraising event under the umbrella of the Refugee Assistance Fund, at which Albert Einstein spoke powerfully about intellectual and individual freedom:
“If we want to resist the powers which threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom we must keep clearly before us what is at stake, and what we owe to that freedom which our ancestors have won for us after hard struggles. Without such freedom, there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Pasteur and no Lister … Most people would lead a dull life of slavery … It is only men who are free who create the inventions and intellectual works which to us moderns make life worthwhile.”
As persecution in Germany intensified, and it became clear that Jewish scholars, and those who opposed Nazism, were not only losing their jobs and their freedom to work, but that their lives were at risk, the AAC set up a more formal structure to continue the work, the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL).
In the years between Hitler coming to power and the outbreak of war, they raised the equivalent of some £4 million in today’s terms, which they used to support individuals and their families while they found new posts in universities in the UK or in other safe countries.
In all some two thousand people were saved, and helped to build new lives. Sixteen won Nobel Prizes; eighteen were knighted; over one hundred became Fellows of The Royal Society or The British Academy. Their contribution to British scientific, intellectual and cultural life was enormous. To give just a few examples: Ernst Chain, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1945; Hans Krebs, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1953; Max Born, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1954; Max Perutz, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1962; Lise Meitner, celebrated nuclear physicist; Nikolaus Pevsner, architectural historian and author; Marthe Vogt, prominent neuroscientist; Geoffrey Elton (born Gottfried Ehrenberg), Tudor historian and philosopher of history; Ernst Gombrich, the notable art historian, who was able to work as a Warburg Institute research fellow in London; Karl Popper, political and social philosopher; Ludwig Guttmann, neurologist at Stoke Mandeville, ‘father’ of the Paralympic movement. It was a unique effort; there was no parallel elsewhere in Europe. At a commemorative event at the House of Lords in 2012, Mrs Eva Loeffler, Sir Ludwig Guttmann’s daughter, warmly thanked Cara for its vital role in obtaining visas for her family and for giving her father a grant to support his needs and to enable him to continue his research at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. Without Cara’s help, she said, they would all have perished in the Nazi concentration camps. Instead, her father’s dream of the Paralympics had come true.
Many eminent men headed up the organisation in its various forms (its work continued after the war – oppression and persecution continued and their efforts were as desperately needed as ever), and many eminent men were saved by its work. But it couldn’t have happened without Esther Simpson.
She became the AAC’s Assistant Secretary, recruited thanks to her work with the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
For the AAC it was an inspired appointment, as Beveridge would write, “of lasting and growing importance”. She had a rare talent for organization, for friendship and for persuading people to do what she asked without provoking resentment. She also had the most astounding reserves of energy, resilience and patience. She would routinely work until 10 pm when the gates outside their office were locked.
She had pots of funding to allocate, according to strict criteria, but most importantly she was the link between British (and later US) academic institutions and at-risk academics, finding ways of getting them out of Germany and providing support whilst they secured longer-term posts.
After the borders closed with the declaration of war, demonstrating what Max Perutz called ‘an iron toughness in the face of officialdom’, she helped to get Jewish refugees out of the British internment camps where they were being incarcerated (alongside Nazis) as ‘enemy aliens’.
Over 500 of those detained were academics, almost all of whom she had helped to settle in the UK. They included molecular biologist Max Perutz, architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner and art historian Ernst Gombrich. She opened a file on each of them and began to prepare the documentation to petition for their release. A turning point came when the government announced that those who posed no danger and had a vital contribution to make to the nation were free to go. The Home Secretary then agreed that this would include contributions to science and learning.
Simpson ‘chivvies officials, chases references, comforts wives, sends food parcels, performs innumerable small acts of kindness. Practical humanity. The banality of goodness.’
After the war, Esther Simpson continued to work for the AAC/SPSL (Society for the Protection of Science & Learning) to secure the safety of at-risk academics from Czechoslovakia, Greece, Poland, Brazil, South Africa, Hungary, Romania, Biafra, Bangladesh, Argentina, Chile, Uganda, Zimbabwe, China …. As she said, ‘there is no end.’
And the organisation that she worked so tirelessly for is still pursuing the same goals today.
Its name changed yet again – from SPSL to the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) and then in 2014 to the Council for At-Risk Academics,
reflecting the fact that Cara helps many who are at great risk but do not see themselves as ‘refugees’, and instead still hope to return to their home countries when conditions allow.
The academics with whom CARA works today come from different parts of the world – their circumstances and their needs may be different to those of the first groups to whom the organisation reached out. But the fundamentals remain the same.
Alier was first arrested in 1992, accused of supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a multi-ethnic resistance group based in the south. He was released, but then faced with conscription into the Sudanese state’s army. He fled to the UK. He was supported by Cara to do an MSc in Water Management. Following the 2005 Peace Agreement he returned home and worked for a UK charity as a Water and Sanitation Engineer. After South Sudan’s independence, he took over a senior position in the Directorate of Water Resources Management, before beginning a new role as the Head of Technical Affairs, South Sudan National Petroleum and Gas Commission in January 2015.
In this short video, two Cara Fellows from Syria, Reem and Saeed, explore what they had to leave behind, talk about what they are doing now and discuss their hopes of returning in the future. Click here to hear their stories
The theme of this year’s Refugee Week is ‘our shared future’. The world we live in would be very different without the contribution of those who were rescued from the horror of Nazi Europe.
We cannot yet know what the contributions of those who Cara is helping today may be. One day, who knows, the names of some of those being supported now may be as well-known as those above. All we can know for sure is that without this work, gifted researchers and scholars who have the potential to make a difference in their field – whether it is medicine or engineering or plant science or law – will die.
Cara reports that the battle for Mosul has just this year cost the lives of a number of academics: Professor Lokman Safar, Professor Abdul Aziz Mahmoo, Professor Mohammed Mahmoud Sheikh-Isa, and Dr Ali Salah.
Executive Director Stephen Wordsworth says that
There has, sadly, been no let-up in the pace of work recently, as university academics around the world continue to be targets for repressive governments and extremist groups. Just now, most of those seeking the help of our Fellowship Programme to get to safety come from from Syria and Turkey, but there are many other places too where intellectuals are seen as ‘opposition’ and find themselves, sometimes quite literally, in the firing line.
As well as Fellowships, we are also developing our Syria Programme, to provide support in the region to Syrian academics affected by the crisis. This draws on our experience from earlier crises in Iraq and Zimbabwe, and is aimed at helping those who have been forced into exile to stay engaged academically, and to develop their skills.
Like all of the agencies working with the refugee crisis, Cara needs support. Find out how, here.
As an alumna, current student and retired member of staff at the University of Sheffield, I’m immensely proud that my University is at the forefront of initiatives to support both at-risk academics (working with Cara and other agencies) and asylum-seeker students.
Amongst many notable alumni, we remember in particular during Refugee Week, one scholar who came to Sheffield thanks to the efforts of the AAC.
Hans Krebs is just one person who came as a refugee from Nazi Germany. He came to Sheffield and established a group that worked on aspects of biochemistry that have been important to the world. His discovery of the Krebs cycle saw him awarded a Nobel Prize, but he has also left a legacy in Sheffield which continues to inspire future generations. We celebrated this legacy in 2015, 80 years after his arrival here.
Like Esther Simpson, we have to belong to the world. We are international, we always will be. Our community is made up of people from over 120 nations. Academics from all over the world teach students from all over the world, collaborating with institutions across the world. Only when we belong to the world can we truly ‘discover, understand, explore’, push the boundaries of knowledge, dig deeper, shed brighter light, make a difference by fighting back against disease, creating innovation, challenging received wisdom.
Today, on World Refugee Day, Help Refugees‘ legal action against Home Secretary Amber Rudd goes to the High Court. It’s the last chance to re-open the Dubs Scheme and give hope to some of the 95,000 unaccompanied refugee children across Europe.
As a six-year-old in 1939, Alfred Dubs was one of 669 mainly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia who escaped to the UK thanks to a young stockbroker, Nicholas Winton, who has been described as Britain’s Oskar Schindler. There were a number of such initiatives, known collectively as the Kindertransports, taking children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Danzig to safety in the UK – overall around 10000 children were rescued. An American initiative saved another 1400 children. Some of them were subsequently reunited with their parents, others were the only survivors from their families. The transports took place between Kristallnacht, the point at which awareness of the grave danger facing Jews in Nazi territory became much more widespread, and the outbreak of war.
Even at such a time there were those who opposed any mass influx of refugees from Nazism, on the usual grounds (we’re full, we don’t have the resources, they’ll take ‘our’ jobs/houses etc) – but these objections seem to have been largely dropped when it came to the proposal to rescue the children.
The British government had just refused to allow 10,000 Jewish children to enter Palestine, but the atrocities in Germany and Austria, the untiring persistence of the refuge advocates, and philosemitic sympathy in some high places – in the words of British Foreign Minister Samuel Hoare “Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extend the terrible suffering of their parents and their friends” – swayed the government to permit an unspecified number of children under the age of 17 to enter the United Kingdom. It was agreed to admit the children on temporary travel documents, with the idea that they would rejoin their parents when the crisis was over. A fifty Pound Sterling bond had to be posted for each child “to assure their ultimate resettlement.” (http://www.kindertransport.org/history03_rising.htm)
Alf Dubs, now a Labour peer, sponsored an amendment to the Immigration Act in April last year that required the government to relocate to the UK a number of refugee children who had reached Europe unaccompanied. Though his proposed figure of 3,000 was not included in the law, many MPs and peers believed the government had committed to accepting something around that number.
However, Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, told MPs that the UK had admitted many children through other refugee schemes, amounting to a total of 8,000 in the year to 2016 (including those resettled directly from camps in or near Syria). But, she said, that “the specified number of 350 children … reasonably meets the intention and spirit behind the provision” of the Dubs amendment.
The Government have always been clear that we do not want to incentivise perilous journeys to Europe, particularly by the most vulnerable children. That is why children must have arrived in Europe before 20 March 2016 to be eligible under section 67 of the Immigration Act. The section 67 obligation was accepted on the basis that the measure would not act as a pull factor for children to travel to Europe and that it would be based on local authority capacity. The Government have a clear strategy and we believe this is the right approach.
Yvette Cooper’s response was robust:
This week, the Government cancelled the Dubs scheme after it had been running for less than six months. The Home Secretary said that it has not closed, but will she confirm what it said in the statement yesterday: that once those 350 children are here, that is it—it is closed? Where does it say in the Hansard record of our debates on the Dubs amendment that I have here that we will help lone child refugees for only six months? Where does it say that, instead of the 3,000 that Parliament debated, we will help only one tenth of that number? Where does it say that when we get the chance we will somehow turn our backs once again? It does not, because we did not say that at the time.
The Home Secretary knows that what she is doing is shameful. Not only has she closed the Dubs programme, but she has cancelled the fast-track Dublin scheme to help those with family here. The Home Secretary did very good work in the autumn of last year to help those in Calais and to make sure we could take as many children as possible, and I commended her for it. But she also knows that most of those have family here already and were entitled to be here. She has said local councils cannot do more; the truth is that many local councils have said they can do more with more support or more time. It takes time to set up these schemes, and they should not be closed down so quickly.
There are still so many children in need of help. The Home Secretary knows there are thousands in Greece in overcrowded accommodation or homeless, or in Italy still at risk of human trafficking, or teenagers in French centres, which are being closed down now, who have nowhere left to go. The Home Secretary talked about clearing Calais; they are heading back to Calais, and back to Dunkirk: back to the mud, back to the danger, back into the arms of the people traffickers and the smugglers, the exploitation, the abuse, the prostitution rings—back into the modern slavery that this Parliament and this Government have pledged to end. … We can do this; Britain can do better than this. Will the Home Secretary accept that and reinstate the Dubs programme now?
Clearly, the Home Secretary was unmoved. Thus the legal challenge which goes to the High Court today.
All we’re asking for is the government to do their job properly and talk to local authorities about the actual number of spaces available. We know, and they know, there are hundreds more spaces available across the UK waiting to be filled.
How is it that, when there is evidence that we do have the capacity to support at least the number of unaccompanied minors proposed in the Dubs Amendment, the Government is unwilling to do any more? Could it have anything to do with what they anticipate would be the response of certain newspapers, always obsessed with the threat posed by ‘migrants’?
Analogies with the Kindertransports are, of course, not precise. As was pointed out by one Tory MP opposed to the scheme, today’s child refugees are already in countries that are deemed safe, having already survived the threat that they faced in their home country, and the perilous journey to Europe. And the very real threat of Islamist terrorism makes it easy to demonise the adolescent males who would be eligible to come here under the Dubs scheme. It’s not the same.
But at heart, it’s still just as simple as it ever was. There are children and young people who have fled from unimaginable horrors, who are orphaned or have become separated from their parents in the chaos of flight, who are vulnerable because of their youth (even those boys in their mid-late teens who look almost like men, but aren’t). Of course they are ‘our’ problem, ‘our’ responsibility, if we regard ourselves as members of the human race first and of a particular nation second. It’s a moral question first, and only secondarily a political or even a practical one. There’s a very clear and obvious right thing to do so we should do it, and deal with the political and practical impacts as necessary.
Tragically, and to our shame, that isn’t the way the government sees things.
Mrs May calculates that the acceptance of refugees in any numbers constitutes a political problem. She sees the provision of asylum not as a moral or legal duty but as a risk of contamination. She looks at Europe’s refugees as a continental affliction best managed by quarantine. And she will gladly suffer the opprobrium of liberal-minded MPs, charities and religious leaders – including the archbishop of Canterbury – if it means escaping wrathful tabloid headlines stoking fear of invading foreign hordes. The numbers actually involved in the Dubs scheme are tiny, the least the government could do after every effort had been made to prick ministerial consciences. Now even that ember of compassion is to be extinguished.
The manner of its snuffing out – the news buried in a statement issued on the eve of parliament’s recess – proves that the government knows what it has done is shameful. That does not mean the prime minister or home secretary are truly ashamed. They hope the moment will pass; that not enough people will care about the cold-blooded cruelty of their actions; that the political cost of callousness is negligible. For the sake of Britain’s reputation as a country that still knows some solidarity with victims of war and terror, we must hope they are wrong. Mrs May must reverse this decision or be haunted by it.
History is likely to judge us harshly for this failure. Meanwhile, there are children and young people who could by now have been starting a new life here, safe and secure, with the chance to regain their health and confidence, make friends, develop their skills and fulfil their potential, but who will at best continue to live the half-life of a stateless refugee, at worst who will vanish for ever.
Those who do give a damn aren’t giving up though. No chance.
“In February Theresa May put Britain on the wrong side of history. To our country’s shame, she decided to shut down the Dubs Scheme, which promised child refugees a safe future in the UK. We fought tooth and nail to win this last year. I won’t let it slip away. Join me in saying YES – I want Britain to rescue the most vulnerable child refugees. The Dubs Amendment was a promise to us – to honour our proud British tradition of welcoming those most in need. I saw that compassion and courage in Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued me as a child from the Nazi regime, along with 669 Jewish children. Acts of heroism like this define our country. They characterise the values we hold dear. Now we are faced with another such turning point in our nation’s history. Will we choose to follow Trump, or to honour our tradition of generosity, compassion and courage? We’ll need to fight harder than ever, organising our communities in the days to come. In the streets, in the offices of MPs, by joining local actions. We’ve won before. We will win again.”
Lord Alf Dubs.
Since I started this blog, back in 2012, I’ve given myself the challenge to publish something every day during Refugee Week addressing some aspect of the refugee crisis past and present, in all parts of the world. There are so many stories, and no matter how many Refugee Weeks come around, there seems little prospect that one year I will find there is nothing to say.
This year’s theme sets me a different kind of challenge, however. Many of my posts over the years have focused on the past – specifically on the refugees escaping Nazi genocide, whether through the Kindertransport or the activities of the AAC, or through the actions of individuals such as Varian Fry or communities such as Le Chambon sur Lignon. Which is fine, and I will be revisiting some of those topics this week. But the theme is ‘our shared future’, and I don’t want to neglect that.
There are as always many examples of generosity and hospitality being shown to refugees, by organisations and individuals.
In Edinburgh, Dr Amer Masri and Nadin Akta, both refugees from Syria who came here in 2011, have worked with the University’s Chaplain and student volunteers to support newly-arrived Syrian teenagers. The Teenage Syrian Refugee Tutoring pilot project aims to help with the disorientation and sense of isolation that the new arrivals will experience. The programme is focused specifically on the needs of young people, fitting in to school, making decisions about their futures and facing the kinds of challenge that are common to their age group but with the added pressure of cultural and language barriers and the trauma of their past experiences.
Meanwhile in Madrid, a project linking refugees with local mentors has been overwhelmed with volunteers. Rescate ‘s befriending programme again helps to address the disorientation and isolation that refugees face, as well as working with them to solve practical problems about housing and education, finding their way through the system to access the help they need.
But it is not just a one-way process.
Liverpool-based rapper Farhood fled his home country Iran after facing persecution as a result of his political activism. He will play M.I.A.’s Meltdown festival at Southbank Centre, London, 9-18 June, and launch Refugee Week on 18 June.
Across the world there are thousands of people who are displaced and seen as just migrants, not people with skills, abilities, talents and stories. I want to help change this situation. I want to help change the way we think and talk about this global crisis. Whose crisis is it anyway? Crises for Europe and the developed world which needs to ‘cope’ with refugees? Refugees in the UK are facing harder times now, with issues like Brexit and racism, and I want to show them hope in the face of depression, which I experience myself. … It shows that a refugee can make a transition, from being unheard in a prison in the UK to a point where I can talk about the problems in Iran and the UK to the world. I can be a voice for the voiceless.
Online magazine Vice has just published an issue edited by young refugees from across Europe. They’re not talking about being refugees, or at least not just that.
Vice’s editor says:
We wanted to show that just like all our writers and every single neighbour you’ve ever had, these young people have multifaceted personalities that cannot be defined merely by them being refugees.
The result is a collection of 16 articles that today we are publishing simultaneously in 12 languages and 14 European territories, in collaboration with UNHCR. Highlights include How to Be Fashionable on a Budget, All the Gaffes I’ve Made Since Arriving to the UK and A Playlist of the Songs I Listened to While Trying to Get from Syria to Europe.
And poet Malka Al-Haddad is crowd-funding publication of a collection of her work which she hopes will raise funds for Baobab Women’s Project in Birmingham, Leicester City of Sanctuary and East Lindsey Area of Sanctuary.
I know that there are many people that need help and this what they do. Therefore I’m willing to support them. I would like to help people as much as I can, that is my love, it makes me feel like a better person, I want to help the community in some way …. When I was in Iraq I was working very hard to get good salary to support disadvantaged people and protect women’s rights. I am now in the UK but I can not earn money or have job because I have not been recognised as a refugee. I’m glad that I have written a poetry book that, I hope, will go on to raise some funding to these small charities/organisation that support refugees and asylum seekers. They aim to make individuals’ participation positive and help people be themselves again after they lost hope and their home land.
Once we see refugees not as ‘other’, but as people like us, ordinary people (if there is such a thing) whose circumstances happen to be extraordinary and traumatic, we should not be surprised when they are not only refugees but also poets, musicians, artists, engineers, lawyers, writers, footballers, nurses, teachers and so on. Whilst they are in flight, it may be impossible to be anything other than a refugee, but what people will hope for, long for, is the chance to be those other things, to find others in their new home with whom they can share their interests and skills. As Malka says, to be themselves again.
That way, we all win.
It’s been a funny old year. Not so much of the ha ha, either. Is there anything to be said that hasn’t already been said, better probably? I doubt it, but I can’t write about the books, films and other cultural pleasures of the year without acknowledging the seismic changes and alarming portents that it has presented.
Reasons to be Miserable:
Daesh initiated or inspired terrorist attacks clocked up more deaths and more terrible injuries than the mind can encompass. As always, most of these were Muslims, in Muslim countries, although our news media inevitably foregrounds the attacks in France, Belgium and the USA. As appalling as those murders were, on my very rough calculations, Iraq was the worst hit, with over 450 deaths, followed by Pakistan. I tweeted the names of the dead from Brussels, Nice and Orlando, but will never know the names of most of those murdered in Kabul, Istanbul, Jakarta, Baghdad, Ouagadougou, Quetta, Grand Bassam or Aden.
According to the UNHCR, the number of migrants dying whilst crossing the Mediterranean reached 3800, a record. Fewer are making that journey, but they are making it via the more perilous routes and in flimsier boats. Worldwide, over 65 million people are forcibly displaced, over 21 million are refugees, and 10 million stateless. The vast majority of those displaced are hosted in neighbouring countries in Africa or the Middle East. Six per cent are in Europe. Over half of the world’s refugees came from just three countries – Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.
With regard to Syria, anything I say here may be outdated before I press Publish, but there can be no doubt that we are seeing one of the greatest tragedies of our times unfold, and that war crimes are happening there which will be remembered with shame and horror.
I’ve been told to shut up about Brexit, that the people have spoken and they’ve said we must leave Europe and that’s that. As if democracy means that once the votes are counted, those whose views did not prevail must be silent or be regarded as traitors, as if, had the vote gone the way everyone (including Farage and Johnson) expected it to, they would have shut up and let ‘the will of the people’ prevail. Firstly, whilst a majority of those who voted said we should leave Europe, that is all they said. They were not asked and so they did not vote on whether we should leave the single market, what should happen about immigration controls, what trade agreements should be in place outside the EU, what would happen to EU citizens based in the UK or vice versa, what would happen to those employment and wider human rights and other legal provisions currently under the EU umbrella. And so on. All of that has now to be negotiated and worked out, and that’s a job for Parliament. How else could it possibly happen? If anyone thinks they understand how the EU works and thus what are the implications of hard or soft Brexit, they need to read Ian Dunt’s book – Brexit- What the Hell Happens Now? Dunt isn’t talking about the arguments pro or con Brexit, but about what could happen now, what the options are, what the most likely consequences of each option are, and so on.
The US election outcome was described to me by an American colleague recently as ‘somewhere between a mess and a catastrophe’. I am (for once) holding back from comment – I know how deeply this is felt by US friends, some of whom are now seeing fault lines in their families and friendships as some support what others find inexplicable and irrational. We’ve seen a bit of that here since June. A left-wing Brexiter said to me recently that his view was that the EU was so compromised and corrupted that we had to break it in order to fix it. My fear is that some things that get broken simply can’t be mended. Something of the same feeling seems to have prevailed in the US – and that’s one of the reasons why the arguments against Trump failed to stop him winning.
This is the year when I’ve felt closest to despair, for all the above reasons, and because the Labour Party, which I’d thought was my natural home politically, has been so ineffectual in opposition. I took the hard decision to resign my membership – I doubt that I will join another party, perhaps I have to accept that there is not, and never will be, a political party to which I could sign up without caveats and qualms. In that case I have to be led by my principles and values and be willing to back, vote for, work with those politicians and activists who seem closest to them, whether they be Labour, Green, Lib Dem, Women’s Equality or any combination of the above.
On the other hand…
The Hillsborough inquests returned their verdict, and concluded that planning errors, failures of senior managers, commanding officers and club officials, and the design of the stadium, all contributed to the disaster. The behaviour of fans did not. Thus the tireless, dignified campaign fought by the families, survivors and their supporters, was finally vindicated, fully and unequivocally. Read Phil Scraton’s Hillsborough – The Truth, updated in light of the inquest verdict, and Adrian Tempany’s account of that day and what followed, and his excellent book exploring the broader picture in contemporary football, And the Sun Shines Now.
Too early to say whether Standing Rock will turn out to be a victory for the Native American and other environmental protestors – but it was truly remarkable to see the army veterans who had joined them on the site asking for and receiving forgiveness for the long history of oppression and genocide against the indigenous peoples.
Too early to say, too, whether Gambia has taken a historic step towards democracy, or wheher the defeated dictator will be successful in his attempts to overthrown the result of the election. (Meantime in Ghana another peaceful general election brings about a change of government ).
Too early to say whether hard right parties in Europe will prevail, or whether the tide will turn against them before people go to the ballot, but at least the Austrian electorate rejected the Freedom Party’s presidential candidate in favour of a former leader of the Greens.
If 2016 leads us to expect the worst (after two nights spent sitting up waiting for election results which delivered the outcome we feared most, against the predictions of the pundits), then we have to remember that this does not mean that the die is irrevocably cast.
So, reasons to be anxious, reasons to be angry, reasons to be sad – but not reasons to lose all hope.
I’ve tried, throughout this hard year, to hold on to my own brand of faith. It’s not been easy, and it won’t be easy.
In all of this, though, I have found joy in family and friends, in working for Inspiration for Life and in our extraordinary 24 Hour Inspire, in books and film and music and theatre and opera and TV, in my PhD research, in walking in the lovely countryside on our doorstep. I’m bloody lucky, and I do know it.
If I’m going to sum up, somehow, what I want to say about 2016, I think I will leave it to Patti Smith, singing Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain, at the Nobel Prize ceremony. She stumbled, apologised, and began again. In her performance, and in Dylan’s song, there is humanity and hope.
According to our Prime Minister,
if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.
The examples she gives are of people who regard themselves as above the obligations and responsibilities to the communities in which they live and work, who identify themselves with ‘international elites’ rather than with ‘the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.’ She talks of ‘the spirit of citizenship’.
Prime Minister : You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Those of us who identify ourselves as citizens of the world do, indeed, ‘respect the bonds and obligations that make our society work’. But we see those bonds and obligations as extending beyond the people who live around us, work for us, buy the goods and services we sell.
As a citizen of the UK, I honour my commitments and responsibilities to the country of my birth, the country where I have spent most of my life, where I have worked, paid taxes, and raised a family. But I also believe that:
In an increasingly connected world, local needs are intertwined with global needs. We are in the midst of serious challenges that threaten the whole world, and which require collective responsibility: climate change, extreme poverty, and the refugee crisis. Being a citizen of the world means acknowledging that we each have a part to play in solving these urgent global problems.
And in a world where 24 people are forced to flee their home each minute, the idea of a fixed national identity is sadly a privilege not all humans can claim. Where do you belong when your country is no longer your own? The tragedy of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War is a moving reminder of the need to look beyond borders. We need an inclusive identity for all the world’s displaced people – one that encompasses our responsibility for each other, wherever we call home. Whether you’re a founder of a multimillion-dollar business, a Prime Minister, or a refugee with nothing but a mobile phone and the clothes on your back, you can be a Global Citizen.
I spent some of my childhood years in a newly independent West African nation. My parents flew out to Ghana in 1960, with three children under four years old. My father taught Physics and Mathematics to undergraduates at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology in Kumasi. He wrote a textbook for use in schools, recognising that those imported from the UK not only assumed resources far beyond the means of Ghanaian schools, but also assumed cultural references which would make no sense to Ghanaian children. He went on to train teachers in the north of Nigeria. And in his retirement, after years doing the same at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University), he set up an organisation to link retired educators with projects in developing countries, sending them out to work with local teachers to use their lifetimes of expertise where it was most needed, in countries such as Paraguay, Kosovo, Iraq, Liberia, India and Chad.
The country of my parents who instilled in me a sense of public service and of public servants everywhere who want to give something back.
So what was instilled in me by my parents was not only a sense of public service, but the belief that that does not stop at our coastline, that it’s not just ‘the people down the road’, but the people across the oceans who matter.
It’s not about ‘international elites’, it’s about refugees, about people who are persecuted because of their politics, their religion or their sexuality, about people who starve because the world’s resources are so unevenly distributed and because their own and other governments do not have the will to act, about people… About people.
Global citizenship does not mean what Teresa May thinks (or at least says) it means.
But there’s another troubling undertone here.
‘the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere … the only ones who can be addressed as international, because they conduct their business everywhere’
‘International elites’, ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ who owe no loyalty to the countries in which they may live and work. I am not suggesting for a moment that Teresa May is deliberately echoing Adolf Hitler’s 1933 speech, any more than Amber Rudd’s proposal to require firms to list all of their foreign workers is consciously preparing the ground for yellow stars or their equivalent.
But the echoes are worrying. With the Brexit vote having been interpreted by the government primarily as a vote about immigration, and by racist bigots as a vote against foreigners of all kinds, with the plans to tighten even further the tests which would allow British businesses to employ people from overseas, and those which allow students to come from overseas to study here…
It seems that we are prepared to put into jeopardy our health services and the many other businesses and services which rely on overseas expertise, to put into jeopardy our economy, which gains so much from international students paying £20k a year in fees alone to study here, to put into jeopardy our research culture which thrives on the free movement of academics, all to reduce the net migration total.
Teresa May referred to the UK’s remarkable number of Nobel Laureates. But one of this year’s prize winners, Sir Fraser Stoddart, has reminded us that ‘recruiting from a wider pool and bringing in talent from abroad raises everyone’s standard’.
“When you get people from Messina or Madrid moving to a cold place like Sheffield, they’re serious about science,” he said. “It’s better for everyone.”
Sir Martin Rees, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Cambridge, and the Astronomer Royal, warns:
“The UK scientific scene is now much stronger than it was [in the 1980s] – thanks in part of the strengthening of science on mainland Europe. But there is a serious risk, aggravated by the tone of Amber Rudd’s deplorable speech on Tuesday, that there will be a renewed surge of defections, weakening UK science and causing us to fail to recoup our investments over the last 20 years.”
Amber Rudd spoke of the resident labour market test, which determines whether an organisation can recruit outside the UK (and, at present, EU).
The test should ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do.
But it’s become a tick box exercise, allowing some firms to get away with not training local people. We won’t win in the world if we don’t do more to upskill our own workforce.
It’s not fair on companies doing the right thing. So I want us to look again at whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers.
Most people hearing this will not know how onerous it already is to appoint someone from outside the UK/EU, how many hoops the employer will have to jump through to satisfy the requirements for a Tier 2 visa to be issued, and how many hoops the applicant will have to jump through. Amber Rudd knows this perfectly well, as do many in her audience. But none of that really matters – what it’s about is meeting this arbritrary net migration target, by whatever means.
She also tackled the issue of international students:
The current system allows all students, irrespective of their talents and the university’s quality, favourable employment prospects when they stop studying. … And foreign students, even those studying English Language degrees, don’t even have to be proficient in speaking English. We need to look at whether this one size fits all approach really is right for the hundreds of different universities, providing thousands of different courses across the country.
Her first point is moot. An international student can apply to stay on after their studies are complete under a Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa – if they have access to at least £50k investment funds to set up or run a UK business. Or, they may apply for a Tier 2 visa, if they have been offered a job by a licensed UK employer, and if they can rack up 70 points under the points based system (yes, we do have a points based system!), which requires them, amongst other things, to have English language qualifications at a suitable level, and sufficient funds in their personal bank account. And all overseas students have to meet English language proficiency requirements at a level set by their institution.
But important as it is to call her out on the inaccuracies in her statement, the really important thing is what underlies it. The assumption that students are flooding here, unable to speak the language, getting favourable treatment post-study, bringing their entire extended families with them – that they are a burden and a problem.
To quote Rudd:
try and stand up for a multiracial Britain and you are labelled part of the liberal elite; point out the £20 billion net contribution from immigrants over a decade and you are told you are not listening to the people; oppose hate crime and you are mocked for political correctness. It is easier to vilify foreigners in the new Britain than it is to espouse European values.
OK, not that Rudd. Her brother, in fact, who has founded an organisation called Open Britain, a place for those who find the denigration of non-British workers appalling and campaigning for Britain to be open and inclusive, open for business, open to trade and investment, open to talent and hard work, open to Europe and to the world.
For Teresa May and Amber Rudd and so many in the Tory Party (and elsewhere) EU migrants are a problem. Overseas workers and students are a problem. Refugees are a problem. Foreigners are a problem.
And the problem can be solved by ending free movement of EU citizens, if need be losing out on beneficial trade deals as a quid pro quo, by tightening up still further on the freedom of employers to bring in the skills and expertise they need to contribute to our economy and to our academic research, by reducing the numbers of students paying substantial fees and contributing to the local economy whilst acquiring skills and qualifications which might be useful both here and in their home country.
The problem can be solved by stating repeatedly that we are doing ‘everything we can’ (whilst doing nothing at all) to bring unaccompanied child refugees who have the right to come to Britain, out of the camp at Calais – due to be demolished shortly – and to safety with family here.
Meanwhile the children remain in the squalor and misery of the camps, prey to traffickers and abusers, desperate enough to risk and lose their lives in attempts to board lorries crossing the Channel. Every day they remain puts them at greater risk of harm, and increases their trauma. But refugees – even these children – are a problem, and therefore we stall and hedge and do nothing.
And whilst we make that arbitrary division between those who live and work here holding a British passport and those who live and work here holding EU or overseas passports, we are about to guarantee for Britons who have settled overseas permanently a “vote for life” in British general elections…
The word ‘cosmopolitan’ is often used in a way that perhaps feeds into Teresa May’s characterisation, of someone who is part of ‘a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call ‘global citizens’”.
But that’s a distortion of what it means.
Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.
A global or world citizen places their shared humanity above nationalistic or local identities. They recognise our interconnectedness, and that the problems and threats we face – climate change, terrorism, the displacement of peoples through war and famine – cannot be solved other than by nations working together and that our response is hindered rather than helped by borders and barriers. Global citizenship only comes into conflict with national and local identities, and with the obligations and responsibilities of national citizenship, if that nation demands of its citizens allegiance to values which are inhumane.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, is about as cosmopolitan as anyone could be. His mother was English (daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps), his father Ghanaian. He was educated in Ghana and the UK, and taught in Germany, Ghana, South Africa and France as well as in the US. His family and that of his husband, Henry Finder, is scattered across four continents.
He defines cosmopolitanism as ‘universality plus difference’ asserting that the first takes precedence over the latter, that is: different cultures are respected “not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people.”
The foreignness of foreigners, the strangeness of strangers, these things are real enough, but Appiah suggests that intellectuals and leaders, on the left and the right, have wildly exaggerated their significance. He scrutinizes the treacly celebration of “diversity,” the hushed invocations of the “Other,” and the brow-furrowing talk of “difference.” In developing a cosmopolitanism for our times, he defends a vision of art and literature as a common human possession, distinguishes the global claims of cosmopolitanism from those of its fundamentalist enemies, and explores what we do, and do not, owe to strangers. This deeply humane account will make it harder for us to think of the world as divided between the West and the Rest, between locals and moderns, between Us and Them.
That the language around immigration is becoming ever more toxic is recognised across the political spectrum. What might have been unsurprising in a UKIP manifesto is now mainstream Tory policy, and whilst many in Labour have been quick and vigorous in opposition, the Party’s Press Office inexplicably seemed to think that pointing out the government’s failure to meet its targets in reducing net migration was the best response.
More hopefully, the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru were unequivocal:
The narrow vote in favour of leaving the EU has now been interpreted as the pretext for a drastic cutting of ties with Europe… and as an excuse for the most toxic rhetoric on immigration we have seen from any government in living memory.
This is a profoundly moral question which gets to the heart of what sort of country we think we live in. We will not tolerate the contribution of people from overseas to our NHS being called into question, or a new version of the divisive rhetoric of ‘British jobs for British workers’. Neither will we allow the people of these islands, no matter how they voted on June 23rd, to be presented as a reactionary, xenophobic mass whose only concern is somehow taking the UK back to a lost imperial age. At a time of increasing violence and tension, we will call out the actions of politicians who threaten to enflame those same things.
It’s perilously easy to despair. But if we do, if we let the seemingly endless tide of sickening rhetoric and bad news overwhelm us and reduce us to silence and inaction, those who will suffer will be those who are already vulnerable, those who are already being told to ‘go home’, facing abuse and discrimination, those who are desperately trying to reach safety and encountering the impermeable indifference of bureaucracy, those who have made their lives and careers here and now feel unwelcome.
‘There is no us and them. It’s us and us. It’s all us.’