Posts Tagged Refugees
What is it they want, all these people?
What do we want? What do we hope for, for ourselves and for our children? We may hope for prosperity, for a nicer house in a nicer part of town, a better job, for our kids to be successful as well as happy. But if what we have was taken from us, what then?
We’d want to be safe. If our home, our street, our place of work, the school our children go to, the hospital they were born in and where we go if we’re sick, are bombsites and warzones, we’ll take our chances to go somewhere that perhaps just might be safe.
We’d want to be safe from violence and the constant threat of violence, because we believe in the wrong god or in no god, because we love the wrong people, because we support the wrong political movement, because we are the wrong race. We’d want to be safe from rape and the constant threat of rape, from abuse, from mutilation in the name of tradition. We’d want to be safe from the constant threat of starvation and disease, the desperate quest for enough food to just stay alive, the desperate quest for help when we or our children are sick.
But we’d want more than that.
We’d want to have a place where we can shut our door and hang up our hats, and sleep without fear, and be with the people we love. We’d want the chance to work, to use our skills to earn enough to provide for ourselves and the people we love, to prepare healthy meals, to buy new shoes for the children as they grow, to be warm enough in winter. We’d want the chance to learn, new languages and new skills, and we’d want our children to go to school and learn all that they need to make their way in the world, and to make friends and play.
We’d want to become part of a community. Paying our way, making a contribution, chatting to our neighbours, free of the threat that there will be a knock on the door early one morning and we’ll be sent away, back where we came from, or just away, to anywhere that’s not here.
And with all of that we’d want not to be told in the headlines of the newspapers that we’re a threat, that we’re terrorists, that we’re spongers, that we’re liars, that we’re cowards. We’d want not to see in the eyes of the people we meet that they wonder whether that’s true.
We’d want to be welcome.
Tuesday 21 June – Migration Matters Festival
British Red Cross Refugee Awareness Workshop (2.00 pm): find out about their work, and how you can get involved
Displace Yourself Theatre – Free to Stay (7.30 pm): An exploration of life without nationality, through physical theatre and projection, telling the stories of individuals with first-hand experience of statelessness
This year things feel different, in the run-up to Refugee Week. When I started blogging about refugees it felt like a neglected topic – even though organisations like Refugee Action and CARA and many others were working incredibly hard to support refugees and asylum seekers, and to raise awareness of the issues, they weren’t making headlines.
Since the photograph last September of that small boy, who came to stand for so many other children washed ashore as their flimsy, overcrowded boats sink in the Mediterranean, refugees have hardly been out of the headlines.
That’s a double edged sword, of course. Whilst many, many people have been stirred to do something, moved by looking into the eyes of grieving parents, frightened children and traumatised young men and recognising that they are like us, that they could be us, others have used the same images to stoke up hatred and suspicion.
The theme this year is ‘Welcome’. The heady days when refugees were greeted with smiling crowds and flowers faded pretty quickly but the people themselves are still with us, and more are coming, because they have no choice. Those who are here already can’t go home because home isn’t there any more for them, just as those others who are leaving now, grabbing what they can carry, handing their money over for a hazardous passage to an uncertain future, can’t just say, well, you know what, perhaps we’ll stay put after all.
We have to keep pressing our governments to make them welcome. We have to keep challenging the miserable, hateful lies that are told daily about them. We have to keep telling their stories so that more people make that leap into understanding and empathy.
Over the next week I’ll be trying to do some of that. As in previous years, I’ll post at least one piece each day. If you like what you read, feel free to reblog/share.
Tonight at the Migration Matters festival in Sheffield, Ice and Fire Theatre present their Asylum Monologues, based on ten years of gathering and disseminating testimonies of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK. And they’ve a packed and varied programme throughout Refugee Week as well, including Ardi Mejzini’s one-man show based on his own experience as a refugee from Kosovo (Monday, 20.00). All events will take place at Theatre Delicatessen, 17 The Moor and are Pay What You Decide.
Europe is facing a wave of migration unmatched since the end of World War II – and no one has reported on this crisis in more depth or breadth than the Guardian’s migration correspondent, Patrick Kingsley. In today’s Guardian, Kingsley offers an impassioned overview of Europe’s collective response to the refugee crisis. This is how he begins:
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Once again I’m naming the dead. Listing the names of the latest victims of murderous fanaticism. But whilst the names of the dead in Brussels are emerging, gradually, and will be published in our news media as they do, I have trawled the internet in vain for the names of those who died at Grand Bassam, as I did for those who died in Ouagadougou and Bamako, in Ankara and elsewhere. I’ve found a few – usually those of foreign nationals – but only a few. I want to honour them too, they merit that as much as those who died in Brussels or Paris. But I don’t know who they are.
So if I list the names of those who died this week in Brussels, as I listed those who died in Paris, it is not because I think European lives are more important or that terrorist attacks on European soil matter more than atrocities in Africa, Asia, the Middle East.
What listing the names of those murdered in European cities does is to show the cosmopolitanism of those targets. The names tell their own stories of migration and mobility – those who travel freely for pleasure or work or family, as well as those who have travelled to escape desperate poverty, persecution or war. That’s exactly what Daesh hate, of course. That on those city streets those of every faith and none mix freely, travel together, work together, eat together, enjoy music together.
But whilst the attacks on Paris and Brussels are explicitly aimed at the western cosmopolitanism that epitomises the grey zone, ‘that place between black and white, where nothing is ever either/or and everything is a bit of both’, the majority of their victims are Muslim. After all, most of their murderous attacks take place in predominantly Muslim countries – Daesh hate those who espouse what they regard as the wrong type of Islam as much if not more than they hate those who espouse a different faith or none at all.
How we respond on social media to these atrocities does matter. It may be easy to retweet, like, share, sign and so forth but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. It’s not enough, of course, but for many of us it’s all we can immediately do.
So what do we say? Do we change our profile pictures to the flag of the country where the latest murders have taken place? Do we assert that ‘je suis/nous sommes/we are all…’? Again, it’s important if we do those things that we do them for Mali, Ivory Coast, Turkey or Pakistan as readily as we do for France or Belgium.
Whatever we say, we need to say and keep saying that refugees are welcome. Because even before the names of the dead or the backgrounds of the killers are known, the usual suspects here and in the US are telling us that we’re to blame for letting ‘them’ in. Even before we know who died, and who killed them, we’re told that it’s the refugees fleeing war and terrorist brutality who are the cause of ‘our’ losses. We have to reject that othering which is, after all, exactly what Daesh want. In their world everything is polarised, and most of humanity is that Other that can be slaughtered without compunction. As terrorists they want us to fear and to hate, and governments to react with repressive and prejudicial legislation, to drive people out of the grey zone and into crusadership or caliphate.
Of course we may well be afraid, however much we assert otherwise to show our solidarity with each other against the murderers. We will be angry, we should be angry, that so many lives are being taken, that such brutality is being unleashed on so many. But alongside those emotions, we need to inform ourselves, to try to comprehend. As Jason Burke says, in his important and fascinating book, The New Threat from Islamic Militancy,
Trying to understand does not imply any sympathy. It simply means we need to set aside our very natural anger, disgust and fear in order, as dispassionately as possible, to learn. We need, above all, to avoid the trap that the extremists have fallen into: that of shutting ourselves off, of closing our minds, of succumbing to the temptation of wilful ignorance. In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, victims, the maimed and the bereaved, always ask a very fundamental, very human question, ‘Why did this happen?’ We owe it to them to make the effort it takes to find the answer.
We honour the dead by naming them, when we can. By refusing to shut our minds and our hearts – or indeed our borders. By asserting our shared humanity, that what unites us is so much greater than what divides us. By trying to understand.
When I did my annual Refugee Week blog blitz back in June, I could not have imagined that by September every day’s news, my Facebook and Twitter feeds and email inbox would be about the ‘crisis’ of refugees in Europe. That every day there would be images that would sear their way into my soul – a mother trying to hold her baby’s head above water, a father weeping as he holds his children, and above all, a child lying in the surf, almost as if he’s just sleeping. That every day there would be headlines that both evoke and challenge the dark history of Europe – trains packed with desperate refugees arriving in Germany and Austria, to be met with welcome signs and stacks of donated supplies, football fans proclaiming that refugees are welcome, Czech police inking numbers on children’s arms, Hungarian police pushing a desperate woman with a child on the railway tracks in Budapest.
We keep hearing that there’s a crisis. Sure. But the crisis is what these people encountered in Syria, Eritrea or any of the other hellholes they are trying to escape. The crisis is what drove them to risk everything to get away, to try to find somewhere safe where they could establish some kind of life. The crisis is what led them to pack their few belongings and hand over their cash to the crooks who loaded them onto unsafe boats and into the seas to perish.
They are the ones who are in crisis. Not us.
We’re in disarray, which is somewhat different. A coordinated, compassionate European approach could get the immediate needs met – a combination of government action and grassroots support – and start to plan for the longer term.
And what’s kicking off now, all across Europe, is at least in part, because of Alan Kurdi. Because even for those of us who already cared and campaigned and donated, that photo was the moment when we moved up a gear, or several. I wrote this, for Refugee Week 2012:
‘It would be terribly easy to despair. But the other side of the picture is, as it always has been, the story of generosity and hospitality, of people giving a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, of the marginalised and spectralised finding a place in a community and people to listen to their stories.’
OK, if you read below the line on any newspaper report (and I wouldn’t recommend that you do), there’s the usual outpouring of bile and misinformation. But meanwhile, many many people are getting involved, because they see not threatening feral hordes but distraught parents, frightened kids, human beings. The Daily Mail’s attempt earlier this summer to generate outrage about Brits having their summer hols spoiled by proximity to the feral hordes backfired rather when some of those Brits spent their summer hols helping rather than cowering in their apartments or threatening to sue the travel agents. As a manager at Munich station said, “It seems the more they [other rail travellers and employees] have contact with them, the more empathy they have’. And just as public opinion shifted against the Vietnam war when we saw Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked, her clothes having been burned with napalm, from her village, the picture of Alan Kurdi lying on the beach has shifted the public mood.
Back in 1939 Norman Angell and Dorothy Frances Buxton published a Penguin Special on that era’s refugee crisis.
‘There are some of the saddest scenes in the world from which we British people are forever spared, and of which the keenest imagination among us could hardly form an adequate picture. … In the darkness of night, or in the grey of dawn, desperate men and women, sometimes even dragging along a pitiful child, make a dash to get through that double line [of armed police] and risk the rifle shot. Some of them, like human tennis balls, are driven backwards and forwards, time after time, across the frontier.’
‘’There is a case, probably typical of many others, of a devoted father who succeeded in raking together 1500 francs and the price demanded by an English captain for the service of landing this refugee’s son (illegally) in England. The father saw his son embark; but he never heard of him again. Many and awful risks attend such illicit methods. The reader will hardly need to ask why human beings are driven to such desperate adventures.
The main difference today is that we can see these scenes unfolding, in real time, and we can look into the eyes of these desperate men and women hundreds of miles away, and recognise ourselves. And we can look at the small boy on the beach and, even as our hearts break, resolve to make things change.
A powerful and moving piece about the refugee crisis from That’s How the Light Gets In.
This must be what it was like in the 1930s when Jews fleeing Nazi Germany created a major refugee crisis to which the response of Britain, the USA and other potential safe haven countries was a collective shoulder shrug of indifference – or outright hostility. This summer we have witnessed an unfolding crisis on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War, as desperate people risk their lives fleeing the civil war in Syria and the murderous advance of ISIS. With some noble exceptions, the prevailing response, especially here in the UK, has been once again to demonise fellow human beings.
The initial response to the Nazi takeover in 1933 was a substantial wave of Jewish emigration, much of it to neighbouring European countries. But in 1938, after an increase in personal assaults on Jews during the spring and summer, the nationwide Kristallnacht (‘Night of Broken Glass’) pogrom in…
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I hadn’t heard of Anja Reschke until a few days ago. She’s a German newsreader who, in the midst of the “migrant crisis” in Calais, used her slot on prime time evening television recently to brilliantly express her anger at the “little racist nobodies” who continue to attack refugees and asylum seekers, adding that “there is a mind boggling number of people that are doing lots for refugees, who are not racist, and I think it’s their voice that should be dominant rather than a handful of simpletons who think they should stir up hatred”. If only we could look forward to a similar tirade from the likes of Sophie Raworth or Huw Edwards. I’m not holding my breath though.
Sadly, the British television coverage of Calais has been altogether more mundane and predictable. The other night I watched James Brokenshire, the Minister of State for Security and Immigration, being…
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A new art exhibition ‘Back Where You Came From’ examines how ancient stories about migration preserved in the biblical book of Genesis are helpful in considering the current migration crisis. The project seeks to promote open dialogue about migration through reading ancient sacred texts about migration in groups that include people from different faiths and cultures. Sanctuary seekers in the city have reflected on their movement, transience, and migration from their homes by responding to stories about the figures of Abraham, Hagar, Isaac, and Jacob from the book of Genesis.’
‘Back Where You Come From’ will run from 15 to 26 June at The Gallery @ 35 Chapel Walk, in the centre of Sheffield, from 10am to 6pm. Download the exhibition brochure.
Women become refugees for most of the same reasons that men do. They experience most of the same terrors, dangers and indignities along the way. But there are also particular threats that may drive them to leave everything behind and seek safety somewhere else. The fear or immediate threat of forced marriage or genital mutilation, for them or their daughters. The use of rape as a weapon of war, or as a routine way of punishing women for resistance, or for their sexual orientation.
And leaving home, the perils of the journey, the insecurities of their place of arrival expose them even more to the threat of sexual violence, as destitution may lead to their exploitation by traffickers and pimps. In detention, women who have been raped or sexually abused, or whose culture imposes a duty of modesty, may find themselves being searched, or watched whilst dressing or washing, by male guards. Some have been sexually assaulted by their guards.
Lengthy indefinite detention is inherently unjust. It is inherently damaging to refugees who are already traumatised by their experiences. There must be some alternative to treating people who have sought sanctuary here more harshly than those who have been convicted of a crime. There must be some recognition that the women in Yarls Wood, if they must be detained, need to be safe from harm, treated with kindness, their privacy respected. Pregnant women, and anyone who is sick, physically or mentally, should not be there.
Refugee women can and do contribute. A A Gill, who wrote a series of articles on refugees in DRC, Jordan and Lampedusa published in The Sunday Times Magazine, said: ‘In Congo I realised a truth I’ve known all my life. Whilst women are often victims, they are also often the catalyst for making things better.’ The Refugee Council has for the last few years celebrated these contributions, and here are a few of the recipients of their awards.
This year’s Special Jury Award went to Asma Mohamed Ali. Asma was born on the Brava Coast in Somalia and came to the UK in 1992 having spent much of her childhood in Kenyan refugee camps. Now working in Barnet at the Somali Bravanese Welfare Association, Asma has built a thriving centre and education programme that supports 200 students and their families.
In 2014 Lilian Seenoi, a refugee from Kenya, was recognised as Woman of the Year for her work setting up North-West Migrants Forum – the only migrant forum in Derry/Londonderry, from her kitchen table. Lilian sought asylum in the UK after her work rescuing young girls from early marriage put her life in danger. Her work in Northern Ireland now brings together diverse migrant groups and local communities who have suffered years of tension. Lilian quoted from the Migrant Manifesto: ‘I have witnessed how fear creates boundaries, how boundaries create hate and how hate only serves the oppressors. I do understand that migrants and non-migrants are interconnected. When the rights of migrants are denied, the rights of citizens are at risk. Dignity has no nationality.’
Constance Nzeneu, who received an award in 2014, fled to the UK in 2005 from the threat of a forced marriage in Cameroon where she had trained as a lawyer. After she applied for protection, she was dispersed to Cardiff whilst her asylum claim was being processed. Like thousands of asylum seekers, Constance had no choice over where she would live and had no right to work, but she did not stand still, with the help of a training she became involved in advocacy and community work, This is how she describes those early days:
“I was refused asylum and I realized that there were so many people out there with similar or worse experiences than mine. There was no project led by women seeking sanctuary and I think you can’t really understand this situation – being destitute, being homeless and thinking what am I going to eat tonight, and I don’t want to be a burden to anyone, and how long am I going to be allowed to stay, and I’m about to be deported, what should I do…unless you’ve been through it yourself.”
She now leads Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group Wales (WSSAG), which she set up to support other women to cope with exile, and to raise awareness within Wales about why women seek sanctuary. The group is now 40 strong.
Community work comes naturally to Nazek Ramadan, who received an award in 2012. In the 1980s she opened her home in Beirut to refugees, and when she and her family had to flee Lebanon for the UK in 1986, she began volunteering soon after she arrived in London, initially at an Arabic speaking supplementary school. Her first challenge was to learn English, which she did by watching children’s TV (advice she still gives to others), going to classes and joining in any activity she could. The early years in London were not easy and Nazek experienced racial abuse. She discovered that learning English and getting a job were not enough to be accepted. When a fellow migrant said to her ‘how can they hate us so much, when they don’t even know us’ she replied by saying, ‘you’ve answered your own question, they don’t know us’. She realised that ‘everyone was talking about migrants except migrants’ and so set out to remedy this. In 2007 she launched the New Londoners newspaper which, modelled on London’s freesheets, succeeded in getting migrant and asylum issues in front of London commuters and won two awards from the Mayor of London. And in 2010 she founded Migrant Voice, an organisation dedicated to addressing the lack of representation of migrants in the mainstream media.
These women left their homes and loved ones, fleeing war and persecution, and managed not only to build a new life for themselves and their families, but also to support and inspire people and communities across the UK.
The first time I was aware of this phrase was in the late 1970s. The boat people then were fleeing from Vietnam, in the bitter aftermath of that long war. Others fled from Cambodia and Laos as repressive governments took over in those countries, and those who couldn’t afford to buy a safer passage by bribing government officials to give them the necessary papers took to the boats, as so many others have done in the decades since.
The mass influx of refugees caused problems then to the countries on whose shores they landed. But there was a concerted, international effort, to spread the load, to share the responsibility. Various memorials in western countries pay tribute not only to the boat people who didn’t survive that perilous voyage, but to the nations who took them in, supported them in making a new life. Some of this was down to guilt – in the US in particular, who had lost a war and left those they had fought for and with to the mercy of the victors. Even so, this benign response didn’t last. Soon enough, the argument was made that many of those seeking refuge were not asylum seekers but people seeking a better life (sound familiar?), and therefore found themselves in detention centres whilst their claims were examined. If they were unsuccessful they faced deportation. In more recent years, people continue to risk their lives on the sea. Rohingya people fleeing persecution in Myanmar (Burma), refugees from conflict in Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. So many lives have been lost – the vessels barely seaworthy and overloaded with desperate humanity, and apparently all too often a world prepared to look on and judge that these people are not worth the cost of rescue. Just the other week, David Cameron claimed that the ‘vast majority’ of those who set sail across the Med are not asylum seekers but ‘ people seeking a better life’. He makes it sound a bit like someone who emigrates to Australia for the climate or a better paid job, or who moves out of the big city for a more peaceful life in the countryside. Actually, the better life they seek is a life free from fear of bombs, guns, starvation. As Somali British poet Warsan Shire says, “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
Some commentators have shown a quite remarkable ability to scan the faces in the boats and judge where all of these people are from and therefore the validity of their claim. Abdallah’s story suggests why this is nonsensical – he is originally from Darfur, but fled after his village was destroyed, his father killed and his sisters raped, on to South Sudan straight into another civil war, a punishing journey across the Sahara which killed his cousin and brother, and then to Libya. And his third civil war. He saw the risk of the Mediterranean voyage as no greater than the risk of staying – and going home as not even a possibility.
The other thing that is ignored by those who want to categorise these boat people as ‘economic migrants’ is that whilst they may indeed have left their homes to take up jobs elsewhere – and then somewhere along the line their employers take their passports, and essentially treat them as slave labour. If they protest, they risk being reported to the police. And if they leave entirely, they risk being arrested as an illegal migrant. So they can’t go home, even if home is not itself a dangerous and hostile place, because they have no papers. The traffickers will take them.
People talk as if these are people who have choices. As if they can plan a journey to the nearest country where they won’t actually starve or be killed. It’s really not like that. They say we need to focus on stopping the traffickers – sure, but as well as rescuing the people they traffic, not instead. It’s been suggested that if we stop rescuing them they will stop coming. No, if we stop rescuing them they will keep on coming and they will keep on drowning.