Posts Tagged Refugees
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 Aylan 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 Aylan 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.
You only have to look around you to see that refugees have contributed, historically. Your knickers may well come from Marks & Spencers. Your pantry may well stock the odd pack of Tilda rice or Patak’s curry paste. Your CD collection may well include something by MIA or Arnold Schoenberg, Wyclif Jean or Bela Bartok. Your bookshelves may well include works by Thomas Mann or Nabokov, your children’s bookshelves those of Judith Kerr or Jan Pienkowski. And that’s before you consider the contributions of the scientists, the philosophers, the painters, the film directors, the sportsmen and women who, at some point in their lives, had to leave their homes to find safety somewhere else.
Of course most refugees won’t turn out to be another Einstein, Marx or Freud. And those who arrive with nothing but the clothes they stand up in, and who live in near destitution, and in fear of deportation back to the peril that they risked everything to escape, will struggle to do much more than survive. But if they are given the chance to be who they can be, free of the threat of starvation, violence and persecution, if they are given the chance to use the skills and qualifications they already have, or to acquire skills that can be used to earn a living and pay taxes, who knows?
If we had not welcomed the children from the Kindertransport in 1939, we would never have known the contribution of impresario Bill Graham, entrepreneur Steve Shirley, film director Karel Reisz, Nobel Laureates Walter Kohn, Arno Penzias and Jack Steinberger.
If CARA had not enabled Jewish academics to take up posts in UK Universities in the 1930s, when they were unable to work in their home countries, we might never have known the contributions of Ernst Gombrich, Nikolaus Pevsner, Karl Popper, Max Born or Hans Krebs. Those individuals might well have been swallowed up in the barbarity. Anne Frank and Helene Berr left only their extraordinary diaries to suggest what might have been. Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullmann and Hans Krasa left only tantalising fragments of the musical oeuvre that they could have achieved. Walter Benjamin, Marc Bloch, Irene Nemirovsky, Max Jacob, Dietrich Bonhoeffer- all left a substantial legacy, but could have gone on, could have continued to influence and inspire.
If you really look at the photos above, what do you see? I see weariness and bewilderment, but also a fragile hope, the beginnings of belief in a future that isn’t all about fear and a desperate struggle to survive. I see people like us who had everything they’d relied upon taken away from them, and who have no choice but to trust to the kindness of strangers. We’ll never know the potential of the lives that are lost in the warzones and killing fields of the world, unless we help people in desperate straits to get out, and make a new life in safety.
They won’t all change the world – but they could change us. Our communities, fearful as they are, can gain from hearing the voices of people who have endured more than most of us could possibly imagine, and understanding that it’s all rather more complicated, and at the same time rather less threatening, than the rhetoric of the ‘send them all back – Britain is full’ brigade suggests.They can give us the chance to see things differently, to broaden our horizons as we open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our homes.