You or I would probably get on a plane if we had to flee our country. But airlines are held liable if they carry people without papers. Airline staff can’t decide whether or not someone is a refugee. Visas are hard to come by and cost money. Some people have to destroy their own papers in order to stay safe.
By insisting on papers to cross borders we criminalise refugees. Perhaps this is partly how we justify the use of detention – indefinite detention in Britain – and a punitive asylum system leading to poverty such as the nineteenth-century author Charles Dickens would have recognised.
Britain and others contribute generous sums to refugee camps. But refugee camps are not safe places, particularly for women-led families and children, who may be prey to traffickers dealing in sex, child labour, drugs and human organs. There is not enough food. People die from cold and disease. Last week I was listening to refugees speaking in a committee room in the House of Commons and there was a man there on the anniversary of the death of his 14-year-old daughter in a Turkish refugee camp. She had been unable to access hospital facilities.
Unless they are flown from these camps by the UNHCR for resettlement, people have to be standing on European soil to claim asylum. In Britain we have our own moat, and those who have already survived one sea crossing and reached Calais find themselves faced with another.
The asylum system, I think, reveals the short-comings of democracy. The inhumanity of governments is driven by fear of losing votes to the far-right and to nationalist parties. It feeds on a fear of ‘the other’, people different to ourselves who present, in the words of one politician, ‘a threat to our way of life’. Those of us relatively comfortable fear losing this comfort. But those already poor and marginalised can often perceive a threat to their homes and jobs, a view fanned unashamedly by some tabloid newspapers – witness the ‘Calais chaos’ headlines over the summer – and by politicians using language evoking a loss of control, a human tsunami crashing on our shores. Our very home, with its boundaries marking out the space which is ours, is seen as under threat: it’s a kind of country with borders in miniature. Blurring of the edges between Muslim refugees and terrorists magnifies this fear.
But just as these feelings are deep, so are the human connections that suddenly broke through when the picture of a drowned child appeared across practically all the front pages. One of the reasons people responded to this image was because it gave us an individual story and tapped into our own deep fear of the loss of a child. It is through individual stories and through giving refugees a voice that we can break through the fear and negativity to the humanity. As individuals we can do this when we welcome refugees into our communities. We can challenge views that block the human connection; we can show that by welcoming people into our societies we can enrich those societies and nourish our own values at the same time. We have to work at it just as they will have to: it is a two-way process.
I think the key lies in the imagination. If we try to imagine – even just a little – what people have experienced: the violent loss of close family, the utter exhaustion of travelling hundreds of miles on foot carrying children, sheltering the elderly or injured, praying for survival on an overcrowded sinking boat – then we can begin to make an empathic connection. British Government policies demonstrate a total failure of imagination. Amnesty International sums it up: ‘Don’t help, it only encourages more people to come’. This explains the keenness to stop the search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and the appalling conditions in Calais.*
When we attempt to step into the shoes of refugees we see that the only way of greeting them is with compassion. And of course a great many people across Europe, and some politicians too, are doing just that. Europe has the wealth, the means, to support people. When you think of the billions going into ‘defence’, fences, detention centres, armaments, surely a human-centred asylum policy is affordable.
And we need to challenge the refugee hierarchy which is emerging, with Syrians at the top and Eritreans and others slipping down the pecking order. In fact only Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis are currently being allowed across some borders. Recently seven Iranians sewed their lips shut on the Greek-Macedonian border in protest. People flee countries for different reasons and just because we might consider a country relatively safe because it doesn’t happen to be being pounded to pieces by civil war, that doesn’t mean someone fleeing, say, Ethiopia or Uganda might not have a strong claim for asylum.
Everywhere there are echoes of the Christmas story – of ‘no room at the inn’. ‘It cannot be,’ says Jean-Claude Juncker, ‘that in the Europe of 2015 people are left to fend for themselves, sleeping in fields.’ But Europe’s failure to provide safe legal routes to asylum is leading to just that. Sometimes people utter sentences that sound straight out of the Bible, like the Afghan father arriving soaked to the skin with his young family in Lesbos and being told there is no shelter and no blankets, replying ‘Touch me. Am I not human too?’ If we cannot respond with compassion then our much-vaunted European values are empty and worthless.
*‘No existing sound research substantiates the political claim that giving people asylum in Europe stimulates more flow… Nearly all refugees want to go home. They don’t sit in refugee camps calculating where they can get the best benefits.’ Alexander Betts, head of the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford.
Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network
Introductory talk given as part of Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network (QARN, https://www.qarn.org.uk/homepage/ workshop at QCEA conference, 5th December 2015.
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