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Help for heroes

06/02/2014
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I followed Iran during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Working as a volunteer English tutor at the Refugee Education & Employment Programme in Sheffield, I’d recently met a lad from a Persian speaking part of Afghanistan that has close links to Iran. Me and Hossein (not his real name) chatted about life in Sheffield and football. He loved football and was supporting Iran in the World Cup. His eyes lit up when he recalled how the Iranians had beaten the USA in France ’98. “We win, we win…” he said punching the air. I tried to throw my own love of FC United of Manchester into our conversations but my English skills weren’t up to it. He preferred Liverpool when it came to English football.

REEP offered free English lessons to asylum seekers and refugees in the city and I was one of the volunteer tutors who worked on a one to one basis with those whose English wasn’t quite up to classroom-based lessons yet. It was all about learning practical language skills for going shopping, getting the bus, visiting the doctors’ etc. The lessons were informal and, to be honest, were as much about having a chat and a brew in a relaxed, friendly environment as they were about teaching English.

Hossein had been in the UK for over a year but was still awaiting the outcome of his application for asylum. The frustration of being unable to find anything other than casual work was obvious. Over the course of several months, he divulged his reasons for fleeing his homeland and leaving behind loved ones. And he described a tortuous seven month journey through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France culminating in a cross-Channel journey clinging to the underside of a lorry before disembarking at a Kent motorway service station in the middle of the night. All the time, fearful that, at any moment, he could be caught and sent back home. It told of desperation that few of us will ever come close to experiencing. I had nothing but admiration for Hossein’s courage. Undoubtedly one of the bravest, no make that THE bravest person that I’ve ever met.

Fast forward a few years and I’m on a day-long Equality & Diversity course at the central London hospital where I work. As the day wore on there were a few “this is political correctness gone mad” looks around the room. Aside from one lady thinking that it was ok to refer to an Irish patient as a “Paddy” one of the daftest comments came later in the day as we discussed asylum seekers and refugees. When asked what proportion of the world’s asylum seekers we thought were hosted by Britain one of the group immediately piped up with the figure of 25%. The reality is that the UK provides a home for less than 2% of the world’s refugees (there were 15 million worldwide in 2012). About 80% of those seeking asylum end up in neighbouring developing countries like Pakistan and Iran, often living for many years in refugee camps without running water and electricity.

Sadly there remain huge misconceptions about who asylum seekers are and the reasons why they come to the UK. That they have often fled violence and torture in their own countries and have left behind families, friends and jobs is conveniently ignored in nonsense news stories about “floods” of “bogus” asylum seekers arriving on our shores merely to scrounge off our over-generous welfare state. Too often we talk about numbers but ignore the incredible human stories behind the statistics.

And herein lies the problem with the debate about asylum seekers and refugees. The chances are that the vast majority of those who are most vociferous in their opposition to refugees arriving on our shores have probably never met a refugee in their lives. To be honest the likelihood of bumping into a refugee on the street is tiny. In 2012 the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK made up only 0.27% of the population, less than 170,000 people in total. But if they sat down for a brew and a chat they might begin to appreciate that beneath the headlines, the statistics and the labels these are ordinary people with the same hopes and fears as the rest of us. And they might be gobsmacked at the tales of incredible courage in just getting to this country in the first place. These are heroes that need our help.

The right to asylum is enshrined in international law. The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention guarantees everyone the right to apply for asylum in another country. Down the years it has saved many millions of lives and should be something of which we are fiercely proud. It recognises that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means to make it to a place of safety. For instance, there is no legal way to travel to the UK specifically to claim asylum.

Refugees make a huge contribution to British life. Their contribution to the UK coffers through taxation massively outweighs the benefits received by asylum seekers who are not legally able to work. The British Medical Association has over 1,200 medically qualified refugee doctors and nurses on its database. Indeed, it is arguable whether or not the NHS would continue to function without immigrant staff.

This weekend marks the start of an annual event that aims to redress the balance in the debate about refugees. Refugee Week celebrates the contribution of refugees to the UK and aims to promote a better understanding of why people leave their homelands to seek sanctuary elsewhere. This annual event began in 1998 as a direct response to the hostile image of refugees and asylum seekers that is too often portrayed by the media. This year Refugee Week will be marked by events across the whole of the UK. It deserves our unswerving support. There’s more about it here; http://www.refugeeweek.org.uk/?&year=2014&month=1.

As for the World Cup I’ll be cheering for Iran again.

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