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Treating refugees as the problem is the problem



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 questioned by the House of Commons’ Immigration Committee about the government’s response to the situation in Calais. The member for the hotbed of diversity that is Old Bexley and Sidcup assured his fellow MPs that the government was working with their French counterparts to reinforce security at Calais, adding that the safety of holiday makers and lorry drivers was paramount and that it was essential that goods could continue to be transported to the UK safe from any harm caused by “clandestines”. Perish the thought that any Syrian asylum seekers hunkering down in the back of a lorry should damage croissants destined for breakfast tables across the UK. How dare anyone interfere with the British person’s right to a high fat breakfast?


Similarly the foreign secretary Philip Hammond chipped in with his two penn’orth claiming that millions of “marauding” African migrants posed a threat to Europe’s standard of living and social fabric. Although they’re clearly not marauding around Runnymede and Weybridge in Surrey where Philip Hammond is the local MP and where black and African people make up only 0.9% of the population. It is language that is designed simply to whip up hostility and fear.

On social media the not-rights waded into the debate sharing any barely literate anti-immigrant bile that they could lay their hands on. Look someone’s photoshopped a picture of the Channel Tunnel with the entrance bricked up. Hahaha, that’ll stop ’em. Ooh, look, “if Carlsberg did illegal immigration”; below the caption is a picture of a fishing boat populated not by asylum seekers but scantily clad women. Hilarious. Then there are the pub bores who’ve mulled over it after a pint or two and come to the conclusion that, you know these asylum seekers, why don’t they seek asylum in the first country that they come to, like they’re meant to, rather than all flooding to the UK? Yeah, right, why not let the likes of Greece, Turkey and Italy deal with the problem by virtue of their geographical location. Sorted.


And then come the newspapers peddling their own racist agenda and barely able to conceal their contempt for the brown skinned hordes invading our shores. “Send in the army” they shriek. Send in the dogs. It’s unacceptable. Build more fences, make them higher. Get the water cannon out. Of course, the jack-booted Daily Mail has been here before; “German Jews pour into the country” was one of their typically fear mongering headlines from the thirties. The papers reckon we need to get tougher on immigration and stop being a soft touch. Our welfare state is a huge pull factor for these foreign scroungers apparently.

But rather than rely on vote hungry politicians, the Daily Express or Barry down the boozer for the facts on immigration why don’t we listen instead to people for whom refugees are human beings not statistics? Organisations like the Refugee CouncilRefugee ActionDetention Action and Migrant Voice, for instance, who work closely with refugees and asylum seekers and strive, often on shoestring budgets, to get the truth across about the plight of these new arrivals to our shores. The truth is that we are most definitely not a soft touch when it comes to immigration and neither are we being swamped or flooded by migrants.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the end of 2014 there were nearly twenty million refugees across the globe of which 86% were located in developing countries. Syria, unsurprisingly, overtook Afghanistan as the top source of refugees in 2014 with 95% of Syrian refugees seeking shelter in neighbouring countries such as Iran, Lebanon and Jordan. The reality is that the vast majority of the world’s more than fifty million displaced people make it nowhere near Europe or the west, they find refuge, often in squalid camps, either in other parts of their own country or across the border in nearby countries.


When it comes to seeking asylum, nearly 1.7 million people submitted claims for asylum in 2014, the highest level ever recorded. Germany was the largest recipient of the industrialised nations with 173,100 new asylum applications  with the USA second with 121,200 applications followed by Turkey, Sweden and Italy. The UK was much further down the list with 31,300 new applications for asylum. Not even enough to fill one of those plastic all-seater football stadia like Pride Park or St Mary’s. At the end of 2014 the population of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK represented a mere 0.24% of the total population.

For those asylum seekers who do make it to Britain the support on offer is typically stingier than many other European countries. Asylum seekers in the UK do not have the right to work and are forced to rely on state support, currently set at a meagre £36.95 per week or £5.28 per day to cover the costs of food, sanitation and clothing. Emergency housing is provided but this is mainly hostel type accommodation or “hard to let” properties that council tenants do not want to live in; really shitty, damp, cockroach ridden places that you wouldn’t want any of your family staying in for any significant length of time.

The numbers, of course, tell only a fraction of the story. People choose to flee their homes for various reasons including war, persecution, climate change, scarcity of food, lack of water and population growth and the distinction between those fleeing war and persecution and economic migrants in search of a better life is becoming increasingly blurred. Eritrea, for instance, is not at war yet 3% of its six million population has fled the country in the last year and Eritreans now represent the third most populous set of nationals attempting to make the crossing by boat to Europe. With enforced, indefinite national service and widespread human rights violations, Eritrea has become, in some eyes, an African version of North Korea.


David Cameron spoke of a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean” to seek a better life in Britain. On average, over the last fourteen years, eight people a day have died trying to get to Europe according to a report published by the International Organisation for Migration; a staggering total of 40,000 migrants are believed to have lost their lives since 1990. Sadly these people remain faceless and anonymous, mere statistics used to justify increasing the security of European borders. Most of the casualties are officially classed as missing meaning that their families are often left with no information about what has happened.

Huge sums of money are devoted to border security but sadly very little to deal with the humanitarian impact of migrant deaths. Imagine how it must feel for families back home to hear nothing from a son or brother or sister or husband and to not even know whether they are alive or not? Where is the human dignity? Do these lives not matter at all? Perhaps if they did we could reduce the death toll in the Mediterranean.

Similarly on the same day that a lion was shot in Zimbabwe recently came news of the death of another person desperately trying to make the journey to Britain from Calais. Whilst we instantly knew the name of the lion and the Minnesota dentist who shot him, and quite possibly his inside leg measurement, it was several hours before we knew anything at all about the asylum seeker who had died. Sadly they have become mere statistics without a human back story. No smiley Facebook photographs. No weeping loved ones.


Migrant journeys often resemble an heroic escape yet we tend to see immigrants not as brave voyagers but needy beggars who will be a drain on our resources. For a year in the mid-noughties I volunteered as a tutor teaching (or doing my best to teach) English to asylum seekers and refugees in Sheffield, one of the UK’s cities of sanctuary. Over time as students divulged details about their lives we began to find out about the extraordinary journeys to Yorkshire taken by young men from Iraq and Afghanistan and women from Somalia. Heroic journeys lasting for months, through several countries, often on foot and under the cover of darkness. I was blown away by the bravery and courage of these people and cannot begin to fully appreciate the level of desperation someone must be in to contemplate leaving their home, family and friends to embark on a journey to a foreign land, in hope but unsure as to what the future holds or even if they will make it to their final destination. Would you do it?

Sadly Sheffield’s Refugee Education and Employment Programme was forced to close in 2009 due to a lack of funding and a political climate that has become increasingly hostile towards refugees and asylum seekers. Two-faced politicians have been happy to demand of new arrivals that “if you are not prepared to learn English your benefits will be cut” at the same time as slashing funding for ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes, thus making it much more difficult for people to learn English.

It’s perhaps difficult for us to imagine a time when someone in Britain feels compelled to pay several thousand pounds to someone they don’t know, possibly a criminal, to be transported by boat and in the back of a lorry (if they’re lucky) to somewhere like, say, Damascus. Those faces behind the fences at Calais or sleeping rough on the Greek island of Kos or scrambling ashore in Lampedusa off the coast of Italy; but for the good fortune of being born in a largely peaceful and tolerant country it could be you or me risking life and limb to find a better life, a place of sanctuary. I suspect we probably wouldn’t be so brave though. Would we?


From → Politics, Refugees

  1. Excellent piece – reblogged on Passing Time!

  2. John Armitage permalink

    Another excellent and powerful piece. Thank you.

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