The news yesterday of twenty-nine refugees drowning while trying to cross the Channel off Calais, in inflatable dinghies, to Britain, made me feel numb. It made me think of the victims, their hopes, and their last moments of struggle, and of their families who will never hear from them. But the feeling wasn’t unfamiliar to me.
Last night’s horrible tragedy reminded me of my school friend, Razi. In the village in Afghanistan’s central highlands, our horizons did not extend beyond the mountains surrounding us.
Razi and I were in the same class, spending our days sitting cross-legged on the damp floor, sharing books and notebooks. He would walk hours to get to school and back. His father was a butcher in the local bazaar, where Razi would spend most of his out of school time.
Then came the Taliban. Everything changed. We became refugees. I ended up working as a child labourer in Iran. I did not know what had happened to him until we met in Iran in 2001. His father, he told me, had sold his land to pay a smuggler to get him to the safety of Europe. Iran was not safe. We could be deported to Afghanistan and fall in the hands of the Taliban at any time. Unlike Razi, I had no one to cover the costs of my trip.
Within weeks, Razi had safely made it to Turkey, I heard. I envied him. But his story ended in the Aegean Sea. He and those with him had drowned. Never to be seen again. I often think about him. Had he survived his journey, I am sure Britain would have been his destination. He would have made a model citizen.
Britain was and remains the final destination for many who flee persecution and abuse in their own homes. Because our country was and is seen as a place not only safe, but also where refugees are treated with respect and generosity, and that it offers the best chances for them to rebuild their lives anew. Yesterday’s tragedy, so tragically demonstrates, what Britain means to those desperately seeking better lives for themselves and their families.
But the fact that Britain is held with such esteem by the persecuted shows our country’s soft-power reach. Contrary to some on the right, this should be celebrated, not derided.
But over the past decade, Britain has consistently made life harder for those seeking asylum here. We have also fallen short of fulfilling our humanitarian commitments. David Cameron’s 2015 pledge of taking 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years has not been fulfilled. Boris Johnson’s pledge to take 20,000 Afghan refugees over five years will likely face the same fate.
Months on since the fall of Kabul, there are no details on when the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) will begin, and what the application process is to be. Despite there being a minister dedicated to the task, the scheme has not yet been designed. Meanwhile, thousands of Afghan evacuees are languishing in Serco-run low quality hotels and accommodations with no clarity over their future. Operation Warm Welcome has turned cold. The government, it seems, have completely forgotten its obligations.
In recent weeks and months, the number of people crossing the Channel to get to Britain has been rising steadily. This, coupled with the attack in Liverpool by a terrorist who also happened to be a failed asylum seeker, prompted the Home Secretary Priti Patel to blame the ‘dysfunctional’ asylum system. She also wrongly claimed that 70% of individuals arriving by boats are not genuine refugees. According to a recent report by the Refugee Council, however, two thirds of the people coming to the UK through the Channel are refugees.
Mired in corruption and sleaze, the government has upped its anti-immigration ante, with Priti Patel attacking the EU and warning those who seek to get into Britain. She has admired Greece, where mistreatment of refugees is routine, for holding up refugees in camps and promised to set up similar offshore holding centres – detention centres -, where refugees will be kept under strict rules.
What Priti Patel is promising is not new. Australia has been keeping refugees out of its borders for years. It has been dumping them in detention centres in the Pacific in appalling conditions, where abuse, self-harm and suicide are frequent occurrences. A young man, who was yet not born when I fled my birthplace, hanged himself in a detention centre, after years of being stuck there.
Britain’s asylum system needs an overhaul. The current system is too complicated and inefficient. I know many who have been waiting for years to have their fate determined. And those who have been granted asylum have to go through hell to have their families reunited with them. I know of at least one individual, who after years of failed attempts to have his family join him, take his own life. I know of families broken up. The system is inhumane. Patel’s idea of change will not improve the system. It will make it crueller and more callous.
We need an asylum system built on treating refugees as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. One that does not portray them as plagues on our society. The asylum application process must become simpler and more efficient. Those who are granted asylum must be invested in and supported adequately to become active citizens. The return on the investment will be manifold. Failed asylum seekers must be supported too. They must not be treated like criminals or be deported to countries with poor human rights records. Under the current system, many simply abscond.
Britain must stand by its promises on refugee numbers. We must do more and work with other countries and international organisations to tackle the root causes of people being forced to leave their homes: climate change, war, persecution, poverty and more. We must increase foreign aid, not cut it. Measures proposed by Priti Patel will not stop people trying to get into the UK, they will make them make greater risks, which will cost more lives.
Becoming a refugee is a painful and lonely experience. It leaves a deep wound in your soul, which only ends with your end. Forced out of their homes, villages and cities, those who, unlike my friend Razi, survive their perilous journey and knock on our door for sanctuary, must be treated with humanity and respect.