Thursday, 26 May 2022

Sorry, not sorry

 Look. He said he was sorry, didn’t he? He didn’t mean it, of course, but at least he said it. What more do you want?

He said he took full responsibility. He didn’t mean that either, but hey, what else could he say?

In fact, there’s a simple rule to follow whenever he opens his mouth. If the sentence begins with the first person pronoun, insert the word ‘not’ before the verb that follows to work out what he actually means.

‘I will [not] learn lessons from what has happened.’

‘I do [not] fully understand people’s anger.’

‘I have [not] been as surprised and disappointed as everyone else at what has been revealed.’

What the hell did you expect? This is a man, don’t forget, about whom one of his school teachers once wrote: ‘[He] sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility … I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.’

He is now nearly 58 years old. Do you really think he’s going to change the habits of a lifetime? A man on his third marriage, who has fathered an indeterminate number of children, who has never bothered to buy a suit that actually fits him, and who lies as frequently as he ruffles his hair.

He insists that he has always said what he believes to be true. Translation: he has always said what he wants us to believe to be true, but not much caring whether we believe him or not. He has been sacked twice for lying, he has a total lack of interest in what most people would regard as basic standards of human decency, yet … Well, you know the rest, don’t you?

Napoleon is sometimes quoted – or more likely misquoted – as having said that he would rather have a general who was lucky than one who was good. Our man has an unshakeable faith in his own luck, his luck without end, and he has good reason to. Misdeeds that would have sunk virtually anyone else in public life have left him seemingly untouched, the greased piglet who has slipped through everyone’s hands time and time again.

He can preside over serial law-breaking, day after day, week after week, disgraceful carryings-on under his own nose, yet claim to have had no idea how the ill-disciplined youngsters in his charge were misbehaving after lights out. Yes, from time to time, he would pop his head round the door of the dorms as the kids were having their cocoa but he was shocked – shocked, I tell you -- to discover what mischief they got up to while he was translating ancient Greek texts upstairs.

He thought he was running a monastic order. How was he to know it was really St Trinians?

He is what he has always been, and he will do what he has always done. Anything and everything that he needs to do or say to get through tomorrow. It’s worked perfectly for him up till now – so why shouldn’t it go on working?

At first, as you may recall, his story was that nothing had happened. Then it morphed into, well, some of it might have happened, but there was nothing wrong with it. Now, we’ve got to yes, it was awful, but I wasn’t there at the time.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!

Ah. I’ve just realised. I haven’t made clear who this is about. But of course, I didn’t need to, because you’ve known all along, haven’t you? 

Thursday, 14 April 2022

'If you were me, what would you do?'

Dear Mr Johnson

I am a 19-year-old medical student from Sudan. I have just been released from jail, where I spent six months being severely tortured. My passport has been confiscated and I have been warned that because of my political activities as a critic of the current military dictatorship in my country, my life is at risk.

My father was murdered by members of a pro-government militia group ten years ago. But my uncle is a successful cardiologist who has been living and working in London for many years, and he has offered to sponsor me and support me if I seek asylum in the UK.

As I no longer have a passport – and as I have no means of obtaining a replacement – the only way I can leave Sudan is by paying smugglers to help me get out illegally. My uncle says he will pay whatever the smugglers charge to bring me to the UK, but I know that the final stage of the journey will be in a rubber boat across the English Channel.

I also know that the UK does not accept asylum applications made from outside the UK, and I have read that you now intend to deport asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via ‘unofficial’ routes to Rwanda.

I have no wish to live in Rwanda, so my question to you is this: if you were me, what would you do? As far as I can see, your government has provided no ‘safe and legal way’ for me to apply for asylum in the UK. 

In other words, you have made it totally impossible for me – and for thousands like me – to seek sanctuary in your country. I can only conclude that even though the UK is a founding signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, this has been your deliberate intention all along.

But here’s the thing: I’m still going to try. I shall just have to hope that the smugglers will find some way to get me into the UK without anyone noticing. I’ll stay with my uncle, out of sight, and hope that somehow I’ll be able to make a new life for myself. Despair does that to people: it convinces us that anything is better than giving up hope.

So please, Mr Johnson, think again. Your plan won’t work, it won’t keep us out. It probably means I’ll never be a doctor, though. 

Which is a shame, both for you and for me.

(Author’s note: this is an imagined case study based on current UK government policy as I understand it.)

Tuesday, 5 April 2022

Refugees' Tales

The following article appears in the latest newsletter of the human rights organisation Waging Peace, which campaigns on behalf of Sudanese asylum-seekers and refugees. To find out more about their work, click here.

Imagine an 18-year-old girl, living alone with her mother, desperate to flee to safety to escape a genocidal regime.

She and her mother both apply for asylum in the UK. The 18-year-old is lucky: a relative in London offers to sponsor her, but her mother, aged 42, is ruled to be too old to be allowed in. 

The teenage girl was my mother, who fled from Nazi Germany in July 1939. I have her German passport in front of me as I write. It was issued by the Nazis with a large red J for Jew on the first page. Inside is a stamp that reads ‘Leave to land granted at Southampton this day on condition that the holder registers at once with the police and does not enter any employment other than as a resident in service in a private household.’

Her mother had to stay behind in Germany. War broke out five weeks later, and in 1942, she was deported to Lithuania and murdered. I thought of her when I heard Michael Gove boast in the House of Commons the other day that ‘our country has a long and proud history of supporting the most vulnerable during their darkest hour.’

Here’s another story: this time, the refugee is a 20-year-old man who arrives in England on his own from Berlin, having left his parents behind. With the help of a relative, he finds a family of academics in Cambridge who take him in and arrange a job for him as a builder’s labourer. Fourteen months later he is arrested and interned on the Isle of Man as an ‘enemy alien.’ 

After just six weeks, he is released and allowed to enlist in the British army. He ends up working in a top-secret military intelligence unit, which is where he meets his wife-to-be.

That man was my father, and in 1989, fifty years after he and my mother arrived in England, they threw a huge ‘thank you’ party for all their friends. They never forgot that they owed their lives to Britain – but nor did they forget the thousands of others who never made it. (Footnote: my father’s parents managed to get out of Germany in 1940, and spent the war years in Portugal.)

Now fast forward to 2003, when a 42-year-old man – the same age as my German Jewish grandmother – fled from his homeland after being captured and tortured by another genocidal regime. He made it to the UK, where, like my parents, he made a life for himself and eventually became a British citizen. His wife and two sons, who had stayed behind, were all murdered, and in January last year, on a return visit to his home country, he was shot dead during an armed attack by a pro-government militia.

His name was Sharif Barko and he came from the Darfur region of western Sudan. (You may remember that at one time the Darfur genocide was a big news story, but by the time Sharif died, it had been all but forgotten.) 

And in case you’re wondering what’s happening in Sudan now, there are still more than two million people displaced by the Darfur war; the UN has just warned that up to 18 million people could be facing extreme hunger within months, and there’s been an upsurge in violence since the military coup last October. 

Today, an alleged former commander of the notorious Janjaweed militia is due to go on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, facing 31 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman is accused of being implicated in the murders of more than 300 people.

But now, of course, it’s Ukraine that is in the headlines. More than four million – four million! – refugees have fled the country since Russia invaded in February: two million of them are in Poland; 640,000 in Romania; 370,000 in Moldova, the poorest country in Europe; 270,000 in the Czech Republic; and 240,000 in Germany.

Like my parents, and like Sharif Barko, they all fled in fear of their lives. They sought sanctuary wherever they could find it – and to their immense credit, the 27 members of the European Union threw open their doors and offered unrestricted access to all of them, including residence and work permits, housing, health care and education.

Not the UK, though. By the end of last month, the UK had issued a desultory 25,000 visas. The government’s record is utterly shameful, and it stands in sharp contrast to the outpouring of support from the British people: nearly 200,000 offers of accommodation and more than £260 million raised for the Disasters Emergency Committee Ukraine appeal.

Instead of welcoming refugees, which Michael Gove would have us believe is our ‘long and proud history’, the government is now proposing to make it all but impossible for them to get here. Under the terms of its controversial Nationality and Borders Bill (aka the Anti-Refugee Bill), many of those fleeing from war or persecution would be sent to off-shore camps to wait for their asylum applications to be processed, or even stripped of their right to seek asylum if they are deemed to have arrived in the UK by ‘irregular’ means.

So why one rule for Ukrainians and another for everyone else? Take a bow, Sir Bill Wiggin, the old Etonian Tory MP for North Herefordshire. ‘We want Ukrainians and we want Qataris, but we don’t want people in rubber boats,’ he said last week. No one from Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan in other words. No one from Eritrea or Syria.

And no one, of course, from Sudan. No one like Sharif Barko. No one – how can I put it? – who doesn’t have white skin.  Or a few million dollars in the bank.

Saturday, 5 March 2022

Ukraine: the best and the worst of us

 Wars – all wars – inevitably show humanity at its worst. They show that we are capable of unimaginable cruelty and barbarity, causing unimaginable grief and suffering.

But wars also show humanity at its best. Thousands, tens of thousands, of ordinary people, men and women, reaching out to help their fellow humans in their hour of need.

The war in Ukraine is no different, and it has set me thinking about past wars, in particular the last war that rendered Europe asunder, the one that consumed our continent between 1939 and 1945.

Only the very oldest among us now remember that war, but most of us will have heard the stories, from parents or grandparents who lived through it. Stories of bravery, fortitude, and defiance, as well as of death and destruction on an unprecedented scale.

The stories today that fill our screens and front pages are no different. We see the smoking rubble of destroyed cities, and the tear-stained faces of terrified civilians. 

But we also see the volunteers at the Ukrainian-Polish border, welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees with offers of food and shelter. We see the hundreds of Berliners waiting at the city’s main railway station with cardboard signs offering accommodation to fleeing Ukrainian families.

And we see the grim humour of Ukrainians under attack, exactly the same humour that in another age, in another place, was called the ‘Blitz spirit’. The short wave radio hackers blasting out the Ukrainian national anthem on wavelengths being used by the Russian military; the Ukrainian motorist helpfully offering to tow a broken-down Russian tank back to Russia.

At an institutional level, we see the EU lifting all visa restrictions for Ukrainian refugees. We see British MPs giving a standing ovation to the Ukrainian ambassador, even as the UK government proves shamefully incapable of rising to the occasion.

Both my parents were refugees. They fled from Nazi Germany in 1939, made their homes in the UK and never failed to voice their gratitude for the welcome they found here. But nor did they forget the hostility they also encountered: the visit from the police when my mother was denounced by someone in a pub who had heard her talking with a German accent, the abuse from local people on the Isle of Man when my father was interned there as an ‘enemy alien’.

My maternal grandmother was refused asylum in the UK, was deported to Lithuania by the Nazis in 1941 and murdered at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, shot by an execution squad made up of Lithuanian partisans. (Many Lithuanians backed the Nazis because they believed that they would restore their independence after the Soviet invasion in 1940.)

When I visited the site of my grandmother’s murder some years ago, my guide was one of the very few Lithuanian Jews still left in the country. (Before the war, Jews made up about 7% of Lithuania’s population. Today, they are estimated to total 0.1%.)

And he told me how his mother and her family had spent the war years being sheltered by non-Jewish farmers, who hid them in the full knowledge that if they were discovered, they would all be killed.

The best of humanity, and the worst, side by side.