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.