In early August, just a little over a month ago, my daughter was born. She is my and my wife’s first child, and we both love her to bits. She’s the cutest, most wonderful and beautiful baby.
She is safe.
Safe is not, however, what thousands of people – and their children – fleeing from Syria and other war-torn countries experience. Destroyed buildings, shooting, bombing, ISIS, chemical weapons used on both adults and children – it only takes to read any of the British papers to find out what is going on. It is not shocking, really, that people will do everything and anything to save their lives, and the lives of their children, to save themselves. Thousands of them.
I find myself as guilty as many others of waking up far too late. We had known for many years that this war has been raging for years. We had known of the atrocities and destruction that it’d brought. The image of the lifeless body of the boy on the Turkish beach has galvanized many to press on the British government to take in more refugees, but I suspect it’s more than that – it was the combination of the fact that we now have thousands of desperate refugees making desperate journeys across Europe in search of safe haven, and how the British government had been “dealing” with the situation in Calais. As we know, it was by building higher fences and blocking the refugees’ entry to the UK. Some of us – quite few of us, turns out! – have simply had enough. We couldn’t take it any longer. Couple this with – both prior to the petition to the UK government to provide safe haven to refugees in the UK – the case of the Czech police writing numbers on refugees’ arms (Nazi concentration camps, anyone?), Hungarian government’s very harsh talk and treatment of the refugees, not to mention recent events in Macedonia. We should’ve acted more decisively ages ago – luckily, we have woken up now.
Over the last two or three weeks, I spent some of the time collecting signatures for our local MP, who intended to press on David Cameron’s government to take in more refugees to the UK. I also helped sort some of the donated clothing and footwear for the refugees in Calais. Whilst it is true that the UK spends a considerable amount of money on international aid (0.7% of gross national income), I still believe in these extraordinary circumstances the government needs to commit to doing more. I certainly do believe that it is Europe’s responsibility to share the taking in of the refugees, and the UK has to play a part in this. The current Home Office guidelines state that the concentration of refugees per other inhabitants should be 1 to 200 (http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN01909.pdf). At the end of 2014, there were 153,560 refugees and asylum seekers in the UK (http://www.star-network.org.uk/index.php/refugees/facts_figures). The 1 in 200 figure actually means that, now, we should be able to host 320,000 refugees in total. Why, then, in the middle of what has been described as the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War 2, the UK’s government is not willing to accept more than the 20,000, is beyond me.
This blog has “Valuing and Protecting Diversity” in its name, so I simply had to write something on the matter of refugees – and take a stand. The contribution of refugees to this country has been immense. Some of the things that many would consider “quintessentially English” have been brought in by the refugees. Fish and chips – brought in by Portuguese and Spanish refugees a good while ago. Marks and Spencer business – first established by a Polish refugee and an Englishman. Hampton Court in west London – designed by Daniel Marot, a French Huguenot refugee. Half of the workers who built London’s Southbank Centre were refugees. Of course, the list goes on and is quite inexhaustible. (Telegraph has some more examples: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatpicturegalleries/8586870/Top-10-refugee-contributions.html).
The suffering, the torment and the desperation of the people willing to walk for hundreds of miles, and often risk drowning, to reach Europe, are starker than we’ve seen on this kind of scale before for a long time. Yes, people. Not “swarm”, not “economic migrants”. People. This will be a test for Europe, and for the UK. There are those that claim that the vast majority of the people traveling on foot across Europe are asylum tourists or economic migrants. Shocking, given the everyday news about chemical weapons and images of complete destruction in Syria as well as the conditions in camps in surrounding countries and in camps such as Calais. One only needs to watch the numerous stories of individuals’ journeys from Asia to Europe (those who made it!) to see what it looks like – whether it’s The Guardian or Telegraph that you’re reading, you will read or watch these haunting stories of people traveling with one rucksack across Europe, spending all of their money to get to safety. Thousands of people don’t just leave their own homes, families and countries. Nobody loves Europe this much.
There are other arguments – such as, “what about our homeless or the financing of the NHS?” Quite frankly, comparing financing hospitals in one country where they exist to a country where many buildings previously housing hospitals have been bombed is, to put it lightly, extremely bad taste. The current UK issues cannot be used as an excuse not to house people in desperate need for safety. There is, as usual, a lot of myths repeated, and misinformation – particularly related to the rights of refugees – they, in fact, do have the right to choose a place of residence (Article 33: Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees) and the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries (Article 14: Universal Declaration of Human Rights). People who deny them these rights are, in essence, denying them Human Rights.
There are those fearing that inviting more refugees to Europe will “make everyone else want to seek better life here”. I don’t actually have a problem with others seeking better life (whilst recognizing that there are financial/budgetary repercussions of this to countries) anywhere, but I also believe that it is a rather odd argument, given the British colonialism history, with 109 colonies owned by Britain in the past. There is a reason why Rhodesia in Africa is called Rhodesia (Cecil Rhodes, whose statue is still present in Oxford, dispossessed and reduced to slaves the African people there in the late 19 century).
I call on us all to open our hearts and the doors of our country to those fleeing terror and desperation. I am ready myself to house a person in need. UK faces the test of empathy – are we a country that welcomes people fleeing for their lives from circumstances we often can’t possibly imagine? Do we understand that we are humans wherever we are from, whatever language we speak, whichever our faith (or none)? I hope this country has not become and never will become consumed by Islamophobia. I hope we will defy the anti-immigration rhetoric, too often fueled by some politicians and the media. Yes, there are threats from groups such as ISIS, and we should be wary of them, but let us remember that we should not doom the lives of so many because of it. Let’s show and give those in need the humanity, safety and the future. Let’s treat them as human beings that they are.
My heart goes out to those who have had to endure the plight and terror of conflict who seek help elsewhere. I pledge to help them as much as I can by giving as much as I can.
My daughter enjoys a safe and happy life. All humans on Earth deserve that same chance. Help make more lives safer and happier.
For my daughter. For humanity.