Today marks the start of Refugee Week, a week that aims to recognise the plight and needs of refugees around the world: Zimbabweans, Iranians, Afghanis, Eritreans, Chinese, Bosnians. Groups across the globe such as Amnesty International, Refugee Council, UNHCR and Refugee Action work tirelessly to secure, support and integrate the needs of refugees into the societies of our home countries. Yet among the fundraising activities and awareness campaigns that scream “We are here and we are growing by the day” an unmistakable disengagement with these issues is being passed through our national politics.
While our local and international media spins news headlines of European economic downfalls into double dips and grieves the costly interventions into the ‘failed’ states of the Middle East, our thoughts are almost forcibly pulled away from an indisputably linked and ever amplifying problem of displaced peoples.
Even more troubling is the passivity and discrimination that guards our government’s disengagement with refugee rights. Over the last 20 years our media and society itself has used the refugees and asylum seekers as all-purpose scapegoats. For example in recent economic plight as ‘benefit leeches’. Or even as the cultural stereotypes and political playdough of our century, blowing a wave of malignant discrimination over Muslim asylum seeking communities as ‘Radical Islamists’. Of course this is nothing new, minorities no matter where in the world have historically been used to justify discrimination and ignorance.
What is new however, is our societies growing disengagement with these individuals as human cases, our passivity to uninformed, discriminative media and the consequential endowment of our national break with refugee rights, human rights, and the international laws set by the 1951 UN conference.
During a Refugee Action workshop on Refugee and Asylum seekers in Britain even a room of engaged university refugee volunteers had problems picking out the definition between an asylum seeker, a refugee, or an ‘illegal migrant claiming asylum status’. In fact they are all part of the same process. The vocabulary of ‘Illegal’ and ‘claiming’ are merely words that we are used to associating with the idea of asylum seekers and refugees, that they might be falsehoods, or undeserving of refugee status. No one claiming torture, disaster or any threat to their livelihood as a reason to gain residence is ever illegal. No one chooses to be a refugee.
Likewise, we are also used to hearing of the drastically and damagingly high numbers of refugees that we accept into our country. In fact countries such as Pakistan, Syria and Iran house more refugees than Britain. Of the 22,000 individuals that applied for asylum in 2010, Britain’s quota is merely 700. Last year Britain didn’t even meet its quota due to high amounts of forced deportation and the overturning of appeals in court. Consequently the UK holds only 2% of the world’s refugee community. Media also tends to ignore the fact that many asylum seekers that are forcibly removed and are claiming human rights violations are under the age of 20 or 18. For instance in 2010 a 1/4 of refugees and asylum seekers that contacted the One Stop Service provided by Refugee Action were under 26.
In reference to economic refugee ‘hear-say’, it costs £17,000 to deport a single adult asylum seeker, yet asylum seekers are awarded a meagre sum of £36.62 a week and are unable to claim mainstream benefits. Many refugees come across to host countries having lost a lifetime of qualifications and career prospects. Interestingly enough to support a refugee doctor costs only £25,000 while training a doctor from scratch costs £200-250,000. In fact refugee communities and individuals are statistically more likely to pay into public funds than the standard citizen.
Still refugee and asylum rights are dwindling in the UK. Of 520,000 Sudanese refugees in 2008 only 265 applied through the asylum seeker process in the UK. And it is not surprising, no longer is our country providing for the human consequences of many of our international political relations and interventions. Instead cuts now mirror social unawareness. Refugee Action whom work alongside numerous other refugee and asylum seeker service organisations have suffered incredible cuts including a 100% cut to their Integration and Employment Service that will fully be set in motion by 2013 .
If refugees are unable to integrate or gain jobs are we not merely writing them off as a society altogether?
During this week it is not only vital to remember to celebrate and campaign for the awareness of the existence of refugees but also to critically challenge our society’s disengagement, and thus our government’s disengagement with refugee rights. It is perhaps easy to forget, surrounded by headlines of Economic downfalls and regional intervention, that there is still 15 million and a half individuals that look to us to uphold their rights to continue as humans despite the existence of conflict, disaster, and intervention.
To look into Refugee Actions Work and Refugee Week events see: http://www.refugee-action.org/
Or to join your local STAR network and engage during Refugee Week visit: http://www.star-network.org.uk/
For further action and articles on hostility and disengagement to Refugee and Asylum seeker rights see Amnesty International’s launch of ‘When You Don’t Exist’ campaign that launched one week prior to Refugee week: http://whenyoudontexist.eu