Britain Can’t Decide Whether It Loves Refugees or Hates Them


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“Just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening” is the tagline to Save The Children’s latest video, which depicts a British girl’s life being turned upside down by war in the space of a year.

It is part of the organization’s campaign to raise money for Syrian child refugees and has accumulated more than 25 million views in less than a week. To put that in context, the fifth most watched advert on youtube for the whole of 2013 has just over 20 million views.

Like the viral video of the Norwegian boy out in the cold without a jacket, the video has been successful because it effectively taps into the viewer’s sense of empathy. Its success shouldn’t be surprising: According to a YouGov poll, more than eight out of 10 British people believe that protecting the most vulnerable is a core British value.

Evidently the British are not only keen to supply aid overseas, but they are also happy to offer refuge to those seeking safety: An Ipsos mori poll in 2011 revealed that just over 70 percent of the British public said that they had a duty to protect refugees who needed a place of safety in Britain.

Compare that, though, with a report by The Migration Observatory, which states that over half the British public favour a reduction in the number of asylum seekers coming to Britain. There seems to be a paradox: How can it be that the British want to protect refugees but don’t want them to come here?

Emily Crowley, the project coordinator for Student Action for Refugees (STAR), believes that terminology is an issue: “The public feels like we should be providing sanctuary to people who are fleeing from persecution, but they sometimes don’t understand that asylum seekers are part of that – that an asylum seeker is just a legal term for someone who is waiting for refugee status”.

Crowley thinks that the negative media portrayal of asylum seekers is to blame for the confusion. A study by The Migration Observatory on British newspapers’ portrayal of immigrants seems to confirm this: Asylum seekers are most consistently described as ‘failed’.

Robert McNeil, Head of Media and Communications at The Migration Observatory, says: “Perhaps the reason that asylum seekers are characterised in this way is that most of the stories you read about them are those who are not successful or are of concern”.

The media often suggests that asylum seekers are coming with the sole intention of claiming benefits, and nearly eight out of 10 Britons believe that this is the main reason people seek asylum in the UK, according to a YouGov poll. “The belief that asylum seekers are scroungers is created by the media, but is also perpetuated by people’s first-hand experience of asylum seekers in the community who are not working – the fact is that they are not allowed to work and must rely on benefits to live”, says Crowley. People applying for asylum in the UK are only allowed to work once they have been granted refugee status.

Perhaps as a result of the media’s focus on failed asylum seekers, people also tend to exaggerate their number. According to an Ipsos mori poll, the British public thinks that asylum seekers make up more than 30 percent of immigration to the UK, whereas in reality it is less than 10 percent, and The Migration Observatory did a study where they asked people who they had in mind when the thought about immigrants and the majority replied with ‘asylum seeker’.

“A narrative emerged in the late nineties, when asylum seekers constituted a much larger part of net migration, that the welfare system was being flooded by immigrants”, says McNeil, “once a narrative has begun, it is much harder for it to be re-thought than it is for it to continue.”

The Migration Observatory report on public perception of asylum seekers reinforces this point: “It may take time for perceptions to catch up with changing realities. For example, although asylum seekers are a small proportion of the total now, they accounted for much of the rapid rise in migration in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when immigration became a highly salient issue”.

Then there is the tricky task of proving an asylum seeker’s claim. “The process of proving an asylum applicant’s claim is a costly and challenging thing to do because they often don’t have travel documents and there are cases where it is difficult to prove their stories”, says McNeil.

Crowley agrees: “Sometimes it is quite hard to believe the stuff that is happening to people, but I think that’s often because it is not a situation we have to live in and the idea that the majority of claims are bogus is just not true”.

With public opinion favouring a reduction in the number of asylum seekers coming to Britain, the government has come under increasing pressure to act – but this is not an area of immigration that they can put targets on: The Refugee Convention requires that asylum seekers’ claims be processed before they are accepted or refused.

“The government can’t control the influx of asylum seekers, so they have created a situation where it is difficult to live as an asylum seeker in the UK – they don’t really have access to welfare and are not allowed to work” says McNeil.

There are also reports that UK Border Agency staff  are being pressurized to refuse asylum applications. In 2010, whistleblower Louise Perrett claimed she was advised at the Border Agency office in Cardiff to turn down difficult asylum claims and that staff kept a stuffed gorilla which would be placed as a badge of shame on the desk of any officer who approved an asylum application.

The Home Office interview practice was again called into question two months ago after a document leaked to The Observer revealed that gay and lesbian asylum seekers were being asked degrading questions, including: “When x was penetrating you, did you have an erection?”. At the time, immigration barrister Colin Yeo said: “The underlying problem is that officials believe everyone is a liar. It leads to a fundamental lack of respect for the people they are dealing with”

According to Cowley, the only way to alter this kind of practice is to change public opinion: “We must raise awareness of the facts and work must be done to bring people to account for using confusing and wrong terminology. There also needs to be a greater number of positive, human interest stories about asylum seekers”.

She also says that the UK could accept more refugees: “We are in a much better position to accept asylum seekers than countries such as Lebanon, who are taking in far more. We have to do our bit”.

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Humanitarian Profile: Olivia

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I knew something was wrong as we trundled up the drive in Norbert’s clapped out Toyota. Liv was sitting on the patio smoking a cigarette, and the smile she beamed at us as we creaked out of the car was more strained than usual: “The teachers haven’t been paid in five months; Corneille’s been pocketing it all”.

Two years on from that afternoon in Arusha, in northern Tanzania,  I am sitting across from Liv in a bar in London. She tells me how the kids at the nursery now get a full meal of rice and meat every friday, and that the playground has a new set of swings. “Is it all good news?”, I ask, a tad apprehensive. She rolls her eyes and flashes me an exasperated smile: This summer she found out that Corneille and Norbert, the men who helped her set up the school, had plans to steal money from the charity all along. “Trusting people has been a real problem”, she says.

Liv knew she was going to take a gap year after she had finished school. She had secured a place at Edinburgh to study Economics and managed to defer her place there for a year. Most of her classmates had taken a similar decision, but were more inclined to sate their wanderlust by a few months of hedonism in south east asia. Liv, on the other hand, travelled to Tanzania, where she volunteered at a primary school for three months. Witnessing the terrible poverty and lack of opportunities for the children in the area, Liv became convinced that she couldn’t leave and realised that she could offer more than piecemeal volunteering work. This was when she met Corneille. He agreed to help in setting up the charity and school, but after finding out that he had been stealing money meant for the children, she was forced to take over and fully manage the project herself.

Liv now balances her charity work with a job at the Department for International Development (DFID), where she is an education researcher and programme developer. “Are there similarities between your work there and your charity work?”, I ask her. “Not much”, she says, “at DFID I’m at my desk all day writing documents or organising stakeholder meetings. I’m mostly looking at the whole development agenda, rather than focusing on individual cases”. Through her research into education, however, she learns about the effectiveness of certain strategies which she can then implement in her school and thus improve her impact. Despite this, she admits that her true calling is fieldwork for her charity – “And I’m not sure I like working for the government!”, she jokes.

Olivia co-founded Rise Africa UK in 2011 and now works as an Education Researcher and Programme Developer at the Department of International Development (DFID).

PMQs: Sex, Tweets and Cocaine

common(s) people. (photo by The Guardian)

Want to live like Commons people? (photo by The Guardian)

The prime minister has suggested that an inquiry will be launched into how Paul Flowers was ever considered acceptable to lead the Co-op bank.

The former Co-op bank chief has been filmed buying illegal drugs and pornographic material has been found on his work laptop.

In another startling revelation, Flowers allegedly paid male escorts for sex on numerous occasions.

In a heated session of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), David Cameron described Flowers as the man who ‘had broken a bank’ and demanded an inquiry be launched into how he had become chairman of the Co-op bank and how the bank had come into financial difficulties.

Cameron also questioned Ed Miliband’s judgement in appointing Flowers as a finance and industry advisor to the Labour party, saying that ‘alarm bells’ should have been ringing.

However, sceptics argue that the inquest into Flowers is politically motivated, aimed at destabilising Labour; though a spokesman for Miliband did admit that there are gaps in the system for selecting bank leaders and that questions must be asked.

It was a damaging session of PMQs for Miliband as it was revealed by Cameron that a former Labour MP Tony McNulty had tweeted that the public was desperate for a ‘Prime Minister in waiting who speaks for them – not a Leader of  the Opposition indulging in a partisan Westminster Village knockabout’.

Miliband countered by highlighting the role of tax exiles in Tory funding and the allegations of fraud surrounding the Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps.

The liveliest moment of the session came when Labour back-bencher Michael Meacher asked the Prime Minister why Britain was behind countries such as Mali and Guatemala in terms of business investment to which Cameron replied that the MP in question must have been recovering from a ‘night on the town’.

This elicited a noisy response from both sets of benches during which Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls was heard asking Cameron whether he had ever taken cocaine. The Prime Minister’s spokesman denied he had heard the question.

British Army Gurkhas Will Strike ‘Until Death’

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photo by Vincent Manancourt

British Army Gurkhas have vowed to go on hunger strike until death in a dispute about pensions.

For the 25 000 Gurkhas who retired before 1997, their pensions are almost a third less than British and Commonwealth veterans. Others, like Dil Bahadur Thapa (pictured), who lost a finger while fighting Malay guerillas, get no pension at all: his 13 years of service do not qualify him for the Gurkha Pension Scheme (GPS), which requires at least 15 years of service.

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photo by Vincent Manancourt

This is the latest in a series of hunger strikes that aim to bring politicians to the table. Two weeks ago, Dr. Ram Narayan Kandangwa, a Gurkha spokesman, announced relay hunger strikes which saw a day of hunger strikes for each of the 13 Gurkha Victoria Cross winners.

“We were very hopeful that the relay hunger strike would have started discussions with the Government. This has not happened. That is why the relay hunger strike has ended today. Now we are compelled to start the hunger strike until death and it will go on our just and genuine demands are fulfilled” said Kandangwa.

The Ministry of Defence said: “Gurkha terms and conditions have always been fair. They have reflected the environment that the Gurkhas were in, and they have changed and improved over time to reflect the Gurkhas’ changing circumstances.”

However, many believe the measures to protect the Gurkhas’ well-being do not go far enough. Despite the progress that was made by Joanna Lumley’s campaign in 2009, which saw Gurkhas who had retired before 1997 win UK settlement rights, many issues remain unresolved.

One of those issues is the law which sees Gurkhas’ adult children unable to settle in the UK. Another is the lack of access to free medicine in Nepal where, according to Kandangwa, veterans struggle to afford even basic medicines such as paracetamol.

Others, such as hunger-striker activist Bobbi Wason, go as far as to say that the Gurkhas, who come from Nepal and northern India, should be awarded British citizenship.

She said: “For their tireless and loyal service to Great Britain the Gurkhas are owed a debt of gratitude. We need justice for the Gurkhas.”