Bodies in boats. Grateful, half-drowned people wrapped in blankets. Women dying of suffocation under plastic packages in long distance goods lorries while traffickers pocket their savings. Gangs of organised criminals terrorising Britain. Impoverished, illiterate moochers living off the state, filling up hospitals. Detainees being abused horribly by staff in UK detention centres like Yarl’s Wood.
Politicians both marginal and mainstream hustle for public support by fear-mongering and fudging, making sweeping statements about foreigners who they say are criminals, advantage-takers, callous and opportunistic illegals, troublemakers who do not know how to behave, who import regressive values, who refuse to learn new languages and muck up residential streets with their garbage. The stereotypes go unchallenged because those with the loudest voices and the greatest number of vested interests are shouting above (and about) those who have no public voice. The clichés pander to pre-existing prejudices about foreigners, incomers, the dangerous and malign ‘other’ who will take and sully. Nobody bothers to try and get to the truth because, at the end of the day, the people being slandered are largely invisible to them, being bounced between detention and prison, living near-destitute or with the meagre support of charities or working off the books in factories, building sites or cleaning firms.
An asylum seeker is an individual who is petitioning to be formally recognised as a refugee. Once recognised, refugees gain certain very basic and minimal rights to protection and support by the state, but that is only the beginning of a long journey towards starting a full and dignified life and establishing a support network, stable housing, employment or education in a completely new country. At the moment the situation, as described to me by the CEO of a major refugees’ charity, is “Fortress Europe”: there is a culture of systematic rejection of asylum seekers, of denial and disbelief of their stories (particularly women asylum seekers who have survived rape and other sexual torture), of brutally enforced deportation or detention in hellish incarceration complexes where detainees have even fewer rights than convicted prisoners. The most sinister place I’ve ever visited was a UK detention centre, which had more rolls of barbed wire around it than any prison and whose staff were universally angry and hostile.
Meanwhile, myths about asylum abound, the most pernicious one being that the number of asylum seekers is intolerably high, that most asylum claims are false and that the country is ‘full’ and can’t take any more. In continental western Europe boats have been refused permission to dock. Australia actually seems proud to advertise its antipathy towards asylum seekers, warning that anyone who tries to enter by sea and runs into difficulties will not be saved. I am shocked, as ever, by the sheer cruelty, the inability to see asylum seekers as human beings, the indifference about whether they live or die and the failure to imagine what these people must have experienced in their home countries, what they lived through which made them think that anything — even the prospect of drowning in a dinghy in a foreign sea — was better than that.
Three years ago, enabled by English PEN, I began doing outreach work in the form of writing workshops with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from all over the world from Syria and Iran to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Malawi and Uganda. These experiences inspired my latest book, Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London, which features my students’ testimonies. I came to the conclusion that all the tabloid journalists, pundits and political bigmouths who rage against asylum seekers must never have met one. As I listened to my students’ experiences, read their writing and let myself be teased, mocked and berated by them it struck me that here were the warmest, funniest, most interesting people in the world, who had gone through unimaginable things: a man in Timbuktu witnessing a neighbour being disembowelled by an armed rebel as a warning to the other villagers; a woman who had been raped by rebels and then thrown out by her family because of it. “Please believe us,” said one woman to me, “if we go back to our countries they will rape us and kill us. Our leaders don’t care anything about us, only oil and minerals and power and money.” There was Claude, from the Congo, who had a degree in criminology and was forever ingratiating himself with the ladies — “Hello auntie, you know I am always pleased to see you. Can I get you some tea?” There was Manny, formerly a composer and professor of classical Persian music at Tehran University, who does odd days in a sandwich factory, in the freezer room, where people constantly fall ill from the cold but will be replaced if they miss a day of work. And there was Beatrice, who wants to be a writer and who described to me how, in England, it was assumed by many that she didn’t know how to read or write, turn on a light switch or wash her hands after using the bathroom. “I don’t say anything,” she said, “because I don’t want to offend them.”
Meanwhile, the country is being run by a club of white men who went to posh school and posh university and have experienced nothing of the real world: its diversity, its hardships, its chaos and violence. They decide on domestic and foreign policy, wars and aid money, arms deals and the euphemistic ‘austerity’ measures which have cut legal aid, public services, social services and charities’ budgets at the knees and directly imperilled so many people’s wellbeing including that of my students. They sit in their heated rooms in their expensive clothes, eating good food and drinking good coffee (all things which are out of the reach of my students), as they decide these things. They do not live with the physical consequences of their own policies, only the political consequences which affect their careers.
As the months progressed I felt ever more strongly the irony of being in a country where the most interesting people are the least heard, while those who are the most ignorant speak with the greatest volume and entitlement, making decisions in the full confidence that they will never have to experience the results.
Not every asylum seeker arrives dumped on a shoreline, barefoot, penniless and wrapped in a foil blanket. All my students arrived by plane. They fled international and civil war, fragile states in which law and order had broken down, extreme poverty and political persecution. Many of my students had been bounced between detention and prison or left in limbo for years between being refused leave to remain — that wonderfully Alice in Wonderland phrase which would grant them the right to stay in the UK — and receiving the final letter ordering them to get on the next plane.
One woman told me that she spoke such good English because her parents, who had been political figures, were repeatedly exiled abroad due to their work. All my students spoke at least two languages fluently and, like all people of a migrant background including myself, learnt new ones quickly. All were educated to last-year-of-school level and the overwhelming majority were educated to college level and beyond. Every single one wanted to work because while not all work gives dignity or an identity to be proud of, it gives a little money, it takes up time, it uses up energy, it involves other people, it gives a shape to the day. But asylum seekers have no right to any public money or services, no right to be housed or to work. So they labour as cleaners, packers, building site hands, relying on this shady, unreliable and exploited labour in which (one building site worker told me) a boss can promise money and then withhold it for days, or renege on an agreement and under-pay.
There is a crisis in the issue of asylum because there has been a crisis in world governance, war and conflict, poverty and inequality, which is not some accident but is the fault of violent perpetrators (whether renegade militia or rebels or national armies), selfish rulers, uncaring commercial interests, greedy power-holders and opportunistic political players. It is not the fault of the millions of asylum seekers and refugees who are fleeing the consequences of such parties’ actions. It is the nastiest kind of cynicism to scapegoat asylum seekers by saying that their testimonies are lies (or, to quote what the Home Office staff said to several of my students, “This is all just a fairytale you’ve made up,”) and that they have left everything behind, their identity, their life, their family, to take advantage of a foreign country.
Every asylum seeker I worked with was desperate to contribute, to feel like a part of society, to be seen as a person with something to offer, to not be invisible. Politicians at all points on the spectrum exploit the electorate’s fear, racism, insularity or simple lack of knowledge about the reality of asylum and there is no politician of any party who has dared to stand up and set the record straight about the numbers of asylum seekers in the UK, what they left behind and how they are treated here. It is as though asylum seekers’ stories begin the moment they arrive in a country and nobody bothers to ask what they have escaped.
Every human being has a personality, a social context and a past which make them who they are; but asylum seekers are not seen as human beings, so nobody is interested in those things. This is a failure, not of policy, but of common decency: the inability to see others as people just like ourselves. All it would take for prejudices to be broken down would be for politicians, the media and the public to stop shouting in fear and start listening with respect.