There is no migration crisis in Britain.
There is a humanitarian crisis caused by the government. The lack of safe passage for those fleeing war, persecution and famine – and seeking sanctuary in this country – means refugees’ lives are put at risk daily and tragically, many die, as we witnessed in the recent weeks. To add to the inhumanity of man to man, under the UK Nationality and Borders Bill, refugees coming across the Channel without papers (like when your life is under threat your priority is to sort out your documents, even if you had any on the first place) will be criminalised – and so may those wonderful folk from the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) be too.
The threat to our democracy and way of life comes not from refugees but from a government that has no regard for international and humanitarian law; that unlawfully prorogues Parliament; that goes back on its word; that doesn’t sack ministers who have broken codes of conduct; that has dismantled the legal aid system – I could go on.
Just recently, I spent a week at a fantastic Erasmus+ training (part of the “Silver Service” project), organised by the Cypriot Silver Service partner, InnovADE, and Volonteurope’s Piotr Sadowski. Part of the project aims to promote models of volunteering which aim to enrol and train mentors for young asylum seekers. Volonteurope’s UK member, Volunteering Matters, arranged for two refugees to come with us to the training.
Despite the late notice and potential challenges to getting their travel documents organised in time, the Cypriot High Commissioner in London ensured that these two young men could travel and visit his country and take part in the training. Huge gratitude goes out to him and the Cypriot High Commission staff for their support, and I think the following quote explains why: “When I was fleeing persecution and trying to get to Britain, at every step of the way I had to hide from the police,” says Eyob, one of the refugees participating in the training. “Now, when I went to Cyprus for the Silver Service training, I was able to cross the borders with my head held high, feeling that I am treated like a valued human being, which is what every single person should be treated like, no matter in what circumstances they find themselves in.”
What can I say about Bahar, from Sudan, and Eyob, from Eritrea, who travelled with us? They are truly amazing people. Both lost everyone as children. Both made long and traumatic journeys to this country, involving routes that would under the new law make them into criminals and put them into detention centres. To gain popular support and prevent meaningful discussion around how to support people arriving on our shores, the political rhetoric around clamping down on smuggling has been continually hyped up. Somehow this rhetoric has seamlessly progressed to legislation that disadvantages, imprisons and punishes those who so courageously, in the absence of safe passage, make it to Britain paperless, status-less and seeking sanctuary. Penalising – rather than helping – those in need, takes us into the realms of dystopia.
Bahar has blanked most of his childhood memories: small wonder if you grow up in times of violent civil war, losing those closest to you. He says little about his harrowing journey either, the last part of which, to reach the UK, was underneath a lorry. How unbelievably terrifying for anyone, let alone for a child not yet 18 years old.
Eyob walked and hitched through Sudan, Libya and Europe, and spent over six months in the Calais Jungle – a refugee and migrant camp in France. The cruel abuse of refugees in Libya; the appalling living conditions of the homeless in, or crossing countries, and the constant fear of the authorities in Calais are all well documented. Again, how utterly terrifying for a child.
Neither spoke English when they arrived here. Both had had their educations cut short.
Eyob hadn’t even had the chance to learn to read. In just over four short years in Britain, he has learnt to understand and speak English and to read, and, astonishingly, is now on a degree course at university. His emotional intelligence as well as his academic achievement is genuinely extraordinary. His mentor, Jim Marshall, has good reason to be proud of this kind, considerate and lovely young man.
Bahar is at college improving his skills and working towards becoming a firefighter. When we were in Cyprus, we discovered that right outside of the hotel where the training was taking place, there was a fire station, and Bahar, with full confidence, went in, and spent time talking to the firefighters and being shown around the facilities, making local friends. He too is a fabulous human being, full of energy, laughter, infectious enthusiasm and a determination to contribute.
They are two of the most respectful, kind and considerate young men you could ever hope to meet, always looking out for those around them, always keen to help. What grace. And what brilliant senses of humour: it was simply joyful to spend time with them.
They were at the training in their capacity as refugee ambassadors for Volunteering Matters and Volonteurope but could equally as well have been ambassadors for all youth.
My own mentee in the UK, Abraham, fled his home country of Eritrea at just 15 years old, facing a life sentence (and likely a death sentence) of brutal national service in the oppressive dictatorship under President Isaias Afewerki, who has ruled since 1993. Unable to tell his family he was leaving for fear of their safety, he spent two years struggling to get to Britain where he would be able to build a new life. Enduring countless hardships, he also spent six months in the infamous Calais Jungle, before reaching the UK aged 17 as an unaccompanied child asylum seeker.
When he first arrived in the country, he was happy to have made it, but it took two long years of waiting before he was granted refugee status. During this time, he wasn’t allowed to work, and spent much time alone with nothing to do. What a waste of human capital, to prevent courageous, resilient people who have made it to Britain, from contributing – when that is all they want to do. Abraham became stressed, scared and worried about his future – knowing he could face deportation at any moment.
Eventually he got his refugee status, which allowed him to embrace life in Ipswich and apply to college. Having risked everything to reach the safety of Britain, he is now at university training to become a nurse. I am so happy to have had the opportunity to mentor this fine young man; to have been able to support him during the past few years; and to have him as a friend. I am in awe of his achievements, which are all his own. All I have done is to take an interest, to nudge, and to do the odd bit of advocacy when needed.
I am 100% sure that with just a little support, so many more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children could realise their very considerable potential – and consequently become huge contributors to society. That’s why Volunteering Matters and its European equivalents are so important.
We need more, not fewer, young people like Bahar, Eyob and Abraham. Legislations such as the UK Nationality and Borders Bill, which at the time of writing is going through the UK Parliament, discriminate against refugees on the grounds of how they arrived here. This is victim-blaming at its worst and has no place in a civilised society. We need safe passages and respect and dignity for all. As Eyob says, “None of us have any guarantee for our destiny”.
Adding your voice against legislative measures that create discord, promote the ideology that refugees are a threat, and make life harder for those seeking sanctuary, is a vote in favour of humanity. Please do it wherever you can.
In the meantime, I hope you like the collage of some of the joyful pictures from our trip to the Cyprus and the Silver Service training.
Frances Brace, Volunteering Matters and Volonteurope Volunteer Mentor