Britain’s refusal to take Yazidi victims of genocide flies in face of May’s talk on modern slavery
Published by The ipaper (18th March, 2019)
Five years ago I was reporting from Iraq when I wrote about Kocho, a Yazidi village where Islamic State (IS) fanatics were demanding residents convert to Islam or die. Over the following days, I learned of how the men had been massacred, their wives and children carted off into captivity. I spoke to a teenage girl on her hidden mobile phone who told in hushed tones of her terror as she saw women sold into slavery. ‘We do not fear for our lives but for our dignity,’ she said. Later, one of her guards defended this brutality to me on twisted grounds of religion.
I struggled to believe such barbarity could take place. But now we know the black-clad bigots acted with such contemptible cruelty towards this community with their gentle, ancient faith. Last week, the United Nations began exhumation of mass graves in Kocho, among an estimated 200 in total containing possibly 12,000 bodies. Yet as the self-declared IS caliphate crumbles in its final pathetic pocket, bedraggled Yazidi victims are emerging still to tell of their horror stories – as I heard for myself last month from traumatised women and brainwashed boys.
Among the survivors from Kocho is Nadia Murad, whose courage in speaking out about her relentless abuse deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Her memoir of enduring bestial atrocities is a powerful testament to the disturbing potential for human evil. She had 18 family members murdered and was repeatedly raped as a sex slave along with her sisters, several nieces and many friends. Some are among the 300,000 Yazidi now stuck in internal displacement camps in Iraq, many of them fearing for their future in this turbulent part of the planet. About 3,000 women and children are still missing.
Now the impressive Murad tours the world, a symbol of Yazidi agonies, using her platform to push for prosecution of the perpetuators and justice for those victims still suffering in their freezing tents and frightened minds. Last week she was in London, lobbying the British government to offer sanctuary to some of her people. She told The Sunday Times she had hoped ministers would agree to accept at least some of the women with children born from rape, given their difficulties of assimilation in a traditional community. But her despairing plea fell on deaf ears.
Remember this callous rejection. For it is one more sign of the dismal state of our diminished nation as it turns inwards under a weak, fearful and nativist government. We have a prime minister who once defined her claims to compassion with a vocal stance on modern slavery, calling it “the great human rights issue of our time” and vowing to rid the world of such abuse. And we have a home secretary who insists a silly British teenager who joined IS must be stripped of her passport, such are the terrible cruelties of this cult.
Yet when confronted by victims of their genocide, these appalling hypocrites turn their back for fear of a hard-right backlash. Never mind that our country, following the foolish lead of the United States, played such a key role in Iraq’s chaos and consequent eruption of IS with the disastrous 2003 invasion. Nor that Germany, demonstrating the moral leadership of Europe, welcomed 1,100 Yazidi while French president Emmanuel Macron agreed to take 100 freed sex slaves after meeting Murad last autumn.
Canada has accepted about 1,000 and Australia took 2,800 under a special humanitarian programme. In our nation we hear our ministers bleat endlessly about ‘Global Britain’ while the Home Office rejects asylum claims even for Yazidi people reaching our shores. Note too the deafening silence from all those commentators and politicians who were so outraged by IS atrocities, especially against the Yazidi, that they insisted Shamima Begum must never return to her native country.
Ministers claim spraying some aid around a few grim refugee camps filled with despairing survivors in Iraq and Syria – where jihadists still remain a force – is better than actually helping some victims build new lives in a new land far awa from the fragile conflict zone. They also point to the 14,900 Syrians accepted under a resettlement scheme since 2015 – although this is a tiny overall number compared with several of our neighbours.
Britain’s failure to welcome victims of the Yazidi genocide is truly shameful. I think back to the shattered woman I met last month, who had just escaped five years of hell and told me of men buried alive in a mass grave before showing me a picture of her niece who was married at ten, then pregnant a few months later.
Or the 13 brainwashed boys, still fearful of the fanatics after being trained to fight as ‘cubs of the caliphate.’ Or the little girl with scars on her face, head and body after being constantly beaten as she grew up in drudgery. Or the Yazidi activist whose phone contained more than 1,000 portraits of missing people and pinged constantly with fresh messages from desperate families searching for loved ones.
As we stand on the cusp of Brexit, we need to ask ourselves profound questions about national values. We have sent a message to the world that we are tearing down bridges and building walls. We have corroded our reputation as a sensible international player, diminished our global standing and demeaned the mother of parliaments with this humiliating debacle.
But are we really so devoid of leadership, so dismissive of human rights abuses, so fearful of foreigners, that we ignore the plight of a people suffering the worst crimes this century? Sadly, it seems Britain only cares about victims of genocide in the past, not those suffering in the present.