We owe it to asylum seekers to help them

Published by The i paper (31st August, 2020)

Hala has known nothing but conflict and chaos all her life. She was eight years old when her nation was invaded by foreign forces led by the United States with such disastrous consequences that still play out today across the Middle East. Her home city, the Iraqi port of Basra, saw some of the worst bloodshed after British troops failed in their mission to secure law and order. The carnage forced her family to flee over the border to Syria, where they spent seven years in Damascus until its own civil war exploded, forcing them to go on the run again to Turkey.

Now she is 22 years old. She lives in the city of Eskisehir with her mother, her grandmother, her brother, her uncle and her aunt alongside millions more refugees who crossed into Turkey to escape the cycles of violence that scar the Middle East. It is to Istanbul’s credit that it has absorbed four million extra people, the largest number of registered refugees in the world. Yet there are inevitable tensions and many of them struggle to survive. Hala told me she is desperate to continue her disrupted studies, like her 17-year-old brother. “It is so very difficult living here since there is resentment against Iraqis,” she said. “I want to live in dignity and safety.”

Such a simple hope, one shared by every person on our planet. This family does not care where it ends up in its quest for sanctuary. Yet they have not boarded a boat to the Greek islands, nor trekked over the border on their way to seeking safe haven in Britain, France or Germany. Instead they played it by the book and applied through the United Nations for asylum. Clearly they have a firm case given their circumstances. Yet their lives are locked in limbo, trapped by a refugee system that is paralysed while politicians spout platitudes about helping such people even as they demonise those who take actions into their own hands.

Bear people such as Hala in mind when you hear our dismal leaders spew endless bile against human beings seeking to salvage their lives. She says she feels “hopeless”, forced to stay in “a living cemetery”. The home secretary Priti Patel struts around saying ‘genuine refugees’ should claim asylum elsewhere as she seeks to maximise political capital from small numbers crossing the Channel and hurls crass invective at lawyers assisting refugees in Britain. She represents a cause in Brexit that fostered resentment and a party that ushered in the hostile environment. Theresa May, author of those grotesque policies, said: “There are people who need our help and there are people who are abusing our goodwill – and I know whose side I’m on.” Then she did nothing to expand legal settlement places.

Hala was among several people who contacted me after I wrote here two weeks ago about Once Upon a Time in Iraq, the superb BBC documentary putting human faces on the tragedy of that nation. I argued that Britain’s role in the conflict meant we should show greater sympathy to people from the region arriving on our shores, seeking to rebuild their shattered lives. Several exiles stuck in Turkey responded to me by asking what they should do since they felt abandoned despite trying to follow the rules. “After we were threatened by militias we fled with our families to have a normal life,” said one. “We are waiting without hope and no solutions.”

Angela Merkel proved politicians could respond with humanity in a world infected by populism when she opened German gates give years ago and said “Wir schaffen das” (We can do it). The nation still hosts 1.1 million refugees, the highest number in Europe, yet she has confounded the many critics who predicted disaster for both her nation and her party. Sadly our own leaders took the opposite tack, shrugging off Britain’s role in destabilising the Middle East while constantly turning the screw to toughen entry for refugees. Fewer than one-third of the 3,152 Iraqis managing to request asylum here last year were permitted to stay.

Our shameless Prime Minister still wants to reform rules agreed by European states to limit flows across the bloc. His predecessor May loved to talk about fighting modern slavery, calling it “the great human rights issue of our time”. Yet such was her brutal determination to keep out foreigners she failed even to offer help to Yazidis as their men were slaughtered, women raped in enslavement and children forced to die as suicide bombers. Now many of them are trapped in Turkey, stuck in the quagmire of the UN’s relocation system that relies on countries accepting dispossessed peoples terrified of returning to their native lands that gave birth to genocidal jihadists.

They include Rose, a 19-year-old doctor’s daughter who also contacted me with a plea for help. She left Mosul six years ago as Islamic State thugs closed in on her home city. “It was so bad and we were so afraid,” she said, adding that they never want to return to Iraq. This is entirely understandable given the horrors of genocide. Now she lives with seven members of her family close to the border in Mardin Mayat, struggling along on handouts from a cousin who made it to Germany after spending four grim years in a camp. “I want to go with my family to anywhere in Europe or America and I want to go back to school,” she said.

This desperate Yazidi family thought about taking one of the illegal boats over to Greece, but upon reaching the sea found they had insufficient funds. Perhaps they were fortunate given so many deaths in the Mediterranean, which are blamed on people smugglers when real responsibility lies with Europe’s bickering and selfish politicians. Like so many teenagers, Rose aspires to become an actress. “I have so many dreams,” she told me wistfully. “But they will not happen here.”

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