Melissa Chemam
Jun 25 · 6 min read
Migrant Connections Festival, London, June 2019

Refugees in the UK: Safe haven or hostile environment?

The UK is often described by its political leaders or the right-wing press as the favoured destination for a lot of asylum seekers fleeing wars and political oppression. This claim has been for years used to reinforce the discourse against immigration and, since David Cameron’s government, the UK has shown less and less support for refugees. But the reality shows that people fleeing their country often arrive in the UK not by choice, and that they struggle in a way they are not prepared for once waiting to get asylum granted here.

By Melissa Chemam

Iraki children, living in the camp for displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan

At the start of this year 2019’s Refugee Week (17–24 June), the UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed plans for the UK government to resettle 5,000 refugees in the first year of a new consolidated global scheme.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has “welcome the UK’s commitment to resettle at its current levels beyond 2020 and with a broadened geographical scope beyond the Middle East and North Africa,” as declare IOM UK Chief of Mission, Dipti Pardeshi. Today, less than one per cent of refugees worldwide have been resettled and their need continues to be dire, he however added. “Countries must do more under our shared humanitarian responsibilities to offer more legal pathways like resettlement, family reunification and community sponsorship.”

IOM works closely with national and local governments, the UNHCR and other partners to resettle the refugees most in need of protection. Some of them require for instance urgent medical treatment. Others have survived violence and torture so remain very fragile. And women and children are often at risk, wherever they settle.

But will this move be enough?

A policy creating a hostile environment

Since the Tory government came to power, one thing that refugees have testified about however is that the hostile environment currently in place in the UK is making them struggle much more than ever before. It’s actually making the situation harder for everyone, from those arriving to those trying to help.

Migrant Connections Festival, Tottenham, London, on 8 June. Photo by MC

This is something that Nurozen, a 22-year old young woman from Eritrea I met in London, has clearly underlined in our interview. “I feel partly integrated; I feel that I can find a community here but this has happened thanks to charities, not the authorities. My parents and I left Eritrea to find a refuge, when I was under-aged, the first possible refuge, the United Kingdom or elsewhere. I feel lucky in a way to have arrived here, yes, because it seems to me that I now have more future than my friends in Eritrea. But to be honest, our opportunities are very limited by the asylum system, and by hostile immigration policies. We feel that the government is doing everything to make the climate very hostile to push the refugees back home. The legislative system is not human…”

Nurozen has been able to study and now speaks English perfectly because she arrived at 17. But a lot of her refugee friends are unable to pursue their education, for various reasons.

The situation for refugees from Central Africa is often much worse. The UK Home Office often dismisses their situation as not dangerous. I met with a couple of friends still waiting for a response to their asylum claims, though they have been through telling violence in their country for political reasons. They could testify of these with emotion. C. (who wanted to remain anonymous) has fled Cameroon after political repression and heavy persecution. “I’ve been to prison,” he told me after hesitating to talk for half an hour. His asylum bid is still pending and he’s currently losing hope. His friend S., who participated to a day of solidarity in London’s Tottenham neighbourhood, in an event baptised Migration Connections Festival, a week ago, was mostly silent. They both struggle to get financial support. And without the help of an organisation called Room To Heal, they wouldn’t even have a shelter. The community is bringing support to torture survivors and victims of human rights abuse.

A few hours prior, I met with Sarya Tunç, who’s a Kurdish journalist from Turkey. While discussing randomly at the Festival, around a cup of coffee, she told me how her family has been persecuted by the current Turkish regime for years: her father is a refugee in Germany and her brother in Switzerland. She came to England to perfect her English two years ago, planning to stay for two weeks. But while she was trying to depart, she found out that the Turkish government had cancelled her passport.

Since then, she has been stuck in London but also forbidden to join her father, refugee in Germany, or her brother, in asylum I Switzerland. “My father is an author. My brother is also a journalist and also a refugee. It was because of my political activities that my passport was cancelled, and because of my father’s political activities. He’s often written against Erdogan’s policy. He is a member of the Kurdish party.”

Sarya is still disturbed by 18 months of mistreatments: she never received the £20 she should have been granted per week by the home office; she was left confused by the asylum demands; she was never helped for accommodation, etc. “They were horrible,” she repeats, not willing to go into details, visibly afraid of saying to much.

Sarya has been able to remain in London, thanks to the help of members of the Kurdish and Armenian communities in the capital, avoiding her a deep isolation. She has improvement her English drastically and is still writing scientific and political article in Kurdish for Kurdish websites.

But other people were not so lucky. Like A. from the Democratic Republic of Congo (who also wants to remain anonymous), who was first forced to live in Wigan, near Liverpool, by the Home Office. Isolated and depressed, she has finally found a family to host her in London, thanks to religious charity groups.

Solidarity to overcome fear

But in places where people embrace solidarity, hosting refugees and building on events to help them integrate in the community, the situation improved quickly and asylum seekers have found their place and role in their new society.

This is for instance what the International Organisation for Migrations’ spokesperson has clearly stated in our exchanges and in a recent op-ed to be published later this week.

The case of Jane and her boyfriend, Kurds from Syria settled in Bristol, is an illustration of a successful integration. They now participate every year in the Bristol Refugee Festival, mid-June, paying music with her Syrian boyfriend as well as another refugee, who came from Sudan. The Festival is set up by Jules Olsen and Danny Vincent and offers half a dozen events over a week around World Refugee Day, on 20 June.

“Local communities play a key role in managing effective migration and integration policies, which was manifested in both the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) and the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) signed by countries from across the world last December, including the UK,” Abby Dwommoh, spokesperson for the IOM in London, explains. “By doing so, communities can become more active in the global arena — like Bristol — which gives opportunities to build upon existing forms of collaboration in the future. Walk the streets of Bristol and you will hear 91 languages from people of over 180 different nationalities. With 16% of its population outside the UK, Bristol is a global city.”

In Bristol as well, a large group of people also created a charity to bring awareness around the case of Ken Macharia, who fled Kenya because of his homosexuality and has been refused asylum by the Home Office.

In Sheffield, the famous case of Magid Magid, British Somali man who arrived in Britain from Somaliland as a child refugee in 1994, and became Deputy Lord Mayor and more recently was elected as a Green MEP in the recent European parliamentary election has raised awareness positively all over the country.

But one thing is sure, the journey to a new life in Britain hasn’t been an easy one for any of these refugees.

Melissa Chemam

Written by

Freelance journalist and writer, I have reported in 30 countries for the BBC, CBC, DW, magazines, on African-European relations, social change, arts & politics