Specially commissioned reviews, interviews and reading lists
Asylum and Refuge Part One
Militarising Against Refugees
I began doing outreach work with refugees and asylum seekers three and a half years ago, before what we now refer to as the refugee crisis, the greatest humanitarian emergency of the current era. Then, the women and men I worked with were from Uganda, Cameroon, the Congo, Rwanda, Malawi and many other central and southern African countries, as well as a significant minority who came from Iran, Iraq and Libya. We worked together in the unheated training room of an extremely effective but woefully underfunded major charity whose last two annual reports had warned of a bleak future despite the organisation’s necessary and specialised work.
The government, then the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, had begun implementing severe economic cuts which seemed to punish those who were already in need. They slashed – and continue to slash – funding to vital services which helped those requiring housing, early years family support, legal representation, rape crisis provision, disability assistance, protection from domestic violence, trauma counselling, support after being trafficked and prostituted, access to training, education and employment. It constituted a wholesale attack on the third sector, encompassing social services and innumerable charities, including many which were a vital lifeline for asylum seekers and a flimsy barrier against outright destitution. Those protections are no longer there and everyone in need, not just asylum seekers, is feeling the effects. Since the Conservatives’ victory in the 2015 elections, both the policies and the rhetoric have become even more inhumane and aggressive.
The charity I worked with, and others I’ve visited since, had a unique atmosphere of acceptance and industry. They were places where asylum seekers were believed and helped with a practical and unquestioning immediacy. It’s a very different experience from the brutal Home Office asylum system of denial, detention, disbelief and obfuscation, one which combines physical incarceration and control with the psychological terrorisation: asylum seekers have regular scheduled meetings with the Home Office. The system is designed to wear people down so that they give up. I have met asylum seekers who had been highly regarded political activists (or came from politically active families) who bore the marks of torture on their bodies, who were told they were lying. I have met asylum seekers fleeing utterly endemic male sexual violence, with perpetrators being from the government, rebels, militias and peacekeeping forces alike, who were told they were lying. I have met asylum seekers who were forced to strip to be searched or use the toilet with two guards standing on either side of them. I met a traumatised woman from Eritrea who was told by a detention centre nurse, ‘If you don’t stop crying and carrying on, I’m going to tell them you’re mental and we’re going to lock you up in a mental hospital.’ The sexual and other abuse of women detained at Yarls Wood is now notorious. Cases like these demonstrate the sick cruelty of those in authority who will, for their own sadistic pleasure, abuse those who are clearly in extreme distress. Sadly, these cases and this behaviour are the norm, not the exception. They are actively supported by many governments’ funding, policies and rhetoric.
Recently, there has been an international increase in state-sponsored sadism towards those with nothing who are fleeing everything and willing to risk everything for survival. The collateral damage is these millions of refugees who have witnessed the destruction of stable civil society, political accountability, urban and rural infrastructure including electricity and water lines, access to quality education, healthcare and employment. They have lived with surveillance, detention, torture, sexual violence. They have recognised that there is no future for themselves or their children, so they have packed one bag and left. Instead of culpability, humanity and welcome, they are encountering hostility, militarisation, suspicion and punishment. While some states, like Germany, have taken in asylum seekers with no fuss, others (especially the UK) have made their anti-asylum rhetoric ever louder and more xenophobic, inflaming panic about ‘marauders’ and ‘hordes’ of incomers, talking about putting up security walls and conflating asylum issues with other prejudices against migrants, foreign students, Islam and, ultimately, against the whole idea of multiculturalism. States including Greece and Cyprus have militarised against refugees, using army personnel, tear gas, incarceration in sports stadiums in the burning sun and other inhumane and abusive tactics. Hungary has acted shamelessly, like a racist nightclub bouncer protecting the rest of Europe, closing down its main rail stations and forcibly diverting trains to refugee camps.
To seek asylum is to ask for sanctuary, a haven, a safe place. It’s only the very first stage in regularising one’s existence and creating a new life in a different place. A refrain which I keep hearing amongst the asylum seekers I work with is, ‘I came to you for help and you treat me like a criminal.’
© Bidisha November 2015.
Bidisha is a writer, critic and radio and TV presenter. She specialises in the arts and culture, social issues and international affairs. Her most recent book is a reportage, Beyond the Wall: Writing A Path Through Palestine.
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