• Sunday, 03 July 2022

Refugees are not “economic migrants” or “illegal immigrants”

Refugees are not “economic migrants” or “illegal immigrants”
Seventeen years ago, I was a refugee. I had spent most of my life in a prison camp run by Saddam Hussein’s regime, had seen friends and family members taken away to be killed and had no freedom from day to day. The worst part was that I was one of the lucky ones. Because I was in the camp, I wasn’t in one of the villages targeted in the 1988-9 genocide against the Kurds.

I was lucky, because I was able to get to Britain, and more specifically to Yorkshire. I found myself welcomed in a way I didn’t expect to be. I have been able to build a life and a family there, among friendly people. I cannot say how proud I am that the people of Yorkshire have come out in support of refugees from the Syrian crisis. People throughout the region have given their money and time to provide aid to those displaced by the current conflict. There have been rallies in support of refugees in many places throughout the region, including my home city of Hull.

The simple fact is that other people need our help, the way I was helped. Literally millions of people have been displaced by the Syrian crisis, either internally within Syria, or across its borders into Turkey, Iraq and beyond. Kurdistan is currently playing host to more than a million refugees from either Syria or the south of Iraq, which represents an additional twenty percent added to its population. People are sitting in camps, knowing that they are not going to be able to return home for years, if at all. People are making perilous journeys across Europe, not because they have decided that they want a better life, but because they know that staying where they are might mean death for themselves or their families.

I understand that people will have different opinions when it comes to refugees. Some are worried disruption to their societies, while others worry about the economic impact of large numbers of extra people, or the impact on long neglected infrastructure. These concerns must be allayed. People must be shown that the numbers involved are not sufficient to disrupt their way of life. That these are not “economic migrants” or “illegal immigrants”, not a horde to be turned back but just people who are in need of help.

The majority of people in the UK, and in Europe as a whole, have never had to flee their homes for any reason, let alone because someone wishes to kill them. They are fortunate in that, but they must remember that it is only good fortune that has made that the case in recent years. Europe is not immune to the ravages of war or natural disaster and they have not always been so fortunate. Seventy years ago, people had to flee across Europe because of World War Two. Twenty years ago, they had to do so because of the Balkan conflicts. Because I have had to flee my home, I naturally have compassion for all others who must do so, but is it so hard for people in Europe to remember all the times their ancestors have had to do the same?

We should have compassion for those who have to flee. We shouldn’t spend our time trying to divide them as finely as possible into those who deserve our help and those who do not. There have been those who have said that refugees should not be helped because they have phones and must therefore be rich enough to help themselves, or because they want to cross Europe rather than staying in Greece, or because they do not enter Britain through legal channels (even though such channels do not exist. There is no way to apply for a visa to be a refugee).

Hungary and others have taken a particularly hard line. They have tried to close their borders, and used force against refugees trying to cross. They have moved refugees on to Germany as quickly as possible, and talked about wanting to maintain a Christian country in the face of an influx of largely Muslim refugees. They want to pick and choose who to help, rather than simply helping those who need it. To an extent, that is their choice to make.

Yet being a country carries with it certain responsibilities towards others. Simple humanity includes those responsibilities too. Hungary is part of the EU, and yet seems to be attempting to restrict movement of people coming from the countries next to it. It seems to wish to let the other countries of the EU do the work of solving this crisis. Others have pointed to the idea that refugees must stay in the first country they reach, yet this so called obligation for refugees to accept the first place of safety is a rule introduced by Europe. It is not a standard in international law. There, the standard is much simpler. If someone fleeing a conflict comes to your country, you must help.

Perhaps those who try to close their borders are hoping that the flow of refugees will fade. However, this problem isn’t going to go away in a hurry. Refugees are going to continue to come from Syria, from Iraq, and from many other places. ISIS is a problem that is going to take years to solve, and in the meantime they are going to continue to displace and terrorise people to the point where they must run for their lives. These people do not want to run. Indeed, the vast majority of refugees would love to be able to go home tomorrow. But they cannot remain in countries where they are targeted for their religion, or ethnicity, or simply because they do not want to join a murderous and evil group. Refugees are going to continue to come, and the only question is what we are going to do to help them.

What I have been glad to see is just how much people are willing to help. Ordinary people, even more than governments, seem to be willing to accept that when people genuinely need help, you give it. There have been people who have said that they are willing to take refugees into their homes, and who have put pressure on their governments to accept greater numbers into their countries. People have been quick to give money to charities trying to aid in the crisis, and they have sought to counter the more hateful messages of those sections of their communities that might not agree with them, pointing out the simple shared humanity that ties them to all those fleeing conflict.

Yes, it’s true that we should be solving these problems at their source. ISIS is a definite threat, both to the region around it, and to the wider world. For as long as it continues to exist as an organisation, it will continue to disrupt the regions in which it operates. It will continue to force people to flee their homes, and to fuel a refugee crisis that shows no signs of slowing down at the moment.

The world is wary of intervening in the situation, and I can understand why when its previous interventions in Iraq and Syria helped to destabilise the countries to the point where ISIS could gain a foothold there. But they also did some good in preventing a madman like Saddam Hussein from continuing his programmes of mass murder, and they helped to allow stable areas like Kurdistan to rise up from the ashes. Pulling back from intervention now would not be learning a lesson, it would be leaving a job half done. It would be jumping into a situation, then ignoring the aftermath or the consequences for the ordinary people of the region.

So part of what must be done is military. The refugee crisis cannot be solved until the situation that they are running from is stabilised. Those who wish to go home, as most refugees do, cannot do so until that home is safe once more. The flow of fresh refugees will not stop until the organisation that murders their families and destroys their homes is prevented from doing so. Relying on the people of the region to conduct the war themselves, even with additional weaponry and air support, is a recipe for prolonging the situation, not for resolving it.

There must be action against people traffickers too, shutting down those who attempt to profit from the desperation of others by taking what little money they have, often leaving them in deadly conditions on the voyage over. The gangs who engage in this must be stopped, but stopping them is not just a matter of enforcement. While there are desperate people who will risk the journey, there will be those who will risk transporting them in criminal ways, no matter how many of their kind are arrested. Only by providing legitimate means of moving from war ravaged regions to safe havens can Britain and the EU hope to eliminate this deadly trade.

But this is not an either/or question. We must act to solve the problems that generate great movements of refugees, but in the meantime, we cannot pretend that they do not exist. We cannot pretend to be in favour of helping those in danger, then turn them away when they actually arrive. We have to accept that whatever solution we choose to the current crisis, it is likely to take years, and that the people displaced by it cannot wait years. I have spent time in hastily built camps in my life. I have spent time trying to deal with the harshest of conditions while around me more and more people arrived each day. It is not sustainable. Refugees need homes to go to while a crisis like this is sorted out, and the sheer numbers of people displaced require that they are spread between more than just a few particularly generous countries. They are not asking for the impossible. They are not trying to change everything about your country. Instead, they are just asking for a place they can live in while the situation that took their own homes away is resolved. We do not owe them that much because of any Western role in destabilising their countries, or because of larger geopolitical concerns. We owe them that much because they are human, and we are, and that should be enough.

I want to end by saying again how grateful I am to Britain. There have been those who have criticised its attitude to refugees, but it has helped me in ways that other countries might not have. I have been able to build a successful life here, and I would like to think that I have been able to contribute to my adopted country, but that would not be possible if I had not been able to come here in the first place. It would not have been possible if this country had not done as much as it already has to take in those who are dispossessed, in danger, and forced out of their homes.

I’m very proud to be part of Yorkshire’s community. I’m proud to be a part of a place where people actively want to help those who need that help, and where they are willing to come together to say it. I was forced out of my home when I was young, but Yorkshire has allowed me to build a new one among some of the most welcoming people there are. There are many more people out there who need our help, but I am sure that if we are all as generous as the people of Yorkshire have been to me, we will be able to cope with any situation that arises.