Refugees and Migrants from Asia and Africa — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:06 pm on 9th July 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat 4:06 pm, 9th July 2015

My Lords, I often feel that I would like to leave the last word with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, but I will start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton. The footage of people struggling out of the sea appals us, but, if you see it when you are in Eritrea, it looks like success at reaching Europe.

As noble Lords have said, this is a multifaceted issue, and multimillions of people are caught up in different situations, each one of whom is an individual. I fear that casting the debate only in terms of numbers, as some do—although not today—tends to validate xenophobia. I recognise the amount of money that the

UK has given—to which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred—in response to the current situation. However, that has meant that people are sent to the camps which are supported, which in themselves are both dangerous for the individuals—this House has set up a committee to look at sexual violence in conflict, and part of that conflict is the experience in those camps—and, in the case of the Middle East, dangerous for the stability of the host countries and the region as a whole.

Reference has been made to the Minister’s remarks yesterday about this being an issue primarily of economic migration. I share the views expressed in the responses of the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and we know that a number of agencies have challenged those remarks with their figures. In my view, the demarcation line between economic migrancy and being a refugee is really not that clear—I will try to remember to keep the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, to refer to for the future. People in that situation must face huge desperation and often display huge bravery. Of course, what they want are safe, legal routes, because without them, lives are put further at risk. Who among their families left behind knows the outcome? My noble friend Lady Manzoor asked me yesterday whether there is a central DNA database of those who are drowned and whose bodies are recovered, so that there might at some point be the possibility of their families discovering their fate. Stories of reliance on smugglers—criminals—and the abuse and exploitation suffered at stage after stage of the journey are legion.

I read the title of this debate as extending to the plight—to use the term chosen by the noble Lord—of those who do reach the UK. In this country, they are faced perhaps with indefinite immigration detention, which in itself is harmful. It is a little part of what the noble Lord called the big picture. There are very rigid rules about family reunion. A father might reach this country and perhaps be able to bring over his dependent children and partner. However, an 18 year-old child might have to be left behind and become reliant on smugglers. Sibling relationships do not count. British citizens find it almost impossible to bring to the UK family members who are in danger.

We are familiar with the sometimes very long waits for decisions about asylum status. We know how keen many asylum seekers are to work and the importance of work for both their own self-respect and their integration. Migrant Voice recently published a list of “Alice in Blunderland” policies and experiences. It gave as one example:

“Because of the experiences that led asylum-seekers to flee, they can be afraid of officials”— and then they come here and are faced with security staff of whom they are afraid. Another example is that:

LGBT asylum-seekers may be asked to provide sexually explicit photographs or videos … to ‘prove’ their homosexuality”.

Noble Lords will be able to cite comparable examples of such policies.

A couple of weeks ago I met a doctor from Syria. I do not want to say much about it because of the danger to his family. However, people arriving here bring skills that we should be using. That fits in very much with the comments of my noble friend Lord Taverne. There is great concern, which I share, about asylum support rates, both as they are now and as they may be if the regulations which had to be withdrawn at the end of the last Parliament are reintroduced.

I have been sent some articles written by journalism students who have interviewed refugees and I thought that I would share a few extracts with your Lordships. The first extract is as follows:

“When I arrived in Kent I didn’t speak English. [I was given] a piece of paper with writing in so many different languages. I found my language on there and pointed to it, and that’s how they knew that I was from Afghanistan … I was amazed when I saw so many languages. It made me realise there were other people like me. And I thought that this must be such a good country, if it is helping all these different people”.

Another interviewee talked about:

“Trauma, the vulnerability that comes from being [a child] separated from their parents, and the expectation of making money to send back home”.

That has,

“an impact on a child’s ability to focus, concentrate and think about their long-term plans for the future”.

In stressful cases, said one worker,

“children wonder what the point of committing to an education is in a country that they don’t know if they’ll be able to stay in”.

One young man said:

“I am lost. I have nowhere to go. I can’t go forward, and I can’t go back I am worse than an animal in a cage”.

When depression overtakes him he self-harms using a knife. He has carved the initials AFG into his arm as if to remind himself of a self-identity that is otherwise rapidly disappearing.

As I have mentioned Afghanistan, I should also mention the local staff in Afghanistan—the interpreters and other people—who worked with our forces. They are regarded by the Taliban as traitors. By November last year, however, only 31 had been given leave to enter this country, not necessarily to work or stay. Treachery? Is that betrayal by the UK?

The extracts go on to say that,

“this is not just an issue of government policy. It’s also about the messages propagated by the media”.

One of the students wrote about the Leveson report on press standards, which covered the media’s influence over community relations:

“the report found that, in the tabloids particularly, ‘there are enough examples of careless or reckless reporting to conclude that discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to … immigrants and asylum seekers is a feature of journalistic practice … rather than an aberration’”.

Another interviewee said that government officials were looking for him in Syria. He cannot communicate directly with his family. He said:

“London is like a desert to me. I don’t speak the language. I don’t have any contacts. I am alone. Like in a desert, but filled with people around me”.

The writer of the article said that she would not know how refugees express gratitude and asked the interviewee if he would answer the question: should we expect Syrian asylum seekers to be grateful? He said:

“I am lost here, my life is in Syria. I was forced to leave. But Britain has been like a caring mother to me, and has given me everything. Britain has given me rights again. Britain is educating me. I am grateful”.

Last night, in response to a request for some comments about his experience here, another young Syrian wrote to me about the difficulties—it was not anything that I had expected. He explained his experiences with great understatement. His family decided to leave because,

“the situation was very horrible and a lot of bombs fall”.

He said that,

“the most difficult thing is the feeling when you must leave your country and you cannot return to it”.

I think his English is brilliant. He said:

“The most difficult thing here is the miss for the country, the family, and the friends, and really it is very hard when you hear that one of your best friends is dead and this happened with me more than ten times. I want to say thanks for the British people and for British government to receive us and to give us the support to survive and complete our life but in same time you should to know that about one million of the Syrian has same my situation and they need your support and help. The first rule in my life is you can achieve your dream when you trust with yourself”.

We pride ourselves on our history of welcoming those who seek refuge here, and those expressions of gratitude really make you think. As my noble friend Lord Maclennan said, we should be taking a leadership role in a global society because we live in a globally connected world.