Life as a refugee: a lottery of life and death

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Europe’s asylum lottery is just that: a game of luck. Except the stakes are life or death.

In September 2015, the world was shocked to see a photograph of a three-year-old Syrian boy who had been discovered lying face down on a Turkish shore. A wave had capsized the overcrowded inflatable boat that Alan Kurdi’s family were on, trying to reach the island of Kos from war-stricken Turkey. Last week, on the 19th August, a similar scenario occurred, but this time it was a young Sudanese migrant who lost his life. He was found on Sangatte beach, Calais, after trying to reach the UK from France. These are just two individuals whose stories are echoed across the world by thousands of others with a shared fate. Also last week, the UN refugee agency reported that at least 45 migrants and refugees died in a shipwreck off Libya – the most fatal this year.

This is not just a political crisis; it is a humanitarian one.

These people are all victims of a broken system that works in a vicious cycle. To claim asylum in Europe, refugees must get there but to travel lawful routes, they have to obtain a visa. Yet there is no visa for those seeking asylum. As a result, refugees are forced to travel in unsafe ways, something that Home Secretary Priti Patel has claimed is illegal. However, as many were quick to point out on twitter, this is simply untrue. Claiming asylum is a human right and under the 1951 Refugee Convention, asylum seekers are well within their rights to seek refugee status in the UK, even if it is not the first country they land in.

This is not just a political crisis; it is a humanitarian one. The rhetoric on refugees portrays them as less than human and does not recognise their basic human rights. A media that spews false and seeks to create discontent, combined with a lazy Western perspective that blames problems like climate change on asylum seekers and refugees, has given increasing rise to an anti-immigrant sentiment. However, climate refugees are a result of Western selfishness and hypocrisy; we use up all the resources that force these people to flee their homes and then deny them safety. Another harmful argument claims we are ‘overrun’ with refugees, yet the UK only hosts 1% of the global refugee population (which makes up just 0.26 of our entire population) and has enough wealth and resources to cope with this and more. Our apathy and indifference shows itself in the way that we have become desensitised to the reality of their suffering and only when a tragic story hits the front page of our newspapers do we care.

We could see what an uphill battle it was for the refugees there and the charities that supported them

Last year I travelled to Calais with Durham for Refugees. The experience was challenging, eye-opening and like no other. It was gruelling work and brutally revealing. We could see what an uphill battle it was for the refugees there and the charities that supported them. Dubbed ‘the Jungle’ – a racist and degrading name – the area where the refugees live in Calais was and still is a minefield of abuse. Constantly antagonised by the police, they regularly face being tear gassed, having their tents ripped apart, their blankets snatched away and no hope of anything changing. Instead of putting their time and money towards providing a way to a better life for these people, the police force uses it to make their own problem worse and the refugees’ lives a living hell. I stayed for a week but some of the volunteers at Calais stay for months, even years at a time, providing the essential needs that literally keep these people alive.

Going to Calais gave me a first-hand experience of what life is like for the refugees there, but there are many things you can do to help from wherever you are.

  • Understand the situation and the laws on asylum seekers and refugees – there are a lot of common misconceptions on this issue but there are also a lot of useful sources on the internet and social media (some are listed below).
  • Write to your local MP to put pressure on the government to make channel crossing safe and legal, to ensure the Paris Agreement is met, and to make it legal for asylum seekers to work. Oxfam have found that just 20 letters from their constituents make an issue a priority for an MP.
  • Challenge stereotypes, especially racist ones, and the demonisation of refugees.
  • Get involved with Durham for Refugees and see what you can do to help.
  • Buy a gift for a refugee or a t-shirt from Choose Love!

Ultimately, we should care about and take action on the refugee crisis because, like us, they are human and deserve to be treated as such, with dignity, compassion and respect.

Feature image by Ani Bashar. Available via Flickr.

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