I wrote this a while back for RRE campaign on safe passage to the U.K. for asylum seekers, hopefully it’s still relevant to the discussion and debate on the Border Bill legislation going through Parliament.
Guns, planes and bombs were the soundtrack to my childhood. Growing up in eastern Afghanistan, I had a good life. My father was a doctor, my mother was a housewife and midwife. But when I was ten, many closed members of my family were killed by US soldiers, who believed we were hiding weapons. This was when my struggle began.
I was just 12 years old when my brother and I began to receive demands from the Taliban and from the government. The Taliban wanted us to fight or die, the government wanted us to become informants. We were terrified.
Refugees like me and my brother will stop at nothing to reach safety. And COVID-19 won’t change that. But it is making people’s journeys infinitely more dangerous.
My mother knew the only way she could keep us alive was to send us away. She paid smugglers and traffickers thousands of dollars for us to have a new life in Europe.
As we left, she told us not to let go of each other’s hands. But the traffickers separated us almost immediately.
I travelled over 7,000 miles through ten different countries. I was locked up without food or water for days. I was locked up in prison. A boat I was in, hideously overloaded, nearly sank in the Aegean sea.
Through all of this, I never gave up. I had to reach the UK, because I knew my uncle was there, and on the way found out that my brother was heading there as I was looking for him because we were separated. More than a year after we both left Afghanistan, I made it to the UK, and I found him here.
I was just 13 years old. Officials told me I must be 16 and a half. It took me five years to get my refugee status, two years to challenge the government to recognise my correct age and nationality. And I’m still waiting for my citizenship.
I’ve been through it, so I know that the asylum system in this country isn’t working. Here’s why.
You have to be on UK soil to claim asylum. But you are penalised for getting there irregularly. You risk your life to make it here, and then you are treated as a criminal for trying to claim asylum. Claiming asylum is a human right, and yet the UK does everything it can to prevent people arriving on its shores to do just that Even during the current COVID-19 crisis when people stuck in camps in places like Calais are more at risk than ever.
During the COVID-19 crisis, people stuck in camps in places like Calais are more at risk than ever. As NGOs have to suspend services, already vulnerable people are left without food, water and medical attention. There are talks of rounding up refugees to put them in accommodation, for who knows how long. With unlivable conditions in the camps and the prospect of long delays in being able to access asylum systems, who can blame them if they risk their lives to make a crossing now?
There’s a perception in this country that there are many refugees, but there aren’t. The reality is that less than 1% of the population are refugees, and we are not even in the top ten countries for hosting refugees. Yet we have a lot to do with the creation of refugees, by helping to destabilise countries. We support Saudi Arabia, for example, yet we take very few of the Yemeni refugees.
The UK leads on issues around human rights. Yet our system is failing refugees, and it is failing to deliver human rights to some of the most marginalised people in the world. The failure of the UK’s hostile environment abroad for people stuck at its border in northern France is becoming more clear than ever during this global health pandemic, with over a thousand people forced to live with hardly any access to water, shelter or information about their rights. And it is within the UK’s power to help fix it.
As the virus spreads, more and more refugees are rightfully frightened for their lives. Access to water and soap are almost non-existent in the northern French informal camps, and there are very limited medical services.
People have risked their lives several times to make it here. We cannot ask them to risk their lives yet again, this time in a camp so close to their final destination.
So here’s the alternative. I am proud to be part of a campaign that’s calling for a safer way https://www.change.org/p/priti-patel-home-secretary-we-demand-asaferway to seek asylum.
We’re calling for asylum seekers to be allowed to make their claims at the border, where the UK places its legal and political control. I’ve been calling for this for years.
We also demand that the most vulnerable asylum-seekers – such as victims of trafficking, unaccompanied minors or LGBTQI people are identified and swiftly relocated.
It’s not only the right thing to do, it would also save human and financial resources. The UK spends millions of pounds reinforcing its border security in northern France. It’s not effective, it’s not upholding our legal and moral obligations, and it costs lives.
Refugees and asylum seekers are incredibly entrepreneurial: they have journeyed half way across the world. We need their talents and drive, and they need to be able to live with dignity. Not only they will contribute to our community and society but we must welcome them with dignity and show solidarity and sympathy with their situation.
Together, the changes I’ve outlined would represent a safer way for asylum seekers to access their human rights.
Ultimately, nobody wants to be a refugee. I don’t want be a refugee. I want to be with my loved ones, especially now that we are in global lockdown.. It’s not a choice that we take lightly. When somebody takes the extraordinary decision to flee persecution and hardship, we must make it as safe as possible for them to do so.
With a simpler, safer and legal way for them to seek asylum and protection, everybody benefits.
Gulwali Passarlay is a prominent activist for refugee rights, and the celebrated author of The Lightless Sky: An afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey of Escape to a New Life in Britain.