It’s a familiar sight. Frightened refugees in overcrowded boats, desperately hoping for a better life in Europe. These images of sinking dinghies in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea should not be commonplace – but they are.
In response to the refugee crisis, the UK government has pledged to resettle 20,000 refugees in the UK by 2020. This undertaking has undoubtedly sparked widespread debate. However, the public appears to be more concerned with the number of refugees, rather than the more pressing issue of what actually happens to these people once they are in the UK.
This is the issue that the recent Refugee Panel Discussion, organised by the European Law Students’ Association in collaboration with Nottingham Debating Union, sought to address. Speakers discussed the problems, ranging from language barriers to protracted legal cases, that refugees faced upon arrival in the UK.
The first speaker, Adel Hamad, experienced these problems firsthand. Two years ago, he himself was one of the 265 people on board a small boat in the Mediterranean Sea. When water began pouring into his boat from all sides, he was one of the lucky ones. An Italian rescue boat saved him and brought him to Italy. Afterwards, he travelled to France, and then from France to England in the back of a lorry. Finally, he stepped out onto England, what he thought of as freedom.
Adel is now a caseworker at the Nottingham Refugee Forum. He helps refugees to adjust to their new lives in the UK, to cope with a different language, culture and climate. The real difficulty, he said, is to stop people from losing hope.
When Deirdre Sheehan, a solicitor from Paragon Law, began to talk about the legal issues facing refugees, it was easy to see why.
All too often, she told us, refugees’ stories are not believed by Home Office officials. One of her clients, Mr N, was arrested and detained for protesting against the government. He was blindfolded and handcuffed. His cell had no toilet. The authorities would spit on him. There was no mention of going before a judge, and Mr N knew that this treatment would continue until his execution.
Another of her clients, Mr B, was only 13. Men, carrying guns and clubs, broke into his house in Syria and beat his father up. His father started to bleed and the men shot him three times. When Mr B tried to go to his father, he was kicked and stabbed in the eye. He is now blind in his right eye. The Home Office refused to believe either of these two harrowing encounters.
Deirdre drew our attention to the way in which Home Office officials pick on peripheral points of asylum applications to discredit refugees’ stories. One Syrian child provided an 11 page statement and endured a 3 hour interview. In both, he tried to give as much information as he could. In his statement, he mentioned that his families kept cows, goats and sheep. In his interview, he mentioned cows and goats only, forgetting to include the sheep. The Home Office argued that because of this discrepancy, his story should not be believed.
The lack of legal aid is yet another barrier refugees must overcome in order to establish a successful asylum claim. There is no legal aid available for these cases until the appeal stage. This means that before refugees can make a claim for legal aid, they must go through the trauma of being repeatedly told they cannot remain in the UK. Furthermore, these cases can last for excessive periods of time. Sajid Mohammed (the third speaker, and co-founder and executive director of Himmah) recounted one such experience where the person he had worked with only had his case heard in a High Court judicial review after being in the system for 12 years.
There are other problems outside the legal arena: problems that relate to simple human dignities. Himmah is a charity organisation that seeks to deal with such problems in practical ways. They offer refugees essentials such as women’s toiletries, clothes from charity shops and haircuts.
The system the government currently has in place to deal with the refugee crisis is also slow in allowing the refugees to assimilate quickly, and this lack in providing basic needs in turn brings about a further set of problems. Clive Foster, Hate Crime Project Officer at Nottingham City Council, talked about the difficulty of accessing English language teaching. Many of the refugees who arrive in the UK are well qualified: they are dentists, builders and doctors. Some also have PhDs. The problem is that they cannot speak English, and that they have no access to government funded ESOL teaching until they have waited 6 months for a decision on their asylum application.
Sometimes it is all too easy to forget that refugees are human beings, with feelings, opinions, hopes and dreams. Through events like the Refugee Panel Discussion, we can remind ourselves that refugees are facing these problems today in this country.
If this country hopes to make a commitment to deal with the predicament at hand, it has to consider the conditions required to be built and put in place, so as to devise long-term resolutions. When looking to the future, it is clear that society needs to go beyond theoretical declarations of being welcoming to refugees. Instead, the legal difficulties discussed above need to be adequately overcome, while the situation also necessitates the provision of basic necessities and education during this period.