When I was learning Dutch, I chose, by chance, a school that had a contract with the Dutch government to teach refugees. In consequence, half of the students in my class were refugees, mostly from Syria. It was an interesting environment in which to meet them, because in that context we were completely equal: just a group of people all with the same aim, to figure out this language with its weird vowel rules and bizarro pronunciation. I was surprised to find that these people were just like me, and then surprised that I was surprised. I never even realised that I had expected them to be different; to have what I can only describe as a refugee-like quality. Somehow, this form of racism had seeped into me without my noticing. I had forgotten that, in a sense, both of my parents are refugees: my mother left Algeria in her teens to escape the civil war there and never returned; my father’s Jewish mother took him to Canada during World War Two, for fear that the Nazis might invade Britain. They may not have had official refugee status, but are they so different from people fleeing war zones now?
As the lessons progressed, through halting Dutch-language conversations, details of my classmates’ lives emerged. The woman who’d fled Uganda after being jailed for protesting against Museveni. The woman who had married her casual boyfriend as it was the only way that she could legally get him out of Syria. The man whose parents were still in Aleppo and hadn’t had running water or a consistent supply of electricity for months. Most poignant of all was an older man, a lawyer, who broke down in a lesson about holidays when he was asked whether he had ever slept in a tent. As we sat together, having had such different experiences but now sharing the same struggle to figure out how to use the tricky little Dutch word ‘om’, it was so easy to see how I could have been in their position, how I would have had to make the same choices, and to ask myself what I would be willing to do to survive, to help my family to survive.
I have been thinking about them again recently while reading about the British government’s plan to further restrict the rights of refugees entering the UK. You can find some of the details in a Guardian article here, but essentially, it would drastically reduce the rights of refugees who enter the UK in an illegal manner - via a small boat, for example, but also including not having a visa - even if they are successfully granted asylum. To quote the government’s policy statement:
For the first time, whether you enter the UK legally or illegally will have an impact on how your asylum claim progresses, and on your status in the UK if that claim is successful. Those who prevail with claims having entered illegally will receive a new temporary protection status rather than an automatic right to settle, will be regularly reassessed for removal from the UK, will have limited family reunion rights and will have no recourse to public funds except in cases of destitution.
I find it a lot easier to imagine being a refugee than to imagine being a government official who divides people in fear of their lives, people who have been officially acknowledged to be in legitimate need of refuge, into two categories: those who are seeking refuge in the correct orderly manner, who know what the correct orderly manner is in advance and can access it, and everybody else, those who are distastefully chaotic, who don’t know the rules or aren’t in a position to follow them, those who make mistakes, out of ignorance or necessity or desperation, and who therefore shouldn’t have a right to be with their families or make a new home somewhere safe without a permanent threat of deportation, and who shouldn’t be entitled to any form of government aid until they are literally starving.
It really is extraordinary how every time I think I could not hate this government more, they find a way to make me do it. There just seem to be entire categories of people (foreigners, say, or the poor) whom they see as less than human. And I find it hard to figure out what meaningful things I can do to oppose them. My vote is no better than symbolic as I live in the safest Labour seat in the country and there’s no point writing to my local MP because she’s already voting exactly as I want her to, but her vote is also no better than symbolic because the Conservative party have such a huge majority they can do whatever they want. As a writer I can “use my voice” by writing things like this which people read who already agree with me and we all simultaneously feel better for having expressed our frustration and worse because we’re reminded just how bad things are. I can protest, but the government are busy limiting my right to do that too. I can sign petitions that make no difference. I can donate money to charities who provide symptomatic relief but can’t help with systemic problems, and organisations who lobby and agitate and are also ignored. I do all of these things. Nothing changes.
But it turns out that there is something else that we can do this time. The government have opened up a public consultation on their plans to change the way that refugees entering Britain are treated. It’s here. I just did it and I am not going to lie to you: it is lengthy, convoluted and off-putting. There is a long policy statement that you have to read to understand the questions, and said policy statement doubles as a propaganda piece so there is a slant to the way that every item of information is presented, and also it seems to me to lack certain clear and necessary explanations (for example, of what a legal route to asylum actually is), so all in all it is difficult for those lacking in expertise to tell what really is a good idea (and there are some, I think) from what the government is dressing up as a good idea (which is plenty). Then the questions themselves are posed in the form of ‘would this policy be an effective way of achieving this aim’ without giving you the chance to say ‘perhaps, but it would be a deeply unpalatable one and not worth the outcome’ or even ‘I think this aim stinks.’ However. If you can face it, it is a way of getting your voice heard. If you don’t do it, the government can legitimately claim to have no opposition to these measures and to be acting in your name. And you can always make liberal use of the ‘don’t know’ button when faced with questions about, say, the specific wording of the Modern Slavery Act and how it interacts with proposed changes to bail hearings, or whatever.
That’s the best that I can offer for now, and I hope that some of you will be willing to take the time to do it. It’s not easy, but it’s considerably easier than crossing the Channel in a dinghy, and who knows, it might actually help. There’s an outside possibility that the one thing this government likes less than immigrants is people not voting for them, and if we bother to tell them how much we dislike their policies, they might, maybe, unlikely, but possibly, rethink. It’s worth a try.