“I will never forget when I first arrived and a gentleman at Heathrow gave me a chocolate bar. I was embarrassed to take it but he insisted. His act, for the next few minutes, reminded me that I was a child and not a refugee; that I was human.”
Migration is currently the hottest topic facing European governments. As some have suggested, the current crisis will define this decade. Migrants who depart their homelands are motivated by many reasons, most seriously by war and conflict as we see with the recent refugees from Syria.
However, I am also intrigued by the current discourses in the United Kingdom.
Despite the desperate pleas of those fleeing, as well as images of drowned children washing up on shores, the country has yet to be moved to open its borders.
Interestingly, in the UK, the political discourse aligns itself with Europe by stating that “we” in Europe cannot cope with the numbers of migrants coming to our European mainland borders – although such numbers are not at Britain’s borders. This is in stark contrast to the discourse on not taking in refugees – but of course lets join and align to show that “we are facing the crisis” – despite constant ascertain that Britain is not going to be involved in a Europe-wide relocation program as it is not, as many state, part of Schengen and other EU programs.
Although the conflict is in Syria, many in Europe are calling the current migration of Syrians a “European crisis” or a “crisis that Europe is facing”. Such language is designed to frighten citizens who are also struggling due to the economic crisis and austerity.
On 30 July 2015, when migrants tried to cross through the EuroTunnel into Britain, British Prime Minister David Cameron described them as a “swarm”. In a televised interview, the Prime Minister stated: “You have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean”.
Similar to previous rhetoric of asylum seekers “swamping” the country, such words are used to frighten people and generate negative sentiments.
Previously in the UK, such declarations were exclusive to far right groups and parties such as the BNP and their former leader Nick Griffin.
This suggests that we are witnessing a paradigmatic shift in politics towards the far-right, in what once was a relatively liberal democracy. This is a complicated and upsetting discourse, because human lives are at stake.
As a former refugee, the dehumanising experience of leaving your life behind to head into the unknown for the safety of your children is traumatic enough, without facing dehumanising treatment in make-shift camps and army barricades.
In 1992, I was a refugee. My parents were political asylum seekers as they were politically involved in Kosovo actively resisting the Milosevic regime. Luckily, we flew to Heathrow and so we did not experience the horror that others now almost three decades later are being forced to face. However, the journey was still traumatic. I remember my mother in a panic counting us children and forgetting she had my baby sister in her arms.
We left everything behind – my parents left their careers, their home, everything they had worked for – to save our lives, never to see any of it again and, most importantly, they were unable to see members of their family again, like my grandfather who died before Kosovo was liberated.
Although I have a good life in the UK and I have done well, this was not necessarily due to the British system, but in some cases, in spite of it.
It is not very easy when you are told you should not think of going to university or that you should not hope to have a good job. Nonetheless, I have bought my own home, I pay my taxes and I have a career. I have taught many students at Cardiff University, and around the world, and I have made a difference to their education. I have not relied on handouts from the government as some would have us believe.
Nonetheless, the shame I felt in the UK for being a refugee and the institutional racism is hard to live with.
People did help us, but that is not something that makes you happy to be in that position. While you are glad to receive help, you also are reminded of the situation you find yourself in. I’m a naturalised British citizen and I am proud to be so. However, I am shocked that some people think that people like myself and future refugees will make a negative impact on British society or that you should help your own.
I see many people on a daily basis who don’t stop to give up their seats for elderly people or young mothers with children, yet say that they want to help British people first. They pass homeless people and don’t even acknowledge their existence, revolted by their presence.
Nonetheless, while we criticise the anti-immigration and anti-refugee discourse, we must be careful, and I include myself in this, not to feed that very same discourse with notions of “good refugees” and “bad refugees”. We must recognise that examples of who we consider to be “good refugees” may potentially be feeding the notion of “You are okay, but not them”, which has the potential to other and dehumanise people.
Hospitality and help, if it is true hospitality, must be offered without conditions. Because fundamentally only unconditional hospitality qualifies as humanity.
I will never forget when I first arrived and a gentleman at Heathrow gave me a chocolate bar. I was embarrassed to take it but he insisted. His act, for the next few minutes, reminded me that I was a child and not a refugee; that I was human.
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