We don’t make our country stronger by forcing refugees into desperation

When women come to our shores for help, we owe them a chance to rebuild their lives, writes Natasha Walter.

Today a document was published that contains more misery, line by line, than one can easily comprehend. The report of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Asylum Support for Children and Young People, to give it its full title, shows how families who have come to this country to seek sanctuary find themselves trapped in grinding poverty.

The panel for the inquiry heard from a mother who had to walk home from hospital after giving birth because she had no money for the bus; from mothers who go to bed hungry after giving their children their only food; from mothers who have to sleep on the floors of churches or mosques because they are left homeless.

Alongside many others who work with refugees, I have met women like these and been shocked by their day-to-day struggle to survive. What also shocks me is the way that their suffering is too often entirely invisible. These women and children tend to live as ghosts in our cities, hardly seen or heard by others. To combat that invisibility, Women for Refugee Women has recently been working with mothers who have sought sanctuary in the UK to tell their stories.

One woman who has told her story on our blog, Mariana (not her real name), lived destitute with her child for five years. She fled to this country from persecution in Angola, but was refused asylum here and then was not entitled either to work or to access support.

“When I came out of hospital after having my baby,” she told us, “I went to social services. I walked in holding my son. He was just three months old. The manager of the social services told me that they cannot help failed asylum seekers. She said that the only support they can provide was to take my baby to another family. That made me so frightened that I felt sick. I remember leaving the office and walking down the street, crying and holding my baby and wondering what I should do.

"I could not give my baby son to a stranger. I went to another friend, but she wasn’t really a friend. She told me I could sleep on the floor. It was cold and hard and my son and I were awake much of the night. In the day I didn’t have a key to her home so I was walking the freezing streets. My back hurt very badly from the birth and I still had high blood pressure, so I often felt faint. But I had to walk and walk all day, or sit on a park bench, or maybe in a library for a few hours.”

This story is the Cathy Come Home of our times. Luckily, Mariana does now have leave to remain, but she cannot forget all the days, months and years when she and her son were locked out of normal life.

Another woman, Helen, blogs with us about her day to day life bringing up her three children. Helen fled to this country for safety after being imprisoned in Ethiopia for her political activities. “We get £60 a week to live on, for all four of us,” she has said. “Buying food must come first. I go to the cheapest supermarkets and buy huge bags of pasta and tins of tomatoes. Travel really eats up the money.”

Helen shares stories of what it is like trying to get the children to hospital when one of them is ill, and how they rely on gifts from friends and charities for everything from toys to boots. She longs to be able to contribute herself. “I do dream of getting leave to remain here, so I can work,” she says. “I remember that as a young woman I used to laugh and laugh in a very free way and I don’t hear myself laughing like that anymore. It does feel as if I am stuck somewhere.”

Absurdly, Helen has been waiting 9 years now for leave to remain; an innocent victim of the well-documented chaos in the UK Border Agency.

Mariana and Helen remind me that women who come here seeking refuge may have fled experiences that we can hardly imagine, but they are women just like you and I. They want to protect and nurture their children, they have their own dreams and desires for the future. We don’t make our country stronger and better by forcing women like this into such desperation, we just make it crueller and nastier.

Sarah Teather MP and the others on the panel for today’s report have made sensible recommendations which should be immediately implemented. Asylum support levels are set too low to start with; cashless systems of support are far too restrictive for families and it should never happen that asylum seeking families are prevented from accessing even basic support and end up in complete destitution. Above all we need a change of culture. This is not about opening our borders, but simply ensuring that when people come here fleeing for their lives, we give them a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild their lives, rather than victimising them further.

Photograph: Getty Images

Natasha Walter is the founder of Women for Refugee Women, @4refugeewomen

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496