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

Lizzie Porter
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Where the Yazidis fled next

Two years ago this month, Islamic State slaughtered thousands of Yazidis in northern Iraq. What happened to those who made it to Europe?

In the foothills of Mount Olympus, the location of the Petra refugee camp in Greece should make it a haven. Surrounded by pine trees, with the snow-topped summit of the gods’ mythological home in the distance, the quiet refuge houses groups of women sitting peacefully in the shade. Families cook vegetable pasties in hot oil and children dance in circles on sun-parched grass.

In reality, it is not, of course, an idyll. The tented site – on the grounds of a former psychiatric hospital – is home to 1,300 of the 4,000 Yazidis currently in Greece. They fled the Islamic State advance on their homeland in northern Iraq in August 2014, when the terror group slaughtered 5,000 of their kin in an internationally recognised genocide.

But while these members of the religious minority escaped the immediate danger of IS, they found fear and poverty in their flight.

They are among 50,000 people trapped on Greek soil after European countries shut their borders in March. Housed in camps with poor water, electricity and food supplies, there is disquiet between ethnic and religious groups, including the Yazidis.

The ethno-religious group, who numbered 600,000 in Iraq before the arrival of IS, follow a non-Abrahamic faith and worship Melek Tawwus, a fallen angel. Because their traditions are derived from multiple religions, some followers of other faiths consider them heretical and worthy of punishment.


Katsikas camp. All photos: Lizzie Porter

The poor health and sanitation conditions for Petra’s residents – half of whom are under 18 – are obvious. Cream canvas tents, searingly hot under the Mediterranean sun, are packed tightly, guy ropes tangled together. Some families have cooking equipment, and fires are lit in narrow alleyways.

“The water is not clean and the children are sick”, one Yazidi woman from Sinjar in northern Iraq tells me at the camp, in fluent English. “One day two long snakes came into the tent. The children have bites and the toilets here are very bad.”

According to the UNHCR, three daily meals are provided, including hot food, and authorities collect waste. But it also admits that there are just 30 toilets, 20 showers and 60 water taps for the whole camp. There are no separate washing facilities for women. The colonel managing Petra would not let me inspect the washing facilities.

Petra’s residents are solely Yazidi: they say they fear persecution and violence in camps housing people of mixed ethnicities and religions. The UNHCR admitted to me that there have been “tensions” between Yazidis and other refugee groups.


Yazidi babies.

Naji Haji, a 27-year-old resident also from Sinjar, said the authorities treated them well, but that friends in another camp north of Thessaloniki had been beaten by other refugees because of their faith.

“Yazidi people in other camps want to come to Petra,” he said. 

Several hundred other Yazidis initially gathered in Katsikas camp, near the Albanian border.

Falah, a 30-year-old Yazidi barber from Sinjar, is among them, along with his two children, wife and parents.

When IS invaded his village last summer, they kidnapped his mother’s father, four cousins and two of his brothers: “They came with guns and knives. I saw them kill people.”


A Syrian Kurd and his daughter.

The community fled to Mount Sinjar, where they stayed for ten days with little food or water, before escaping to Iraqi Kurdistan, then to Turkey and onto Greece.

“The Yazidi people on Mount Sinjar died from no food or water or hope. I brought my children here because I wanted to live,” he adds.

A fortnight ago, Yazidi activist Nadia Murad and a former ICC prosecutor visited Petra camp as part of a campaign to bring criminal charges on Islamic State. In June the UN recognised the August 2014 massacre as a genocide, echoing a declaration by US Secretary of State John Kerry in March.

But Haji, whose brother was killed in a car bomb in 2007, said he felt afraid even in Europe.

“We feel little hope in Europe. We managed to escape Daesh”, he says, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “But now they are in France, Germany, and all states.”


Yazidi family.

While the UNHCR says it visits Petra daily to monitor the situation, The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI), is doing its best to support the Yazidi minority.

The NGO’s country co-ordinator, Julide Glanz, is mindful of the danger of exacerbating tensions between ethno-religious groups.

“When we speak of Muslims [who discriminate against Yazidis] we are referring to the brainless fanatics who drag the name of Islam into the dirt,” she says. “Muslims had to flee too and on their journey the Yazidis took them in and accepted them as one of their own.”

She insists Yazidi-only camps are the best way of minimising violence. On the Petra model, for example, Greek authorities moved Yazidis at Katsikas to their own camp nearby in July. “The fear is big and there is little protection,” Glanz says.

A lack of interpreters of Kermanji – the dialect of Kurdish spoken by Yazidis – is a problem, according to Greek authorities. A spokesperson tells me that there is a lack of interpreters in all refugee languages, including Arabic, Farsi and Pashto, “let alone a rare dialect like Kermanji. We are trying to manage the situation by using English-speaking refugees of the same ethnic group.”


Tent at Katsikas camp.

What of the future? Falah feels increasingly desperate. “Here there is no money, no tea, no food, nothing. Before, people had money, but we paid €10,000 (£8,600) to the people smuggler to get us to Greece.”

Elsewhere, there is some hope. Abu Roudyan, a 27-year-old Yazidi originally from Bahzani in northern Iraq, lived in Petra camp with his wife and young children for over three months. They have now managed to get to Germany, while Roudyan waits in Athens.

“Iraq is at war and women are kidnapped and children are killed,” he says. “The important thing for the future of my family is safety in Germany.”

Lizzie Porter is a freelance Middle East news and features journalist based in Beirut.