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

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution