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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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism