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  1. The Staggers
2 November 2022

What does a real refugee look like?

Right-wingers love to complain about asylum seekers being young men.

By Steve Ali

What does a real refugee look like? Yet again – being a refugee myself – I ask this question. 

A recent article in the Independent reporting that most Albanian asylum seekers granted UK visas are trafficked women has somehow become a prime example for the entire system being broken. That people are using this anecdote to try to discredit all asylum seekers is yet another example of the distorted rhetoric that has infected debate about the subject.

Border Force officials have said since the summer that up to 60 per cent of those making the Channel crossing in small boats now are Albanians, a huge rise in the past two years. This week Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, claimed in the Commons that Albanians were “abusing modern slavery legislation” and that they were “not welcome and should not expect to stay”. The figures in the Independent, from the Oxford Migration Observatory and reported after Braverman’s comments, showed, however, that in the year to June 55 per cent of adult Albanian asylum seekers were successful, and that 86 per cent of those were women judged to be in need of protection.

It’s worth noting here, for one thing, that trafficking is completely different to smuggling, because it is non-consensual. People who are trafficked here are typically brought here for forced labour or sex slavery. They only go through the asylum system if they escape their traffickers, and due to hostile environment legislation, many are too afraid to claim asylum because of countless cases of people being criminalised for actions related to their enslavement, thrown into immigration detention or deported. When the Home Secretary calls on traffickers to justify this asylum reform, it is intentionally misleading. 

Yesterday (1 November) a Telegraph columnist criticised the Guardian for using a picture of a female migrant “rather than the typical profile of somebody crossing the channel from ‘peaceful’ France: male, young, healthy, prosperous enough to pay a people smuggler”.

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My immediate reaction to a claim like this is: “What does he know about the experience of displacement?” Leave the lack of empathy and compassion aside, such statements prove the level of ignorance, misleading tactics and misinformation around this subject. It is common, on both the left and right, to complain that all refugees are men – and this is used as justification for looking the other way.

The truth is that war is caused by men and men, if they didn’t cause it, are its first victims. Some fortunate ones – being the last hope of their families – may manage to flee and are subjected to the cruelty and exploitation of other men’s rules. In seeking safety they often risk their lives, sometimes by hanging under lorries to cross borders or suffocating inside freezer containers. Only a very small minority can afford to pay smugglers. Many then find themselves working day and night in exploitative jobs to pay other cruel men to smuggle the women and children of their families, because the family reunion system is so complex and brutal. (All this is, of course, is not to diminish the experiences of the women and girls who make 50 per cent of the total displaced population.)

Perhaps it is no surprise that we are in the frightening position we are now. Just a few days ago a 66-year-old man threw petrol bombs at a Dover immigration centre, driven by what police characterised as a “hate-filled grievance”, and is then thought to have killed himself. And yet the media is filled with reports by know-all-about-it types talking with unwarranted authority about displaced people and their experiences. I find something similar when I’m out – last week Andrew, a random man I met at the pub, asked me rather crudely, “Why are all refugees young men?”

There’s a really simple thing that would improve people’s understanding: present both sides of the story.

[See also: Inside the UK hotel that became home to 150 refugees]

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