Being a refugee has never been sexy, interesting or something to brag about. Life is hard. Being a refugee means leaving your home, your family and everything that you once knew, in search of a place of safety. I came to this country from Ethiopia when I was 11, so I know the sense of deep loss at leaving everything, and the sense of foreboding at starting again.
To reach the shores of Britain is like winning first prize in the lottery of life. For many it is a traumatic journey. Some are literally putting their lives in danger by crossing dangerous lands and boarding rickety boats. The Mediterranean has become a graveyard with no headstones or flowers as thousands of refugees tragically lose their lives there.
It has been an incredible few weeks for those of us who have been campaigning for years to highlight the plight of refugees. Finally the realities of our lives are being recognised. On Saturday, thousands will march in solidarity with refugees.
At the forefront of the march there will be 80 refugees, including myself, holding the “refugees welcome” banner. For the first time in a long time, refugees will be standing in the limelight. My hope is that this will not only highlight the issues of refugees on the borders of Europe, but it will also shine a light on the problems faced by refugees already here in Britain.
Britain has promoted itself as being great, as one of the leaders of the democratic world, and as a defender of human rights. And there is a certain hope amongst refugees who come here expecting Britain to step up to its values.
For the past six years I have worked closely with refugee women in Britain. I have come across the deep disappointments of women who came to this country expecting protection and safety, who instead received nothing but a further abuse of their human rights by the system.
One of the women who will be marching with me on Saturday is Maimuna Jawo, who has been asked to speak at the Downing Street rally. Maimuna came to this country from the Gambia, fleeing from violence after standing up against FGM. Instead of the protection she thought she would receive, the Home Office wouldn’t believe her story.
When she went to seek asylum, she was taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where she was detained for five months without a lawyer or interpreter. When I met her, she said to me that she is not a criminal – she didn’t understand why she was being locked up for seeking asylum. She still does not know if she will be allowed to stay in the UK.
There are many asylum seeking women in a similar position. There are those who are currently detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, who are facing racial and sexual abuse from British security guards.
When the lights go out, and the word “refugee” once again becomes unpopular, unsexy and uninteresting, what will happen then? There will still be refugees wanting to come to Europe. There will still be asylum seekers in the UK who are detained, who are living below the poverty line, who are waiting in limbo for years.
These issues are not going to go away. So the question for me is how do we keep up this solidarity with refugees – not only the ones who are outside the UK, but also those who are already here? How do we keep up the momentum to achieve a better solution for refugees in the UK?
My hope is that the government will see this as a real opportunity for bringing in policy changes that make a difference to asylum seekers in Britain, as well as making a real effort to resettle the refugees who are currently crossing the borders of Europe.
Marchu Girma is the grassroots co-ordinator of Women for Refugee Women, an organisation campaigning to end the detention of women claiming asylum in the UK. Find out more about the #SetHerFree campaign at www.refugeewomen.co.uk