Terrorist. Drain on the economy. Queue jumper. Threat. Stranger. Illegal. These are just some of the words people use when referring to refugees. Many of us hold stereotypes without knowing. Refugees and asylum seekers are people who come in to our country and take our jobs, they make our roads busier, they are involved in illegal work and they are lazy benefit cheats. What we don’t always know or get told is that many refugees seek to become productive members of society.
I came over to the UK as a refugee when I was only five years old. I travelled with my father, mother, brother and sister, as one family of the many that left Afghanistan seeking asylum. Like many others longing to receive a positive letter through the post from the UK government, my family had to wait an anxious three years before we were granted asylum. We managed to get by on a small allowance given to refugees who are still awaiting their decision and not allowed to work. We were one of the lucky families and our application was approved, for which we are thankful.
According to the Refugee Council, in the second quarter of 2016, 29% of asylum decisions were positive, compared to the 66% that were refused. Given my father’s difficulty in navigating the system upon arrival in the UK, he endeavored to help those who would come after him, so in 2003, he founded a charity to support those going through a similar situation and to give back to the community that hosted him with open arms. This is my own family’s simple story and there are many more people who have made positive contributions to their host society.
In contrast to the stereotypes so often presented to the media, I have completed my Master’s degree at a world-class institution. Achieving an MA by the age of 22 would have been impossible had my family stayed in Afghanistan, because of the status of women there and the comparatively underdeveloped educational system. If lucky, I would probably have been taking a similar route to my female cousins living in Kabul: attending school, or on the contrary, staying home and doing what every female is assigned to do – undertaking household chores and awaiting marriage.
What we need to understand is that like many other children, those living in Afghanistan and any other country in the world have ambitions too. They also want to wake up in the morning not fearing their journey home from school. So when we think of refugees, let us try and put ourselves in their positions, as it is the danger they face which becomes the reason they leave their homeland and become asylum seekers. They are no less human; they are simply doing what is best for them and their family. Isn’t that a universal wish? The difference between people like myself and people born in the UK is that asylum seekers cross oceans, sleep in jungles and take life-threatening journeys to reach the safety that the native population already enjoys. Some don’t make it alive; some lose family members, some are very traumatised by their experience. They make the journey anyway, in the hope that they will find sanctuary.
Hardships and struggles faced by those forced to flee are not usually felt by those living in the host communities. According to ComRes, in January 2016, 41% of people said that Britain should take fewer refugees from Syria and Libya, in comparison to 31% of people in September 2015, which suggests that attitudes have hardened towards refugees. Perhaps the fact that they are simply spectators of the distant suffering makes them unable to understand the moral and political implications of what they are seeing, leading to common misperception.
In 2015, worldwide displacement hit an all-time high: the UN’s most recent estimate puts the figure of displaced people at 65 million. Wars, conflict and persecution have forced more people to flee their homes and seek refuge and safety elsewhere than at any other time in history.
Stereotypes are not always accurate. People should look beyond them, and feel empathy for those who make a dangerous journey in pursuit of a life that they can enjoy.
Cecil Rhodes: “You are an Englishman, and have subsequently drawn the greatest prize in the lottery of life.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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