Sectarianism, what?

If you’d have asked me 5 years ago what sectarianism is, I wouldn’t have been able to give you an answer. I don’t think it really mattered to me and I don’t think it was so widely discussed. Yet now, you cannot escape the term and the consequences. Sectarianism has, in my eyes, never been so prominent or eminent – not just in the Middle East – but also in the West. And it ain’t pretty. We – as humanity – have built up this desire and necessity to occupy ‘our’ countries and be of only one predominant, majority race/ethnicity/religion.

Israel-Palestine is a perfect example of this desire for a sectarian divide. It’s deemed impossible (not just by Israelis, but by Palestinians too), that they can co-inhabit the same ‘country’/area of land because one group are Jewish and the others are Muslim and Christian. Then there’s Iraq. Iraqi Shia’s suffered intense abuse under the rule of Saddam Hussein yet Sunnis and Shia’s appeared to live peacefully together. Yet now, those days seem to be long gone. Moreover, Syria – you have the Alaawite Shias ruling over the Sunnis for years and years and now – boom, explosion and no one can get along. Iran too, oppressing Bahai and Sunnis alike. Saudi Arabia, oppressing Shia. Regional ‘friendships’ built on who is Sunni and who is Shia. Lebanon – Sunnis, Shias, Christians… all in a melting pot.

Africa – Sudan – Ethnic Arabs and Blacks slaughtering leading to the potential genocide in Darfur. Then there’s Rwanda in 1994 – the Tutsis and the Hutus where almost 1 million people were brutally murdered in less than 1 month. Theres the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar who are constantly killed and oppressed for their religion.

So can these different religions/ethnicities and races ever get along? Are the ‘quiet’ stable nations all simply waiting to explode into some kind of hatred or is this just a ‘phase’ where different individuals will have to eventually learn to get along with each other and all will be fine and dandy like in the West? But is the West even fine and dandy? I mean, we have the rise of nationalism, of fascism, racism, hate crimes. We want to leave the EU ‘make Britain British again’ (whatever that means). We’ve got Donald Trump who hates immigrants and refugees and wants to make ‘America great again’. WHAT DOES THIS EVEN MEAN?!

It all boils down to one thing right now. Apparently, we all hate each other and can’t live together peacefully if we have different religions, cultures and skin colours. We feel the need to ‘dominate’ others, we have to have power and oppress people who could have power just because they’re different from us. We LOVE power too much and we’re happy to resort to the worst kind of violence to maintain that power. I mean REALLY? Is that the sort of world we live in? Where we can’t integrate, we can’t just respect each other and be kind? We can’t live peacefully and harmoniously because we can’t possibly have someone who’s slightly different having power and control.

There are so many states in this world that are oppressing people for being different. For the fear of them having power. There is a lack of knowledge, respect and understanding of different communities across the world which is causing conflict and severe sectarianism issues. The attack on Kurdish Iranian teenager Reker Ahmed in Croydon shows our inability to respect difference.

When the power of love is greater than the love of power, the world will know peace. 

“We prevent hate by educating others” 

I am obsessed with reading. I have probably learnt most of the things I know through reading. In a world where naivety and hatred are prominent, I believe education is vitally important in changing opinions and making people think and reading is a great place to start.  A few of my friends have recently asked for book recommendations, so here we go.

I am an avid reader of political non-fiction books as well as political fiction books. Not everything I read has to be true but it has to be thought provoking. So, below are some of my favourite books from the past year or so and the reasons why.

  1. The Lightless Sky, Gulwali Passarlay 

The quickest I’ve read a book in a long time. This book is a MUST read if you care about refugees, children or just humanity in general. It puts all the horrors refugees and asylum seekers face on their journey to Europe in stone. Its everything you sort of knew but didn’t think you could face, yet you have to. Not only does it talk about the brutality and unfortunate necessity of human smugglers, it faces friendship and heartbreak perfectly. My favourite thing about this book is its so real and every word in it is relatable for far too many people around the world. Also, Gulwali is from Afghanistan – a place that I hold constantly in my thoughts. It explains why (young) people have to leave the country – a state declared technically safe these days – and how parents must make the hardest decision of their lives. It places the perfect disconnect between ‘East’ and ‘West’ and highlights the sheer difference in culture between Afghanistan and Europe. The honesty in this book deserves an award in itself.

The book also mentions my favourite subject – the bureaucracy of systems in the UK. The immigration system, age assessments and dealing with social services, accessing education and, mental health. The biggest mistake people make is realising that just because someone is ‘safe’ now they’re in the UK, doesn’t mean they can miraculously forget everything they’ve seen.

Gulwali is a true inspiration. He’s pretty much the same age as me and I can’t even comprehend going through what he went through and achieving everything he has achieved.

There is one sentence in this book that will sit with me forever: “By sending me away, she definitely saved her son, but she also lost him”. 

Seriously, go read this book. NOW.

2.  The Last Kestrel, Gill McGivering

This book is most certainly a thought provoker – especially for the western centric thinkers. This fiction book based on non-fiction set in Afghanistan is about a journalist called Ellen Thomas whose Afghan Pashto translator, Jalil is suddenly murdered and she is determined to find out why. The book finds itself in the midst of three sides; NATO (British) forces, the Taliban and an innocent Afghan family. The book perfectly voices two different view points to the conflict and the NATO forces. Now, I thought it was going to be a stereotypical western book about Afghanistan. But the ending shocks you. It makes you think – well it certainly made me think – of the Afghan war in a completely different way. It puts a perfect spin on the possibilities of lies and indoctrination, of western propaganda. It represents a mothers revenge that, given events, seems only natural. And I loved every second of it.

3. Mornings in Jenin, Susan Abdulhawa 

I love anything Palestinian and this book was no different. This book kicked the life out of me on more than one occasion. Although it is ‘fiction’ , its technically fact. The book discusses the 1948 Nakba  from a very real, human perspective, making the whole situation almost unimaginable. The book follows a girl Amal, who has two younger brothers – one of whom gets snatched by an Israeli soldier. This brother, grows up thinking he is Israeli until he has an intense run in with his twin brother at a checkpoint. Amal ends up as a refugee from the 1967 war, leaving the Jenin refugee camp that she called home behind and ending up in a girls orphanage in Jerusalem. Susan’s writing is incredible at creating images – I could, and still can, physically see the refugee camp and the orphanage. Amal, eventually moves to America – where she becomes Amy – and lives a completely different life. This book leaves me speechless. It is so so important and so real for so many – it faces losing an identity in so many, multifaceted ways its hard to comprehend.

4. The Blue Between Sky and Water, Susan Abdulhawa 

I said that the last book hit me hard, this one hits you harder. Its pretty brutal from the start as it talks of a families run for survival in 1948 from their village of Beit Daras for a refugee camp in southern Gaza. It vividly describes rape at the hands of Israeli soldiers and the differences between the experiences of the Baraka family depending on their age and awareness. The book starts off following the family who fled to the refugee camp in Gaza before introducing Nur, a Palestinian American who ends up in Gaza to visit her family. This book has one significant difference to any others – its ‘magical’ element in the form of 10 year old Khaled who is the blue between sky and water as you hear his voice before he is born and then when he is dead. Khaled is the spiritual element that ties this book together. This book has constant surprises – it’s s complex, you just have to read it and find out for yourself. I promise you, you won’t regret a thing about it.

Susan Abdulhawa is without a doubt one of my favourite authors of all time. Her ability to bring things to life, spur the imagination and inspire you are things I have never found in another author.

5. Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie

I was incredibly confused by the blurb of this book yet it intrigued me to read it. Starting in Nagasaki, this book then goes to India, Turkey, Pakistan, New York and Afghanistan. How? Go read it and you’ll find out. This book follows various people (all of whom are intertwined in some way or another) on their journey in search of identity and belonging. Its hard to say too much about it without giving anything away. Identity and belonging is incredibly important in todays world with many refusing to accept ‘foreigners’, ‘immigrants’ or ‘refugees’ yet this book frames it so slyly yet prominently as not to hit you straight on. If you want find out about how a child, living in Pakistan that is half Japanese and half Indian ends up in Afghanistan pretending to be a Hazara in a Mujaheddin Pashto training camp, you have to read it.

6. The Orphan Masters Son, Adam Johnson 

Probably the weirdest book I’ve read in the last few years. I was drawn to it as its set in North Korea and Adam Johnson has actually been to North Korea. The book is about a North Korean intelligence officer onboard a fishing ship and everything about it makes it seem like a biography. The book follows Jun Do who grows up in an orphanage yet believes he is the son of the orphan master. The book has a strong theme of propaganda – theres a lot of government discussion – and deceit as well as identity and brutality and politics in North Korea. Yet its also very bizarre. Jun Do somehow ends up working his way up the military and ends up on a trip to America. Jun Do ends up in America because (I’m not quite sure how) he ends up impersonating the famous leader (in terms of the book) Commander Ga, a military hero and then sets up the escape from North Korea of Commander Ga’s family – the famous singer, Sun Moon and her family. Again, this book is written in such a way that you can imagine being there. How an orphan masters apparent son ends up going through all this – who knows. Its such a strange read yet pure brilliance.

The abandoned 

The Western world seem to have gained themselves a pretty decent list of people that they have abandoned. From Afghanistan, to Eritrea, to Syria, to Yemen, we are continuing to let innocent human beings down. My biggest bug bear is the fact that there are numerous atrocities occurring worldwide that are worthy of everyday news attention but they don’t get it due to fear of the audiences becoming bored or not being able to handle the truth. But why should this be the case?

The most recent situation that gets me more than others, is the situation in Syria. In December 2016, the news went through its latest phase with the country where it focused on the children of Syria – especially Aleppo – and the evacuations occurring there as the government quickly tightened its grip, regaining the Eastern parts of the city that had previously been the rebel stronghold. Yet this fad quickly came and went. So what now? Lets be frank. We in the west need to toughen up a bit. By toughen up, I mean we should read things we don’t necessarily like, we should watch things that might make us cry. Why? Because it shows humanity – humans in war zones, political crises or poverty stricken situations – it shows the truth. Once you become emotionally invested to some extent, you simply cannot let yourself walk away. You feel this responsibility or this compassion to help.

I’m not going to pretend that we’re all diplomats who can negotiate peace, or doctors who can go and help in hospitals – but we have voices don’t we? We all spend so much time on the internet, on social media – we can shout about it, we can sign petitions. We can even get off our asses and go out in the streets and shout about it. Tell our governments to make a difference, to make peoples lives count.

I’ve heard it a lot recently – most upsettingly from a Syrian boy. We were talking about Daraa, about Assad, ISIS and the horrors of the civil war. And he asked me, “why do people not care if we live or die? Is our blood cheap? Is Syrian blood cheaper than Western blood?”

Perhaps we can do something. We can at least try to make our voices heard. Make our voices the voice of those the world cannot hear or refuses to hear.

“Welcome to the land of the free”

The UK has, for some reason, a reputation of being accepting of refugees and asylum seekers. From many conversations I have had, young people often set their sites on The UK for that very reason. Yet, from my experience, and probably now from theirs, this unfortunately doesn’t seem to be true. 

Let’s roll it back….

So you’ve just jumped off a lorry (or you’ve been found by the driver, whose called the police). You’re somewhere in the UK. If you’re lucky, it was in a town or a city. If you’re unlucky, you’re on the side of a motorway. So from here, the chances are you’ve either been taken to a police station or a detention centre or, you’ve walked into a police station/ the Home Office (Croydon) to say who you are and why’re you’re here (if you have an interpreter and they actually managed to get you the right language or you already speak English, they’ll understand you). You are classified as an in country applicant – someone who claims asylum after arrival rather than a port application which is someone who claims asylum at the port of entry (i.e airport). The difference is, port of entry is legal. In country is not. The beginning part of this process can be quite blurry. Lots of people, lots of questions, not a lot of human emotion. You’re just another number.

You’ll be interviewed (known as screening interview), asked where you’re from, why you’re here etc. and be issued with a Home Office ID card. This ID card can be contentious – it’ll have your date of birth (which as I’ll discuss below, can be debated) and it’ll have your nationality – which is also debatable. One of the most common situations I have heard is among Pashto Afghans where they are taken for Pakistani. There can also be other issues for Kurds and Middle Easterns. This debate can go back and forth for a while – you might have to speak to a language specialist or try to prove where you’re from with legal documents (which can be difficult or impossible to gain). But you can’t claim asylum in the UK until you have a Home Office ID although you can continue to debate the age and nationality you have been given. Once you’ve had this discussion – whether you have been issued with a Home Office ID card or there are still areas for debate, you will be placed in housing.

Where you end up will depend on one thing – whether the authorities believe you or not. So to begin with, they could question your age. Many young people come from countries where they’ve never had passports, didn’t have the opportunity to bring their passport or it was destroyed (either by a smuggler or back home for another reason). It seems to be common practice for teenage boys from the Middle East or Asia to have their age disputed due to the fact that, quite simply we look different. Middle Eastern men and Asian men can sometimes be hairier. Not only that but a lot of the time, the horrors that young people experience on their journey to the UK undoubtedly ages them mentally. Many children see things and experience things no child should ever have to see. So, you get aged assessed. This is done with the local social services to wherever you’ve ended up in the UK and the ‘appropriate adults’. They might look at your physical appearance, ask you some questions. Yet at the end of the day, its all very subjective. Anyway, so they’ll either decide you’re the age you say you are, a different age but still under 18 or that you’re 18 or over. But hey, you probably have two birthdays now…. 1st January – Home Office Birthday!

So if you’re deemed to be under 18, you’ll be looked after by the local social services. Depending on how old you are – under 16 and you’ll be looked after by a foster carer, over 16 and you could find yourself in semi-independent living accommodation. Semi-independent is a bit like student halls except you have a key worker there who is responsible for helping you become independent. And then the waiting game begins….

You could be living in any area, with any sort of people. Some people might hate you. You’re a foreigner, you’re an immigrant, you’re here to claim their benefits. You’re not welcome here. You can however apply to go to college. Oh, and you get taken on a big clothes shop (which means more than 1 pair of clothes!). Best case scenario, you’ll be living with nice people – some people who speak your language maybe -, you’ll be in the local college or school learning English or if your English is already good, perhaps even starting your GCSEs! Your social worker and/or solicitor (that will have been given to you by the government through legal aid unless you have the money yourself for a private one) will have hooked you up with some clubs and other classes. If its not going to so well, you could be living with people who don’t speak your language, your age dispute could mean you’re not at school/college and your social worker/solicitor either doesn’t care to help you with extra curricular stuff or, more likely, doesn’t have the time to help.

The support network you have can make or break you. Simple as.

Before your substantive interview with the Home Office, you’ll be expected to sit down with your solicitor and write a statement of evidence. In between this and the long interview, you’ll be expected to report to the Home Office or a designated government office (so the government knows you’re still in the country).  Finally, the day comes round when its your long interview – if you’re under 12 you don’t have to do this) with the Home Office. Your time to tell your story and explain why you are claiming asylum. You’ll be given an interpreter – hopefully the right language/dialect – and your solicitor or social worker will have hopefully gone with you. And now you have to talk. You have to tell a cold-fronted stranger exactly why you’re in this country. You have to drag up all the horrors you ran away from. Every thing you tried so hard to escape. Everything you tried to bury. But careful, if you forget a fact, it’ll come back and bite you. You don’t feel welcome. You feel that they’re trying to catch you out. They’re trying to find a reason to say no.

It’s over. You’re exhausted – emotionally and physically. Back to the waiting game.

Now, fingers crossed – if you’re age assessment was correct, your nationality was correct and your from one of the countries on the Home Office list (or you suffered something so bad you honestly can’t go back), then congrats! You’ve got refugee status or humanitarian protection. Refugee status is based on the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees (1951) and it lasts for 5 years subject to review. Humanitarian protection is provided when an individual doesn’t meet the UN Convention criteria but it is still too dangerous to return to the country of origin and it also lasts 5 years.  Thats it. Your life is now perfect (despite the fact you miss your family, you’re mentally scarred and everything is disorientating).

If you were granted Refugee Status of Humanitarian Protection, chances are, your nationality was figured out correctly (meaning they agree you’re from where you say you are. I say this because from my experience, thats how its gone). However, if your age was disputed and you’re still disputing it, the battle may continue. You might suggest X-rays or checking teeth  – or perhaps you’re lucky enough to go to your country embassy and get documents (if its not the government you’ve run away from…).

The other option for you, as someone the government has agreed is under 18, is Discretionary Leave to Remain. This is when the Home Office doesn’t believe you require Refugee Status or Humanitarian Protection. This is also known as UASC Leave (Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children Leave). This is granted for either 3 years or until you are 17 1/2 years old, which ever is shorter. This is basically a rejection yet due to laws, the UK has a responsibility to look after children – so you can stay until you’re 18.

If you were age assessed as over 18 and refused, then bam. Nothing.

However, with UASC leave (if it is longer than 12 months) and refusals you can appeal…..

Asylum decisions are meant to be resolved within 35 days but it can take longer. Once a decision has been made, your legal representative and local authority will be informed. So, lets say, its bad news. You’ve been granted UASC leave. Yet you’re fleeing real persecution. You can’t go back there. Ever. So you’re going to appeal. The appeal system is a two tier tribunal system. If your claim is refused and you have a right of appeal, you’ll got to the Immigration and Asylum Chamber. If the appeal is refused, you can ask for permission to go to the Upper Tribunal. If this is still refused…. you can attempt to challenge the Court of Appeal. You only have 10 days to do this.

If none of this works…. you’re appeals rights exhausted. Too many people end up in this situation. Your options here become limited. You either find new evidence and ask a solicitor if you can put in a fresh claim, you wait it out until you’re 17 1/2 and see what happens or you go underground. This makes your life limbo. You’re only a teenager – as if being a teenager isn’t hard enough – and now you’re in complete limbo. You know that when you’re 18, you could be detained and sent back to the danger you fled and there is nothing you can do about it. You could have fled Albanian blood feuds or sex traffickers, you could have fled the Taliban or ISIS in Afghanistan or you could have fled ISIS/violence in Iraq. You could also be returning to that violence. The nightmares you’ve been having, the flashbacks…. could all become reality again. They didn’t want you here. You’re an immigrant, you’re not British. You’re not welcome here.

Regardless of the outcome, there are numerous other battles that young refugees/asylum seekers face in the UK.  Mental health affects young refugees/asylum seekers dramatically. The chances are, none of us can even try to comprehend the horrors. Young people suffer from being withdrawn, not being able to trust others and having constant flashbacks and nightmares of the things they have experienced. They may also feel isolated – English is a new language, England is a new culture. It isn’t an easy thing to get your head around. For young people from conservative countries, Britain is most definitely a shock. And undoubtedly, you’ll miss your family. What is your mum doing right now? How about your brother? Maybe you’ll be able to track them down (you’ve started the Family Tracing process) but theres no guarantee. Maybe it’ll be bad news.

Maybe. 

You continue, trying to live your life. Trying to build yourself a life in the UK. You read the news – they want to cut immigration. You see on FaceBook – ‘refugees aren’t welcome here’. You’ve never felt more alone. The government doesn’t want you here, the people don’t want you here. All you see is hatred.The concept that the United Kingdom is the land of the free appears in front of you as a lie. Whether you’ve been granted refugee status or you were refused, you still do not feel welcome.

This is the reality for many young people I have met. A lot of hatred is easily bred throughout social media and throughout the news. Be the change. Join the protests – tell them, refugees are welcome here. Give up your time, sign a petition. Let them know, they are welcome. Please sign the petition to campaign against the government back tracking on the Dubs amendment http://www.citizensuk.org/dubs_petition. 

Please note, nothing in this blog post is intended as legal advice. It is illegal in the UK for an unqualified individual to give immigration advice. This is simply a scenario based on a range of experiences I have been told about. There are other situations that can happen – this is not an exhaustive scenario. 

“I am human” 

A couple of days ago, I finally got round to going to see Dear Home Office – a play that has been on my mind and agenda for a long time. I know it’s only February but it was without a doubt the best thing I have done this year. Unfortunately, they performed their final show on Wednesday night but they already have plans for a second one in the Spring. Not only was it incredible to see young asylum seekers and refugees on the stage acting, speaking in a language that for most, does not come natural to them, it was incredible and so important to hear their stories. It is the first step towards defeating this narrow minded attitude we see far too often and my only wish would be for more people to see it. I probably have quite a reputation among many for my strong opinions and my lack of respect for individuals who simply do not like foreigners and have the ‘we must help people at home attitude’ before we help others. There is not a bone in my body that will let me agree with that. Let me tell you why.

Globally, there are over 60 million displaced individuals who have been forced to leave their homes due to war/violence, political, religious, ethnic or sexual persecution. It is estimated that over half of these people are children. Now, I do not believe that adults have less of a right to flee or seek asylum and live a life free of fear and persecution but I, as I’m sure many would agree, cannot and will not accept that any child should have to live a life in fear with the threat of persecution. Children are often used as pawns in political games, held ransom or exploited in various ways in conflicts or political situations globally and are therefore, often forced to flee. Many young people are sent away alone by their families. This is not an easy decision for anyone to make and I can assure you that many children do not want to leave their families but often parents want their children to have a better life and therefore send them away (using all or most the money they have been able to save) in hope of a better life in Europe.

Due to the current attitudes of western governments (and many eastern countries too), the only route is usually an ‘illegal’ route and therefore requires people smugglers. People smugglers are the pits of society. I will not hold back in calling them vulgar, ungodly beings who simply exploit vulnerable, scared individuals and treat them as commodities to get as much money out of the families of those travelling as possible. But unfortunately, due to the closed boarders and impossibility of legal entry for those travelling without documents and visas, smugglers are left as the only option. The fact that anyone actually makes it to their final destination in Europe is alone a miracle. Many of these journeys are done squeezed into tiny spaces in vehicles where there is no room to breathe or, on foot where the terrain is so rough you could quite simply fall off a cliff. And that doesn’t take into consideration the lack of food, water and sanitisation along the way. For many, its often normal to go days without any food and with minimal water – if not longer.

As if that isn’t bad enough, certain countries have reputations for shooting at ‘migrants’ making the journeys across borders. Sometimes this could be the police (Iran and Bulgaria are both known for this), whilst in other places, it could be mafia groups (such as in Turkey) who also often try to kidnap asylum seekers on their journey and hold them for ransom. Often, individuals end up in prison – beaten and starved – some are released as guards are bribed, some are released only if they pay for their return, escorted journeys. All of this is only made possible by countries desires to prevent asylum seekers and refugees seeking safety in a ‘safe’ way. Safe passages are simply not provided.

So you’ve been through all this, manage to somehow keep going (or repeat the journey you’ve made) and you’ve reached Turkey or, if you’re coming from Africa, you’ve reached Libya. You’re ready to get to Europe – to Greece or to Italy. How do you get there? A rubber dingy full of far too many people in a life jacket that is a fake that you our your family have paid more than an arm and a leg for. We have all seen on the news the tragedies that can happen on this journey. Many do not make it. Images of Aylan Kurdi drowning on the beach horrified all those with a heart. Yet since then, nothing has changed. Thousands of people have been drowning in the sea every year and nothing has changed. Do we think their blood is cheap? That because thousands of people are being murdered in the countries they came from, what does it matter if a few more die on the way to escape? I’ve said it before – the international postcode lottery is all that decides where we are. It could be me, it could be you.

So lets say you survive. You managed to hold onto that boat for dear life, you didn’t fall in and your fake life jacket didn’t let you drown. You’ve reached the shores of Europe. Now what? Trains and buses have sometimes been routes – sometimes even paid for by authorities in a hope that these people won’t settle in their country – I mean who would want such resilient, often smart foreigners anyway hey? So you battle your way through Europe, either by foot, by car, by bus or train. But where is your destination? With the rise of right wing populism, the recent Brexit vote and such a fear of ‘terrorism’ from refugees, where do you go? So many people are so scared of you – I mean they’ve never met you – but you’re foreign and you’re probably Muslim or from a majority Muslim country (which is obviously the same to them). Your smuggler has got you to mainland Europe, each time you get a country further, your smuggler gets more money from your family back home or from you (potentially you’ll have had to do some god-awful work for months in order to pay them along the way) so they’re going to take you to the UK. Yep, the furthest possible place they can think of in Europe. Thats lots of money for them. What a great idea! You don’t know a lot about England – perhaps the football teams, they play cricket and they speak English.

You reach Calais. Theres thousands of others waiting there too. Your told you have to wait to jump on the back of a lorry. You have no idea how long you could be waiting. You thought your wait in Turkey, in Greece was long – those months waiting, scared, nervous to finish your journey. You’re so close. Yet so far. You could be stuck here for a year, maybe longer. Finally, you get the call to go. The latest smuggling agent has found you a lorry to jump on. Its a giant freezer. It could kill you but its the only chance you have.

The next day, you wake up. You’re almost frozen but you’ve done it. You’re in the UK. Next step….. The bureaucratic asylum system. You become a number, your name, your age, your story – does anyone care?

But you are human. Just like me, just like anyone.

On Wednesday 8th February, the British government further let down young unaccompanied asylum seekers as it back tracked on its promise to take in thousands of refugees under the Dubs agreement. The actual figure appears to be around the 350 mark.To stand against government back tracks on helping young refugees and asylum seekers, please sign the following petition http://www.citizensuk.org/dubs_petition

To see information on Dear Home Office: @WeArePhosphoros 

Forgotten States: Kurdistan

Kurdistan – a nation that, in theory, does not exist but many call home. The region sits between four nations; Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. It has been estimated that there are around 30 million Kurds, many of whom feel persecuted and stateless. So why do we hear so little about them – other than their fight against Islamic State?

Iraqi Kurds successfully set up their own autonomous government recognised by the constitution in 2005 with Irbil as their capital. The Kurds of Iran do not have anywhere near as good situation as Iraq yet they do tend to all live in the same region – Kordestan. In Syria, the Kurds make up a good 10-15% of the population (the largest minority) who predominantly hold the region of Rojava and have been vital in the conflict against Islamic State. Last of all, is the Kurds of Turkey – the governments enemies. There is little desire to be kind to the Kurds by the Turkish government which often results to attacks and bombings by the PKK, a group banned in Turkey. It has also be reported that Turkey has fought against the Kurds in Syria.

Again, I knew very little about the Kurds until I met many of them – mainly from Iraq and Iran both of whom left for very different reasons. There is no doubt that being Kurdish is not easy – the desire for self determination (that was almost reality after World War II) and equal rights in a state that doesn’t especially want to give you either. Yet the experience of Kurds within different state boundaries appears to be quite different. Up until the intensifying of the fight from Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and their severe persecution of the Kurds, many more young Iraqi Kurds have made the treacherous journey to Europe. Yet, on the flip side, the Kurds seemed to have gained more ground and control in their fight back against Islamic State. Nevertheless, there is little doubt its been easy.

In Iran, the situation is very different. There is no conflict, no fight against Islamic State but there is repression, severe repression. Iran is not particularly nice to its minority groups – such as the Kurds – with many being discriminated against. They are often prevented from gaining employment, accessing housing, playing a role in mainstream politics and often have their civil, cultural and political rights curtailed and those who speak out against such repression are often imprisoned with potential of facing death  (as stated by Amnesty International). On top of that, certain Kurdish groups within Iran have a particularly difficult time due to their religion as Sunni Muslims – not Shia. Iran has a strict regime for normal Shia Muslim citizens let alone for Sunni Kurds leaving little surprise that many young Iranian Kurds are left to flee their homelands for the ‘safety’ of Europe.

The situation in Syria and Turkey is, of course, difficult too. It is common knowledge that Syrian civilians have been leaving their homeland en masse due to the bloody civil war that is entering its sixth year. Syrian Kurds have had a tough role to play in this conflict too but unlike the Kurds in other regions, their flight from their homelands has been less obvious. They had a long a bloody battle against Islamic State in Kobane, as well as playing a vital role in Northern Aleppo and Raqqa to name but a few. They have fought and continue to fight an intense conflict against evil. In Turkey – repression against Kurds is very real and undoubtedly plays a leading role as to why they have been refused EU membership amongst other things. The conflict between the Kurds and Turkey has been going on for almost 40 years as the Kurds push for a state or, at least, an autonomous region. Kurdish insurgency groups, especially the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) have been part of an armed struggle with the Turkish government since the 1980s. The Turkish government have been accused of curtailing Kurdish human rights in numerous ways – whether by arrests, murders, torture, destroying villages – you name it – but the accusations work both ways. Turkey has been experiencing a high level of suicide bombings and attacks over the last few years with Islamic State and Kurdish insurgents taking responsibility.

To summarise, the Kurds have been neglected. After World War Two, there were two peoples who lost. The Kurds and the Palestinians. The Palestinian fight for self determination often features in the news in some form or another but the Kurds (other than those fighting ISIS) go largely ignored. Kurds are often systematically abused by their host nations and its about time their desire and right to self determination was put back on the table making Kurdistan a real state, not a forgotten one.

 

 

Forgotten States: Albania

Albania is a state pretty much everyone has heard of yet no one seems to know anything about. From my experience, all I ever hear of is people complaining about Albanian immigrants and ‘their way of thinking’ or ‘doing’ but there is no discussion as to the politics or nature of that country that these people have left behind. Along with Eritrea, Albania is one of the highest nationalities of young asylum seeking children in the UK. When I first worked with asylum seekers and refugees, it truly surprised me. I mean, theres no war, theres no conflict – or not that I know about reported in the news – so what are they doing here?

There are two simple answers to that: trafficking and blood feuds. Albania has had a rather turbulent past, even since the regime change from communism to democracy in 1990 but little of that has been documented by the media. To begin with – blood feuds. Blood feuds are a medieval tradition that affect perhaps hundreds of families in Albania each year – if not more. These feuds can derive from the most trivial situations – lovers stories, neighbours clashes to political debates. And it is nothing short of cold, brutal murder. They simply murder each other. The blood feuds are known as ‘kanun’ a tribal code dating back to the 15th Century basically meaning ‘spilled blood must be met with spilled blood’. This may perhaps be a shock to those who consider Albania to be a European country, NATO member and potential EU member in the future. This lawless tradition is something the government of Albania has failed to control and often refuses to accept as an issue, despite the fact that it results in thousands of families sending their children abroad. It is therefore of little surprise that Albania consistently sits in the top 10 nationalities of those seeking asylum in the UK.

The other issue facing Albanians, especially young Albanians is trafficking. Albanians have  long been victims of trafficking, mainly in the form of slavery and sexual exploitation. Often the ‘slavery’ involves criminal activities and forced labour – often on building sites. This trafficking is not limited to young people (women are largely affected too) but it undoubtedly has the greatest impact on them. For decades, young people have been trafficked to Western Europe, sometimes with the victim’s families being complicit in supporting the traffickers, other times by employing threats. The Albanian government and police force appears to be unable to control the situation. Once young people are in the  UK, they are often unable to tell anyone or escape from their traffickers due to the severity of threats they receive. Even once young people build up the courage to tell someone and receive support from government services and charities, the threat from traffickers often remains. The lucky ones who manage to escape the horror of trafficking, slavery or sexual exploitation are often then faced with new challenges.

Despite the atrocities that young Albanians face – making it completely understandable as to why they often claim asylum in the UK – most are often refused asylum. According to the Refugee Council, Albania has appeared in the top 8 child asylum seeking seeking producing nations in the world. In 2015, only 1 young unaccompanied asylum seeking child was given refugee status, 8 were given discretionary leave to remain, 288 were given UASC leave and 143 were straight up refused (British Council, 2015). The government has a policy that all those under 17 1/2 have to be given some sort of protection in the UK until they are 18 years old when they can be returned to their home country. It can be presumed that the 143 that were refused were perhaps age disputed and it was decided the were over 18. That means, one can make the assumption that in 2015, out of all young Albanian asylum seekers (440 in total), 1, yes 1, received refugee status.

We cannot be blind to the system and to the nature of human beings in the world. There are always those who try to cheat the system in some way or another but 2015 was not a stand out year for refusals of Albanians. 2015 was an example of how Albanian asylum applications are treated every year. Young Albanians are often running from death or escaping slavery or sexual exploitation. Yet we prevent this escape becoming permanent – all to keep our immigration figures down.