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. 

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“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 

Dear Donald….

Donald Trump is someone I’m sure we would all rather not have to talk about. I for one wish I did not have to waste my time thinking about the man, let alone let him bring me to writing about him. But it has become unavoidable. It’s time to face the man at the forefront of post-truthism. The concept of a Mexican Wall was bad enough, his so called ‘pro-life’ anti-abortion stance was bad enough. Yet for me, the final straw was his treatment of nationals from those seven particular countries. That sir, was one step too far.

As a proactive campaigner for refugees rights (and as someone who works weekly with refugees and asylum seekers), Donald Trump’s proclamation of banning the entry of anyone from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia is an utter disgrace and outrage. Not only is it completely pointless when we come to America’s favourite subject – terrorism, its damn right obnoxious and heartless. So lets take a step back. ‘Terrorists’ that America seems to constantly be so scared about (despite the fact that you’re probably more likely to get shot by your toddler with the gun you casually keep in your house) have tended to be from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Surprise, surprise they’re not on the list. Of course, we must prevent ‘Islamic Terror’ unless they’re from a country that we’re so reliant on being friends with (I mean oil, hello). Therefore, for Trump to claim this ban to be because of so-called ‘terrorist’ threats is absurd. Yes Islamic State are real but over 90% of the people who have been killed by them are Muslim. In Syria or Iraq. You know, the ones who want to flee to safety?

Second of all, conflict, terror or human rights abuses significantly affect all the states that Trump has taken issue with. Syria and Yemen are both in the midsts of deadly civil wars that appear to have no end in sight. Sudan has experienced political turmoil for as long as can be remembered with past genocides, sectarian issues and human rights abuses. Somalia – after escaping war, has seen itself divulged into a fight against Al Shabab (an offshoot of Al Qaeda). And Libya. Libya, Libya. After overthrowing Qaddafi, has seen itself in civil war as well as fighting off an offshoot of Islamic State. Last of all, Iran. Iran might not have an issue with civil war but the human rights abuses are unreal. Kurds, women, Sunnis, Bahai. You name it.

All because they’re Muslim? Some might be Christian, Jewish, Bahai. Is that even relevant?

So now lets get real. There are millions of people displaced globally right now. Estimates put half of them as children. Yet ‘the land of the free’ calls them ‘terrorists’, or people who are not worthy of being safe or free from oppression. Yet Donald Trump gets up on his high horse proclaiming that he is ‘pro-life’. PRO WHOS LIFE? You don’t care about the millions of people across the globe, persecuted, shot down, struggling to get by. Many of them who have seen their only families die behind their own eyes. Families who send their kids for safety in hope of giving them the future they could never have.

But we will not be silent. The world will not sit back and watch one vulgar human being treat humanity like this. We will not rest until justice is served. We must not rest until humanity is free and these borders that are nothing short of social constructions are destroyed. We are all human beings. We are all one. This is not about politics, this is about humanity. And anyone who cares about humanity will shout until there is no need to shout anymore.

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.