This week, 20–26 June, is refugee week. From my own experience I know how scary it can feel when you have to seek refuge in another country. The journeys many refugees make to get here are terrifying and traumatic, and then when you arrive and face the system here you can feel hopeless – like it was all for nothing. If I had been told when I arrived that I might be sent to Rwanda, I don’t know what I would have done.
The decision by the ECHR to prevent last week’s deportation flight to Rwanda was welcome. It also feels like people are waking up to the cruelty of the system. It seems like even people who don’t normally care about this issue feel the government has gone too far, and stories about the abuse of the asylum seekers on their way to the plane have been reported nationally.
The fact that all this happened just the week before Refugee Week makes my role as a Refugee Week ambassador even more important. I aim to raise awareness – not just about the huge trauma asylum seekers carry, or of the cruelty in the system – but about the humanity of every person who tries to make this country their home.
During my time as a refugee and refugee advocate, I have met many people in similar positions and listened to their stories. More than anything else I would urge people to understand that every human being is incredible in their own way. It’s time to see the people seeking sanctuary here as humans, not just as refugees.
Being a refugee in the UK
When it was announced that I would be a Refugee Week ambassador and there was media coverage of my own story, a Twitter user decided the best response to the announcement was to post a Daily Mail article about Afghan asylum seekers who had been found guilty of rape. It’s something I’ve seen before, something I’ve been told before.
Once when I was travelling in Scotland with a British friend, someone asked her why she was travelling with “this terrorist”. I was new to the country then, and it really hurt. Now, it still hurts, but I’m not surprised.
For years, people in the UK have been told we are rapists, thieves, scroungers, and terrorists and so it is no wonder that some people are very happy to see a plane full of ‘illegals’ being sent far away, or say that one plane is not enough. But I’m here to tell you, by sending these asylum seekers away, and by keeping others in detention centres, and preventing those living in the community from working and contributing – this country is missing out.
Good people waiting years for asylum decisions
One dear friend of mine is waiting for his asylum decision. This means he is not recognized as a refugee, so he cannot work, and worries he will be deported and his family separated. He’s here with his father, and they both came ‘illegally’ as there are no safe and legal ways out of Iran if you belong to a persecuted ethnic minority. My friend is studying and living on around £40 a week. He is an actor but cannot be paid until he gets asylum and permission to work. But he volunteers in every bit of free time he has, supporting other young people through a few different charities. He’s a really good guy.
Another person I know came from Kuwait because LGBTQ+ activity is illegal in Kuwait. She came here ‘illegally’ because it wasn’t possible to get a visa. Now she’s studying, volunteering in the LGBT community, and waiting for her asylum decision.
I know a woman who came from Nigeria who had to leave when it became unsafe for her to live there for political and religious reasons. She was a doctor there. She had to come here ‘illegally’ because she didn’t have any papers at all and needed to flee urgently. She brought all her qualification certificates with her, but they are not recognized in the UK.
When I met her, she had been waiting for her asylum decision for nine years. She was in a bad way, missing her children who she had hoped to bring to the UK and living in poverty. She could have given the NHS nine years of service by then. I haven’t heard from her in a long time – she was relocated to Wales and everyone lost contact with her.
These are just a few examples of the people I know who could make a real difference in this country if they were given a chance.
The country is missing out
You probably know or know of many refugees, even if you didn’t know they came here that way. The popstars Dua Lipa and Rita Ora both fled the conflict in Kosovo in the 1990s, around the same time as the actor Ncuti Gatwa came from Rwanda. Sir Mo Farah, one of our most celebrated sportspeople, came here after fleeing conflict in Somalia. And, if a knight isn’t British enough for you, your very own Duke of Edinburgh was once a child refugee and didn’t get his British citizenship until he married the Queen!
So, when I think of the people who may be sent to Rwanda, I can’t help thinking of the future singers, actors, sportspeople, doctors, architects, engineers that we will never get to know. There could even be a future politician or royal family member on that flight – you never know! What I do know is that pretty much all of them will be special to someone, often somewhere far away. We don’t need to be remarkable to deserve a safe place to live.
My main message to you, this Refugee Week, is that you shouldn’t just see these people as refugees – see them as human beings. And every human being is incredible in their own way, and deserving of love, dignity, and respect.
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