By Sabir Zazai, Coventry Refugee & Migrant Centre, CEO
Don’t only take my word for it. There are many examples of people who have come to these islands fleeing conflict and human rights violations, who have rebuilt their lives whilst making vital contributions to our communities.
And one of them is a remarkable young man called Gulwali Passarlay, who arrived in the UK at the age of 12 from Afghanistan.
I first met Gulwali online on Facebook. We have since become good friends. I have closely followed his activities online and had the opportunity to hear him talk in April this year, when he kindly agreed to speak at the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre’s Annual General Meeting (AGM).
Gulwali has also written his biography, The Lightless Sky. He kindly gave me a signed copy of the book at the AGM, which I have just had the pleasure to finish reading.
The book describes the struggles of a young man growing up through the tragedies of a terrible conflict, his perilous flight to safety, and the complexities of finding a way through the often byzantine asylum system in the UK. It highlights how war shatters lives, separates families and undermines the dignity and aspirations of children, while also providing a stark reminder about the importance of social connections and role of integration support services.
I’ll admit that at some points the book wasn’t an easy read for me; it made me cry.
The story mirrors that of mine and many others I have been working with at Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre. It is a monologue of anecdotes highlighting the courage, resilience and struggles many refugees endure in their search for safety.
My favourite or most tragic part is when Gulwali says farewell to his family. It took me back to the time when I had to say goodbye to my family, one of the most difficult experiences of my life. At the same time, the book was therapeutic, taking me through a journey that I had also experienced. As a former refugee and as someone now working with refugees, I have come to realise that every refugee has a powerful story; however it takes real courage to tell the story. Through this book, Gulwali has shown that courage and has not shied away from telling it as it is for many children stuck in dreadful situations.
I would strongly recommend the book to anyone on the right, centre or left of the asylum and immigration debate. It will definitely challenge your understanding.
Moving on to Gulwali, here is a brilliant young man full of enthusiasm to make a difference for the most vulnerable. He is always on the move, speaking at schools, faith organisations and community centres, whilst responding to national and international issues affecting refugees. He shows relentless energy and generously gives his time to things that others may be paid thousands to do.
I believe the UK is richer having people like Gulwali, who despite experiencing the dreadful traumas of the conflict, the journey and the asylum system still works hard with a big smile on his face. All of us could learn from his resilience and positive attitude. In a relatively short period of time, he has achieved so much and has helped in changing many perceptions through his talks. He is one great example of how refugees can play an active role in enriching our society, and his story has inspired so many to act. Unfortunately it has failed to inspire in one place, and that is the UK Home Office. The culture of disbelief means that we continue to detain people like Gulwali. Our policies make them homeless and destitute and even when they have done everything to integrate, they are never accepted.
Despite this, it is important to remember that we all have the potential to enable thousands more people like Gulwali to rebuild their lives. It just requires a change in policy.
I recently had the pleasure to talk to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, where we discussed the barriers and restrictions in our asylum and immigration system that make life difficult for people seeking sanctuary.
Through the deliberations I learnt that some progress has been made but not much has changed.
We still detain people with no time limit and routinely detain refugees over months and years; a practice that cost the public purse £380 million. Indefinite detention is dehumanising for refugees.
There is also a two tier system in place that treats refugees fleeing almost similar conflicts in different ways, and mostly with distrust. The recent changes introduced through the asylum and immigration bill means that most people will end up being destitute, and this gets even worse when vulnerable groups such as children and mothers are involved.
Complicating matters further is the fact that once people are granted status, we only give these people 28 days for the transition from having Home Office support to finding a home and means to pay for it. These people also face extortionate immigration fees. For instance, the fee for naturalisation rose from £200 in year 2005 to £1282 in year 2017. How many of us can save that much, especially when we are going through the complexities of integration and trying to find a dignified income?
Finally, there are no safe routes for people to be reunited with family members already in the UK, and a clear lack of wellbeing services to help refugees overcome their traumas and restarting building their lives.
All of this forces those fleeing war, directly into poverty and it’s unacceptable.
The world is currently grappling with one of its worst displacement crises in recorded history. There are over 65 million people forced to flee their homes, with almost 50% of these women and children. In the face of this sad reality, our policies have become more restrictive at a time when people need our protection the most.
We need to bring humanity and dignity in our asylum system. I won’t argue that we don’t need some form of official system to process asylum cases, but we need an integration strategy that works for all and fulfils our moral and practical obligations to those in need of our protection.
For those of us in a position of influence we need to create a system Britain can be proud of; to achieve this, we require strong political will.
20th July 2017