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Ex-child refugee says UK is going backwards on migrant rights: 'Politicians have blood on their hands'

'I came across in a lorry, it was dangerous. I could have lost my life. But I never imagined I’d see small boats crossing the English Channel,' says Afghan refugee Gulwali Passarlay

gulwali passarlay, refugee, afghanistan

Misinformation about migrants and refugees in the UK is rife. So how much do you know? Try this quiz Gulwali Passarlay gives to pupils when he visits schools. See how many you can get right.

1) Asylum seekers…

A) …have moved to another country for safety, have asked the government for permission to stay and are waiting for a decision. B) …come to the UK for jobs, housing and benefits. C) …are mostly illegal. D) …are the same as refugees.

2) Asylum seekers…

A) …would like to work but don’t have the right qualifications and experience. B) …are not allowed to work. C) …are too lazy to work. D) …take all our jobs.

3) Most of the world’s refugees move to...

A) …the UK and Europe. B) …Canada and America. C) …Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

4) The UK hosts…% of the world’ s refugees

A) 14% B) 46% C) 33% D) 64% E) 1% F) 23%

5) Approximately how many people left the UK in 2022?

A) 80,000. B) 130,000. C) 210,000. D) 550,000

6) Can you name any famous refugees?

(The answers are at the bottom of this story, so keep reading).

Passarlay came to the UK as a child. He fled Afghanistan in 2006, when he was 12, and the Taliban tried to recruit him and his brother. His journey through Asia and Europe took him to the UK, where he lived with a foster family in Bolton.

“My experience was terrible, but I have seen no improvement whatsoever in the protection that we provide, the safety,” says Passarlay. “It’s about dehumanisation, how do we criminalise people”.

After gaining refugee status, and now citizenship, he combines working as an author with advocating for refugee rights. His days often consist of interviews, visits to schools and regular contact with those seeking sanctuary in the UK. Passarlay is clear: we’re going backwards.

“Things weren’t great in 2007, but now it’s a lot worse. It’s very upsetting. That’s why I am doing what I’m doing, campaigning and advocating.”

“There is so much misinformation out there, there are so many lies. Politicians and media do a very good job in creating this fear.”

For an example of the misinformation, think about the £8m daily hotel bill touted by the government. Reducing this bill, the government repeatedly says, will benefit the taxpayer.

The consequence of doing so has been homelessness among newly-recognised refugees and asylum seekers being moved away from communities where they’ve established support networks. 

But there’s a catch: the government’s spending on asylum hotels goes towards the foreign aid budget. And so it follows that cutting that spending doesn’t necessarily mean extra money for domestic services – the implication of government promises to reduce this bill.

Arriving in the UK after the Taliban tried to use his father’s killing by US forces as a recruiting tool, it took Passarlay five years to become recognised as a refugee and 14 years to get citizenship. He went to uni, did a masters and published The Lightless Sky, detailing his experience as a child refugee. In 2021, he reflected on his story for The Big Issue’s Letter to My Younger Self. The situation now is more extreme.

“I came across in a lorry, it was dangerous. I could have lost my life. I was in the back of a refrigerated truck. But I never imagined I’d see small boats crossing the English Channel,” he says.

“This is happening because of our policies and laws. So the more you make it harder, the more you try to deter people without providing an alternative, sadly people will die. I don’t use this word lightly, but the British politicians have blood on their hands.”

He contrasts his experience to what is happening now with the UK’s efforts to grant safety to Afghans after the resurgence of the Taliban. “The Afghan resettlement scheme is a joke, it’s in name only. Only a few thousand people have come through it, and you can’t apply for it. You have to be somehow selected,” says Passarlay. In total, 7,000 individuals have arrived in the UK since Operation Pitting – the mass evacuation in 2021 hailed as the biggest since the Berlin Airlift – finished. Overall, 12,865 individuals have been granted leave to remain under the scheme.

The government has admitted some flaws in its administration of the scheme – it is looking again at the cases of the “Triples”, commandos trained by the UK, but in some cases denied relocation, after conceding some may have been wrongly denied sanctuary.

Meanwhile, thousands of Afghans granted UK visas have been stuck in Pakistan, with the government chartering planes in October 2023 to speed up the arrivals.

In the context of the burden placed on the UK, he says, it’s a poor effort. “We host less than 1% of the world’s refugees. There are more than 100 million refugees,” he says. A conversation around ‘record’ net migration to the UK in 2022 often leaves out details around the Ukraine war, international students, and increasing numbers of refugees from global conflicts.

“We need to be focusing on the moral obligation and legal obligation that we have under international law and international mechanisms. We need to be sharing this burden and this responsibility.

“I definitely think the West, particularly Britain, has not only betrayed and abandoned Afghans, but they have actually failed us.”

And once granted refugee status, they are falling prey to the homelessness crisis affecting thousands refugees in the UK.

“A lot of Afghans I knew, or people I know, are granted refugees status – which is a very positive thing, because it took five years to get mine and so I was very pleased for them to get it within a few months – but then they were homeless,” he says.

There is a bind for refugees: they are expected to do the ‘jobs nobody else will do’, but the reality is these jobs do not pay enough to secure accommodation and stop them being a so-called “burden” – a charge often levelled at those seeking safety in the UK. There is also a Catch-22: without accommodation, it is harder to secure a job. But without a job, the upfront payments to rent are often out of reach.

“People want to work for their own self esteem, they don’t want to be dependent on the state, they don’t want to live on £5.60 a day, they don’t want to be a burden,” Passarlay says.

Then there is Rwanda, the scheme which has not seen a single flight leave. Passarlay points out the doublespeak at its heart: “This idea that one, it’s a deterrent, but it’s also an amazing country, you can’t have it both ways.” 

“What happens if people are not deterred? What is your end game?” Passarlay asks, saying asylum seekers will end up in limbo in hotels and on barges.

It all feeds into a growing, unfriendly climate – the hostile environment calcifying. “They give this impression that it’s all the fault of asylum seekers and refugees,” he says.

“There used to be a system of criminalisation and dehumanisation, but now it’s officially in laws.”

“These are human beings, come on, let’s treat them as human beings and help and support them as much as we can.”

And by way of answers: 1) A, 2) B, 3) C, 4) E, 5) D.

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