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Opinion

We need to welcome refugees, not deter them

In the new Big Issue, we explore the reality of life for refugees in the UK. The crisis of displaced people is no longer one that can be politicised

This special refugees edition is not just a response to the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. Though the terrors faced by so many there have focused minds on the necessity of welcoming people from some of the worst imaginable situations.

The debate around refugees and those seeking asylum has been particularly pronounced this year. The current Westminster government has managed to turn up resentment towards those in need, while moralising about doing the right thing for voters in Britain. Home Secretary Priti Patel has been keen to “deter” refugees. She laid down why she wanted to encourage asylum seekers to stop at the first safe nation they encountered rather than carrying on their treacherous journey to the UK. The subtext is clear – those people are on the make.

They could go somewhere else but choose to come to Britain because, clearly, we’re soft-touch. It’s a straw man argument. Pretty much every other major European nation offered more first-nation refuge by a considerable factor compared to Britain. On a global level we’re not pulling our weight.

An argument levelled frequently at asylum seekers and refugees is that they’re happy to get into Britain, get money and housing and sit back, cigar lit, high on the hog. It’s a particularly dangerous mindset at present.

As the stories and testimonies in this edition prove, need knows no border

This edition is about presenting the reality and the truth. We wanted unfiltered details from those who had been refugees, fleeing for their lives, those who were inside the system and those who are through it now. A clear motif emerges. It is not asylum seekers’ desire to avoid work. Rather at every turn, when any opportunity presents itself, they pursue it. In a number of these testimonies we see a hard-wired need to prove their value. And this despite the fact of what being a refugee means, of leaving everything behind.

“Being a refugee is not a choice. It’s something imposed upon you,” says Gulwali Passarlay, a young man who, at 12 years old, fled the Taliban, spending a year on travelling thousands of miles to attempt to start again. He is our youngest-ever subject for A Letter To My Younger Self. He has already packed more into his life than most of us could do in three lifetimes.

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The government’s decision to bring 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan is welcome. But it’s not clear where that number comes from. Why not more? The crisis of displaced people is no longer one that can be politicised. We can no longer “deter”. We should feel a responsibility to help those who are helpless. The west messed up in Afghanistan. We have turned away from Syria. As climate change makes parts of the world uninhabitable, are we going to turn away from the needs of those people too?

It’s not enough to argue that we can’t afford it because we need to help those in need at home first. Let’s help both. As the stories and testimonies in this edition prove, need knows no border.

Our doors must be open.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue
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