One image has brought home the scale of the tragedy unfolding in Europe. It’s of a small lifeless body on a Turkish beach. The 3-year-old boy drowned as he and his family, fleeing the war in Syria, attempted to reach Greece. This one image has sparked international outrage and piled even more pressure on European leaders to do more to help the refugees flooding into their continent.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, in particular, is taking a lot of heat. Unlike Germany, the United Kingdom has not yet thrown open its doors to the refugees. That may change on Friday though when the prime minister is expected to make a special announcement on the issue. So how has the U.K. handled the issue of asylum in the past?
Abdal Albashir, a 32-year-old from Sudan who’s lived in Britain for more than a decade, is not surprised at the British government’s reluctance to admit many more refugees. Albashir was not exactly welcomed with open arms when he claimed asylum after arriving in London in 2003; he says he was tortured in Sudan because of his political activities. But his claim was for asylum was rejected, and he’s spent the last decade in and out of British detention centers for resisting deportation. He says he feels he’s worse off because he sought a safe haven in the U.K.
Ben Du Preez
“Comparing the two experiences of being physically tortured in Sudan and being detained in the U.K., I’d rather have the physical torture than the misery of British detention. You never know when it will end. It’s left me with depression, panic attacks and nightmares,” he says.
If it’s worse in Britain, why not go back to Sudan?
“I would love to get out of the U.K. as soon as possible,” he insists. “But I can’t do that. I would have to return to Sudan, and my life would be in real danger.”
Ben du Preez at Detention Action, a charity that works with and supports migrants in detention in the U.K., argues that Albashir’s experience is all too common. He claims that 32,000 foreigners seeking a safe haven or simply looking for a better life are detained as illegal immigrants every year in the U.K. That’s more than in any other country in Europe other than Greece, an approach which du Preez describes as “repressive” and “inhumane.”
The U.K. has tightened up its immigration and asylum rules in recent years as the government has responded to public anxiety about a huge influx of economic migrants. Tony Smith — the former head of Britain’s Border Agency — points out that some research has suggested that the population of the U.K., a relatively small and densely populated country, could grow by one-third to 80 or 85 million people within the next 20 or 30 years, largely as a result of immigration.
“The government promised the voters to crackdown on the influx,” he says. “So tough measures are fair enough. It is the will of the people.”
Britain may seem hardhearted, flintily refusing to admit many more refugees, but this is not the whole picture; there are plenty of British people rooting for migrants, and the U.K. can be very welcoming. There’s even a series of annual awards aimed specifically at the incomers.
Cynthia Masiyiwa, winner of the Young Refugee of the Year title in 2013, arrived in Britain 10 years ago. She was 15 and on her own, fleeing political violence in her native Zimbabwe. Her claim for asylum was eventually accepted, she became a citizen and now regards England as her home.
“I’ve grown up here, I’ve attended education here, I’ve worked here, gone to university here. This is where my foundations are, this is where my business is, this is where my career is progressing,” she says.
Masiyiwa now runs a brand design consultancy with her husband, and she owns a small catering firm, as well as working full-time for Citizens UK, a charity that helps migrants find employment. Although she found her new life in Britain a struggle at first, Masiyiwa now enthuses about her adoptive country.
“England is a land of growth, a land of opportunities, especially for young people. I absolutely love it.”
The Confederation of British Industry, a business lobby, has attacked the government’s immigration crackdown, claiming that it could deprive Britain of much needed foreign talent and energy.
Cameron has so far refused to loosen the controls, but the humanitarian crisis in Europe may well force him to relent. Cameron is under huge pressure to at least open the door to more desperate refugees; a government announcement is expected on Friday.
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