At the age of 13, Nas Popalzai landed on British shores. Freed from the shackles of the Afghan Taliban, an arduous journey through Turkey, Greece, Italy and France at the behest of smugglers had led him to the final destination. An echo of the Windrush generation half a century earlier, British streets paved with gold provided the opportunity for Nas to finally live free of persecution. “I don’t mind any job for the first few months, but later I want to be a firefighter”, Nas tells us in our interview. After saving a young girl who fell down an oven used to cook chapati in his earlier years, Nas saw this as his route to giving back to the British state in this land of promise and opportunity.
9 years later, this idyllic image that many accompanies many refugees has faded. He remained an asylum seeker for his first decade in England, waiting for refugee status. The Home Office tried to twist his case to unearth the flaws they needed to send him back to Afghanistan. Yet still, Nas has thrived; now a conversational English speaker despite receiving no formal education before the age of 13, he even managed to extinguish a fire in a pizza shop. But Nas’s case is the epitome of the downright failure of the British refugee system. 57% of asylum seekers are housed in the poorest third of the country, where the fewest opportunities for them exist – deemed a “deeply unfair shambles” by Home Office Select Committee Chairman, Yvette Cooper. The dream vision of Britain is but a mirage; and having come from corrupt, bloody and broken backgrounds, the intense bureaucracy and discrimination in British society is a reflection of our failure to meet the basic rights of humankind.
Britain had 121,837 refugees on its shores at the end of 2017, yet 40,365 asylum cases are still pending – awaiting the bleak possibility of deportation to the dangers of their homeland. This pales in comparison to the world scale – 68.5 million people have fled their homes, more than the entire population of our island. We are living through the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war. As Latin American violence explodes, Middle Eastern conflicts persists and African civil wars rage, citizens are left with little choice but to seek safety in faraway lands.
Britain’s de facto refugee stance under May has been to support refugees in the first safe country they reach, rather than welcoming them to the British mainland. Yet this is a dangerous move. Refugees are left stranded in safer neighbouring countries, which are often too poor and unstable to support the population influx. Amnesty International reported that 70,000 Somali refugees in Kenya have been pressured to return since 2014 – as a nation of poverty itself, Kenya does not have the resources to sustain the refugee numbers. Britain does.
Amidst the furore of the alt-right that Britain cannot afford to welcome the world’s neediest with open arms, at just 0.25% of the total population an increase in refugee numbers would be a minor burden on the budget deficit. And our treatment of these individuals, who have come to rebuild their lives from the wreckage of destruction, has been a national shambles. Nas was housed with a foster family in Coventry when he arrived as a teenager; and whilst he says that they did provide support through his first month, placing a foreign child with an alcoholic foster mother is a failure of care by the system.
Above all, to truly enter into British society, migrants must navigate the rough waves of the British legal system. This maze of confusion within the Home Office has resulted in low rates of acceptance, with 41% of asylum cases rejected in 2016. Often recounted by asylum seekers as a hostile process, this interrogation by British officials is a sharp contrast to the vision of an outward Britain, welcoming the world’s poorest. And despite the shame of Nas’s ordeal, he can be considered lucky – 71 children were locked up in detention centres in 2016. The Windrush generation were fooled by the streets paved with gold; half a century on, British attitudes remain unchanged.
And whilst Nas has made a success of his time in Britain, past scars still remain. We carried out the GHQ-12 with Nas, a psychological test to assess mental wellbeing. Scored out of 36, a score above 12 is considered to indicate poor mental health. Nas scored 24. Despite coming across as a sociable, happy and positive, this example reflects the deep trauma that refugees have been through and which we must provide care for – an area of the NHS which is chronically underfunded.
They do not deserve this. As the Arab Spring unfolded, a wave of chaos was unleashed across the Middle East that created a myriad of stories all to similar to that of Mr Popalzai. His village was seized by the Taliban. His father was the first victim – “one night they came and took him” he tells us, never to be seen again. His brother and sister followed a similar fate. Nas was taken for 5 to 6 days at a time by the Madrasah people to train as a suicide bomber; instead of following his dream of extinguishing fires, he was being forced to ignite them. As the sole survivor of his dynasty, Nas hoped to reignite the hope in his life which had all but dissipated in his native Afghanistan. Britain could have capitalised on this hope; allowing Nas to become a tax-paying, law-abiding citizen contributing his share to the British economy, and saving lives as a fireman. But Britain didn’t. Thousands of wasted talents, barred from British employment, are left sitting idle at home. Brexiteers often complain of the unwillingness of migrants to accept the job opportunities provided to them; but in reality, it is the other way around.
This negative attitude does not end at the Channel; it has spread across the globe. Trump’s first Presidential controversy was over his ban on immigrants from 7 Muslim countries, to the raucous applause of American supporters. Merkel welcomed over a million into Germany, an echo to the 10 million individuals who fled the Deutschland when the Nazi regime collapsed. Yet her openness to the world resulted in her closure from her party; after 14 years at the helm of Europe’s largest power, this will be Merkel’s last. Austria, Italy and Hungary have followed similar fates, as the nationalist right rises to the forefront of global politics. This force sweeping across the globe has made the current environment for refugees even more hostile than that which Nas faced a decade ago.
And yet whilst the political wave is turning its back on the world’s neediest, ambitious young startups are springing to the forefront. The Gateway – a student run organisation at Warwick University – provides training workshops and employment opportunities for refugees in the local area, helping them to assimilate into society. Free from the political stranglehold of the Brexiteers, individual aspiring efforts such as this can together create a sizeable impact, softening the hard landing that asylum seekers face all too often.
We live in a world where money can move freely around the globe, yet people are chained to where they are born. The world has begun to wake up; following Nas’s interview for his right to remain in the UK, over 10,000 signed a petition in support – and at the time of writing, his refugee status has finally been achieved. But this achievement masks the years of discrimination, interrogation and uncertainty that refugees across our country face. And with the nationalist right continuing their march to power, we must fight for the most vulnerable in our world before it is too late.