By Mark Goldring, Director, Asylum Welcome
It’s five years since I was last in Yemen, but there are scenes I remember like yesterday. An orphaned teenage girl, the sole carer of her disabled sibling, with no family protection and no means of earning a living, her home destroyed by bombing, dependent on the goodwill of neighbours. Child soldiers with guns almost a large as they were, manning checkpoints in the rebel-held areas. A burnt-out hospital, bombed by the government’s allies because it served civilians in opposition-occupied areas, quite possibly with weapons supplied by the British government. On my return, I challenged a government minister about arms sales to Yemen, and was told that the arms weren’t British unless I could prove that they were. Others did exactly that, but it made no long-term difference.
Organisations like Asylum Welcome can do little to prevent the suffering of people in Yemen, but neither can most of those individuals who are forced to flee. For most, it’s impossible to leave, whatever the danger. For those few who do manage to leave the country, a long and dangerous journey often lies ahead of them. Do we do enough for the even smaller percentage who arrive (intentionally or unintentionally) in the UK, and within that, in Oxfordshire?
We know that asylum support communities in Oxfordshire make a real difference in the lives of those who arrive in the U.K. To respect what they’ve been through, offer a welcome, help to regularise their status, give practical support, and help to build a new life can be transformational both for them and for us.
One of the things that has struck me in my first year at Asylum Welcome is how the relief of refugees finally arriving somewhere safe is so often and so quickly replaced by bewilderment and fear of the system that they find themselves in. All too often, impenetrable rules, long delays and unsympathetic officials add to, rather than alleviate, the stress of having had to flee one’s homeland. When I hear that, I remember those brief insights I had into life in Yemen.
The situation that greets asylum seekers in the UK can be and sometimes is different. Helpful officials, community sponsorship schemes, churches, mosques and other religious and secular community groups offer welcome. Some councils think about refugees as they plan their services. I recently asked a client what had made the most difference to his life in the UK. He answered that it was the welcome he received when he joined the local football team in a village in rural Oxfordshire. All these things make a huge difference. Even people who are hostile to what they see as “mass immigration” tend to feel differently about people they actually know.
Asylum Welcome is proud to run a range of valuable services, helping people from the moment of arrival through the journey into education, employment and towards a successful new life. But perhaps at least as useful is anything we can do to help our wider community, both local and national, to see the person behind the statistic, to respect the life story that we may never fully know or understand, and to fulfil the obligations of human dignity owed to every person in our community.