World Refugee Day: Displaced or disregarded?

Syria refugees
11 min read
20 June, 2023

As we commemorate World Refugee Day, our purpose is to anchor the resolve of those displaced worldwide.

The date marks the anniversary of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and the definition of the term "refugee". The definition is now used globally and ringfences the legal protections, privileges and benefits due. 

A refugee is defined as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

"How many instances of innocent people dying at sea will it take before we can create safe and lawful routes from conflict zones? Or are we already too desensitised"

As incidents of xenophobia increase across the world, our collective dream of a fair world seemingly drifts further from our reach. 

As I write this, the first story on my social feed shows the drowning of 78 migrants off the coast of Greece after a boat capsized near the Peloponnese Peninsula.

How many instances of innocent people dying at sea will it take before we can create safe and lawful routes from conflict zones? Or are we already too desensitised? 

The coast isn’t clear

report from the Missing Migrants Project of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) shocked the world on April 12. The report revealed that there were 441 migrant deaths in the first quarter of the year — the highest number since 2017. Delays in state-led rescue operations contributed to 127 premature deaths in six events. 

Suella Braverman, the UK's home secretary, was quoted in April saying people who enter the UK illegally in small boats across the channel “possess values which are at odds with our country” as well as “heightened levels of criminality.”

When previously questioned on the availability of safe and legal routes to seek asylum in the UK, she has struggled to provide answers, suggesting that for most refugees the process for applying for asylum would only be available once they reach the UK. If there are no legal routes available, isn't illegal transit the only option?

The effects of military occupations must be acknowledged as having a significant impact on the creation of refugee populations. The UK armed forces' occupation of Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014 highlights the inescapable connection to the considerable number of Afghan citizens who entered the UK by boat last year (8,633 from January to December 2022). This context is essential in understanding the root causes behind migration patterns.

Less than two weeks ago it was revealed that approximately 8,000 Afghan refugees are due to be evicted from their current temporary hotel residences as early as August, because of a government deadline. These refugees were brought to Britain under Operation Warm Welcome.

Prime Minister at the time Boris Johnson was quoted saying: “I am determined that we welcome them with open arms and that my Government puts in place the support they need to rebuild their lives. We will never forget the brave sacrifice made by Afghans who chose to work with us, at great risk to themselves. We owe them, and their families, a huge debt.”

World Refugee Day: Displaced or disregarded?
Pakistan hosts more than 1.4 million registered Afghans who have been forced to flee their homes [Getty Images]

Now they are to be abandoned. We mustn’t forget the tragedy of Mohammed Munib Majeedi, the five-year-old Afghan refugee who fell to his death in Sheffield in 2021 after falling from a ninth-floor hotel window. He lived there with other Afghan refugees who were being temporarily housed by the government.

Local authorities had previously voiced concerns about the safety of the windows, which had been a source of anxiety for past visitors, particularly considering the risk to children's lives.

Other concerns raised by the fire services included unsafe cladding, unsuitable fire safety risk assessments, a lack of maintenance of the fire alarm system, insufficient evacuation measures and more.

“My son, my son,” his mother's heartbroken cries echoed as he fell. The anti-refugee sentiment that permeates the UK's mainstream media ignores these painful stories. It is the government’s duty to care for all those it protects. It failed.

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Is the world your oyster?

The fourth highest number of arrivals by boat to the UK in 2022 were Iraqi nationals, making up 4,377. This year, we marked 20 years since the US-led illegal invasion of Iraq, one of the most pivotal events in history for the creation of refugees, through its resulting displacement of over 9.2 million people.

In that time, more than 51,661 Iraqis have applied for asylum in the UK, with only 1/5 of that number being allocated a form of leave to remain in the country (11,647), and only 1/10 being given refugee status (6,097).

The destabilisation of Iraq would not have been possible without a concerted effort and undying support from Britain. Eight months before the Iraq invasion, Tony Blair wrote to George Bush to pledge his unqualified support for war before the UN weapons inspectors had finished their work, saying: "I will be with you, whatever.”

Isn't it strange that an Iraqi citizen who suffered the terrible effects of an illegal invasion would now be unfairly characterised as having a greater tendency for crime (according to Suella Braverman) than the very war criminals responsible for rendering millions of Iraqis' lives meaningless?

Ahmed Sedeeq, an academic and native of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, entered the UK in 2011 on a student visa to pursue a Master’s degree. In 2013, he followed up with a PhD.

The year 2014 saw the Islamic State group (IS/ISIS) take over his hometown, rendering his situation life-threatening if he was to return. He resorted to applying for asylum while trying to finish his degree, but the Home Office rejected his application and the following appeals.

“When I first applied for asylum, I successfully submitted all of the required documents on the Home Office website,” Ahmed tells The New Arab. “But in my first interview, I was questioned to confirm I was in fact from Mosul through identifying local landmarks from memory.” He recalled having to draw these landmarks and places using a pen on paper. 

Since 2014, Ahmed has been required to attend mandatory reporting sessions with the Home Office every two weeks, which he characterised as stressful.

However, a misunderstanding with the Home Office caused the situation to deteriorate in late December 2017. A miscommunication with the authorities led him to believe that his visa was still valid, unbeknownst to him that it no longer was, and unfortunately, he had overstayed his welcome.

Ahmed was detained at the Morton Hall Immigration Centre for 10 days where he was forced to deal with the distressing unpredictability of his future.

This centre saw the death of four detainees in the 12 months prior to Ahmed’s detention, including another unnamed Iraqi man, Carlington Spencer from Jamaica, Lukasz Debowski from Poland and Ahmed Kabia from Sierra Leone.

None of these men deserved to die, and it’s these occurrences that bring to light the problematic conditions present in these facilities.

Former prisoners have come forward to relate their stories of being treated inhumanely by the guards, exposing a frightening level of abuse. Their unpleasant experiences were made even worse by the centre's isolated location and prison-like conditions. Where is the government’s duty of care to one of society’s most vulnerable groups?

In the UK, “There is no statutory limit to the length of immigration detention. The decision to detain is made by an individual immigration officer and is not automatically subject to independent review at any stage,” as reported by Bail for Immigration Detainees.

The Home Office attempted to deport Ahmed back to Iraq during his 10-day incarceration. The political vacuum that had given rise to IS in Iraq, putting Ahmed's life in jeopardy, was partly a consequence of the instability the country faced after the 2003 invasion — an intervention that involved significant contributions from the UK's armed forces.

It is ironic that a nation that contributed to the threat to Ahmed's life and the lives of millions of Iraqis is now the same country trying to return him to a place where he will almost certainly face persecution.

The UK has created off shore detention centres to house migrants and refugees [Getty Images]
The UK has created off-shore detention centres or 'prison barges' to house migrants and refugees [Getty Images]

A new lawyer decided to represent Ahmed in his battle for justice by submitting a new asylum application. A group of his friends and activists launched an online campaign to raise awareness of the situation and many news publications and platforms picked up his story. His petition received 70,000 signatures and Ahmed’s new asylum claim became the catalyst for his freedom.

After his release, his applications were rejected once more, which required him to go through the same gruelling procedures. He endured two years of uncertainty and difficulties before a judge granted him Humanitarian Protection.

Humanitarian Protection is only considered by the Home Office when a candidate is assessed to not fulfil the necessary standards for being granted asylum. What seemed like a triumph for him, was bittersweet, as this status is only granted temporarily.

“Unfortunately, what happened has affected my health, and to this day I’m still struggling to sleep,” Ahmed disclosed. This left him in a difficult predicament as he knew he would have to put himself through the same fatiguing processes. As a result, his case with the Home Office was still pending, which placed doubt on his future.

I asked him about what his dreams for the future are, to which he replied, “I just want to find peace, I gave up on happiness… Just peace.”

"Recognising the trends of history repeating itself is vital in a time of escalating polarization"

Nakba at 75

In addition to the 20th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, 2023 also marks the 75th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, meaning "catastrophe" in Arabic. Israeli forces expelled more than 750,000 Palestinians from their ancestral homes on May 15, 1948, beginning a long-term process of settler colonialism that is still going on today.

The event resulted in one of the longest-lasting refugee crises in history with the number of displaced Palestinians now surpassing six million. The majority live in neighbouring countries Jordan and Lebanon. However, it is essential to look into how Britain played a role in the division of Palestine and the expulsion of its citizens.

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The Balfour Declaration is crucial. The British government's support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine was made clear in this public proclamation. The letter, written by UK Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, was sent specifically to Lord Rothschild, a prominent member of the British Jewish community.

Its aims were achieved during the British rule over Palestine, known as Mandatory Palestine, from the early 1920s to 1948. The Balfour Declaration played a pivotal role as one of the key catalysts behind the Nakba, marking a critical turning point in the history of Palestine.

During the time of the letter’s issuing, Jewish communities accounted for less than 10% of Palestine's population. But as the British occupying authorities facilitated the migration of Jewish communities from Europe to Palestine in the ensuing decades, the demographic landscape experienced a significant upheaval. Jewish communities now made up 33% of the area's population by 1947, a significant increase.

Prior to the Nakba, the Jewish population had control over 6% of the land of historic Palestine, by 1949, it was 78%.

Seventy five years later, historic Palestine bears little resemblance to its former self. The right of return for the indigenous population is still overlooked, while settlements continue to grow and Palestinians' basic human rights are violated.

A drop in the ocean

The UK decided to cut its financing to UNRWA — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

The budget was reduced from £42.5 million to £20.8 million in 2021 and blighted the lives of the nearly 5.7 million Palestinian refugees who depend on the organisation for essentials.

Unfortunately, funding has been further cut this year to just £10 million, making the already challenging situation faced by Palestinian refugees even worse.

The admission of the illegality of settlements in the occupied West Bank made by UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly stands in stark contrast to the two countries' overall relationship.

Rishi Sunak's kind welcoming of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 10 Downing Street earlier this year has also highlighted the growing relationship between the two countries. This unfolds against the backdrop of Israel's current government, which is unprecedentedly right-wing.

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Recognising the trends of history repeating itself is vital in a time of escalating polarization. We are unable to effectively contribute to the growth of society and the defence of human rights without an awareness of the underlying factors that generate global displacement.

By gaining a comprehensive understanding of these issues, we can work towards a more inclusive and equitable future, one that requires horizontal and not vertical solidarity.

The majority of civil society has more in common with a refugee who is sat next to them on a bus than the ruling and elite classes who they’ll never come across in their lives.

Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. He has showcased documentaries at prestigious institutions including the Universities of Oxford and Westminster, as well as the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week

Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_