This Refugee Week, we need to welcome and celebrate the refugees, not turn them away

This Refugee Week, we need to welcome and celebrate the refugees, not turn them away
Nearly two thousand died this year alone while trying to cross the Mediterranean. It is time to recognise what drives refugees to the sea, and celebrate them, writes Munu
5 min read
22 Jun, 2017
Nearly 2,000 people are believed to have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean this year

Refugee Week (19-25 June) is the UK’s largest festival celebrating the contribution of refugees. Hundreds of arts, cultural and educational events will be held nationwide in renowned venues, public squares, libraries, schools and places of worship. Many organisations and art institutions will be taking part including the British Museum, Southbank Centre and the British Film institute.

I applaud organisers such as Tim Finch who have worked tirelessly to put the stories and struggles of our world’s most vulnerable at the heart of our city’s artistic and social lens.

This comes at a time when refugees are at the heart of many key political questions of late - whether that is the Mediterranean crisis, Brexit and the rise of far right nationalist sentiment in Europe - it is imperative to show refugees will remain to be a part of how our varied societies develop. How we welcome them to rebuild their lives and offer support, is a mark of our civility.

I write this now as the UN’s refugee agency revealed on World Refugee Day, June 20, that nearly 2,000 people are believed to have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean this year alone.

The perilous journey which thousands of refugees and migrants have taken within the last two years has shocked all of us and has been well documented. And while it could be argued that coverage of this crisis has dimmed and has been distastefully used as a red herring for far right sentiment, the Mediterranean route is among the world’s most dangerous routes in the world in which ordinary families watch their loved ones find their death at sea. It is a route that is still being used.

At the beginning of Refugee Week, the UNHCR reported a shipwreck which took place off the coast of Libya claiming nearly 130 lives after a boat filled. In a separate incident, a boat with dozens of families with children snapped in two.

The idea that refugees or migrants as a whole are people who are 'other' could not be further from the truth. The sacrifice of the vast majority of refugees, while on their way to countries like the UK should be commended. Not only for those who originate from Syria, Afghanistan and the Middle East at large, but from countries like my own, Sierra Leone and other regions.

AFP reported one such case. Abu Bakr Mansary from Sierra Leone spent several months in the Libyan desert towns of Sebha and Gatroun, transit points for sub-Saharan Africans. Libya has become a major venture point, where many await to leave for Europe. But while there, the 23 year old said he worked there to save up for his crossing. It is not clear what kind of work he did, but we are all aware of the thirst for cheap labour of migrants and refugees.

His journey ended when the inflatable boat he boarded with dozens of other migrants suffered a puncture. He clung on for 17 hours before being rescued by the coastguard. This is why it is a national shame that in February, the UK government has only allowed 350 refugee children into the UK - to rebuild their lives and with many more at risk from other forms of violence and abuse.

Nearly 2,000 people are believed to have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean this year alone

I had the fortune to meet a woman who very well informed of the extent of this abuse. I met her while producing a news programme celebrating the support and sense of agency she provides women in her position, earning her much accolade as a model activist and human being.

Also a winner of the Women on the Move 2016, Woman of the Year awardee, Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf, is a refugee from Somalia who now lives in Manchester. Mariam was forced to leave her two children behind to flee war and gender-based violence to arrive in the UK in 2008. She was convinced that they would soon be able to join her safely. But eight years later, having been detained, destitute and homeless, Mariam is still stuck in the asylum system.

Wanting something positive to come out of her experience, Mariam has dedicated her time to campaigning to ensure that asylum-seekers are not forced into similar hardships. A tireless champion for the rights of women who have experienced domestic violence and female genital mutilation, Mariam is a source of support and hope for many people who are seeking protection and trying to rebuild their lives. She is not giving up hope of seeing her children again. And I hope that the UK will do more to make that a reality.

But here lies another point that must be debunked. People who leave their homes do not do so, except through sheer necessity. Many of them have lives, careers, opportunities and prospects, which they either leave to save their lives, or is taking them from them by force. There are many conflicts and modes of instability increasingly on the rise. With that, will be a rise of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, who have seen a degree of dehumanisation from those who wish to exploit their crisis. A celebration of them is definitely due.

This week, we must remember and learn from those who have bravely fought unimaginable peril. We must welcome our heroes, not turn them away.

Adama Munu is a broadcast journalist and is interested in Afro-Arab relations. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Middle East politics at Birkbeck College.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.