January 30, 2008

Being a Refugee

Writing about web page http://www.covrefugee.org

Refugees along the wayToday I had a workshop on asylum questions in the Coventry Refugee Centre.

We were split into groups and presented with a scenario which we had to elaborate upon. “Imagine the BNP wins the elections in Britain”, it said, “and your situation is no longer safe inside the UK. You decide to flee to Kazakhstan. How would you go about this?”

It seems a pretty absurd question, but with the little training we had had about asylum seekers and their stories, tried to throw ourselves onto the case with as much realism as we could conjure up. And we ran into a lot of trouble even before we had imagined our way out of the country…

Just the following considerations:
- How exactly are you planning to get out of the country (by car, train, boat)? and how quickly?
- Will you fake a passport, try to get out of the country with your existing papers, or try to cross the border illegally? (The first seemed a bit impossible to us, given the hi-tech status of UK passports, the second a bit risky, the third a bit difficult.)
- Where will you go to arrange your way out of the country? (London, Dover, Portsmouth?) And who can you trust?
- What about your wife and children? Can you leave them behind? This seems difficult to feel comfortable with. But fleeing from the country and getting to Kazakhstan with wife and child isn’t easy either.
- How much money do you have at your disposal to pay for people’s (smuggling) services?

From here, a highly complex and stressful picture already comes into existence. And now try to reconcile this with the following likely events upon arrival:

- What will you tell the authorities when you seek asylum? Will you be entirely honest? Will it help your case in front of highly suspicious authorities?
- You will be asked why your documents are fake if they are, and if you can prove your actual identity and nationality. If you do have normal documents, you will be asked how you managed to get out of the country if your situation was under threat?
- They will ask you why you came all the way to Kazakhstan and not to another country? In case you admit to having travelled through other countries before, you will be asked why you didn’t apply for asylum there? (Asylum seekers are obliged to seek asylum in the first safe country they enter.)
- If you let your wife and child follow through a different route, you will be asked why you left them to themselves and did not travel with them? Etc.

After all this, surely we still have no idea what it must be like to be a genuine asylum seeker. An attempt to empathise can only point us in the direction of the experience.

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