Jane Bradley: Refugees deserve compassion, not condemnation

Many refugees on The Journey are trapped between what will now be a life of extreme poverty back home - having sold their property to get them this far -  and the tiny chance of a better life in Europe. Picture: Andrew Testa/Panos for Christian Aid

Many refugees on The Journey are trapped between what will now be a life of extreme poverty back home - having sold their property to get them this far - and the tiny chance of a better life in Europe. Picture: Andrew Testa/Panos for Christian Aid

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Those who fled oppression in search of a better life are accused of being cynical economic migrants, but who among us would not have made the same choice asks Jane Bradley

I spent last week in Serbia, where 7,400 refugees from the Middle East are currently trapped - living in hope that they will, one day, be granted the chance to settle in western Europe.

My reporting in Scotland on Sunday about the abhorrent living conditions in an unofficial camp in a warehouse behind Belgrade’s train station, was the first of a series of articles I plan to write about the plight of the people I met there.

It attracted both sympathy and scepticism.

Some readers accused the refugees of being “economic migrants”, others claimed that by exposing the horrific situation these men were living in, I wanted to open the borders and allow Islamic State militants to raid our shores.

In truth, I absolutely do not have all of the answers to this huge, global crisis. If I did, I would be doing a very different job to the one I am doing now.

But I can, with the help of charities such as Christian Aid, which hosted my trip to Serbia, report on the human side of this tragedy.

No matter what your political beliefs, these refugees are people: people like you and me. We may not be able to help all of them, but we can feel empathy for their plight, we can try to understand why they are in the situation they are in.

I have been able to meet and get to know some of these refugees as individuals - as such, my duty is to tell their stories. I am not suggesting that we should - or can - let everybody in.

But whether you believe that refugees should all be granted asylum in Europe, or that none of them should, it is surely impossible to hear their stories without feeling some kind of human understanding.

I met many refugees who were undoubtedly fleeing war and persecution. Death threats and imminent danger to their lives.

Their cases appeared, to me, cut and dried: they should be granted asylum, somewhere. I hope beyond hope that they are given the support they badly need.

I met others, however, whose stories were more complicated - who may not have had an imminent threat to their lives, but who wanted a better future for their children.

Some of them lived in situations where their daughters would never be allowed to attend school.

Others were not in personal danger right now, but lived in a constant fear of political unrest and violence: families who had no idea when or if it would be their door that would be knocked upon by terroist or insurgent groups in the middle of the night. Maybe it would never happen - but it could.

So many times, I have heard people like this, sceptically, called “economic migrants”, but I found it was far more complex than that.

In reality, few of the people in this situation are likely to be granted asylum in Europe and for me, some of their stories were even more heartbreaking as a result.

No-one I met wanted to move to Europe to pocket benefits - they wanted to work. They did not want a bigger house or a better car: indeed, many of them knew their living conditions in Europe, even if they made it that far and were granted asylum, were likely to be economically worse than they had been in their home countries of Iraq, or Afghanistan.

For most, the priority was being able to give their children the chance of a decent education.

“I just want a future for my children,” was a refrain I heard many, many times.

All of them had put themselves at the mercy of people smugglers to get as far as Serbia. Many had, during their gruelling journeys, been beaten and robbed by opportunistic criminals and even police officers. Others had been abandoned at the roadside in countries they had barely even heard of, if they were unable to keep up with gruelling 40-hour journeys on foot across mountains and rough terrain.

It was not an easy thing to do.

Having arrived, they have now found that their journey into western Europe is practically impossible. They are now living in limbo in 60-bed dormitories, mainly in official camps which, while the Serbian authorities and international aid agencies have done their best to make as good as humanly possible, are not a long term solution for anyone.

A few of the families I met all but admitted that they had made a mistake, they should not have come. But in making the decision to begin what is known as “the journey”, they have given up everything back home. Now, they are trapped halfway between what will now be a life of extreme poverty back home - having sold their worldly goods to people smugglers to get them this far - or the chance, however tiny, to give their precious children the chance of an education in the West.

No-one I met was a cynical “economic migrant”. They were people: ordinary, flawed people, who had found themselves faced with difficult choices and who had done what they thought was right.

Some are badly educated. They did not have the ability to research for themselves what leaving their homes for Europe would entail.

They were promised, often by money-grabbing people smugglers who charge thousands of pounds per family to transport them into Europe, the chance of a better life. They were given a reassurance that the journey and the acceptance into Europe would be easy. Why, when faced with such adversity at home, would they not have taken that chance?

One mother of two young girls broke down once her husband and my male colleague had left the room and sobbed on my shoulder. Our translator was no longer there, so we could not communicate, but the expression on her face was readable in any language: what had they done?

But there they were, trapped in Serbia, with their two daughters, having endured a journey that would have broken me or you, not knowing when, or if, they would ever be able to move out of limbo. Not knowing if they would ever again have a place they could call home.

I know that even once their number is called, if they get the chance to be interviewed at the Hungarian border, which is letting through just a handful of refugees living in Serbia every day, there is a high likelihood that they will not be granted permission to pass through.

Considering the financial burden on European governments, in their case - and in some other cases, this could well be the right decision.

But we should not condemn them for trying.

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