Reality of seeking asylum means little choice for desperate people - Sabir Zazai

It is difficult to ignore the fact that in many parts of public life, when ‘safe and legal’ routes are discussed, they are so often presented as if there was a choice.

Afghan refugees
Afghan refugees

This ignores what it means to be seeking asylum and the very limited options when people are forced to flee their homes in search of safety.

I arrived in the UK on the back of a lorry in 1999, at the end of a very long journey that started in war-torn Afghanistan more than a decade earlier. There are no words that can describe the trauma of leaving my home – it took a long time to get to the point where it was even something I would contemplate.

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Much like the Covid-19 pandemic now, I first thought the crisis my family was facing would be temporary. That soon we would return to our family home. But weeks become months and months become years.

Sabir Zazai, Chief Executive of Scottish Refugee Council

Watching media reports, it would sometimes be easy to think people take decisions to leave their homes and travel to places like Europe quickly. But in reality 85 per cent of the world’s refugees live in a neighbouring country of their own. It is only when it becomes clear that going home isn’t going to be possible that some people start to think about travelling further.

It was a year before I reached the UK. It was neither safe nor ‘legal’, and this was made clear to me as soon as I arrived and I was put in immigration detention. But it’s hard to know what a ‘legal’ route was supposed to look like when there were no legal routes available to me.

When I did arrive in the UK, I felt hopeful. I didn’t speak English, but I was familiar with the BBC, and I had heard that it was a country committed to human rights.

In my first home in the UK there were five of us living in a two-bedroom house, and I slept on the sofa. There were all sorts of infestations in the house, and many of the houses on our street were boarded up.

But resilience and an incredible community enabled me to get to where I am now as chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council. My success story would not have happened had I been locked away in a detention centre or in the infamous barracks, away from the community. Everyday integration happens in the heart of the community, in our post offices, bus stops, libraries and faith institutions.

From my experiences both as someone who has gone through the asylum system and working with those seeking protection, I’ve seen what is achievable when communities are given the support they need to welcome people.

I’ve also seen the harm that can be done when that doesn’t happen.

The New Plan for Immigration is a vital opportunity for us to get the system right – to ensure that fewer people need to take dangerous journeys, that asylum decisions are made quickly and are right the first time, and that people get the support they need when they need it.

For me, there are three key elements that need to come together to achieve successful reform of the system.

First, words matter – we need to change how we speak about asylum. Asylum is talked about as if it is a problem and a cost that needs to be fixed, but the huge contribution that refugees make to the system is ignored. So many of those people I first lived and worked with now work in their communities as taxi drivers, business owners, teachers, doctors and nurses.

The growing focus on ‘legality’ is also deeply problematic when in many cases, as was my own, legal routes simply don’t exist. The proposals to turn people away aren’t based on reality. They will severely disadvantage a very small number of vulnerable people who need protection.

Second, we must make sure that routes to the UK remain open and accessible. Resettlement, family reunion and community sponsorship are extremely important. I am pleased to see a continued commitment to those.

Resettlement should not be seen as an alternative to a fair and effective asylum system, but rather something that complements it. It is concerning that in the current proposals there is no clarity on how many people the government plans to resettle to the UK.

The success of the Syrian Resettlement Scheme was in part due to the clarity of the UK government’s target to give a home to 20,000 refugees over four years. A bold, ambitious new target should be set. There should also be a focus on ensuring not just that safe and legal routes exist, but that they are also accessible.

In particular, women and children who are stuck in situations like I was, living in refugee camps, don’t just need safe and legal routes but also the ability to access them. This means removing some of the practical barriers that currently exist.

Third, we must work together to advocate for a fairer and values-based asylum system, one that has our human values of common good at its heart and whose foundations are built on the lived experiences of those that have sought protection, and the communities that welcome them. We need to hold the UK government to account on its commitment to a system that offers people sanctuary and fairness.

We must use the tools available to us – whether public campaigning or private engagement with ministers – to make the case for why change is needed.

I’ve seen the value in collaboration ever since I arrived in the UK. When people are forced to flee their homes, it takes all of us to work together to restore their dignity and confidence and to support them to rebuild their lives.

Working together, we can build an ever-growing and evolving movement of people and organisations from across society to build a system we can all be proud of. We must remember that immigration has and will always be an important part of our history and offering people sanctuary is one of the most valuable contributions we can make to the world.

We must also remember that people seeking asylum are no different to any of us – they can be our future neighbours, colleagues, customers. When they prosper, we all do well. Ensuring that the systems we put in place help to build people up rather than knock them down should be a priority for us all.

Sabir Zazai is chief executive of Scottish Refugee Council

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