Safe havens in a hostile world – for 60 years

A 1951 UN convention has saved 50 million from torture, death or war.
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Indy Politics

They came from all corners of the world: Hungary, Cyprus, Uganda, Ghana, Kosovo and Liberia. Britain was their sanctuary, a safe haven from the violence and persecution that had been visited on them in their homelands. They are all beneficiaries of a system designed after the Second World War to prevent the persecution of refugees.

Inspiration for the UN Convention for Refugees, in which British lawyers played a key role, were fresh memories of the horror suffered by millions fleeing the violence and destruction of the war years. The men and women who framed it were determined, when they signed it on 28 July 1951, that such trauma must never be repeated.

As the world prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the convention on Thursday, pressure is mounting on London to honour the spirit of the original convention.

Campaigners such as Jemima Khan, activist and associate editor of The Independent, warned: "The popular political rhetoric of tightening our borders must never apply to those fleeing violence and persecution. The facts are that the UK currently takes in about 4 per cent of the world's refugees out of 14 million worldwide. However, only 4,175 people were granted official refugee status in the UK last year. The Refugee Council faces 62 per cent cuts to support services for asylum seekers."

Few of the delegates from the 26 countries who gathered in Geneva in 1951 to provide legal protections for millions of people displaced by the war could have imagined the bewildering array of refugees, asylum seekers, voluntary economic migrants, undocumented migrants, boat people, stateless people, internally displaced persons who now rely on this aspect of the law to provide shelter from detention, deportation, exploitation or violent explosions of xenophobia.

It was for this reason the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees has become known as the Magna Carta of international refugee law, and the treaty remains a vital mainstay of the safety and survival of millions of people across the world. Through it, the UN's refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has helped around 50 million people restart their lives.

Some of the convention's provisions have become fundamental to international law, such as the principle of not forcing the return of refugees to countries where they may face persecution. The UN says there are now 43 million people who are forcibly displaced through persecution or conflict, the highest since the mid-1990s.

Several million are displaced through natural disasters and 27 million by conflict in their own countries. They are the "internally displaced people". The world's major refugee populations include Palestinians (4.8 million), Afghans (2.9 million), Iraqis (1.8 million), Somalis (700,000), Congolese (456,000), Burmese (407,000), Colombians (390,000) and Sudanese (370,000).

Children make up around 41 per cent of the world's total, with women making up about half of all refugees. Around two-thirds have been in exile for more than five years.

A survey of Britons earlier this year revealed that two-thirds are sympathetic to refugees coming to the UK. The Refugee Council poll found three-quarters of women and 61 per cent of men were sympathetic to those fleeing persecution.

But the poll also revealed widespread ignorance about refugees: more than four in 10 believe 100,000 or more refugees were accepted by the UK in 2009 when the correct number was 4,175. While many people surveyed confused workers from Poland and Eastern Europe with refugees, 82 per cent believed protecting the most vulnerable was a core British value.

Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "It is a legacy that all British people should be proud of, and should serve to remind us that Britain still has an important role to play in offering safety to those forced to flee their homes to escape violence, torture and war in countries around the world today."

1950s: Janos Fisher, a Jewish refugee from Hungary, he came to the UK in 1956. Now 74, he lives in Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire

I escaped Hungary with three schoolmates. We realised it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape – we couldn't see the Communist regime would fall. I was 19 and a half and working in a rice-shelling mill. It took us two tries to get across the border. When I got to England, I went to Lancashire as a miner. I was the only one who spoke a bit of English, so I became the interpreter.

We were there for about six months. I was a big shot because I could translate everything. It was my job to compose people's love letters.

I was a refugee, but it didn't feel like that for long. I consider myself British now. I got married in '62. I met my wife here after she came over in '57. My parents in Budapest knew an acquaintance of my future in-laws and told me to meet up with them in London. I realised pretty quickly this was the woman for me.

After door-to-door selling, I sold handbags and became a wholesaler. We used to have shops, but they closed 10 years ago. Now I consider myself a pensioner.

I have two sons. Julian, who's 43, lives in New York now, sadly, and my youngest, Daniel, 40, lives in Birmingham. They don't speak Hungarian, only English. Hungary was like a prison. It isn't now, but I wouldn't dream of going back.

Freedom – that's the best thing about Britain. You can – and I did – go abroad any time. We're going with friends to Calais. It's unbelievable that in an hour or two you can be in a different country. In Hungary, if you had family in Romania, you couldn't get permission to see them. What sort of a place is that?

1960s: Misak Ohanian, an Armenian refugee, 56, from Cyprus, who came to Britain in 1967 to escape violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Lives in Ealing

I was 11 when we became refugees in 1963 because of intercommunal fighting. Our house ended up being in the Turkish part of Nicosia. My grandfather had already fled the Armenian genocide in 1915 and lost a large part of his extended family. Rebuilding in Cyprus but then going through it all again was a real tragedy.

Many Armenians were displaced after the genocide of 1915, all over the Middle East, only to become refugees again when problems arose in those countries later. Now there are probably Armenian communities in 100 different countries.

We came to Britain because I had uncles here, on my mother and father's side. There's a long-standing affinity between Cypriots and Britain – Cyprus was a former colony. The school I attended taught us English, Armenian and Greek.

I would say my experiences influenced what I do now. We help newly arrived refugees settle and make sure they're aware of their rights. After 25 years, we have helped thousands settle in this country. When we first arrived, it was easy to know what new refugees' rights were; now there's little support and it's more complicated.

Britain as a whole is extremely hospitable – there is an intrinsic goodness that comes out in times of need. A lot of aid was given to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake, and similarly with famines and other disasters. Younger generations especially are a lot more accepting and inclusive.

We still see ignorance about Armenia. People ask us "What is that? Where is that?" We joke about it. Years ago, people trying to insult us would call us "Pakis" – but that reflected far worse on them.

Britain has offered us security and the rule of law, which still does not exist in many places. Refugees have so much to contribute to this country. For example, Ealing has just got its first Armenian councillor.

1970s: Vimla Patel, 59, Ugandan Indian refugee who fled Uganda in 1972 following Idi Amin's announcement that all Indians had to go. Now lives in Cardiff.

I was 20 when I came to the UK. Idi Amin announced that all the Asians had to leave within 90 days. We were shocked and horrified. We didn’t have any experience of living in the UK at all. Having come from a well-to-do family we had to leave everything. Not only did we have to contend with the practical logistics of moving - but also the emotional feelings of separation, uncertainty and of course the threat of violence. We would have to leave our friends and family behind and more importantly all our Ugandan friends and family. It was a terrible feeling.

I was married and two months pregnant with my first child when we came over. It was October and very cold when we arrived. We didn’t know where we were going. When we arrived at the airport we were given warm coats by the Red Cross. We ended up in a camp in Yeovil, Somerset. Next day we were called in the Office and were given £2.20 benefit and, being literally penniless, we accepted the money but looking at the money in our hands, we felt bad. From a prosperous background, we felt we were being treated as beggars.

According to our Hindu beliefs, we must stand on our own two feet, work hard and never ask for money. With this firmly in mind, me and my husband, Hari, came to Cardiff on 3rd November 1972, as we had some family here. My husband went to the job centre the next day and got a job in a restaurant. He wasn’t used to making even a cup of tea in Uganda.

Soon he started working 80 hours a week in a petrol station and saved enough to run his own business. I regard myself as Indian, Welsh, Ugandan and British. I’ve lived in Wales for 40 years now, so I suppose I’d best describe myself as Indian-Welsh.

Britain as a whole is very hospitable; they have accepted so many refugees and given everyone a home and a chance to raise their voice. My children feel British Indian and they are accustomed to both the cultures.

I got an MBE for services to the Hindu and Asian community. When we came from Uganda we were all on the same boat and we were all lost, with no idea where to go. With a little knowledge from speaking English I began being able to help others.

1980s: Yen Nyeya, came to Britain in 1984 after fleeing political persecution in his native Ghana. Now 54, he is manager of the GHARWEG (Ghana Refugee Welfare Group) and a member of the Refugee Council

When I was at university in Ghana, I was very active in left-wing and democratic organisations that struggled against military dictatorships. After the uprising on 4 June 1979, power was taken by the military. We supported the December 1981 coup, but nine months afterwards there were internal conflicts. I fled to the north, thinking I could return home after two weeks. Some of my friends were jailed for three years without trial. So I fled the country.

I ended up moving between Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso ... it was unsafe. So I came to the UK in August 1984, through Gatwick airport, and was detained for four days. I had friends already here, staying in a damp, cold house. The Refugee Council helped us. We got advice and better accommodation.

Ghanaian organisations did not want to help us; they were extremely suspicious, thinking we were revolutionaries. So we formed the Ghana Refugee Welfare Group, with the Refugee Council's help, so that we could support others in the same position.

My son is 24, and has finished degrees in biomedicine and neurosurgery, and my daughter is about to go to university. They come back to Ghana with me frequently, but they don't speak the language – they have south London accents! But my daughter will celebrate Ghana Independence Day, and support Ghana at sport. But when Britain is playing against other countries, I support Britain – except when Ghana is playing! Britain means a lot to me – in my hour of need, I came here and was welcomed.

I don't think that attitudes have changed much over the years. Tabloid newspapers always blame refugees for problems. I don't think that many working-class people are exactly enthralled with refugees. There's also a lot more asylum and immigration legislation than there used to be.

1990s: Querim Nuredini, expelled from Kosovo in 1999, then sent to a refugee camp near Macedonia. Airlifted to Britain, Querim, 36, lives in Bristol

I lived in Pristina, in Kosovo, but in March 1999 we were expelled from the house by uniformed men in balaclavas who broke our door down and told us to leave, without telling us where or why. The whole town, thousands of people, crowded on to trains and buses and lorries.

We weren't allowed in to Macedonia, so we had to stay in no-man's-land. Nato troops built camps, which soon became overcrowded. Food ran out, hygiene was poor, so a humanitarian evacuation was organsied. By chance, we were flown to Britain.

We had no passports or plans. We got what was called "exceptional leave to remain" for a year. I remember my two little sisters in tears, saying "They're going to keep us here for a year!" My parents and another brother and sister didn't come – they didn't want to leave. We couldn't have stayed – conditions were unbearable. We have had very good experiences, as British people were well informed about Kosovo and understood why people had come. I have a British partner of 10 years and two daughters, aged six and two. They speak very little Albanian. I feel just as British as I do Kosovan.

I work with asylum seekers trying to help them to find jobs and integrate. We also assist with voluntary return, helping refugees return home.

Attitudes towards refugees have changed dramatically for the worse. People are not educated about asylum. People think asylum seekers come to take jobs. They don't understand that, for someone to leave their home, things have to be awful. I'd never have left my home if I'd had the choice.

Almost everyone we work with has experienced racial abuse. Britain accepted 8,000 evacuees from Kosovo: 80 per cent returned home voluntarily. Many are lost, unsure if they can stay or not.

2000s: Akoi Bazzie, originally from Liberia. He came to the UK in 2004 after the second civil war as part of a UN rescue mission. Now 35, he lives in Sheffield

In 1989 when the civil war started, my father was a clan chief leading a lot of towns and villages. He was very influential and he didn't agree with the rebel invasions. He was killed by the rebels who then came looking for us.

I was 14 when I fled. Me and my mother were in the jungle for two years. She told me to leave her and I got across the border to Guinea.

The UNHCR were on the border and took me to a refugee camp with 35,000 other refugees. I stayed in the camp for 12 years. I was not that far from the border and people were disappearing all the time.

I met my wife, Rose, who was also a refugee, in the camp. Because of my father's role in the government that was overthrown, we were accepted on a relocation programme to the UK.

When I arrived it was extremely cold. It was March and raining. I'd never been on a plane before and I arrived to see big buildings and fast-moving cars.

I've lived in Sheffield for seven years now. When I saw the mountains and trees in the Peak District, it felt like home.

I'm glad my kids are in school here: I didn't have the opportunity. I had to go to college and learn English. Looking at my kids, it's so different for them. I've got three children now: the first, Michael, 10, was born in the camp. He speaks better English than I do and he's my tutor.

Having worked for the UN in the camp, I wanted to work with refugees in Britain. Now I work with local people helping to raise awareness about refugee protection. It's my passion. I wanted to help people like me who were going through difficulties.

Interviews by Emily Dugan and Tara Mulholland