Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Who will stand up for the refugees?


Monday 25 July 2011 00:00 BST

After the slaughter, persecution and displacement of millions in the Second World War, 147 nations, including ours, signed up to the UN Convention on Refugees.

Never Again, they promised solemnly and meant it then. That was exactly 60 years ago, in 1951. In the same year two UK organisations were set up to support asylum seekers, later merged to form the indefatigable Refugee Council, which this week celebrated the anniversary of the Convention and its own remarkable history. As a birthday present, our Coalition Government has just slashed its funds. Not only that – we start wars in places which force folk to flee and yet will not allow them to come here when they seek a safe haven. Libyans are the latest victims of this moral disorder. And there are those deportation targets of failed asylum seekers to be met – maths has to come before human misery.

Jemima Khan, human rights campaigner, was one of the speakers at the anniversary event, which sadly and inevitably attracted little attention, even though there was a troop of energetic photographers clicking away when Khan was at the podium. She first became involved with the cause in Pakistan when she visited a settlement of Afghan refugees who lacked shelter, basic amenities and health care. Using her contacts she helped get them tents and supplies. Partly Jewish herself, she described how her own grandfather fled to England from Germany in the 1930s.

The second speaker was Yeukai Taruvinga, a refugee from Zimbabwe who came here aged 18, enduring a long, terrifying process before she was allowed to stay. When, on television, we see waves of the dispossessed in Africa, in Pakistan and elsewhere, we are touched and we send money, a humane response. But when some – just 4 per cent of the total number who are obliged to leave their homes – come to our shores, they encounter a vicious system and disbelief.

Our politicians have been duplicitous. Without shame or guilt, they betray the UN Convention while proclaiming their commitment to it. Asylum seekers are denied fair legal representation, the right to work, the means to survive, and are detained and deported as if they are toxic waste matter. In detention centres conditions are often so bad that there have been hunger strikes and riots. Worst of all, we are still detaining children more than a year after Nick Clegg declared that this would end. He spoke with impressive ardour but unless he delivers soon, his words are hollow.

Some good people are standing up for these double victims – the author Michael Morpurgo, for example, wrote a devastating story using the voice of a fictional young boy in Yarls Wood prison. Others, disgracefully, are colluding with the powerful. For unfathomable reasons, our largest children's charity, Barnado's, has agreed to run support services in a new deportation centre for families with children.

The Refugee Council steps in when all else fails for refugees. But without cash, staff cannot carry on. They have the offer of a grant from the GLC Charitable Trust for £120,000, but only if they can raise matching funds. They have scraped together £45,000 and need a further £75,000. This is a desperate plea to you readers to support them. The deadline is Thursday. And you, Mr Clegg, please answer these two questions: Why did you let the government cut the funds for vulnerable refugees? And what happened to that pledge on child detainees?

For some people terrorism is always Muslims' fault

Excitable right-wing commentators have been linking the Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivik to Muslims and the "problems of multiculturalism". Breivick is a handsome Aryan with glassy, blue eyes. From what we know of his views, since his late 20s, he has been a trainee fascist, opposed to non-white immigration and ferociously anti-Islam. He targeted Norway's Labour Party and its young recruits. All that is Muslims' fault, they say. Our presence in Europe is apparently making its true sons crazy enough to kill. So, once again, it is the fault of immigration, the wantonly multiracial EU and, of course, those dark and dangerous Muslims.

They said the same when the Dutch politician/demagogue, Pym Fortuyn, was killed in 2003 by Volkert van der Graaf, an animal rights activist. They blamed Muslims. As they did in 1995 when a bomb went off in Oklahoma City, planted by an anti-government militant, Timothy McVeigh, a true-born, white American. I went to the US to make a Channel 4 film about the attack. Several interviewees were still convinced Muslims were responsible. One, a New York columnist said to me, on camera: "But it could have been a Muslim. Sooner or later we'll find out someone called 'Ali' was behind this." Someone called "Ali" must be behind Breivick too. Obviously.

I'm giving France a second chance

I'm off to rural France on holiday 17 years after my last venture into those quiet villages bursting with geraniums and well-tended fields. We went when our little girl was six-months-old and our son, a cheerful teenager, was not quite into the Kevin phase. It was a horrible holiday. The locals thought I was Algerian and so treated me like vermin. My baby touched the bright scarf of a woman in a shop and the Gallic bat screeched at us.

I know I'll miss Blighty and not only because there won't be an Indian or Chinese takeaway to nip into. I feel my sap of patriotism rising in France, and only in France – that sense of pride in being British. Anyway, I'm giving the French a chance to redeem themselves. Perhaps this time they will be as sweet as eclairs. If they do, I promise to put aside my frightful prejudices and even try and speak a little French. Mesdames et messieurs, let's end this spat. Be nice.


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