Asylum Found

Authors discuss refugees suspended in limbo

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According to the International Organisation of Migration, approximately 1046600 people fleeing conflict and poverty arrived in Europe in 2015. Rather than reaching their desired destination, many of these families and friends seeking asylum end up in refugee camps, or, as the panel describe them, limbo.

The journalist and broadcaster Bidisha chairs authors Ben Rawlence, Lucy Popescu and Ahmed Al-Malik. Both Rawlence and Popescu have written books detailing the refugee crisis. Al-Malik was born in Sudan, where he lived and wrote fiction until one of one of his works was found by the regime it criticised, and consequently he moved to the Netherlands. Bidisha specialises in social justice and international human rights, to name a few.

The discussion focuses on the power of words in times of conflict and the issues people face when they arrive in a new country.

The first point made is that refugees should simply be referred to as people, as this is what they are. Branding them as migrants or asylum seekers lexically separates them from humans – us – and turns them into refugees – them. This demonstrates the power language has to affect our mindset.

Secondly, Al-Malik draws on the strength of stories. He tells us about a farther who has been tied to a cow by a soldier and dragged across a gritty road. His stomach is almost flayed bare. His son has heard this story throughout his life, and, when he discovers that he is living in the same refugee camp as the soldier, he plans to kill him. His father stops him, explaining that it was his experience, and he has forgiven the soldier. The son feels that the war is stronger within him because he has heard the story. This shows that words alone can cultivate conflict.

The panellists move on to ideas of home. Even when people successfully enter the UK, they are not treated as equal citizens. Popescu, who also works with EnglishPEN, explains that people labelled refugees can only buy certain foods from certain supermarkets, and sometimes must walk miles everyday to check in with their local authorities. The Home Office have appointments scheduled in 2023. During this seven-year waiting period, these people could be deported at any time: they are still suspended in limbo. These obstacles, says Bidisha, are designed to be disheartening.

Al-Malik has experience of leaving his native country in search of safer grounds. Yet, when the audience asks him if he ever feels at home, he answers ‘A home is a tent you pitch anywhere’. With this resilience, it is no wonder that Popescu refers to her friends who seek asylum as “survivors” rather than “victims”.