Published On: Sun, Feb 28th, 2016

Islington and the Refugee Crisis

Islington and the Refugee Crisis: The Borough’s Response

In the first instalment of our special series on the refugee crisis, Silvia Maresca takes a wider look at the impact war in Syria has had on the country’s people, as well as how Islington is helping refugees integrate into the community.

Massimo Sestini, World Press Photo 2015

Photo credit: Massimo Sestini, World Press Photo 2015

21-year-old Dania Yaqut Alsham used to dream of becoming a doctor. She started medical school when she was 18, “so I can help my people,” she says. But the studies were cut short in September 2015, when her school in Damascus was set on fire.

Now – as the war has taken her father away, and destroyed her home – her dreams are far different from those they used to be: “I just want to be under a safe roof, no more bombing, no more blood.”

War in Syria broke out in March 2011, as peaceful protests against the government soon turned into a violent insurgency that has drawn the country into a state of civil war. Over 250,000 people have been killed; more than 11 million – half the country’s pre-war population, as humanitarian aid agency Mercy Corps reports – have been forced to flee their homes ever since.

Dania’s brother, Muhammed, was one of them. He first left Syria for Egypt with his wife and two children, and from there embarked on a dangerous journey towards Europe, in pursuit of a better life overseas.

“He went on a boat with a lot of others; the boat of death, we call it,” Dania says. “But we soon lost track of him.”

His family waited for news or a call; yet nothing for weeks. “Only after a while we heard in the news that a boat set out on the same date as my brother’s has sunk into the sea, by bad action from bad people who owned the boat.”

More than 850,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe so far in 2015, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reports. Those were the ones who made it – many others, like Muhammed, could not.

Dania calls them “the lucky ones” and perhaps they really are, for they survived the deadly journey that cut so many lives short. Still, the situation they face once they get ashore is often by no means better; for most of them, hardship has only just begun.

Budapest, Hungary, September 2015. Photo credit: Mstyslav Chernov

Budapest, Hungary, September 2015. Photo credit: Mstyslav Chernov

As thousands of people risk their lives to cross the borders of Europe every day, the continent is witnessing one of its worst humanitarian disasters since the time of World War II. Yet European countries struggle to cope with the scale of the situation, failing to come together to find a solution and tackle the issue beyond the very surface level. Meanwhile, the waves of newcomers are left crowding the refugee camps, in a temporary limbo of mud, shabby huts and endless misery.

Gulwali Passarlay knows first-hand what life in these camps is like. A former refugee, he was just 12 years old when he escaped from Afghanistan alone. It took him one year – and several near-death experiences as he travelled across Europe – to finally arrive to Britain and being granted asylum.

Before that, some 20 miles from the English coast, he spent a month trapped in ‘the Jungle’ the infamously known refugee camp on the edge of Calais, Northern France.

His time in the French camp is indelibly engraved on his memory. “I spent a month there, but the situation was so bad I always had this belief that it was in fact more than a month. It was so terrible, being humiliated by the French police and treated so badly. But now the situation is even more shocking. I went back to Calais after eight years to find still unbelievably inhumane conditions. It’s cold, it’s miserable, it’s so much suffering for people, especially children and women.”

Will Wintercross, The Telegraph

The Calais refugee camp. Photo credit: Will Wintercross/The Telegraph

What is happening in Calais is part of a wider picture, a shocking example of the “completely inadequate response” of EU countries – the UK in particular – to the current refugee crisis, as James Pattison, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, notes. A crisis that now during the depths of winter is only worsening.

In this light, the decision of the Government to withdraw from the EU’s proposed refugee sharing plan and instead take up to 20,000 Syrian refugees directly from camps in the Middle East by 2020 has divided public opinion.

For Pattison, accepting just some thousands of refugees is simply not enough.

“We clearly have the economic capacity to take more refugees. In fact, they might even help our economy,” he says.

Moreover, as Maria-Teresa Gil-Bazo, lecturer in International Human Rights and Refugee Law at Newcastle University, notes: “resettling Syrian refugees in the UK does not absolve the Government or any other State Party from considering all applications of asylum seekers who manage to reach European member States on their merits and on the basis of their individual circumstances.”

“Given what other European countries are doing, the UK’s response needs to be far greater, not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of provision. Those people need resources, support with language, advice; all of this is vital for integration, and it is not being funded as much as it should be,” says Tom Green, manager of Counterpoints Arts, a UK-based organisation supporting art projects by and about the refugees.

However, where the government is failing to give aid, the communities have stepped in. A growing number of independent charities and local associations have started helping the newcomers, providing them with material aid and support. A number of those charities are based in Islington, including the Islington Refugee Forum, which helps resettle displaced people in the borough.

The Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants logo

The Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants logo

Take the Islington’s Centre for Migrants and Refugees, for instance, which, despite a shortage of funding, has recently increased its opening hours to two days a week to support refugees with English and art classes, housing and counselling services, hot meals and clothes.

“I may not have much, but I have more than the refugees, so that means I have enough to give,” says Nikki Castle, one of the many UK volunteers.

“It’s important for us to keep working together,” notes Connor England, founder of Solidarity4Refugees. “Yes, the EU and this government do need to collaborate towards a more cohesive approach to this crisis to see a solution in the long run. But, in the meantime, we need to do everything in our power to help facilitate the integration of the incoming refugees, because that is that final step on their journey to finally get to somewhere where they feel they can be a part of society, where they can work towards a better life, have a home and a family in it, and prospects, and hopes and dreams, the same way they did before they flew their countries.”

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