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Refugees and the expectation to be exceptional

Refugees and the expectation to be exceptional

Part three of our blog series to mark Refugee Week 2018, by Emily Bowerman.

If you are interested in this series you may be interested in our forthcoming event on migration and the common good and our recent collection of essays on ethics and migration.

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This time last year, I stood at the heart of my community staring up at the smouldering shell of Grenfell tower.

Alongside the overwhelming sense of shock and incomprehension, what I remember most about that day is a neighbourhood coming together to respond to a humanitarian emergency with an unprecedented outpouring of love; a church so full of volunteers that they were turning help away, and community centres overflowing with donations from strangers.

As I participated in that day, another thought kept pushing itself into my head. What if this was Aleppo, I found myself thinking. What if there were no public services to put out the fire and take the injured to hospital? What if a building went up in smoke when the rest of the neighbourhood was already in ruins? What if there was no food or clothing for those who had lost everything? What if there were no spare rooms to house the displaced because they’d been burnt down too? What if their closest neighbours were miles away?

The aftermath of Grenfell was, perhaps, as close as many of us have ever got to a war zone and a personal encounter with loss and displacement on this scale.

But for many people in Grenfell and our wider community, this was not the first time. Mohammad Al Haj Ali, one of the first victims to be named, was a young man from Syria. Reports about the life and death of this ‘kind and charitable refugee’ caught the public imagination. There was a particular sense of sadness that he had escaped war and conflict in his homeland only to die in the country which had offered him safety.

What, I wondered, would reports have been like if he’d been a different kind of migrant, deemed less worthy of our hospitality and welcome. Indeed, his tragic death was soon followed by heated discussions about the ‘other’ migrants in the building. Questions were raised about those who had ‘slipped through the net‘ and were living under the radar without the right to remain in the UK and we debated the challenges raised and faced by those living without documentation and and settled status. To cap it all off, there were those “Illegal immigrants who posed as Grenfell fire victims to con their way into a hotel”. While not directly relevant to the scam they carried out, their immigration status – as is so often the case in reports of crimes committed by non–UK citizens – was thrown into the mix and further tinged with criminality and otherness.

Yes, the bar is set high for people who come to  the UK seeking safety or a ‘better life’. On the one hand, we want people to be vulnerable, needy and grateful of our welcome, like children from the makeshift camps in northern France who, on arrival, didn’t “look like children” and made people hope that “British hospitality [was] not being abused”. We tend to prefer stories of refugees who conform to our expectations, like those about rural communities which now “have lots of wee Syrian children running around with broad Scottish accents”.

On the other hand, we only really want to welcome with open arms those who excel and contribute, like the Malian young man, Mamoudou Gassama, who, as a result of scaling a building in France to rescue a toddler, was given citizenship, a medal and a job, none of which he’d received without his act of heroism. If I had to flee for my life, I wonder if I’d measure up. I think I’d be too old to have a future worthy of investment, too lacking in dependents to need housing, too educated and sufficiently well–off to be classed as vulnerable but not exceptional or rich enough to be a compelling prospect to a would–be host nation.

So what impact do these contradictory expectations have on people from elsewhere who seek safety and flourishing in the UK?

What does the expectation to be exceptional do to normal people trying to deal with the trauma of the past, the disadvantages of the present, and the uncertainty of the future? And what does it do to those who are denied the chance to contribute, such as asylum seekers who are being prevented from studying? “It is just devastating to be honest,” Abdul, a young man affected by this recent policy, explained. “[Education] is the only freedom I had and now it has been taken away from me.”

And what does the expectation to be grateful mean to refugees like Mohammad Al Haj Ali and his neighbours who lived in Grenfell? Should Fathia Ali Ahmed Elsanosi, described by her sister as “a refugee seeking security and safety after her struggle with the regime in Sudan where she and her children had been subject to harassment,” be allowed to aspire to anything more than her job at a packaging factory even though she had been a teacher in her home country? Should refugees be allowed to hope to thrive, or is it enough to be granted the opportunity to survive?

In the case of the refugees, and all their neighbours, in Grenfell, not even the latter was possible. Some may argue that – as people seeking safety in the UK – they should have been grateful just to have had a roof over their heads. But, given that their building had cheaply tarted up with flammable cladding, I’m not so sure.  

 Image by Emily Bowerman.

Emily Bowerman

Emily Bowerman

Emily is part of the leadership team at Refugee Support Network, an organisation supporting young asylum seekers and refugees to build more hopeful futures through education. Emily has written and spoken widely about issues affecting refugee and asylum–seeking youth at international conferences and in the national press. @BowermanEmily

Watch, listen to or read more from Emily Bowerman

Posted 20 June 2018

Citizenship, Immigration, Refugee Crisis


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