by Michelle Brooks
This week is Refugee Week with events around the UK revealing the socio-economic contributions of refugees to the UK through events ranging from small community exhibitions to big music festivals. In Leicester alone 30,000 jobs have been created by former refugees (http://www.refugeeweek.org.uk/). It is perhaps also an opportunity for us as geographers to consider our contributions to debates around this issue. New research by geographer, Professor Heaven Crawley, shows that contrary to popular misconceptions, refugees (those who may be re-classified as asylum seekers upon arrival) often have little knowledge of where they will end up until they arrive in the United Kingdom. Having fled their homes and often their families, travelling for days or weeks by various methods they are often entirely reliant on other agents to reach safety, wherever that may be. The empirical research in the report for The Refugee Council challenges the accusation against asylum seekers as ‘benefit tourists’ (who choose the UK because it is soft on benefits etc) making obvious the fact that when fleeing an environment of fear, violence and persecution, there is little space or time for choice of destination.
It is possible that the act of entering the UK illegally lends weight to the idea of refugee asylum seekers as exercising choice in coming to the UK. However, as the report for The Refugee Council states, there is no legal route to enter the UK in order to make an application for asylum, which is extraordinary considering the UK commitment to the Refugee Convention (1951). Importantly, it can be argued that criminalising this process is the first step of adding discrimination to the long list of injustices that many such people have already suffered. Such discrimination in a legal framework can be seen to percolate into the public consciousness through for example, the news media and entertainment industries, leading to judgements based on assumption rather than research grounded in empirical data. In addition to the report ‘Chance or Choice’ for The Refugee Council it is interesting to also read an article by Jonathon Darling for Area on activities since 2007 in Sheffield as a ‘City of Sanctuary’ and an article by Heaven Crawley for Area on the forced migration of children and their experiences upon entry to the United Kingdom.
The UNHCR World Refugee Day is Sunday 20th June which will be marked by an umbrella parade in central London and celebrates the fact that the United Kingdom still offers a place of refuge for those fleeing war, torture and persecution (http://www.unhcr.org.uk/about-us/events.html). The UNHCR supports Refugee Week.
It is an opportunity for those of us who are lucky enough to have never known life as a forced migrant or refugee to feel proud that as a nation we can collectively, as a community of communities, provide safety for those who are not so lucky.