Maybe the crisis in Lampedusa, Italy, and the drowning of hundreds of migrants from Ethiopia and Somalia, will force the world to confront the terrible tragedy and complicated issues, both legal and humanitarian, that the refugee question presents.
This is a matter of national and international legislation, and one that affects us all. The floating bodies in Italy in October 2013 brings the subject to the surface again and this crisis is spreading all over the world. Who is migrating? Where do they come from and where are they going? All those bodies who floated without identity, without a goodbye kiss from their families - how many of them were hoping to end their journey in the United Kingdom?
I have seen children under ten years old, their faces look old and their feet are swollen. By day they walk for miles to complete the daunting journey without any clue as to how it might end. At night, they sleep amongst landmines left over from a war. I have seen children from Eritrea who escaped from their country and fled to Sudan’s border. They are standing in the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, but they can’t say a word. They are too petrified to speak.
At that moment I ask myself how much fear are these children trying to hold in? So much that they must search for a way to live between landmines of death and bullets from border guards. It was then that I realised how much thousands of migrants are prepared to risk in order to find safety, including tearing their heart away from the world and family they know and love.
I also remember the story of hundreds of Eritrean asylum seekers who decided to escape from Shagarab refugee camp in East Sudan at night. They tried to cross a small river but all drowned. Sadly, there are hundreds of stories like this which I heard whilst accompanying the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Cortese, on his visit in June 2011 to Ethiopian and Eritrean refugee camps in Sudan. His visit coincided with the United Nations celebration for world refugee day. I noticed the eyes of the Commissioner staring at the children. Maybe he was wondering not about their living conditions, but about their fate and how hard the future would be for them. I remembered all these details whilst sitting in front of an immigration officer in one of my many meetings with them in the UK. It didn’t occur to me all those years before, despite my work with refugees and collaborating with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, that I will face only one choice – the choice of hope. Soon enough I came to understand the problems for those who find themselves a refugee. I am not talking here about immigration laws in the United Kingdom or their procedure and how to negotiate them. The only thing I focus on is the humanitarian side.
The lesson here is not the failure of the statute or the performance of immigration officers. The heart of the matter is the window of opportunity for hundreds of thousands whose countries let them down due to injustice, war, authoritarian rule or dire humanitarian conditions. All these people are just another name on the list of victims of repression, but today they can and do make a difference to their newly adopted countries and people.
Exile for me has been a forcible uprooting of my foundations and a time to sow seeds in another land. Since being here, I have seen how the laws of the United Kingdom provide an infrastructure. I see how many faces and agencies are here to facilitate my transition, from government regulations, legal procedures, through to the civil community. It became clear to me that these national organizations provide emotional, humanitarian and legal support to allow those roots to settle in this new land. I see how I can start a new life which respects human dignity and provides asylum seekers who fled from their countries with a sense of hope, peace and security.
Anwar El Samani is currently seeking sanctuary in the UK, these are his experiences.
By Anwar El Samani
Photo: Cuban refugees. By U.S. Department of Homeland Security [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Map of the Mediterranean.