Tales of the City: Asylum Seekers Speak
An exhibition at the Tramway, Glasgow this week brings into sharp focus the realities of refugees and asylum seekers living in the city. In Human Rights + Wrongs, photographer Angela Catlin and journalist Billy Briggs worked with local clients of UK charity Freedom from Torture, to help them tell their stories.
The lives of the men and women featured in the exhibition are diverse, but one very significant detail I noticed was most of the people depicted had been working to improve life in their homelands. Aisha demanded new hospitals and schools; Mark was attacked for trying to expose government corruption; Mohammad was a filmmaker and photographer who refused to work for an extremist organisation “brainwashing young Pakistanis”. For their efforts they experienced unimaginable cruelty and fled for their lives.
It seems to me that people so dedicated to their countries, who risked so much to make them better, would rather be home than here. But for choosing life, asylum seekers are dumped in dilapidated, mould-ridden flats and expected to exist on a mere £5 a day, lest the UK be seen as a “soft touch.”
As the stories in the exhibition illustrate, the “soft touch” deterrent would be almost laughable if the situation weren’t so tragic. If they clearly do not want to be here in the first place, what, then, would deter an asylum seeker? Only similar conditions to the ones they fled.
Bijoux wanted to be a journalist, but says “that probably will never happen now.” She has been forced to live in a series of damp, fungus-infested flats, walking long distances to buy food because her government-issued card is not accepted locally, and she can’t afford the bus. She admits “at times I have felt suicidal.”
It is important to remember refugees have been forced to make heart-breaking choices and deserve our compassion. It’s also worth pointing out that, given their evident love of their homelands, perhaps many would also be better able to help us fight for human rights if they weren’t struggling for survival on a daily basis here.
I think Amnesty’s approach makes a lot of sense. If you want to prevent the sort of human suffering that creates refugees, put pressure on governments to stop human rights abuses. The Arms Trade Treaty, which the UK government has championed thanks largely to 20 years of campaigning by Amnesty and its supporters, is potentially a hugely positive step towards this goal.
Stories such as Bijoux’s are not uncommon. Journalist Melanie McFadyean says high suicide rates amongst asylum seekers are driven by “a toxic combination of inhumane policy and public indifference.”
Ahmed, from the Sudan, speaks bluntly: “The UK government, they try to kill you. They have a strategy to make you kill yourself.” Traumatised, struggling to survive and denied any opportunity to help their loved ones, such despair is unsurprising.
But it is also avoidable. Freedom from Torture helps refugees engage in “a healing process to assert their own human dignity and worth.” Raymond, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo says “Without this place (Freedom from Torture), I would maybe have gone crazy.”
The Edinburgh Supporters group does a lot of fund and awareness raising for Freedom of Torture’s Glasgow treatment centre. See their Facebook page for information on how you can help
Human Rights + Wrongs closes on Sunday April 7 2013
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.