Britain’s mistreatment of immigrants plays into al-Qaeda’s hands
This is a guest post by Nadja Stamselberg
For the past eight months I have taught English as a second language to teenagers coming form Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Iranian Kurdistan. Out of the ten pupils, three were girls and seven were boys. Aged between sixteen and nineteen, all but one were here without their families. Two boys from Afghanistan and a boy from Pakistan are orphans, whilst another three Afghan boys and an Ethiopian girl don’t know where their parents are or whether they are still alive. Most of them have been trafficked to England. Put on a lorry by a relative who couldn’t afford to look after them, they were sent off to a better future. They survived weeks of inhumane conditions, cramped at the back of airless containers, their limbs numb, their hearts brought to a standstill each time a lorry slowed down or stopped. Some of them even saw their friends and fellow passengers die of exhaustion and dehydration. Nevertheless, when talking about their perilous journey, their faces light up as if they are remembering a great adventure. Perhaps it is a privilege of youth to gloss over most the horrendous experiences and refer to them with nostalgia, or perhaps a mean of survival. One of the boys often talked about Rome, a city he spent a week in whilst the local mafia negotiated with the traffickers before letting them continue their journey. The city made quite an impression on him. It was the first sight of Europe that he saw. The ancient squares and churches were as beautiful, if not even more so, than the ones in his hometown of Herat in Afghanistan. More importantly he was able to experience a place he read and learnt about in school in Iran. Growing up in a refugee camp outside Tehran, he would often imagine these faraway places, and now he was in one of them.
Once in the United Kingdom they applied for asylum and were housed either with foster families, or were put in shared accommodation with other adolescents from similar backgrounds. Each one was assigned a social worker to help them to adjust to their new life. They were also enrolled at a college where they would study English, basic numeracy and IT. With few exceptions, most of them had never been to school. Growing up in war-torn countries robbed them not only of their childhoods and their parents, but of their education as well. Nevertheless, most of them could read and write in their own languages, with a number of them being multilingual, able to speak several languages and dialects. Literacy, however limited, was courtesy of the madrasas. Religion in fact has been the only stable, positive factor in their lives. It provided them with discipline; purpose and most importantly hope that better times were to come. Many of them battle depression and have anger issues and difficulties coping with their new lives. The Afghan boy, whose trafficking experiences took him on an unwilling yet fascinating journey across Europe, broke down in one of the tutorial classes. Only sixteen at the time, he felt that his life was not worth living. He was alone, his parents were killed by the Taliban upon their return from exile in Iran; an only child, he had no one to lean on. Coming from a Hazara background, most of his family has been killed and displaced. The only living relative, his aunt’s husband who paid for his journey to England, was never heard of again. He would often miss college to go to the Refugee Council. A French lady who worked there became like a surrogate mother for him. He spoke of her with so much tenderness, always mentioning that she said that he was like a son to her. Humane contact and genuine emotions are what these children crave the most.
The ones who have successfully been placed with the foster families often thrive. However, as soon as they turn eighteen they are no longer allowed to stay with the families, nor in the shared accommodation. Upon reaching legal adulthood they, often with as little as fifteen minutes notice, have to move. We had cases where the key worker would call the college and ask for the student to be sent home to move as a cab was coming to his place to pick up his stuff. If they did not make it in time, their things would be packed by the key worker and sent to the new address. They were promised that their relocation to hostels and B&Bs was temporary until they were allocated a more permanent abode. Very often they would spend months living in minimally furnished rooms, sometimes not even having bed sheets. Robberies were regular occurrences, their rooms broken into and their few precious possessions stolen.
Unfortunately, these are not the only insecurities they face. Their long-term stay and settlement in the United Kingdom is questionable, with their right to remain reconsidered once they turn eighteen. In fact, for the duration of their stay in the United Kingdom they face uncertainty and the possibility of being sent back to their country of origin. Since quite a few countries are now seen as ‘safe enough’, a number of the adolescent asylum seekers will most certainly face deportation. Having to deal with these issues manifests in different ways. Some of them resolve to self-harm, some get in trouble with the law, others grin and bear it making the most of their lives here. Sadly, they are often expected to transgress. The overworked and jaded social workers tend to have little sympathy for their plights. At a parents’ meeting, I had one student’s social worker refer to him as a ‘little sod’ who keeps getting into trouble with the law. Upon inquiring further I was told that he was booked for dodging the bus fare and for sitting in the driver’s seat of a car without having a licence. Furthermore, their life stories are not believed. The Home Office regards most of their asylum applications as fabrications designed to fool the British system. Their dates of births are also often dismissed as fakes and many are given new ones, the most popular being 1st of January.
At the same parent’s meeting, another social worker told me that I should be careful with believing everything the students tell me as they come form a culture, in this particular case form South Asia, where it is a norm to tell people what they want to hear instead of the truth. He was trying to show understanding for my naiveté, but stressed that I will soon realise myself that this student’s story was questionable, constructed for the benefit of staying in this country. The story that his parents were killed by his uncle in a dispute over land was questionable. His subsequent crime of beating the same uncle to death by a wooden stick whilst sleeping could not be confirmed and the account of both him and his brother spending two years moving from one place to the other all over Pakistan running from relatives was unsubstantiated. Furthermore, he was illegally in this country for two years before applying for asylum. Having turned eighteen, the Home Office is due to reconsider his case. Aware of this, he was filled with terror by the prospect of being sent back to Pakistan. Ever since he was twelve years old he has been on the run. He had a deep hatred and fear of the country where he found no protection from the law and saw no justice served. He was so grateful to be able, for the first time in his life, to go to school and have some semblance of a normal life, and was looking forward to making his life here.
My initial reaction when he told me that if he gets sent back home he will join al Qaeda was to dismiss it as another provocative remark. Looking for a reaction, some of the students would talk about al Qaeda, Taliban and Osama Bin Laden, boasting about their support for their cause and playing up to the stereotypes imposed on them by society. However, I was soon to realise that his statement was not a childish attempt at attention seeking, but an option he was seriously considering. His motifs were neither a religious fervour nor a dislike of the West and its values. On the contrary, they were a frantic plea for some structure, direction and security, whatever that might be. Feeling let down by his own family, country and eventually by the United Kingdom, which had supposed to provide him with a safe haven and another shot at the normal life and education he so desperately craved, he would be a perfect target for recruiting. Preying at disillusioned youth with no jobs and no hope, al Qaeda offers to fill the vacuum left by poverty, lack of education and displaced and destroyed family units. Youth, inexperience and feelings of hopelessness make al Qaeda’s newfound followers susceptible to all sorts of anti-Western sentiments disguised as ‘anti-imperialist’ ones.
Back in the United Kingdom, Islamophobia (systematically promoted by some sections of the political elite and the media); poor treatment of the immigrants; and attempts to manage community diversity to suit certain economic interests best, all deepen divisions within the popular classes, creating more resentment toward the young asylum seekers. Consequently, some of the students are faced with bigoted comments and insults. Many of them also complain about their treatment by the Home Office officials. All of this in turn provides a valuable service to reactionary political Islam, giving credibility to its anti-Western discourse. This makes it possible to lure and draft the deported asylum seekers. Despite everything, most of them love living in the United Kingdom and are very grateful for the freedoms and opportunities it offers. Casualties of the wars we waged on their behalf, our broken promises and their own societies’ inability to provide them with protection and a future, these vulnerable young people need our help. Instead of treating them as parasites on our economy and a threat to our society and values, the Home Office should recognise these young persons’ strengths and potential. Giving them an opportunity; a much-deserved chance to rebuild their shattered lives; we will not only gain valuable members of our society, who will enrich and contribute to it, but also deprive various terrorist organisations both of their mission and of many of their potential followers.
Nadja Stamselberg has recently finished a PhD in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She wrote her thesis on practices of exclusion and European identity. She is currently working on a book, which traces the historical precursors of exclusion in Europe, connecting it to the subsequent concepts of hospitality and cosmopolitanism.
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