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Still no country for women? Double standards in choosing the next UN Secretary-General

Six of the twelve candidates for the job of UN Secretary-General are women, but in the first informal vote at the Security Council only one woman made it to the top five. Why ? - free thinking for the world

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Standing together: beyond the headlines

"Ok, now give me youthful enthusiasm!"

We all beam up at the camera as the local journalist takes photos of us preparing banners for Refugee Week; balloons, laughter and colourful paint. ‘Maybe we could paint ‘Refugee Week' on one of your faces?' The irony kills me; reluctant for a foreign face to appear in relation with this issue unless they are a criminal or footballer, a pretty white face is a lovely stage. For one day only it will be me, the lucky one to be branded with the colourful stamp of ‘refugee' while I hold a balloon next to me to represent a whole sub-population of faceless individuals. And why is this the case? Firstly, for many misguided people my face seems to fit the image of community in a way that of a foreigner does not. Furthermore, refugees themselves are often reluctant to come forward in the public eye and challenge this, and who can blame them given the public backlash these issues often face: it is a vicious circle...

"Protection is the least we can give"

On Tuesday this week, London's Trafalgar square was transformed into a temporary "refugee camp" by the UNHCR in an awareness raising initiative to highlight the ongoing situation in Darfur, which saw similar scenes in 20 countries across the world. Zrinka blogged earlier this week about her own unexpected reaction to the exhibition. The hope is that the day-long camp had an impact on those who know nothing about Darfur, the UNHCR or refugees in general, the "absent majority" as Jenny put it in an earlier post.

What makes us care, and how do we act?

Rosemary and Zrinka have raised some extremely important questions - not only ‘who cares for who', but what makes us care, and how we choose to express it. I would like to try and shed some light on the second two questions in light of my experience campaigning on asylum issues.

It seems to be a question of proximity, both in terms of coming into contact with the issues and our ability to act. People are more willing to deal with refugee and asylum issues when it is a question of isolated acts of human kindness; we find it easier to perceive an asylum seeker as a charity case than a dignified human being with ‘political baggage'. The same difficulty is encountered with many other social issues, especially homelessness: however complicated the problem is, a small donation is a concrete step towards a simple (and deserving) end, whilst interacting with the system is an up-hill struggle which rarely boasts such direct rewards.

Fear and strange arithmetics: when powerful states confront powerless immigrants

It is surprising to see the high price in terms of ethical and economic costs that powerful ‘liberal democracies' seem willing to pay in order to control extremely powerless people who only want a chance to work. Immigrants and refugees have to be understood as a historical vanguard that signals major ‘unsettlements' in both sending and receiving countries.

The right to work

In 2002, the government made it illegal for people claiming asylum to work. In April 2008, the Refugee Council and TUC launched a joint campaign, Let Them Work campaigning for the right to work for asylum seekers, as a fundamental human right. On our own discussions and interviews with refugees and asylum seekers, together with campaigners and activists, work was often identified as the most important policy change that would improve the lives of asylum seekers in the UK.

Mind your language: banning asylum or saving sanctuary?

"Politically correct brigade strikes over word ‘asylum'" screamed the headline in the Sun following the Independent Asylum Commission's first report of conclusions and recommendations, Saving Sanctuary, in May. "Should we ban the word ‘asylum'?" the BBC asked.

Building bridges

On one of the many earlier occasions when desperately provoked people broke out of Campsfield or some other detention centre, the message to the British people was not to approach them on any account because... the implication was.... or was it? ... let's say the suggestion ... that they were violent criminals of an indeterminate but horrendous kind.

No-one would expect a coffee-table book tete-a-tete. But 'Arresting Aram' and some of the other comments made this week about the 'surprising' pleasure and interest some of us have had in meeting the people involved - confirm my earlier suspicion that a much more 'dangerous' outcome, for the authorities at least, and for the militarisation of immigration and asylum which is under way, might be the formation of the kind of bridges that Jenny talks about in her last post: the bridge between the people behind bars and the people who don't know how innocent most of them are.

Meeting Mary

"Me and my husband had good jobs in Uganda and a nice house with four bedrooms and a compound. I had money in my country. That is not why I came here" - Mary, destitute asylum seeker.


I picked Mary out from the crowds of people gathered in the gardens where we arranged to meet without knowing what she looked like or where she would be. There was something about her that was different to the swarms of lively, animated people around her. She stared straight ahead, with a look of bewilderment and loss fixed upon her face, in only a way somebody can when they have no idea of what their future will bring.

The pull factor

The imminent UK ratification of a European convention which describes women in the sex trade as the victims of trafficking is to be welcomed, not least because it will lead to more prosecutions. Isn't it time that the government criminalised the buyers of these services?

Your country – concentrate on that!

My name is Suren Khachaturyan. I'm 37 years old from Armenia. I have been living in Great Britain for 7 years now.

As the Home Office describes - I'm a "failed asylum seeker" who does not belong to any group or category of people in the UK. I'm married to a British woman and living together with her and her 10 year old son in Wales.

I don't want to take your time or to waste mine to explain why it is I came to this country, and how I'm getting on with my life - even if it's interesting for you. That is because, I would like you not to concentrate on my asylum case or anyone's case and where they came from.

Under our care

Another reason why many of us look away is simply because the scale of what we are up against is so huge and so daunting. At the opposite end of the problem from the individual moral dilemmas with which we are increasingly familiar - there are the coordinated actions of countries, at the UN or the EU.

Take the news from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees this week. Here are some of the headlines from UNHCR's Global Trends report:

Arresting Aram

When the doorbell rang at 6am Kate, my wife, went to answer it while I stayed upstairs with the children. Even before she got to the door she knew it was Immigration. There were four immigration officers and two policemen, come for our friend Aram, who had been living with us for several months. He had applied for refugee status in the UK and been refused, so he was homeless and couldn't work or claim any State support.

Who cares for whom?

Who cares for whom in this world? - is the question that Zrinka asks in today's article, 'Insult and injury' - to which Jenny replies, "For the people locked up in Campsfield (for what?) - not enough people." This is a very uncomfortable exchange for those of us in the middle ground or the silent majority. In her piece later this week Sonja Linden mentions some caring professionals that have inspired a character in her play, Crocodile Seeking Refuge, who ruin some aspects of their lives when they "step over the professional line in their dedication to their [asylum seeking] clients." But in the course of her work with the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, Zrinka's encounter is with another type of professional, as she puts it:

The absent majority

On Monday night I left Oxford Town Hall after a Refugee Week event totally distressed by the stories I had heard; Margerie and Innocent Empi, two refugees from Uganda and the DRC, journalists Melanie McFadyean and Melissa Benn, and Tariq Ali had all spoken about how we treat those seeking asylum in the UK. I was angry, ashamed and driven to act. I thought, if only everyone had heard what I have heard tonight; if only everyone could feel what I am feeling...

Things can only get worse

Once again, the European Union has rejected the opportunity to correct some of the worst abuses on its territory and instead will introduce a Returns Directive that institutionalizes the worst practices. And yet the UK will not sign - although in some respects it needs to be restrained most.

Living on vouchers

by Stephanie

My life is a daily struggle. Since I sought asylum, I have had to learn to survive on nothing. I am not allowed to work, and have no source of income. I have to rely on vouchers that I receive every week. These are worth £70; I have to spend them on food for me and my son. That is £5 a day for each of us. I must be very meticulous if I want us to survive on these vouchers till the following week.

Asylum and health: insult and injury

Shifts in access to healthcare in the UK for refugees and asylum seekers have created more than confusion. We are all implicated in the tragedies that result, and all suffer from the impact

Healthcare in detention

The treatment of asylum seekers in this country is entirely inappropriate, and in many cases inhumane. Both vote-hungry politicians and a targeted media campaign fuel the demonization of asylum seekers- and there is no sector in which this is more apparent than healthcare.

When I think about asylum seekers and health there are two main issues that concern me; access to care and continuity of care.

Football Unites: volunteering with refugees

My name is Tabassam Yasin. I was born and raised in Sheffield, and I'm a student at Sheffield Hallam University studying business and finance. I got involved with a volunteering project, Football Unites, this year. There are six or seven student volunteers with a project coordinator. It involved thirty or so refugees from the Northern Refugee Centre, and we had a 5-a-side football tournament.

Plastic sheets and therapeutic food

I went to the mock refugee camp in Trafalgar square this morning. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has set up these for one day only in 20 major cities in the world to highlight the plight of people in Darfur.

I arranged to meet a newspaper journalist there who wanted to write about Refugee Week. I thought it would be good for him to see it. I completely forgot that it might not be so good for me to see it. I suddenly remembered the plastic sheets with the UNHCR logo on them all over my windows in Sarajevo. The glass on all our windows had shattered from shelling within weeks of the war starting and as the winter set in, these plastic sheets became the main feature in the city. They were part of our humanitarian aid. I did not think that the sight of plastic sheets with a logo in Trafalgar square could bring back nasty memories so fast and that I could still be affected so strongly. But I was.

Confidence, charisma... and diversity

One of the contributors to the MigrantVoice roundtable last week asked where were the writers and commentators who could make an impact on this debate on sanctuary or refuge - "There is no-one to speak with confidence and charisma on immigration and asylum issues. Very, very rarely does it happen." 

Today's MigrantVoice authors - Philippe Legrain and Irshad Manji - might well qualify. I was particularly struck by Philippe's question: "Since governments conspire to deny people the right to cross borders freely, is pretending to be a refugee really so terrible?" and by Irshad's thought that perhaps the Statue of Liberty should be sent back to France.

For a future bigger than our past

Europe seems to be exporting some of its immigration attitudes to America. But identity entrepreneurs have a distinct advantage over identity protectionists - something America will do well to remember, says Irshad Manji

Integration is no accident

Continuing our roundtable debate, participants discuss integration. What does it mean, and how can it be achieved? Who is responsible and what more can be done to help those who want to be integrated?

Ms B, a refugee from Bosnia, Mr P, a refugee from Eritrea, Mr A, a refugee from Afghanistan, Mrs S, a refugee from Somalia, Mr A, a refugee from Somalia and Ms N, a worker on mentoring schemes, take up the issue.

Creative writing at Campsfield

‘I love spring fruits.'

‘Yeah me too, but I miss fresh fruit here, and plantain!'

‘What's plantain?'

‘Ah, OK, you're in for a treat - see here, just left of the Co-op, up the street outside Salvation Army, the best plantain you'll get outside Jamaica, innit. Tell her I sent you.'

The man winks up at me, marking a thick X on the map which he has penned of Bletchley Town Centre. It sits next to a poem we have written together, juxtaposing our different visions of spring to reveal an assortment of diverse experiences and creative minds. We are three Oxford University students and four detainees in Campsfield House from Turkey, Nigeria, Pakistan and Jamaica, and this is our shared experience of spring:

Every week is refugee week...

My name is Zrinka Bralo, and I am Executive Director of Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum in London. Yesterday, I spent a day at the South Bank with many of my colleagues and fellow Londoners at the launch of Refugee Week 2008.

I often say that I have refugee week every week, not only because a long time ago I was a refugee, but also because I do support work with refugees on a daily basis. However, this week is special because The United Nations General Assembly designated 20 June as World Refugee Day to recognize and celebrate the contribution of refugees throughout the world. And that is what we did on Sunday.

What is refuge?

As we launch MigrantVoice on refuge at the beginning of Refugee Week 2008, participants in our roundtable debate discuss what asylum, sanctuary or refuge means to them:

Ms B, a refugee from Bosnia, Mrs A, a refugee from Iraq and Mr A, from Afghanistan.

Ms B, a refugee from Bosnia: This Refugee Week we want to have an honest discussion from all our different perspectives about a number of issues relevant to our daily lives. We are trying to work with people promoting cities of sanctuary, to take the debate about asylum, refugees and immigration into more normal, reasonable waters, (because what has been happening so far has been so appalling).

Our choice: fortress or sanctuary?

In the 2006 film Children of Men, set in the near future, a sudden failure of human fertility has led to global political violence, social collapse and forced migration. Britain is one of the few countries with a still functioning government, but in response to the refugee crisis it has become a semi-fascist society. There is constant propaganda warning citizens not to shelter refugees, and the police round-up and imprison foreigners in huge detention camps.

Welcome, everybody to MigrantVoice

Welcome to our new blog partners, Jenny Allsop of STAR, Oxford and Craig Barnett of City of Sanctuary in Sheffield, and an old friend, Zrinka Bralo of MRCF, who are joining us today! They will be adding their thoughts and experiences to the discussions this Refugee Week, and helping us begin to get at the real picture around the UK - a picture that all our readers can help us fill out, since we are all experts on this fundamental challenge for ourselves and our societies - and we very much hope to hear your comments too.

Open Britain

There are far-reaching ways in which immigration controls are not only ineffective but counterproductive. Britain's new points system traps all our life chances. And there is a win-win alternative within our grasp, writes Philippe Legrain

Iraq: between false refuge and the peril of return

The UK's Iraqi asylum seekers are now being forced to return not only to the more stable northern region, but to central and southern Iraq. Whatever responsibility UK citizens might feel for them is clearly not shared by those taking these decisions. How then do they decide?

Asylum UK – a history (part two)

Britain prides itself on a tradition of providing refuge for those fleeing persecution. But asylum policy has undergone many changes through the ages. Here we outline some of the key events in history.

Four thousand years of asylum (part one)

Asylum has a pedigree stretching back to the Greek empire, but many liberal states are still struggling with a central question: how do you reconcile the rights of people, which are universal, and citizens, which are particular?

A mirror image of our society

A much-honoured South African academic, businesswoman and former anti-apartheid activist responds to the wave of violence directed against foreign immigrants that recently swept through her country. The South African people, she says, must now rise to their challenges.

A question of humanity

Ms B, a refugee from Bosnia: There was a time when Claude Moraes MEP was on the news all the time - asked to comment whenever anything happened. But we don't have those spokespeople any more, and that leadership is lacking. You hardly ever hear the head of Amnesty International on these issues. There is no-one to speak with confidence and charisma on immigration and asylum issues. Very, very rarely does it happen.

A conspiracy of negativity

Mr A, a refugee from Afghanistan: It's really not just the tabloids. That's the point. There really isn't much positive about us in the so-called mainstream press either. And this makes refugees and those seeking asylum think: "OK - we'll give up. We can't change people's minds."

We have from our refugee community some very successful people. But there is no story about them. But if someone has done good things, that should be mentioned as well. If someone has done something wrong - OK, they need to report that. But how will they report it. So you will read in a paper - "Arab rapist" - why not "Ahmed" or "Steve rapist" - why "Arab"?

But I'll give you a positive example of what can be done. I was living in Newcastle. Close by there is a little town called Sunderland, a nice place, but the problem is that they have more extreme views about refugees and asylum-seekers than you find in most other places. They don't like them. And there aren't many refugees there at all. The Home Office sent a few asylum seekers up there and police had to move them after a few days. In 2003, an Iranian asylum seeker was stabbed to death.

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