A letter to the British people from a refugee activist

Zrinka Bralo
11 December 2003

Zrinka Bralo
Zrinka Bralo in full flow

Dear British People,

It is ten years since I arrived in Britain and it is my home now. After what I have been through, I feel it is my duty in an old fashioned sense to speak out. So I got involved as a speaker with Amnesty International and other groups interested in justice, human rights and refugees. I am not an expert. I don’t belong to a political party: I do what I do as an individual caught in a series of historic events.

Since I studied the media portrayal of asylum-seekers and refugees at the London School of Economics, I have been in the habit of reading the Daily Mail – every single day since 1998. It’s great! It is so empowering! It turns out that single-handedly, I am destroying this country, day in, day out!

Sarcasm aside however, I do have a huge sense of optimism. I have no idea where it comes from. Maybe it is the first sign of some kind of madness. I would expect somebody from a situation like mine, who had to watch my own country (Yugoslavia) disintegrate mostly due to sheer greed for power, to have become totally embittered and give up on human nature. But in Britain there has been a lengthy tradition of democracy and a great respect for all sorts of freedoms, and I believe that there are many good people who rarely get a chance to express that goodness, because it just isn’t newsworthy.

I only had one chance in my life to vote, before the Balkans war started, so I am really jealous that you can actually go and see your member of parliament, know them personally, badger them with your own agenda once a week, unannounced. And they have a duty to respond to you. You may feel jaundiced about them sitting in parliament and earning money for doing nothing. But actually, who lets them do this? It is a shame. Judging by the tabloids it would seem that Britain is going through a difficult kind of puberty, and losing a sense of itself. You are in some kind of transition.

Usually people only worry about their rights when they lose them, and luckily for you, generally speaking, for unusually long periods of time in this peaceful country, basic rights have not been withdrawn. Of course there are people who are suffering, but in general it is possible to be rather complacent. The political process has become reduced to the transactional: ‘I work. I pay taxes. I elect you once every few years, and then I expect you to do a, b, c, d, for me.’ That is where it stops. As a result, a lot of people feel a dissatisfaction and loss of faith in the current set-up.

So do I. The system might be basically good: but we surely need to participate more. When I speak to groups of people I feel that I am out there to arm you. Maybe you have not had time to do your own research. You don’t have the background I have had: so I might have a little bit of insight which can help you. At the same time, I don’t think I am telling you anything you don’t know. What I am trying to say is: “You have a really good country, just don’t let it go down the drain because there are a few morons around.”

But I have not done so much public speaking just recently, because I have been involved in quite a lot of soul-searching instead. Despite all the brilliant people I have talked to over these years, a fifth bill on asylum has just come onto the statute books which is worse than anything that came before. You, the British public, are not reacting. You are not helping us. So I have been thinking – what am I doing wrong?

A personal note

I had the same feeling I have now twelve years ago exactly, in Sarajevo, Bosnia. I grew up in a country dominated by the experience of past war, bitter national divisions, and political manipulation of the past. All this was revived during the wars which destroyed Yugoslavia, propelling me directly into a new life that I never sought, as a refugee.

Of course I am not comparing Yugoslavia in the 1990s with Britain today. In Britain such armed conflict will never happen, if only because Margaret Thatcher made sure that so many people in this country are home-owners: most people have much too much to lose. But what finally put an end to Yugoslavia was the moment when Serbs in Kosovo felt overwhelmed and overtaken by the Albanian minority: their oft-reiterated phrase was, ‘Serbs are jeopardised.’ Thinking about this feeling I have, it seems to me that a similar emotional combination is at work in Britain today: of a sensed advantage slipping, coupled with a new sense of jeopardy, about nation, nationhood and identity.

You know, when we hear the message nowadays, ‘immigration is not good for race relations in this country’, I cannot help hearing the echo of what the Austrian authorities said of the Jews who moved south to avoid Hitler’s persecution: “No, no, no, we can’t take them, because they will create a Jewish problem here.” These are very different contexts, and any comparisons need to be teased out with care in detail, but it seems to me these messages are on the same frequency. That is what scares me. Perhaps people here have not sufficiently learnt the lessons of those wars that came before.

For me, this debate has nothing to do with asylum: that is just a way for people to express their fears, frustration and alienation. Examine the reasons British people give for fearing asylum-seekers on TV chat-shows, and if you set aside some of the more predictable, derogatory terminology, their real fears are couched very much in terms of their own universe: “these people are clogging up NHS lists, taking away our benefits, jobs, houses, destroying our schools which are unable to set and reach their targets.”

At best, the debate is about a crisis in the welfare state coinciding with an ageing population. These then are the priorities politicians should be dealing with; and in the meantime, perhaps politicians on all sides should return to their gentlemen’s agreements on asylum and immigration policy, and just stop talking about it all.

Fear is the driver for all sorts of over-reaction. I too feel like screaming! The point is – you don’t have to like me, to let me in. I don’t have to be a nice person. You don’t have to agree with me. I don’t have to agree with you. Asylum is my right, defined by Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This little blue book of thirty little paragraphs is what the entire world is up in arms about. This is what scares Tony Blair so much that he wants to pull out of it (luckily Cherie won’t let him!) But this is it! Thirty articles and number 14 says, ‘Everyone has the right to seek...asylum from persecution”. It is actually a mechanism to protect human life, because my life has value beyond the borders of any national destiny. That is what asylum is about.

Who are you?

If we ask you as a nation what information you have regarding refugees, your perception is that 20% of the refugees all over the world come to this country, and that 23% of the British population are made up of black and ethnic minorities. The reality is that 4% of the British population are immigrants, and the majority of them are white. 7% of the population in this country are black and ethnic minority and the majority of them were born in Britain.

How might you get this false impression? It is quite interesting, because very few of you actually have a chance to know any refugees. They are not one organic group anyway, but are comprised of different communities from many, many different countries. Probably, the only way in which this particular grouping becomes visible for the host population, as such, is through the media.

I am only a ten-year old child in this country. I need to understand this culture I am supposed to be – not assimilated by – but integrating into and living with. So I started reading the Daily Mail not just to know what the enemy is thinking – no. Five tabloids between them cover a few million readers in this country, a huge proportion of the adult population. Maybe I am reading too much into this as a journalist. Still, I get my impression of this culture and this country through the media. And indeed this country is getting its impression of me the same way.

You may read about it once, twice. But then you begin to read about it three times a day, every day, over a long period of time. You don’t even have to read about it. You might buy a tabloid newspaper for the racing tips on the back-page. You don’t even have to buy it: they will grab your attention in the newsagent with such front-page announcements as, ‘Asylum-seekers! They can all stay now!’ or ‘We have lost the war against asylum!’

This is how we get perceptions about something we know nothing about. I don’t like football, but I still know everything there is to know about David Beckham. I get this from the moment I wake up in the morning, alongside the many derogatory labels for asylum-seekers and immigrants commonly applied in the press, as recently publicised by the campaign group Article 19. Of course those who read the tabloids won’t believe everything they read when they flick through the papers, but gradually, the media replace their lack of personal experience without them noticing. It is a cumulative, drip-drip-drip approach (‘would-be immigrants’, ‘would-be asylum-seekers’ ‘illegal asylum-seekers’) which builds up a deadly and truly ‘bogus’ reality effect.

In the meantime, two hours on the internet, even on the BBC website, will give you all the facts you need about asylum-seekers. No matter how much all those people they collectively refer to as the ‘race relations industry’ struggle – we NGOs, advocates and refugee organisations as well as liberal and libertarian journalists and public figures who are constantly talking about human rights, legal status, responsibilities, violations of human rights in countries of origin – that information is already available out there for anyone who is interested: accurate information, which does not correspond at all with the public perception. So, I ask myself, what is this fuss really about?

It is about British identity, or the lack of it. In this country, I am a ten-year-old child, screaming, ‘Look! The emperor has no clothes!’ But this is what I think.

Britain’s identity is confused, for all sorts of reasons. Identity is a very complex thing. You see me, for example, as a refugee. But I am not a refugee. I am red-haired. I am a woman. I smoke. I am a journalist. I am a public speaker. I can be all sorts of things, but refugee doesn’t mean anything to me. It is a bureaucratic label attached to me by others just because I had to leave my country. So that is not my identity. But, equally I might turn this back to you, and ask – who are you?

Because I am really beginning to think that we are not going to move this hysterical, grotesque debate on until you can tell me: Are you subjects? Or are you citizens? What are your human rights? Who is protecting them for you? And then I have to ask, is it actual human beings that come here that are bothering you, or is it the fact that your perception of your power in the world, your place, is shrinking?

I feel this country is so disenfranchised from citizenship in the political sense, that the only time when the white indigenous population feels that someone is speaking for them is when the xenophobes are speaking out and saving them from immigrants!

Otherwise the debate is simply not happening. What debate you have is constantly dragged down to a numbers game which convinces no one: what will this cost, how many people have we let through, can we or can’t we? Numbers – size – are not what matters when it comes to immigration. It is surely more important for your culture if two foreigners own several newspapers between them than if 250,000 foreigners come here and either gradually integrate into normal life or leave again. Nationalism should not be confused with patriotism. I do not have to be British to feel patriotic for this country. Confuse these – and it is easy to scare and confuse people that their sovereignty is under threat at the borders.

At the same time, you have German companies buying water utilities, French companies buying electricity utilities, Canadians buying up the phones – making decisions about your every day life that you have no control over. The infrastructure in Britain is no longer British, but nobody seems upset by that! So on the one hand you are selling up, and on the other you are in a total panic about losing control. It is weirdly paradoxical.

In terms of race, it is heavily coded. It should be more open. And the debate should be about whether as a country you should and can provide protection to people who need it. Perhaps twenty years ago there were 4,000 people who were able to come and claim it, but now there are 40,000, or a 140,000. So what should you do?

Today, instead of a discussion, there is a certain prevailing feeling that, “all the refugees in the world come into this country, and they should stop coming here because we can’t cope with them, and it isn’t only that we can’t cope with them – basically they are all bogus anyway! We are really, really nice people in this country, but we are only a small island, so even if they are all genuine, we couldn’t handle that number. But also – they are not genuine!”

Again, this is a very schizophrenic stance. I usually get the ‘small island’ argument because people don’t want to offend my feelings to my face as a refugee. Quite often, I get the additional placatory comment, ‘But you don’t look like a refugee!’ I would really like to know – what a refugee does look like...

Are you really reduced to that? When we don’t know who we are, we usually turn around and look for people who we are not. Asylum-seekers and refugees are being used for that purpose. We need to look for ways to remove from this debate the kind of scapegoating which turns innocent, extremely vulnerable people into political footballs. We have to look for mechanisms which may have been deployed in other countries for centring this debate finally around human rights: not only my human rights as a refugee or an asylum-seeker – your human rights as well, because we are all going to get identity cards soon enough!

Generally speaking, the Anglo-American approach to running society is admirably pragmatic. It is often very effective. But you can’t be pragmatic about everything. Sometimes you have to ask: is this the right thing to do? Being pragmatic about human rights and misery may not be the best way forward. And it may well help us if the government of the day points to the proud tradition whereby Britain has set out to help others to achieve the democratic system and the human rights that Britain worked hard to achieve. You should be encouraged to take a well-deserved pride in this good effort that the country has made in the past. It is time for people to take pride in the good in their history, not just worry about the bad.

I always say I need two hours to convince anyone. I have seven files at home full of articles, statistics and photographs to back up what I say: but I don’t yet have the connections. At this stage it would be difficult even for “Posh and Becks” and a heap of Live Aid celebrities to come and say: ‘well, actually – asylum-seekers are OK!’ They would have to be very brave, but it would take quite a lot of them at the same time to break the cycle of negativity in people’s minds. In fact it is the perfect challenge to the best PR firm in the world to transform this demonised bogus asylum seeker into just a human being – nothing more nothing less. Impossible? I am still refusing to give up, to be a victim, a perpetrator of myths or a bystander. Someone will listen and more importantly hear: this is Britain!

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