Anti-racism protest in London. Flickr/Garry Knight. Some rights reservedWhen I heard the news that the 17-year-old unaccompanied Kurdish Iranian asylum seeker, Reker Ahmed, who had only arrived in Britain seeking sanctuary a few months ago, was brutally attacked in Croydon last month, the first image that came into mind was that of the horrific murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. The Lawrence murder, the silence in the community, and the institutional cover-up opened my eyes to Britain's deep-seated racism.
In the following two decades, as a newcomer to British society, I have seen numerous deaths, murders and attacks on anyone who is perceived as an “outsider” – be they Chinese migrant workers, members of BME communities, Muslims, asylum seekers or refugees. In 2005, a Chinese man, Mi Gao Huang Chen, who ran a takeaway shop in Wigan with his girlfriend, was brutally beaten to death by a gang of 20 white youths who had been harassing the couple for months. The police did not respond to their cries for help until the day before Chen’s murder. The racially-motivated nature of their crime was largely ignored during the trial, with the police saying there might be a “suspected racial element”.
Given the serious injuries to his head and spine, Reker Ahmed is lucky to have survived. The media descended on Shrublands, in Shirley, Croydon, where the attack occurred. The centre of the attention was focused on an estate pub called ‘The Goat’, where some of those involved in the attack might have been drinking. One of the white bar staff nervously told me that the manager could not speak to me. She also said I was not allowed to talk to their customers inside the pub. “This is not a racist pub,” she said, probably guessing my assumptions. Outside in the beer garden, another white staff member said to me: “You are not allowed to ask our customers questions”.
Given the serious injuries to his head and spine, Reker Ahmed is lucky to have survived.
Meanwhile, several local black customers condemned the attack and insisted that the area is ethnically diverse and does not tolerate racism. One of them, in his thirties, said: “Don’t believe what they say in the papers. We’re not racists here. We’ve lived alongside asylum seekers for a long time and there’s never been an issue. This is a very mixed community.” Another, in his sixties, who has lived there for thirty years, felt indignant at what he perceived as the labelling of their community. He was originally from Zambia. “I’ve been here most of my life and we get along fine with everyone. We come in here [to the pub] and talk to everyone… This is not a racist community.”
Instead of focusing our attention on the multi-ethnic working-class community in Shirley, which, like everywhere else, is in opposition to any hate crimes, we should look at the bigger picture. The racist attack on Reker Ahmed has to be set in the context of consistent attacks on asylum seekers and refugees by our media and government policies. The demonisation of asylum seekers and refugees has been going on for years. Remember how the tiny number of underage asylum seekers from the demolished Calais camp were treated when they arrived in Britain last October? The tabloids mocked and demonised them in their persistent, anti-migrant, anti-refugee propaganda.
When Theresa May urged the country to track down those responsible for the attack on Reker Ahmed, the only image that came to my mind was her draconian asylum policies. Recently, her government abandoned pledges under the Dubs amendment to bring 3000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children into Britain. Where have these children ended up? In the woods in Calais, in camps in Dunkirk, and sleeping rough on the streets of Paris. Some, tragically, have lost their lives trying to jump onto lorries in an attempt to get to Britain.
Britain’s prime minister has a track record of attacking asylum seekers. Not only has May argued against rescue operations in the Mediterranean, calling it a pull factor, she has also refused to fulfil international obligations to receive refugees (only a pitiful 3% of asylum applications in Europe were lodged in Britain). In her notorious Tory conference speech in 2015, she also spelt out that asylum seekers should not even be allowed into Britain before their claims were assessed. She also demonised asylum seekers by claiming that “a significant number of asylum seekers were foreign criminals”.
Britain’s prime minister has a track record of attacking asylum seekers.
In that conference, she set out plans to make Britain a less welcoming place for asylum seekers. In other words, to make life hell for them, vowing to introduce strengthened ‘safe return reviews’ so that when a refugee’s temporary stay of protection comes to an end, or if there is an improvement in the conditions of their own country, the government will review their need for protection rather than offer settlement in Britain.
These have been put into place under May as Home Secretary. Under her policies, asylum seekers, having finally got over all the hurdles to being granted refugee status, will face a review after five years which assesses whether they can be safely returned to their home country. While in Britain, they live under the constant threat of deportation. This, for May, is to deter anyone from seeking refuge in “civilised” Britain.
This is not to mention the sub-standard financial support and appalling living conditions in which asylum seekers often find themselves trapped – living in shelters managed by private companies who are interested in nothing but filling their pockets.
These government policies, combined with the hostility of the media, have doubtless led to much misery for asylum seekers, and have strengthened racism, resulting in the increase in hate crimes we are currently seeing. To make sure that racist attacks never happen again, we need to resist these policies, call out racism in the media, and make sure that the very circumstances that breed extreme racism are eradicated.