Every so often, my two daughters will report the arrival of a new
child to their class: a six-year-old girl who has fled with her
family of six siblings from a middle Eastern state or a
nine-year-old boy whose parents have escaped political persecution
in north Africa. The school currently teaches children from nearly
80 nations around the world.
Each of these children have their own character, their own life and
soul, so it is especially depressing to see such uniqueness
squashed by those who insist on seeing them and their parents only
and ever as “asylum seekers”.
Even worse are those who persist in thinking of these families as
solely a problem rather than a gift.
For make no mistake, Britain is fast becoming a hostile land for
those who seek safety or a new life here. News of riots against
asylum seekers by local youths in Wrexham made depressing reading.
The origins of the clashes are murky but the message is stark and
clear. Strangers are not welcome here.
You will find the same story in a number of British towns, such as
Plymouth, which was profiled in ”””’The Observer’ recently,
where asylum seekers are now forced to live on a specially
designated estate patrolled by a security firm. They say they feel
safer here than they do out in the centre of Plymouth, historically
a naval town where, according to one resident, black faces are such
a rarity that people still stare at them in the street.
Wrexham points up how those who have come to Britain in the hope of
settlement cannot win. One of the “complaints” against the recent
arrivals was that one of their number had been seen driving a
Mercedes. Such resentment is reminiscent of the hostility once
shown to Asian shopkeepers or Jewish businessmen. In every era,
there has been anger directed against the successful immigrant; as
much if not more than the struggling one.
It takes generosity to welcome a stranger. In this respect, the
children arriving at our local primary are lucky. The school has a
purpose-built refugee centre with trained staff and numerous
helpers; these help the children to do everything from learn
English to deal with family problems and develop their creativity
in often the most adverse circumstances. Even then one can hear
mutterings among some parents of British-born children about how
the school should be doing more for “their” children.
Hostility to a stranger inevitably arises from a sense of social
insecurity or an unresolved injustice. British society remains
riddled with class, race and gender difference; a mass of
resentments continue to bubble just below the surface of many
people’s lives. No surprise then that direct hostility to asylum
seekers often comes from young working class white men. The lack of
work for these youths have left many reliant on benefits and ready
to engage in criminality and the scapegoating of asylum seekers.
But we would do well to remember that by far the most significant
attitude to asylum seekers is that held by the powerful: those who
run our industries, edit and write our newspapers, administer our
policies on immigration and settlement. Many of these people are
far less likely to be personally touched by the arrival of poor
foreigners into their communities, living as so many of the rich
and powerful now do in gated compounds, with their children in
private schools, using everything from private health to exclusive
‘The Guardian’ recently carried a damning report on newspaper,
particularly tabloid, coverage of asylum seekers. These papers have
distorted the truth and whipped up bad feeling against those newly
arrived in this country. In response, the government has made very
public efforts to reduce the number of asylum seekers as if
appeasing the tabloid editors will sort out the problem.
In Wrexham, the local youths attacked a group of newly arrived
Iraqi Kurds. Yet only a few short months ago, our government was
telling us we must go to war with Iraq in the very name of those
Kurds so brutally treated by Saddam Hussein.
I wonder what those young Iraqi Kurds in Wrexham felt last month
when the country that fought to save their compatriots and was
apparently willing to give them refuge suddenly became a place in
which gangs of marauding youths were apparently so ready to give
them a good kicking for no good reason.
Melissa Benn is a journalist and novelist