#whitefeather diaries

Welcoming refugees today

Tuesday 15 March 2016

During World War I Hilda Clark felt called to work with refugees and internally displaced persons in France. But in Britain many ordinary people were involved in providing accommodation for Belgian refugees. The Friends Emergency Committee also supported long-stay British residents of German, Austro-Hungarian or Turkish nationality who now found themselves ‘enemy aliens’ in Britain and had their freedoms curtailed based on that nationality.

The plight of those who flee conflict and persecution remains a concern today. Quakers across Britain act on that concern, many through the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network. Catherine Henderson, an attender at Hertford and Brussels Quaker Meetings, reflects on why she became involved.

Towards the end of 2014, after Italy closed down its Mediterranean rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, I saw an interview on Channel 4 News of the few survivors from a boat of refugees. One woman and two men spoke quietly about what had happened to them. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Travelling between the UK and Brussels, where my husband lives, I had become increasingly aware of the fences going up at Calais, soldiers patrolling the station and, in the Beguinage church, an aisle of tents where Afghan refugees were claiming sanctuary.

No safe, legal routes

I discovered that it was our government that had led calls to withdraw the search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, arguing, in what I later realised was a favourite Home Office phrase, this was serving as a ‘pull factor’, encouraging people to make the dangerous crossing. But they continued coming, in greater numbers, and ‘people smugglers’ were held responsible for the increasing loss of life. The smugglers, however, were a symptom rather than a cause. The closing of borders meant the Mediterranean was one of the few routes to asylum in Europe for those fleeing war and persecution in Africa and the Middle East: there were no safe, legal routes.

Amnesty’s UK Director, Kate Allen, pointed out how different our response would be were those drowning perceived to be more ‘like us’: “The equivalent of five passenger planes full of people have drowned in the Mediterranean last week alone… if they had been holiday makers, instead of migrants, imagine the response.” The drivers of forced migration are complex, and the current definition of refugees ‘fleeing persecution’ is increasingly inadequate, as it fails to take into account climate change, food insecurity and global inequality. Naomi Klein has noted the ‘cocktail of inequality and racism' shaping western responses to migration.

'Deserving' refugees

Our response to the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers draws together Quaker testimonies of peace, equality and sustainability. For me, equality is a constant theme. There is an emerging hierarchy of refugees, some judged to be ‘more deserving’ (the Syrians), others less so. This despite the UNHCR’s assertion that "profiling by nationality defies every convention". 

Over the past year I have become involved with the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network, which I came across while promoting a petition calling for a renewed search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. I have learnt about the inequities of the British asylum system; heard asylum seekers describe how indefinite detention and denial of the right to work have broken their spirit; met with my MP to talk about Syria, and worked with others to campaign for the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement scheme in Hertfordshire.

Turning the tide towards peace

All this helps to some extent to counteract the feeling of hopelessness that is overwhelming at times. How do we challenge the racism and xenophobia driving refugee and immigration policies? How do we listen to people whose views we are uncomfortable with, and try to understand their fears?

Refugees are seen by some as threatening our way of life. Billions of euros of taxpayers’ money are paying for fences, border control and detention centres across Europe. We risk marginalising the very people we should be helping. Security depends on how we behave towards others. As Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in his New Year speech: “In today’s world, hospitality and love are our most formidable weapons against hatred and extremism.” It is by welcoming refugees and asylum seekers into our communities that we can help turn the tide towards peace.

Find out more about the work of the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network.

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Hilda was busy working with refugee mothers and children in France. In July she wrote to her parents in Somerset to congratulate them on their golden wedding anniversary. She apologised for not being there in person and for seeing them so rarely. 

NCF crowd
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Pacifist principles were put into practice when a pro-war mob tried to invade an anti-conscription rally at Devonshire House, which was then the London central offices of British Quakers.