The current migrant crisis is referenced by the media almost daily, as a rising number of people travel across the European Union seeking asylum. Here, a series of University academics, professionals and LSBU alumni discuss their opinions on the crisis.
Prof. Gaim Kibreab, LSBU academic
Prof. Kibreab left Eritrea as a young man, fleeing first to Sudan and then to Sweden, where he gained refugee status and completed his PhD. He is course director of LSBU’s MSc in Refugee Studies.
For the countries that are the source of the current wave, like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the first part of the solution must be to tackle the problems at home, so that people no longer need to flee.
"Before the current migrant crisis, Eritreans were the most prominent group of asylum-seekers coming to Europe. In absolute terms, the numbers were not so huge, but as a proportion of the population they were enormous. There are around 6.5 million people in Eritrea, and the diaspora is about 1 million. Eritrea is a dictatorship, and until the government relinquishes its grip on every aspect of life in the country, people will continue to flee.
"The main driver for people leaving the country is the draconian National Service regime, which came in after the victorious fight for independence from Ethiopia. Service is open-ended, and conscripts get pocket money. Once you’re in, it’s almost impossible to leave, and anyone who tries is subject to inhuman treatment.
"For these individuals, it’s a clear violation of their human rights, and the impact on the country as a whole is catastrophic: if everyone of working age is doing National Service, the economy collapses. Under these circumstances, the natural response is to flee. People are travelling up across the Sahara and into Libya and across the Mediterranean, taking huge risks along the way.
"In a way, the solution to the Eritrean crisis is very simple: the government needs to change. The country can survive as an independent entity. Yes, it’s poor, but the people are dynamic and enterprising. The big challenge will be in demobilising the 500,000-plus conscripts, who are armed and disaffected. They need education, training and support to start businesses. And you need to create an environment that allows the diaspora to be engaged so that the country can benefit from their capital, knowledge and experience.
"Similarly, for the countries that are the source of the current wave, like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the first part of the solution must be to tackle the problems at home, so that people no longer need to flee. In many of these countries, Western intervention has failed to deliver the promised benefits. Take Iraq, once the most prosperous country in the Middle East. Is it a more stable place post-Saddam? Ditto Libya. Meanwhile in Syria, I believe the West must engage with Assad. We have to be prepared to compromise on that.
"The second part involves the transit countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Sudan. They need support to develop clear policies for dealing with displaced people, and substantial aid. And third, we need greater cooperation within the EU and a commitment to accepting our fair share of asylum-seekers. That’s something the UK is failing to do at the moment, and we’re not alone in that.
"There is no doubt that the current crisis is raising awareness, but it remains to be seen whether that will spark a change in attitude. I was in Calais over Christmas, and it’s shocking to see such misery and suffering, particularly in an affluent, developed country. It just goes to prove how impossible it is for these people to live in their own countries. They wouldn’t be here otherwise."
Many are committed to returning home to rebuild their societies when they can; but in the meantime they need a haven, and the opportunity to maintain and develop the skills and the networks that they will need when they go back.
"Cara was set up in 1933 to rescue Jewish academics fleeing the Nazis. Since then, it has supported thousands of people from all over the world. Our founders described their task as ‘the relief of suffering and the defence of learning and science’, and both parts of that are still valid today.
"There are two main strands to our work. Much involves helping academics, often in very immediate danger, to escape to a safe place where they can continue their work. Many are committed to returning home to rebuild their societies when they can; but in the meantime they need a haven, and the opportunity to maintain and develop the skills and the networks that they will need when they go back. We also support a smaller number of academics who have been forced to flee. They cannot return home because of the dangers and are seeking to rebuild their careers here in the long term.
"In total, including family members and dependants, we’re currently supporting nearly 500 people – that’s compared with a typical total of several dozen a few years back, and more than at any time since the 1930s. The flow is increasing all the time, which obviously puts a lot of pressure on our very limited resources.
"We’re lucky to have a very strong network of 113 university partners, including LSBU, who help us find placements for academics. Many also support our work, for example by paying living costs and waiving fees. We used to cover the living costs ourselves, but the sharp rise in numbers has made it much more difficult.
"For universities that take on a Cara fellow, there are many benefits. These people bring fresh perspectives on their subject and, where the university has an interest in human rights, they can contribute first-hand insights into the situation in their country. If an academic is able to return home, the partnership often continues. That exchange of ideas benefits us all.
"Given the situations that people are fleeing, it would be odd to talk of ‘success’. But while Cara is needed – and there are no real equivalents in Europe – we will be here, as long as we can continue to raise funds and get the support from universities and individuals that we need."
Dr Mikdam Turkey, data scientist
Data scientist Dr Turkey turned to Cara for support after fleeing Iraq. He has been granted asylum and works for an IT company.
[Cara] opened my eyes to so many possibilities, and helped me to understand what employers were looking for and how to present my skills and experience.
"I was involved in politics and campaigning for human rights in Iraq, and life became very difficult for me. I came to the UK and claimed asylum in 2008. It wasn’t an easy process, but that was just the start. The next question you have to ask is: how do I build a new life? I’d always felt like I was in control of my destiny, so it was difficult for me to reach out and ask people what my next step should be.
"I came across Cara when I was searching online. I emailed them, they asked me some questions to see if I met their criteria, then I came in to speak to them. They really helped me to understand the differences between Iraq and the UK and to see how academia and industry work together here. It opened my eyes to so many possibilities, and helped me to understand what employers were looking for and how to present my skills and experience. Even my political experience, which in some ways is the thing that derailed my life, taught me valuable communication and social skills.
"Cara helped me financially too, but that wasn’t the most significant part of what they did for me. It was like having a time machine, speeding up the process of assimilation.
"My first job was as a teaching assistant at London Metropolitan University, and then I went on to do a PhD at the University of Essex. Cara arranged for me to go and see people at universities on an informal basis, to help build my confidence and my network of contacts.
"Up until February, I was working at LSBU. Then I decided the time had come to go out into industry and use my skills there. Now I’m in a position to make these decisions and take responsibility for my career and my future. I have Cara to thank for that."
Hannah Sansom, LSBU alumna
Hannah (MSc Refugee Studies, 2013) oversees the American Refugee Committee’s (ARC) Sexual and Gender Based Violence Program in Thailand.
We work hard to build capacity, and to give as many people as we can skills that they can apply elsewhere, but nothing about their future is certain.
"In total, there are nine camps along the Thailand/Burma border and we work in five of them. The Thai government refers to them as temporary shelters but in reality these are refugee camps. Many of the people here now were born in the camps, and the camp population is not allowed to leave or work outside the camps.
"My role is to support project managers and committees within the camps by equipping them with the skills to raise awareness of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) and provide direct support to individuals affected by it. Much of what we see here is intimate partner violence. Ingrained attitudes and social norms that tolerate gender inequality and violence against women and girls are a major factor; so too are problems with alcohol and drug misuse.
"Recently, there’s been growing concern about the vulnerability of individuals with a physical or mental disability to sexual violence, so a priority is to make sure teams know how to deal with these cases and to challenge discriminatory attitudes towards these groups. Another vital strand is working to engage men and boys with the sexual violence agenda, helping them to understand their roles and responsibilities and explore concepts of positive masculinity.
"The political situation in Burma is changing rapidly and there’s a lot of talk about repatriation. That’s led to some cuts in funding, which is putting a lot more pressure on our resources. It’s also created tension in the camps because the refugees are concerned about their future. On the face of it, being able to go home sounds wonderful; but for many, there is no home to go to.
"We work hard to build capacity, and to give as many people as we can skills that they can apply elsewhere, but nothing about their future is certain."
Ayar Ata, LSBU PhD student
PhD student Ayar’s studies on the Kurdish diaspora in London draw on his own experiences as a refugee.
I travelled to London with just a suitcase. To cut a long story short, I’m still here, a member of the Kurdish diaspora in London – and a Kurdish Londoner.
"The impetus for my research on Kurdish mass displacement and diaspora developed from my own life experience as a refugee. In July 1986, during the Iran-Iraq war, as the region became increasingly insecure and dangerous, I took a long walk out of the border region through an area called in Kurdish dyhata sotawakan – which literally means burned villages.
"Five months later a new chapter of my life began, when Sweden kindly opened its doors for me to enter an exhilarating, yet alien, society. Three years on, I travelled to London with just a suitcase. To cut a long story short, I’m still here, a member of the Kurdish diaspora in London – and a Kurdish Londoner.
"Perhaps my most significant steps towards active integration or active citizenship in London began when I completed my BA in Social Anthropology and Development Studies at the School of African and Oriental Studies in 1997. I learned more about forced migration and immigration – stories as well as theories. I went on to study social policy at Middlesex University in 2000 and forced migration and international human rights studies at the University of East London at postgraduate level, before starting my PhD at LSBU in 2011.
"My research on the Kurdish diaspora in London analyses the notion of history, cultural identity and the idea of home and belonging, looking at how the Kurds view their own history and how they relate to their new home, London. With this comes a shift in status, from victims in their own region to active citizens in London, and a transformation in identity: many second generation Kurds born in London positively identify themselves as 'Kurdish Londoners'.
"As the thinktank British Future put it in a recent report, the energy, dynamism, and challenges of integration should be understood better for all BME and refugee communities in London."
"The current crisis is bringing up a lot of painful memories for many of our students. As a personal tutor, I try to be aware of what our students may be experiencing and how they might be feeling when they read about troubles in their home countries or about the terrible, dangerous journeys so many migrants are undertaking. Many of our students have taken huge risks to be here. To me, they are all heroes.
"My family left Afghanistan when I was five years old. I went to 11 different schools in three countries before I came to the UK. LSBU gave me a way in to studying; they supported me to improve my English and gave me a job as a research assistant. The University has given me the continuity and security I never had in my life. I spent some time working in Australia and while that was a great experience, I missed my students at LSBU.
"LSBU’s commitment to widening participation in education really resonates with me. I try to do what I can to help students overcome any barriers that might be getting in their way. Of course not all of them are refugees, but I think there’s an understanding and connection with those who are, because they know I have been on a similar journey.
"We had one student who was failing to turn up for early morning lectures. It wasn’t that he was lazy – he was working all night to earn money to send home. I understand those kinds of pressures, and that enables me to do more to support the students than simply teach computing. I really love what I do."