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Somewhere Tehran

Submitted by on June 25, 2014 – 7:32 pmNo Comment

By Jonathan Allsopp

I followed Iran during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Working as a volunteer English tutor at the Refugee Education & Employment Programme in Sheffield, I’d recently met a lad from a Persian speaking part of Afghanistan that has close links to Iran. Me and Hossein (not his real name) chatted about life in Sheffield and football. He loved football and was supporting Iran in the World Cup. His eyes lit up when he recalled how the Iranians had beaten the USA in France ’98. “We win, we win…” he said punching the air. I tried to throw FC United of Manchester’s exploits in the North West Counties League into our conversations but my English skills weren’t up to it. He preferred Liverpool when it came to English football.

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REEP offered free English lessons to asylum seekers and refugees in the city and I was one of a band of tutors who worked on a one to one basis with those whose English wasn’t quite up to classroom-based lessons yet. It was all about learning practical language skills for going shopping, getting the bus, visiting the doctors’ etc. The lessons were informal and, to be honest, were as much about having a chat and a brew in a relaxed, friendly environment as they were about teaching English.

Hossein had been in the UK for over a year but was still awaiting the outcome of his application for asylum. The frustration of being unable to find anything other than casual work was obvious. Over the course of several months, he divulged his reasons for fleeing his homeland and leaving behind loved ones. And he described a tortuous seven month journey through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France culminating in a cross-Channel journey clinging to the underside of a lorry before scampering into the darkness at a Kent motorway service station. All the time, fearful that, at any moment, he could be caught and sent back home. It told of desperation that few of us will ever come close to experiencing. I had nothing but admiration for Hossein’s courage. Undoubtedly one of the bravest, no make that THE bravest person that I’ve ever met.

Fast forward a few years and I’m on a day-long Equality & Diversity course at the London hospital where I work. As the day wore on there were a few stifled yawns and “this is political correctness gone mad” looks around the room. Aside from one person thinking that it was ok to refer to an Irish patient as a “paddy” one of the daftest comments came later in the day as we discussed asylum seekers and refugees. When asked what proportion of the world’s asylum seekers we thought were hosted by Britain one of the group immediately piped up with the figure of 25%. The reality is that the UK provides a home for less than 2% of the world’s refugees (there were 15 million worldwide in 2012). About 80% of those seeking asylum end up in neighbouring developing countries like Pakistan and Iran, often living for many years in refugee camps without running water and electricity.

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Sadly there remain huge misconceptions about who asylum seekers are and the reasons why they come to the UK. That they have often fled violence and torture in their own countries and have left behind families, friends and jobs is conveniently ignored in nonsense news stories about “floods” of “bogus” asylum seekers arriving on our shores merely to scrounge off our over-generous welfare state. Too often we talk about numbers but ignore the incredible human stories behind the statistics.

And herein lies the problem with the debate about asylum seekers and refugees. The chances are that the vast majority of those who are most vociferous in their opposition to refugees seeking sanctuary in Britain have probably never met a refugee in their lives. The likelihood of bumping into a refugee on the street is tiny; in 2012 the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK made up only 0.27% of the population, less than 170,000 people in total. But if the average Daily Mail reader was to sit down and have a chat with a refugee or asylum seeker they might begin to appreciate that beneath the headlines, the statistics and the labels these are ordinary people with the same hopes and fears as the rest of us. And they might be gobsmacked at the tales of incredible courage in just getting to this country in the first place. These are heroes that need our help.

The right to asylum is enshrined in international law. The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention guarantees everyone the right to apply for asylum in another country. Down the years it has saved many millions of lives and should be something of which we are fiercely proud. It recognises that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means to make it to a place of safety. For instance, there is no legal way to travel to the UK specifically to claim asylum.

Refugees make a huge contribution to British life. Their contribution to the UK coffers through taxation massively outweighs the benefits received by asylum seekers who are not legally able to work. The British Medical Association has over a thousand medically qualified refugee doctors and nurses on its database. Indeed, it is arguable whether or not the NHS would continue to function without immigrant staff.

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Last week was Refugee Week, an annual event that aims to redress the balance in the debate about refugees. It began in 1998 as a direct response to the hostile image of refugees and asylum seekers that is too often portrayed by the media. Refugee Week celebrates the contribution of refugees to the UK and aims to promote a better understanding of why people leave their homelands to seek sanctuary elsewhere. But this is more than a seven day event; the refugees and asylum seekers that make it to our shores deserve our unswerving support all year round. As that ace flag at FC says “we are all immigrants”.

As for the World Cup, I’m supporting Iran again.

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