What do you think is the dominant perception of asylum seekers?
Modern asylum needs to be viewed against its historical context. It can be split into three broad movements– the Cold War, the post-Cold War era and the post 9/11 era.
During the Cold war, refugees were seen in a positive light and there was considerable sympathy for their situation; states sought to provide them with protection and welfare. They attracted refugees fleeing communism, from Soviet Union countries, and also from Africa, Latin America and Asia where we had governments that were supported by Communist regimes. This was a time when many refugees found sympathy and support from the West.
Since the end of the Cold War we have a different perception of refugees. There is a feeling that as democracy and the rule of law became established in many developing countries, there is no need or justification to have refugees in the midst of European countries. Many European governments justified the restrictive legislation that they were introducing by arguing that the current flood of refugees were voluntary migrants, fleeing simply as a result of economic conditions, rather than refugees that satisfy the 1951 convention regarding persecution. The sympathy has turned into hostility and some of the media have exacerbated the situation and created misunderstanding by equating refugees with seeking benefit from better economic conditions.
The latest period, which is the post 9/11 period, leaves refugees viewed with suspicion, in great part because the media show asylum in tandem with terrorism and general negative connotations. The post-Cold War period has been a very difficult time for asylum seekers.
How have you benefited from asylum, how different may your life have been had you not benefited?
When I left Ethiopia in the late 70s, the military government was perceived to be pursuing an ideological policy more in tune with Communism. I became a refugee at a time when there was ample sympathy for refugees fleeing a country perceived to be run by a communist oriented government. Although I doubt their Communist credentials, I personally benefited positively. I was able to access a scholarship when I came to the UK, as part of the UK initiative for refugees from the Horn of Africa, and I was able to study and benefit from that.
Is there something inherently contradictory in Western states about democracy, a commitment to the populace and their liberal obligation to offer refugeehood to those outside the country? Is it overpowering or can it be overcome?
Any government has a responsibility to its electorate, this is the starting point; however governments must also acknowledge international obligations. The essence of the UN is that it was created as a pseudo-world government, which despite having an uneven distribution of power still offers a concept of international justice through conventions, which need to be respected. Countries such as Britain and the founding members of the UN have a special responsibility to make sure the conventions are implemented and liberally interpreted. Also, countries such as Britain actually have the economic means to provide welfare.
A second point worth making is that many of the founding members were heavily involved in parts of the developing world and had a lot to do with the cold war situation. Developing countries, especially in Africa, became the battleground, and this creates a responsibility that cannot be ignored by Western powers. The economic situation in poorer countries cannot be discussed without appreciating the contribution made by developed countries in exacerbating the situation. Indifference is not an option.
Your programme at Reconnect shows in practice that asylum seekers are not merely burdens on society. How did it come about and more precisely, how does it work?
Reconnect was started in 2003 after my time working in East London for an organisation called Praxis. I was a co-ordinator for development education, which was an important project in a community centre. We aimed to get refugees to be able to reflect on their experience and also to think about what contributions they can make to their countries of origin. During this time the UNHCR London office picked up on our idea and they encouraged us to carry out a study to see ways of reversing the brain drain from these countries.
The study came up with a number of proposals and recommendations, one of which was the installation of a separate project, which led to the establishment of Reconnect. The very aim of Reconnect is about reconnecting refugees to their profession and also reconnecting refugees to other developing counties. We are trying to transfer skills back to developing countries, but primarily we improve conditions for refugees in terms of their training. We do this by providing them with the right training to enhance their skills and most importantly, allowing them to be independent themselves - economically independent and able to look after themselves and their family. Secondly, there is a duty to their community and their countries of origin and developing countries as a whole. The way we have approached this, is by organising training programmes with mainstream academic institutions such as the University of London, Birkbeck and the Institute of Education (IOE), and training refugees to become qualified teachers. This has not been a one-off project, but a constant concern. The IOE has adopted the programme and is providing training on a yearly basis. In the past funding was initially sourced from the Home Office for 14 refugees trained at Birkbeck and more recently we have received funding from the Department of Education.
How limited were opportunities for refugees to go into a field relevant to them, with their qualifications?
The whole issue of unemployment to people who do not have English as their first language or experience in the UK is troubling. Many of these refugees have experience in their countries of origin which, like their degrees, were not seen to be relevant for employment in the UK. Many did not have the right qualifications to teach, which is something we have been facilitating. We felt the need to provide additional training to allow them to compete in the job market effectively. It is an initiative which has proven successful, especially given the current economic climate, and a number of participants now have part-time teaching jobs. Their ability to compete has significantly improved, they have skills and experience, and the training programme from the IOE and Birkbeck has provided them with the theoretical aspects of teaching, which has allowed them to teach further education for a year. Particularly noteworthy is that the low dropout rate. Over 90% have completed the course, and shown motivation and desire to succeed.
How has your experience with Reconnect debunked the popular conception of refugees as simply a burden on resources?
The argument that refugees are a burden to the host country is not backed by reality. If you look at the economic dimension, leaving aside the individual countries responsibilities, refugees are not a burden, but provide additional resources to the country of asylum. We can look at the other dimension: by being here, refugees are a loss to their country in terms of resources – every country in its history has faced a certain degree of forced displacement. This is not desirable but it does happen. Unless this reality is addressed and the disparities that exist between developing and developed countries are addressed we are likely to continue to see this situation. We need to identify causes of the problem, rather than continue with the erroneous perception that refugees are a burden.