Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
On my mind is a young person, I will call him Matthew, because that is not his name. I will tell you that he is 15 and ripe for conscription in a country with one of the largest armed forces in actual numbers, in the world today. I will not tell you the precise name of the country he is from. It is better that way. For now. Those who know the country say that there are no young people there any more. Matthew has been on my mind and in my life for several years now. When I swim, and the light dapples the tiles in the public baths, and there is peace in my body and soul for a while, Matthew’s name swims with me.
This morning we received news. News is not easy to come by. It requires network connections across many precariously connected countries. Phone cards with improbable names: Unity, Onetel, Talk Home, where minutes are pre paid and precious. A call from a grandfather to an uncle; a call from a son to a mother, a call from a mother to a daughter, a call from a daughter to a father – each located in a different country. Such is the scattering of refugees.
When news comes it is usually terse, perfunctory, practical. For months now news has been of danger, longing for freedom from fear of persecution and forced conscription, longing for freedom from the fear of sudden detention, consequences for the family of reluctance or refusal. Freedom from the fear of prison, of forms of torture which are well documented by Human Rights Watch, and in the Country of Origin information held by our own Home Office.
The news is simple. Matthew has left his country, on foot, alone, on his own initiative. He has taken the most dangerous route – with smugglers who trade in lives of young people. He has tired of waiting for a safe passage promised by sensible adults in agencies. It has taken two weeks and is a dangerous journey. The border is heavily patrolled and with a shoot-on-sight policy for anyone leaving the country illegally. There are no passports for the under 18s. There is no legal way out. He has crossed the border to the refugee camp.
When he arrives a new danger is present. He is held by the smugglers. He is told to make a call to members of his refugee family in the city. They need to find money to pay the smugglers for his passage. They need to find it quickly and the sums are not small. If the money does not come then he will be put into the hands of different smugglers, the ones who operate the only route open to the north, through the Sinai and into Israel. Since the war in Libya routes to Europe have closed. Israel, with its recent policy of mass expulsion of African refugees, is now the immediate hope for many young people who have fled. Though Israel is now looking to trade refugees for arms sales to Uganda it seems (Israel, Uganda Discuss Deal for African Asylum Seekers).
My breath is laboured now as we pass the lochan and climb the steeping face of the hill. The phone rings again. We used to climb hills without a phone, and then with it switched off, just for emergencies, emergencies affecting us directly, that is. This has not been so for several years now. In fact, there have been very few climbs at all since our lives became deeply intertwined with young people seeking sanctuary. Most of the calls coming to our home come from young people, who are seeking or have found sanctuary and in either case are now seeking normality. Sleepovers, film nights, popcorn, hair styling and waking to find my shoes have already walked out of the door on some other, much younger foot, have been commonplace and our food and patterns of domestic life have changed. Normality includes specific ways of making and boiling butter for painting on to hair to give it a specific sheen. The young people who visit come with their buttery smells and high heels, and mobiles which bring them a little closer to the sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, parents spread out across the countries which have signed the Refugee Convention, or, in ‘third countries’, where they wait for hope of a number in the international refugee resettlement lottery.
Travelling home recently from one such ‘third country’ I sat soaking in the hope and expectation a family of seven whose fortunes had changed and who were decked out in thick coats and NGO belogo-ed bags with huge fearfully joyful smiles at the prospect of life in Canada, the country which had done the paperwork agreed to take them in.
The route facing Matthew now is not this one. If handed on to the Sinai smugglers then there is a now well documented danger of him being held hostage in the desert for vast sums of money and, if this is not forthcoming, for him to have his organs harvested for hospitals, and to perish as others have done already. In a recent report on the Sinai smuggling The Guardian newspaper published the following eye witness description:
We are not humans to the smugglers – they treat the weapons with more respect. […] Once inside the Sinai smugglers’ camps, only those who can be of service to their captors are spared daily torture, including being hung upside down for hours, rape and burning with electric cables. Their screams are relayed to relatives over the phone, along with demands for money.1
The phone rings again. A text message. We are on the summit. Purpling hills stretch out around us. We can see across, the Cairngorm plateau, East Lomond hills, and over to the Wall of Rannoch. Beyond it, we know, lie Mull and Iona. It is Eid. There is time. We reply, take a deep breath, and pray for good news.
Alison Phipps is Co-Convener of GRAMNET and a Member of the Iona Community living in Glasgow. This piece was first published in the Iona Community Magazine Coracle
Human Rights Organisations have produced the following reports and campaigns:
http://sossinai.org/ [Warning- news and images may be distressing]
Human Rights Watch
For more information on campaigns and Human Rights work in the Sinai follow SOS Sinai on Facebook and Twitter.
To find out more about examples of the work of organisations supporting young people in the UK see Young People Seeking Safety
and the Red Cross Glasgow’s Chrysalis project