The Circle of Silence
A world full of conflict and oppression will always produce refugees. We can think of Albert Einstein who had to flee from the Nazi regime or former Chelsea player Mario Stanic who escaped the Bosnian War. Joseph and Mary had to run away with little Jesus from the wrath of King Herod, whilst the Prophet Muhammad, threatened by the rulers of Mecca, went into exile. Labour leader Ed Miliband is the son of Jewish refugees from the occupied Belgium. The list could be extended easily.
By John Ritter 15/7/2011
Refugees often have traumatizing experiences in their home countries and find little support or even acceptance from the countries in which they seek sanctuary. They are naturally in need of support which probably no society readily gives to strangers. In Britain, there is a limited awareness of the financial and social costs of accommodating asylum seekers. Anxieties about this, coupled with limited and inaccurate information, is willingly exploited by some politicians. It is all too easy to scapegoat asylum seekers; projecting them as a problem that needs to be forcibly removed, associating them with extremism and portraying them as opportunists that want to take advantage of the NHS or our benefits system. Sadly, this misinformation and a determination to be tough on asylum is perceived as a vote winner in elections.
Despite what some media and politicians would have citizens believe, there has been a sharp decrease in the numbers of people claiming asylum in the UK. According to Eurostat, 103,000 people applied for asylum in the UK in 2002 whilst only 22,000 did so in 2010. Most people, who applied for asylum came from Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka, countries well known for war, inner conflict or political oppression. Home Office figures reveal that out of all the cases, due to decisions in the first quarter of 2011, only 22 per cent were granted asylum. Often refugees don’t travel as far as Europe, preferring to stay safely nearby so that they may return after conflict situations. For example, at the beginning of the Afghanistan war in 2001, a total of five million Afghans sought sanctuary with their poor neighbour Pakistan (the number is now down to still considerable 1.7 millions). At the same time, there were only 55,000 Afghan refugees in Britain (the number was down to 9,000 three years later).
Britain was the first country that recognized civil rights and, consequently, has agreed in international treaties to provide sanctuary to refugees. However, during the last 20 years the rights of asylum seekers have been more eroded, the reasons to claim asylum were narrowed and the assessment system became much harsher. The results are often entirely irrational. The regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe was often criticized for human rights violation at international conferences and even expelled from the Commonwealth. However, asylum seekers from Zimbabwe are told they had no reason to claim asylum because they are coming from a safe country.
All this is making a caricature out of the fundamental values our society is based on; respect for human dignity, compassion for people in need of help and recognition of basic rights for every human being. The Human Rights Act protects the right to life and acknowledges that ‘nobody shall be subjected to torture and inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment’ but the Medical Foundation found that victims of torture are all too often send back to their countries. Everybody has the right to family life, although deportation often splits families. Every normal person is free to choose their place of residence or to marry, but not if you are an asylum seeker.
Appalled by the stories they had heard from people at Asylum Link Merseyside, a group of activists from Faiths4Change and Student Action for Refugees in Liverpool decided to take action. They were inspired by the Circle of Silence movement which was started by Franciscans in Toulouse in 2007 and spread all over France since. They just gathered for one hour of silence every month to protest against the local detention centre and to raise public awareness. But they soon found that much more was happening during the silence. As Brother Alain OFM put it: ‘We realized how much our silence speaks to the consciousness of many people, faith or no faith; Christians from different traditions, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Agnostics and Atheists. Many of those who accept our invitation to take an hour (or less) beyond the blah-blah-blah and constant noise tell us about the deep experience they are living once they find themselves confronted with their own rich inner force which is the pearl of their humanity’.
The Circle of Silence takes place in Liverpool every second Saturday of the month from 1 till 2 pm. The gathering place changes according to situation but is usually around Bold Street/Church Street. Although it is not too big a group of participants, the reactions of the passers by are often astonishing. Normally, 400 flyers are distributed and hardly anyone can be found on the street. The silence clearly speaks to people and provokes interest and thus fulfils their main aim: to change the public attitude of indifference or scorn towards asylum seekers.
We are fortunate that the vast majority of us have never experienced war or dictatorship. But for many people they are a living reality. Should a rich country like Britain not be kind enough to stretch out a helping hand to those in desperate need for safety?
Comment left by dazza on 15th July, 2011 at 23:56
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